Constructed Criticism – Welcome To The Modern Era

Todd Anderson is excited to test for the upcoming Pro Tour in Philly. The new era is ushering in new decks, old decks, and decks of all shapes and sizes; check out what’s cookin’.

Welcome to the Modern Era, Magic’s newest, shiniest, and brightest format. Soon, we start a journey into the unknown, the undiscovered, the “raw,” if you will, and I couldn’t be happier. As most of you know, the upcoming Pro Tour in Philadelphia will be using a brand new format, which is detailed here. I have been really happy with this change, seeing as I was always a huge fan of older Extended formats that ranged for long periods of time. Modern is much like Extended, except that it never rotates, but it only goes back as far as (old school) Mirrodin Block. The Modern name refers to the new card frame, when Magic: The Gathering cards began looking like this:

Whereas they used to look like this:

While they have printed various “extra” cards in Duel Decks, Commander Decks, and other things, those cards are not necessarily legal just because they are in the newer card frame. This addendum allows WotC to continue reprinting old cards and printing new cards without them affecting Standard or Modern. While this could be a good thing, I do wish I could play with some of the new Commander cards in Modern. I’m a huge fan of Edric, Spymaster of Tress in any deck with Green Sun’s Zenith.

Well, this is all stuff you should already know because Pro Tour Philadelphia is just around the corner, and especially so if you are playing in the PTQs that should follow in a few months. The format is fresh, and we have already seen that they are not afraid to ban cards (see Ancestral Vision). If any degenerate deck dominates the Pro Tour, you can bet that it will probably not be entirely legal once the PTQ season starts. While this may be frightening to people who like to speculate on certain cards rising in value, you can be safe knowing that the deck has to have an incredibly dominating performance for them to warrant a new banning.

On the other hand, should they feel that an archetype (like control) is grossly underrepresented or not getting the love it deserves at the Pro Tour, they also have the ability and willingness to unban anything on the list they deem fit, such as Mental Misstep, Ancestral Vision, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. They’ve already said that the entire banned list is speculative, and they would rather over-ban than under-ban, with the strict intention of unbanning anything they feel needs to come back to the format to make it healthier. I think it is a reasonable place to start, but it seems to me like they may have missed a few things.

The beginning of this Modern era feels very raw to me. It has been difficult to rehash old archetypes, and creating new ones feels really difficult. There is a lot of room to play around, and a lot of cards mingling together haven’t really seen that much play together. With that said, a lot of older archetypes, or even archetypes that have seen Legacy play, are making a splash in Modern. The biggest offender and prime suspect for banning:

Cloudpost is not a degenerate card by itself, but when combined with Vesuva, Glimmerpost, and various search effects, the mana you can generate is enormous. There have been plenty of brews by people over the last few weeks on this very site using and abusing the card, but I feel like the best strategy is still left undiscovered as of yet.

The card is abusable, but its biggest drawback is that it comes into play tapped, as does Vesuva, which can be very time consuming and even backbreaking should your opponent play something like Molten Rain. Tectonic Edge and Beast Within can also be a problem, slowing you down just long enough for the opponent to take over the game while you fumble with Ancient Stirrings or Expedition Map.

Control decks are not getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. Their best cards have been hit by the ban-hammer, but there are still a lot of potentially powerful strategies you can implement. You can do some really cute things with Gifts Ungiven in this format. My initial piles would include something like this:

Another sweet Gifts Ungiven engine, also revolving around Life from the Loam:

One of the coolest things about Gifts Ungiven is that it allows you to generate card advantage through a lot of different ways, but Life from the Loam allows you to do some really degenerate things. Sure, the going is slow, but you’re usually going to have a lot of removal to buy you time, not to mention various other threats for your opponent to deal with. A removal-heavy list that relies a lot on the format being mostly Zoo would probably look something like this:

To be fair, this deck has no shot in hell at beating any combo deck, but this is absolutely Zoo’s nightmare matchup. I personally wouldn’t run something this focused on killing creatures, but you get the idea. Gifts Ungiven is a harsh mistress, but the dividends it can pay off are pretty absurd at times.

If you are feeling aggressive, you can do some serious damage in this format in a very short amount of time. Zoo decks will probably overwhelm the Pro Tour in popularity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win the entire thing. The good news is that there are a lot of cards available to control and combo players to slow them down. The problem is that Zoo decks can look vastly different depending on the build, and cards like Firespout can be too slow or ineffective altogether.

Wild Nacatl and friends are likely to curb stomp you more than once in this upcoming PTQ season, but you can always come prepared. Your maindeck should always have a healthy amount of removal, or attempt to avoid interacting with them altogether. I’m a fan of either, but the trick is finding a combo deck degenerate enough to really be able to ignore them. If that is the case, and it is popular at the Pro Tour, the main offenders will likely get the hammer, but at least you’ll be able to win a lot of money first!

If you are planning on playing Zoo yourself, there are a few different routes you can go. My personal favorite is “Domain Zoo,” which utilizes the domain cards to their maximum benefit. Here is my initial list, though very rough to say the least:

This list, while vulnerable to Chalice of the Void, absolutely wrecks people in quick fashion. The consistency and efficiency at which the deck functions is bonkers, and the power level of the individual cards coming out so quickly is usually too much for most fair decks to handle. With fourteen one-drop creatures, you will often nut-draw people with a smattering of Wild Nacatls and Goblin Guides before they even know what hit them. “Might of Alara you for five” is a scary phrase to hear uttered, but I’m sure this will not be the last time you hear it.

Zoo is really primed to be the best deck in the format in the beginning, because all of the cards and combos that they were really afraid of have been neutered. There are some decks that will give them problems here and there, such as Hive Mind and Dragonstorm, but most of the combos in today’s Modern format get absolutely hosed by Gaddock Teeg.

For whatever it’s worth, it might even be worth altering your deck to support Gaddock Teeg as your two-drop instead of Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant (as awkward as that sounds). If you do, you will be much less vulnerable to a lot of the cards people will bring at you, but your deck will become weaker and a little less consistent. That said, Gaddock Teeg does just steal games you have no business winning because he was created to hose certain cards and strategies. He does his job well, and you would do well not to forget he exists. If anything, you should pack at least three of them in your sideboard to bring in against pretty much any deck that is not Zoo.

Other versions of Zoo have been cropping up as well, but they look very different from the list above. They are much more focused on the mid-game and leave a lot to be desired. These are more mid-range and less aggressive, but still decent choices. Here is an initial “Big Zoo” list:

The sideboard could involve a lot of different cards, but I’m a huge fan of Meddling Mage and Negate in such an open format. Both cards can really disrupt combo decks and have applications against control decks as well. Naming Gifts Ungiven or Mystical Teachings against anyone relying on either of those cards to dig them out of their hole is just backbreaking. Again, Gaddock Teeg is awesome here and especially so because Green Sun’s Zenith can search him out, giving you more virtual copies against decks where you need him.

I really wanted to fit Bant Charm into the deck, but I think you have to choose either Punishing Fire or Bant Charm. I could see either, but you have to choose your mana base accordingly. Punishing Fire gives the deck a lot of reach that it doesn’t normally have and just browns certain archetypes.

Even against most Zoo decks, they will have plenty of cards that just die to Punishing Fire alone, but often you will be able to shoot their creatures twice in the same turn with the Grove of the Burnwillows or just help kill their Tarmogoyfs post-combat.

The singleton Steam Vents is there mostly for sideboard speculation, but you have a virtual ten sources of blue with your fetchlands (not counting Noble Hierarch), so that’s something to think about when coming up with certain sideboard plans. I would try to avoid bringing in two different blue cards for the same matchup, since you will rarely be able to cast two in the same turn, but I’m sure there are instances where you really want to have two different blue cards against the same deck.

If you think there might be precedent, Ethersworn Canonist is still ripe for consideration if the format becomes as combo-based as some are predicting. While it doesn’t do a great job at stopping some combos, it does hinder their early development a lot and can buy you precious turns. With Zoo, all you really need is time, and cards like Gaddock Teeg and Ethersworn Canonist are designed to give it to you.

Another archetype that is possibly more feared than any other archetype to ever exist (though the numbers show it was much less dominating than Caw-Blade) is Affinity.

“What, Affinity? Seriously?” Those words came out of my mouth at first too, but the tools for a successful Affinity deck are there. Sure, it isn’t as degenerate as it could be, seeing as five artifact lands are banned, but they left you one to build with, as well as Mox Opal. There are various combinations of cards and lands you can play around with, but my current favorite has to be U/B, which looks something like this:

This list is pretty similar to Gavin Verhey list posted in his article on Modern earlier this week. If you want to learn more about Modern, you can find it here. I liked his list initially, but I wasn’t really feeling Dark Confidant in a format that is probably going to be as aggressive as this one, not to mention playing it in a deck where you play Frogmite. I like Arcbound Ravager a lot better, and especially so when combined with Inkmoth Nexus.

As you can see, the deck is really fast. Your nut draws include playing out most of your hand on the first turn, only to play a Cranial Plating or Master of Etherium on the second turn. These problems for your opponent can be compounded with Inkmoth Nexus, Tezzeret, and Thoughtcast to refuel after you’ve run out of resources. The biggest problem that people will have with this deck is the diversity of the casting costs. With Phyrexian mana and “affinity for artifacts,” cards like Engineered Explosives and Chalice of the Void are virtually useless against you.

As you can see, I’ve chosen to omit a few cards that I really hated, including Ornithopter. I understand why he’s there, but I always felt like drawing the card equated in a mulligan, and I really just refuse to play it if I can build my deck such that it doesn’t need it. I know he gives you a flier for Cranial Plating to abuse, but you have plenty of other solid creatures to attach it to. You also have fewer cards relying on actual “affinity for artifacts,” making him much worse than he would be in a deck featuring Myr Enforcer and Somber Hoverguard. Vault Skirge and Signal Pest are great additions to the deck’s arsenal of early threats, and I think you can just avoid Ornithopter altogether and be much happier for it. 

While this deck isn’t nearly as frightening as it once was, there are plenty of broken things you can do. You can definitely kill your opponent out of nowhere with an Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating, and a lot of your spells are good at virtually any point of the game. Tezzeret is the only sore thumb, but I think he has a lot of cool uses, and you can put him to lengthy amounts of work. His “Drain Life” ultimate is quite potent in this deck, often functioning like a suspended Fireball for 12, but he’s no slouch with his other abilities either. Digging for crucial cards or turning your Darksteel Citadel into a 5/5 with “haste” is pretty awesome if you ask me.

The sideboard is rough, but I felt like you really needed something for the “big three” types of decks in the format. Thoughtseize helps disrupt combo and control. Ghost Quarter puts a damper in the plans of any Cloudpost deck. Slaughter Pact gains you an absurd amount of tempo against all Zoo variants and added protection from Kataki, War’s Wage. Tormod’s Crypt helps fight any graveyard-based decks that may pop up, while also helping your artifact count for Cranial Plating and Frogmite. You can even turn it into a 5/5 with Tezzeret to beat them down until they try to combo off.

Overall, the format looks pretty fun to me. There is a lot of unexplored territory just waiting to be discovered, but we are pretty far from figuring everything out just yet. Modern gives new life to cards we thought we’d never really use in tournaments again, and the format as a whole is getting a ton of hype.

The one problem I’ve seen with the format just now is that supply is a little lower than the demand, forcing vendors to significantly increase prices on certain staples. Grove of the Burnwillows has already reached a ridiculously high mark for a card that is untested and unproven in the format. Vesuva and Vendilion Clique share the same problem, but the Pro Tour and subsequent PTQs will prove just how valuable some of the cards will end up being.

I’m under the impression that a lot of the format’s more expensive cards are inflated to an absurd degree and will even out over the next few months once people figure out just what cards are the best. I’m also under the impression that they’re going to reprint the Ravnica shocklands at some point in the near future, but that could be over a year away.

As of writing this, Modern is coming to Magic Online tomorrow, and I’m ready to get testing. For once, I’ll finally have a decent amount of time to test for the Pro Tour with a format supported by Magic Online with all of the sets available to me. It should be a lot of fun!

Check back next week for updates from Grand Prix Pittsburgh and a bit more on Modern. And, as always…

Thanks for reading.

strong sad on MOL