In Search Of Modern’s Current Best

With seemingly nonstop Modern on the horizon for Magic pros, it’s time for Brad Nelson to put down his traveling trunk! But the format’s been far from a friendly home for him in the past. Watch him try to make sense of Modern’s present…and future!

With the SCG Season Two Invitational in the books, the Standard season has finally concluded. Even after Rivals of Ixalan debuts, we will only see a smattering of Standard events throughout the first half of 2018. As a perennial predator of the format, I’ve had to come to terms that I may not be winning as much Magic in the beginning of next year as I’ve become accustomed to.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try to keep that win percentage up.

Mastering Modern has become my new mission, as it’s going to be the format I play the most in the near future. I’ve already put about three weeks of dedicated practice into the format, and I finally feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp on it. Today I discuss these newly formed opinions on the current metagame, the format’s health, and what decks I’ll be practicing more with during this break from tournaments.

We start the day by discussing everyone’s favorite trio; Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power Plant, and Urza’s Tower.

One of the stories from Grand Prix Oklahoma City this past weekend was the fact that a few pros (including #1 ranked Seth Manfield) started playing G/B Tron. Normally this is a deck pros stay away from, as the strategy’s deemed “lacking in skill,” meaning it’s difficult to leverage a skill advantage when playing the deck. This is true, but what I believe is the more important storyline is how professional players are starting to embrace the format’s high-variance nature. I could very well be projecting my own opinions onto others regarding this, as I for one was always trying to control too many things in the format.

This caused me to stay in a very midrange headspace when I thought about the format, and oftentimes did well, but never great. I just didn’t invest in getting the free wins some of these more degenerate decks are capable of, and that cost me. Now I’ve finally accepted Modern for what it is, and will play a deck like Tron if I think it will give me the highest win percentage. Sadly, I did this at the Invitational two weeks ago to a measly 4-4 finish.

With this boost in spotlight, we saw many people on social media announce their disdain for the strategy, as it was the one fresh on everyone’s mind. It’s not new that we see people complain about Modern decks on the internet, but seeing this actually perplexed me. Don’t get me wrong, I hated Tron back when I played Jund, but that was clearly due to the deck being one of my worst matchups. Most people I saw complain about the strategy just hated the idea of it. That Turn 3 Karn Liberated is something that shouldn’t happen. I can’t get behind this.

Modern is a ridiculous format. There are many randomly broken strategies, but together they look like it kinda all works out. Tampering with the ecosystem in any way can make it spiral out of control and lead to truly necessary bans. Since there will always be strategies that lead to non-interactive gameplay, bans should only happen when something is truly ruining the format, and not just when something’s annoying. Tron pieces may very well be annoying, but they are in no way ban-worthy. The same can be said about Lantern Control, but discussing the merits of bans/unbans isn’t why I’m here today. Let’s get back on course!

Tron is becoming one of the best decks in the format thanks to some of the other powerhouses that exist. U/R Gifts Storm and Grixis Death’s Shadow both had a part in this, as they both helped push out some of Tron’s worst matchups, including slower combo decks like Ad Nauseum. Tron rarely beats combo decks like these, but does actually do a decent enough job at defeating U/R Gifts Storm, surprisingly enough. It’s not a great matchup by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s at least not horrifically bad like many of the decks that recently got pushed out. For now, U/R Gifts Storm needs to play a Pieces of the Puzzle sideboard to play around graveyard hate and Chalice of the Void, which means it rarely has room for Blood Moon. This might change in the near future to start pushing back against Tron, but for now the green light is on for Karn Liberated.

There are a few decks popping up that could scare Tron decks out of the limelight. The scariest one among them are these Blue Moon variants using Through the Breach / Emrakul, the Aeons Torn as their win condition.

For now I’m skeptical if this deck’s actually good, but its existence makes sense. Blood Moon is becoming a strong choice for the current metagame, as many of the most-played decks rely on their manabase. The deck is filled with cantrips, including Opt, which helps the deck navigate through a matchup like Lantern Control.

The necessity of early removal is dwindling as the format moves away from spraying the battlefield with creatures. This allows a deck to play cards like Remand and not get punished often for playing tempo-based spells. Last, most of the interactive decks lean on creature removal, which this deck ignores, thanks to Emrakul, the Aeons Torn having protection from colored spells.

For now I don’t believe this deck will gain much popularity, as it seems like a worse version of Splinter Twin, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good choice once the deck gets polished a bit.

Moving on, we can discuss the other big decks in the format.

Clearly Modern is ginormous, so discussing everything is rather impossible. An analogy I’ve liked when explaining Modern metagaming is being in a pitch-black escape room with a flashlight on low battery. You can look at much of the room, but never get the full picture of where you are or what to do. With this limited information, you’ll create gameplans, but in retrospect will always find holes in your executions. That said, even though Modern’s difficult to digest, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.

Here’s my impression of a Top 20 list for the current best decks in Modern.

Top 20 Archetypes as of Now

1. U/R Gifts Storm

2. G/B Tron

3. Jeskai Control

4. Lantern Control

5. Grixis Death’s Shadow

6. Dredge

7. Five-Color Humans

8. Counters Company

9. TitanShift

10. Eldrazi Tron

11. Affinity

12. Blue Moon/Breach

13. Elves

14. Burn

15. Mardu Pyromancer

16. Jund Death’s Shadow

17. U/W Control

18. 8-Rack

19. Eldrazi and Taxes

20. Abzan

Clearly a list like this is going to come off as subjective, since it is exactly that. You may have issues with my placement of decks, so instead of defending that, I’d rather spend our time on explaining my thought process as to why I placed decks where I did.

U/R Gifts Storm just feels like the best deck in the format, and it should continue to stay a prominent member in the metagame for as long as this version stays intact. Mana reduction has always been a breakable effect in Modern, and the inclusion of Baral, Chief of Compliance gives the deck the redundancy it needs. This deck is just scary, as it has the capability to combo off as early as Turn 3 from a base of only lands. Empty the Warrens isn’t the most impressive Plan B, but for secondary win conditions, it’s not the worst.

The design of U/R Gifts Storm does hurt other graveyard-based decks, since the easiest way to attack the deck is to keep them from abusing Past in Flames. Even through this additional graveyard hate, Dredge is still an extremely powerful deck right now, since the best hate cards like Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void aren’t highly played.

Lantern Control feels like it may eventually become the best deck in the format, but it would take more players learning it for that to happen. As of right now, very few players have invested the time into playing the deck, but those who have proclaim how easy the deck actually is to navigate. I’m personally in the camp of players who are intimidated to pick it up but also regret that decision. We may see more people like me biting the bullet and picking up the deck. This could cause the deck to experience the same fate as Amulet Bloom, or a metagame shift that makes the deck worse. Now we know decks like Jund, Tron, and Burn are all well-positioned against the deck, so at least there are options.

Speaking of Jund, it’s not on my list. I’m done with midrange. I always treated the format as a puzzle to solve, which is why I gravitated towards decks like this for so many years, but that time is over. These decks just aren’t good. They are serviceable for those who want to play them, but they’ve become worst versions of other midrange decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow and Eldrazi Tron. It would take an extreme metagame shift for me to believe Abzan or Jund were good choices, but until then, I believe these decks to always feel fine but never actually be good.

Even Grixis Death’s Shadow is starting to slip from my good graces. I didn’t even test the deck for the Invitational! My last few experiences with the deck were bad, and I didn’t want to keep repeating history. Why do I feel this way? Well, the deck is not inherently worse, but the metagame has warped enough to make it just another midrange choice, which I consider a bad call in Modern. The deck can clearly do broken things, but the free matchups just don’t exist anymore. Now the deck feels like it needs more than fifteen sideboard cards to compete, and that’s just not a place I want to be when I’m picking a Modern deck.

TitanShift may be lower on my list than it should be, given how well the deck did in Oklahoma City, but there are issues for the deck. It’s weak against U/R Gifts Storm and Lantern Control. Now, that doesn’t mean much per se, but both those decks should continue to increase in volume in the next coming months, especially now that the pro community is going to be playing a ton of this format. It doesn’t make much sense to invest the time into Lantern Control for one event, but we’ll be playing at least four to six Modern events in the following six months.

TitanShift is good against many of the other top decks, though, as it preys on how many creature removal spells are being slung around in Grixis Death’s Shadow and Jeskai Control. On top of that, the deck is extremely favored against Tron. Who knows? Maybe this deck is just great!

I don’t really know what to think about Five-Color Humans. My gut opinion of the deck is that it’s just bad, given how fair it feels. Outside of its high-end draws, it just feels like it’s doing Standard level things. Affinity, for example, is another creature-based aggressive deck, but it has multiple ways to beat hate and flood. Five-Color Humans really doesn’t have these things. It does have slightly more interaction, which can be nice at times, but interaction can be a double-edged sword. That said, I don’t think Affinity is well-positioned either. It’s usually a decent choice, but it just doesn’t stand up to what the formats doing these days. Midrange got worse, and Affinity preyed on it.

Another deck I don’t have much stock in is Burn. It’s a fine deck, but that’s about it. The deck is extremely underpowered compared to other decks and needs specific things to happen to win games. It clearly can win games, but often the games it loses feel like near-wins. This is why I believe people think this deck is better than it actually is. Most combo decks don’t almost go off when they can’t win the game, but Burn is continuously lowering your life total. That’s scary! The reality is that Burn is just a Turn 4 combo deck that can be interacted with in a multitude of ways.

The last deck worth talking about on this list is Eldrazi Tron.

Everything points to this deck being bad, except my results with it. I’ve been playing around with it in my off time this week to exceptional results. Shockingly good, in fact. It doesn’t make much sense, as the deck feels weak to Five-Color Humans, Tron, Scapeshift, and Lantern Control, but what’s worse is how weak Chalice of the Void currently is. Grixis Death’s Shadow gets hit by this card pretty hard, and so does U/R Gifts Storm, but outside of that, many of the top decks can beat it. Still, I’m winning a lot with the deck, but expect that to change. I guess that’s just how Modern goes.

So what about a deck that’s not talked much about?

At the Team Constructed Open in Baltimore, I played Eldrazi and Taxes to an extremely good result. In fact, the only match I lost was to a topdecked Supreme Verdict the turn before I won the game. Sadly, that Round 9 loss knocked us out of Day 2 contention, since my two deadbeat teammates couldn’t muster up wins. The reason I bring this up, however, is that many people made fun of me for playing this deck, but I really do not think this deck is bad. In fact, until the week before the Invitational, I was crushing with the deck on Magic Online!

All this said, the deck still feels like a worse choice than one of the best decks in the format, but I do think it’s much better than people think it is. It’s just inherently good against this specific metagame, as the deck’s weakest against midrange strategies that are getting pushed out of the metagame. If you’re looking for a fun deck to play, I’d highly recommend giving this deck a shot!

Modern Times

So what does the future of Modern hold? Well, my prediction is that big mana decks like Tron and TitanShift will continue to prey on the lack of land destruction in the metagame. Graveyard hate is at an all-time high, leaving little room to interact with big mana. This will most likely increase the playability of hyper-aggression, but also fast combo like U/R Gifts Storm. From there we may see more Blue Moon variants show up in truly high numbers, but as I said previously, I’m not convinced they are great. We should continue to see the decline in midrange strategies until hyper-aggressive decks like Infect come back, which I do believe to be a possibility. Control decks and Jeskai will also start losing their footing. Eventually Affinity will come back into the format, as very few Stony Silences should be left in the metagame. That wouldn’t happen for a few months, though.

But in the end I’m just some guy with a fading flashlight who’s not going to stop trying to learn this format. So how did I do? Do I sound like a guy who’s starting to grasp this format, or am I obliviously lost? Can you show me the light?