Eternal Europe: Fair New World

Carsten Kotter examines the role of Modern in today’s Magic formats. What gap is it filling? Also, check out some neat control/combo decks to get you started.

I was going to write about something very different originally, but WotC blew those plans right out of the water when they announced that Modern would become an official format, one that would debut at the next Pro Tour, no less. Yes, PT Philadelphia will be the very first Eternal format Pro Tour, ever!

When I saw the announcement, I was dumbfounded; they’d really done it—created another Eternal format and given it massive support. Some people were worried when additional Eternal formats gathered followers this summer. Gavin’s Overextended and even Wizards’ own original conception of Modern felt slightly too close to Legacy, and there are only so many formats that the same kind of player base (Eternal players) can support.

Losing Legacy to another format because of a lower cost of entry could have been a real threat. Others had the exact opposite reaction—finally there was a format close in feel to Legacy that didn’t have the real pricy cards: original dual lands, Wasteland, Force of Will, or such extreme outliers as Candelabra of Tawnos and Moat. They wanted to see Legacy lite, if you want.

Personally I was rather excited to speculate over another format that would be broken enough for me to like, especially one that would likely make it to the PTQ circuit. As such, I felt a bit of sadness at first when I discovered this banned list:

Ancestral Vision
Ancient Den
Chrome Mox
Dark Depths
Dread Return
Glimpse of Nature
Golgari Grave-Troll
Great Furnace
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Mental Misstep
Seat of the Synod
Sensei’s Divining Top
Stoneforge Mystic
Sword of the Meek
Tree of Tales
Umezawa’s Jitte
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Vault of Whispers

Now, this is a whammy. Just about every engine that makes Legacy decks work is invalidated either because important pieces to the deck are too old for the format or because an important part of the deck’s engine was hit by the ban hammer. Every single big deck from older Extended seasons suffered a similar treatment (with one big outlier I’ll get to a little later). I felt cheated. All the fun things I expected to do in the new format weren’t even there! Why would I want to play it?

After some thought, though, this is a very wrong way to look at it. Why would I want to have a second Legacy format? What reason would there be for it to exist other than “it costs less?” You only have to look at old “Legacy,” then called Type 1.5. Type 1.5 was Vintage without the most expensive cards, Vintage for those who couldn’t afford to play the real thing*. You all know what happened to that format, don’t you? (Short answer: it was replaced by a totally different format called Legacy that was presented in a way that made it seem as if it was the continuation of Type 1.5—and players bought it).

*Yes, yes, I know. This is oversimplification in the extreme, but that was the general impression.

In addition, imagine the format nearly without bans. Without Force of Will to slow everything down, the format would have turned into a combo-slugfest in the tradition of past Extended formats. Racing to see who can go off first is interesting for a time but not exactly the kind of thing that a huge number of players enjoy. Deckbuilding would also have been easy: figure out the most broken thing you can do, add a little protection and search, and you have one of, if not the best, decks.

Similarly, as was seen at the Community Cup, if they had banned the most obvious offenders but left most of the known powerhouses around, we would have had a pretty clear metagame to start off with and been able to copy lists from older formats. Modern would truly have felt like Legacy’s poor cousin or a top of the pops of Extended past. By taking every engine that is clearly powerful out of the picture, we’re left with a clean slate and a truly new format to explore. Instead of getting a modified version of something we already know, we get something completely different, as behooves a new format.

This is also the one issue I have with this banned list. With the opportunity to give us a completely clean slate in which everything has to be evaluated against unknown baselines, they left Zoo alone. Really? Was that necessary? I mean, sure, Zoo is the quintessential fair deck, but leaving it practically untouched from its Legacy incarnation gives the format one very obvious tier one deck from the word go. Something (I suspect Wild Nacatl) from Zoo also should have made it on the list so that nothing in the format is exactly like it has been before and we actually start in unknown territory. Being able to copy the list for the baseline deck is somewhat heartbreaking considering all the innovation everything else will need.

Still, that single complaint aside, Wizards has done an excellent job with the new format. This new animal is neither Legacy lite nor Extended plus—Modern is its very own format that will work quite differently from those we know already, Zoo or no Zoo.

The Identity Issue

And that’s exactly what a format needs to be viable, to prosper, and differentiate itself from the other formats: its very own philosophy and feel. Unconvinced? Take a look:

Vintage: the format of the truly broken, where ridiculous plays on both sides of the table cancel each other out.

Legacy: the format of controlled brokenness, in which every kind of unfair strategy is viable, and even the fair decks feel decidedly unfair at times.

Standard: the format of change, where archetypes rise and die in the span of a year, and whatever is current is, by necessity, good.

Type 1.5 (Legacy with Vintage restricted list as banned list): As mentioned above, Type 1.5 was like Vintage lite, where you can do similarly broken things even if you don’t have any Moxen.

Extended: The format of, uhm, weird rotations? Combo slugfest or slightly bigger Standard, Extended never really had a feel of its own, some underlying fabric that made it clear you were playing Extended, not something else. It usually either felt like Legacy without the necessary control mechanisms* or like Standard with a slightly larger card pool, neither of which gave the format its own, independent identity.

*To those who will comment on Extended before Force of Will and the dual lands left: I played that Extended format and loved it. You know why? Back then it already felt like Legacy does today, only there was no modern Legacy to compare it to at the time.

See the difference between the formats that have survived and those that were left by the wayside (including Extended, for whom the bell has tolled with the Modern announcement)? The latter were dependent on other formats for their identity and didn’t have something that made them decidedly different beasts. This is where Vintage*, Legacy, and Standard succeeded. They all have their very own, particular kind of fabric that leads to games that feel “typical” of the format.

*Yes, I’m aware Vintage has some trouble. The issues have nothing to do with not having its own identity, though. Clearly this isn’t the only thing necessary for a healthy format.

And that is the one big thing Wizards did right with Modern. The format is clearly different, and, if the philosophy behind this banned list is any indication, it will remain so in the future. Judging by where the ban hammer fell (as well as what Tom LaPille said about their thought process), Modern is the format for those who don’t like broken things to happen but still want a relatively high power level and decks they can grow attached to. I suspect there is a rather large number of players who will enjoy such a format (especially when I look at Legacy ban discussions), and it is comparatively kitchen-table friendly because all the well-known offenders have moved into the same cramped apartment on Banned Avenue.

Fairly Modern

It is for this reason that I doubt Gavin was right on Monday when he declared that he “would fully expect the banned list to be 2/3rds, if not half of its current size by this time next year.” On the contrary, if the format finds its own player base, I would assume that we will actually see a bigger banned list before anything comes off.

Overextended was meant to capture the feel that makes Legacy so much fun while removing the most ridiculous elements (as well as economically problematic cards) from the card pool, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me. A format in which the iconic broken strategies of modern times could face off, together with similarly powerful strategies yet to be discovered.

Modern on the other hand looks like it’s meant to be the “fair Eternal format,” a format in which all the natural tier one strategies—the unfair ones—have been eliminated, and the tier two decks (plus Zoo) get their day in the sun. I strongly expect that this kind of philosophy will prevail if the format is successful in its current form, and any interactions on the level of Thopter-Sword or Stoneforge-Batterskull will be culled from it ruthlessly once discovered. If this banned list is any indication—and it should be—then the power-level cap for this format is meant to be significantly lower than it has been in any previous format, old Extended included. Instead of decks getting more and more powerful because of the larger card pool, the intention here seems to be to make a huge variety of cards available to the players while taking care that nothing actually reaches a power level anybody could describe as “broken” (in his right mind at least). Eternal Standard, without R&D mistakes screwing up the works, if you will. 

So am I happy Modern has come to be in its current form? Yes, yes I am. The format has its own very distinct identity and is unlikely to infringe on any other format’s territory. The way things are set up, Modern looks healthy and sweetly unexplored, even though Zoo’s presence is sure to have a slightly warping effect. That deck remains just creatures and burn, though, and if players have proven to be good at one thing it’s keeping straight aggro in check.

As far as the “all the cool cards are banned” issue, that’s like saying Legacy sucks because all the cool cards (Yawgmoth’s Will, Ancestral Recall, Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop, to name just a very few) you get to play with in Vintage are banned. I guess we can all agree that’s a dumb argument, right? 

Magic is a great game, and just because Jace and Bitterblossom aren’t available doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have a ton of fun. I’m pretty sure we’ll (re)discover a multitude of powerful strategies that simply never had the chance to shine because of more powerful cards overshadowing them. How cool is it to have a format in which the best cards are so very different from every other? I say it’s time to…

Celebrate the Modern World

The best way to celebrate the birth of a new format is obvious: brewing (yes, yes, this is where we get to some decklists). You have the opportunity of a lifetime here, and I’m actually a little sad they changed the format for PT Philadelphia. After the PT, the groundwork exploration of the format will be done already, giving us an established metagame and cutting dangerously short the time in which there is a chance for any wild creation to turn into the next big thing (or I’m just massively undervaluing the size of the card pool here, pick one). When the PTQs roll around, some out-there stuff might turn up, but by then, deckbuilders will already be working inside an established framework.

Right now, we’re still close to on our own, though. Zoo, either along the lines of Rubin Zoo or closer to traditional fast Zoo, will obviously be a major player in the format at least early on (and I can’t imagine that the only Legacy strategy they didn’t hamstring will ever become bad). In addition, some decks are likely to make the port from either Community Cup Modern or Overextended to the new format, which gives us some inkling of what the metagame is going to look like. Just an inkling, though. Both formats were different enough from the finished product that assuming the lessons learned from them still hold true seems somewhat foolhardy. Which in turn makes me happy, because I get to write dozens of decklists a day until I see something that feels like it might just work.

What follows are the three decks (other than Zoo) I’ve actually thought about for more than the time it took me to write up a decklist. They should afford those of you who share my tastes as far as Magic is concerned some inspiration (control/combo-control decks, if you want to boil it down). Note that these decks are delivered as is, without any relevant amount of testing having gone into them. I’m quite sure all of them still need work (or even total reconstruction) before they’re ready for the format and will once again require significant work after the PT. They should however at the very least highlight a few of the more powerful interactions the format has available to it. Enjoy the brews!

This one doesn’t need all that much introduction, I guess. The reason I thought of Pyromancer Ascension is that Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows will definitely be an important part of the format, and few decks are as ideally suited to abuse that engine. Once you have found two Fires, getting counters onto the Ascension is quite easy, and the recurring removal guarantees that the board doesn’t get out of control in the meantime. As far as winning is concerned, once you get an active Ascension, doubled Manamorphoses and Rites of Flame provide the mana you need to resolve more (copied) cantrips until you have either the spell count or the mana necessary to win.

The rest of the deck is cantrips that either dig deep for whatever is missing or things to help stall the board until you’re ready to go off, with one exception. Muddle the Mixture doesn’t cantrip and isn’t particularly useful under an active Ascension but still feels like it should play well in the deck. It transmutes for Ascension when you’re ready to win or Punishing Fire if you need to control the board, while also finding either win condition after you’ve gone off. It helps enable both combos similar to how it worked in Thopter-Depths while serving as a defensive counterspell in control matchups, which seems like quite a lot of value.

TwelvePost is something a lot of people are already talking about, typically with more ramp and an Emrakul-focused endgame. My list is somewhat different, mainly using Cloudpost to ensure an overwhelming endgame. Instead of trying to get to big mana (and Emrakul) as soon as possible like its Overextended counterparts, this plays more like a UB control/tempo deck for most of the game before Mindslaver-locking the opponent in the course of a turn or two. To do this, the deck takes advantage of the two powerful four-drop draw engines blue has left in Modern: Mystical Teachings and Gifts Ungiven.

Teachings and Gifts play diametrically opposed but synergistic roles: Teachings gives you answers that allow you to keep the game under control so that you have more time to set up big mana, at which point it can be used to find a Gifts to set up your endgame (or Spell Burst for its own form of endgame). Gifts, on the other hand, while able to serve up a combination of removal or countermagic, is mainly used to push you ahead (Gifts for Crucible, Ruins, Cloudpost, and Glimmerpost gets things rolling quite well) and to enable your endgame: Crucible, Ruins, Noxious Revival, and the recursion target of your choice: Mindslaver, Sundering Titan, or Oblivion Stone.

This is the only deck I’ve actually played a reasonable number of games with (against Zoo, obviously), and it hasn’t been performing too badly, especially considering it’s essentially the “Is there potential here?” version.

Finally, the powerful artifact control deck. Vedalken Shackles and Engineered Explosives seem incredibly busted if you can enable them in a format full of creatures while Ensnaring Bridge is the closest thing to a Moat you’re likely to find in Modern. Such a set of powerful artifacts added to the inability to play Jace (TMS, obviously) in this format and Tezzeret just has to catch your eye. The high artifact count even allows you to use one of the few other powerful draw engines left in the format (Thirst for Knowledge) that a whole a lot of control decks will have trouble filling. I have no idea if the disruption suite is any good or if the artifact-based removal is fast enough to deal with Zoo on its own, but hopefully I’ll soon be able to find out.

That’s really all I have to say about Modern for now (I’m writing this on Monday, mind, four days after the format has become official), so I’ll leave it at that. Let me know what you think about the format as it has been announced—maybe I even swayed some minds that were on the “all cool cards are banned” trip?—and share what you’re brewing. I know I’m excited to tackle something completely different, and I hope you are, too. Until next time, enjoy the wild west days!

Carsten Kötter