Linear Magic Is Still The King Of Modern … For Now

Over three significant events, linear decks outnumbered nonlinear decks in the Top 16 by almost two to one! Bryan Gottlieb breaks down the successful linears and shows why they’re here to stay!

Last week, I summed up my thoughts on Stoneforge Mystic’s unbanning with the following three sentences:

“If Stoneforge Mystic is omnipresent, why wouldn’t I just look to sidestep the subgame with the most uninteractive strategy possible? For almost the entirety of Modern’s history, the key to Modern has been finding the correct way to avoid your opponent. I do not expect Stoneforge Mystic to alter this paradigm.”

With Week 1 now in the rearview mirror, and trophies for the weekend’s three big tournaments hoisted by Four-Color Whirza, Dredge, and TitanShift, it’d be easy to reach for my trumpet and get to tooting. However, we all know thattournament victors and even Top 8s don’t truly tell the story of a metagame. Let’s take a deeper look at the Top 16s for this weekend’s three tournaments (SCG Dallas Open, SCG Dallas Modern Classic, and the Magic Online Modern MCQ) and see if there are broader takeaways.

Stoneforge Mystics certainly showed up en masse, despite not winning any of the events. Eleven out of 48 decks were interested in finding their favorite Equipment. In a format like Modern, this represents a tremendous portion of the metagame. In contrast, Hogaak was only showing up in about 10% of Grand Prix decks prior to its banning. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Stoneforge Mystic’s inclusion percentage this weekend might be the highest of all time for a card costing two mana or more. A weird distinction to be sure, but in a format like Modern than has a tremendous onus on free and one-mana spells, it’s worth paying attention when a two-drop is that ubiquitous.

Does this mean that interactivity really does have a chance in Modern? Is Stoneforge Mystic the champion that will move the axis of interaction back to the battlefield?

Interactive Decks: 18 of 48 (37.5%)

  • Azorius Control: 5
  • Grixis Death’s Shadow: 3
  • Humans: 1
  • Jeskai Stoneblade: 1
  • Jund: 5
  • Orzhov Smallpox: 1
  • Orzhov Stoneblade: 1
  • Rakdos Midrange: 1

Linear Decks: 30 of 48 (62.5%)

  • Affinity: 1
  • Amulet Titan: 1
  • Azorius Spirits: 1
  • Burn: 9
  • Devoted Devastation: 1
  • Dredge: 2
  • Eldrazi Tron: 2
  • Gifts Storm: 2
  • Merfolk: 2
  • Mono-Green Tron: 1
  • TitanShift: 4
  • Whirza: 4

It’s unfair to expect the format to shift overnight, and the Magic Online Modern MCQ pointed to a far more Stoneforge Mystic-centric format than results in Dallas. This presents some evidence that card availability and deck inelasticity played a role in Stoneforge Mystic’s lack of penetration into Dallas Top 16s. Indeed, the fact that Stoneforge decks comprised 25% of the Top 16 in in the Dallas Open points to strong conversion rates when contrasted with the Top 10 most-played decks in the same tournament:

  • Burn: 21
  • Whirza: 17
  • Mono-Green Tron: 15
  • TitanShift: 10
  • Jund: 8
  • Humans: 7
  • Azorius Control: 6
  • Grixis Death’s Shadow: 4
  • Mono-Red Prowess: 4
  • Infect: 4

Let’s review each of the archetypes that made a Top 16 appearance this weekend and talk about why those decks found success and what their presence in the metagame points to.

Azorius-Based Stoneforge Mystic Decks

This appears to be the clearest path forward for Stoneforge Mystic. The main boon to these decks is Stoneforge Mystic’s ability to condense games while simultaneously accounting for opposing aggression. Pete’s deck construction contemplates this change in multiple ways. He’s reduced overall planeswalker count, which makes sense, as the card type is designed to give an advantage over multiple turns. Similarly, maxing out on Force of Negation shows decreased reliance on squeezing out every ounce of card advantage so you can account for each possible threat an opponent can present over a twenty- or even 30-turn game. Stoneforge Mystic finally allows you to content yourself with controlling the key turns and slamming the door closed.

Im2G00T4UBarn (sigh) is on the same page, but forces the action at an even greater pace, protecting Stoneforge Mystic and Geist of Saint Traft with Giver of Runes. The interaction between Spell Queller and Teferi, Time Raveler has gone mostly unexplored to this point, but with the linear decks having to slow down just a pinch in the absence of Faithless Looting, maybe this powerful value engine can start to shine.

Other Stoneforge Decks

I think, given the printing of Force of Negation, there isn’t much reason to prefer discard over countermagic as your means of disruption. Remember, if it’s free, it’s me. In addition, linear decks live on redundancy, and if most of their cards remain replaceable, I’d rather force an opposing deck to spend mana than preemptively take away a resource. You can argue that your metagame slot as a nonblue Stoneforge midrange deck is created by effectiveness in Stoneforge mirrors, but there are just better ways to go about that plan presently (see Kolaghan’s Command).

Smallpox is a card I’m interested in, though, as once you start breaking the symmetry of its effects, it’s providing card advantage at a clip where even a Modern format historically ambivalent about such things must take notice. I’d look to deploy Smallpox into a format heavy on one-drop creatures and inclined to cheat on land counts, so it could occasionally just function as a one-hit knockout. I don’t think that’s the world we’re in presently, but I would keep this deck in my back pocket for such a time.

Kolaghan’s Command Decks

If you want to position yourself to hard-target Stoneforge Mystic while still playing something resembling fair Magic, it’s clear that Kolaghan’s Command is the way to go. All these decks are going to have a cross to bear against some subset of the linear decks, and generally that issue will scale in proportion to how strong their Azorius Stoneforge matchups are. For instance, Grixis Death’s Shadow may feel fine against the slower breed of linear decks that showed up this weekend, but the Azorius matchup is only barely acceptable, even with the aid of Kolaghan’s Command. Meanwhile, well-built versions of Jund will put the hurt on Azorius pilots while routinely being trampled by a Primeval Titan or Wurmcoil Engine.

The subset of Kolaghan’s Command decks is the one that gained the most from the absence of the decks that relied on Faithless Looting. This, combined with a well-defined enemy, has paved the way for a dramatic reentrance to the format, and it is this thread that has the potential to move Modern in an unfamiliar direction.


Poor Humans. With only a single entrant across three Top 16s, it’s clear that Humans is being squeezed from multiple angles. Not only have the interactive decks picked up the efficient tools of Kolaghan’s Command and Stoneforge Mystic, the linear decks favored presently are the slightly slower variety that are happy to pick off an army of Humans on the other side of the battlefield. The great thing about Humans is that there are a lot of them, and as the metagame settles down you can usually put together the right team for the job. If I’m putting together a squad for next week’s battles, you can bet it starts with four copies of Auriok Champion in the sideboard to account for the rise of Jund, Grixis Death’s Shadow, and the Burn decks that are running rampant.

Stack-Based Combo

Unquestionably, the story coming out of Dallas was Team Lotus Box’s dominant performance with Burn. While the initial instinct to recoil from Burn in the face of Batterskull being everywhere makes sense, Lotus Box pushed through that instinct and realized that combo with the ability to keep Stoneforge off the battlefield was the way to go.

Classic Modern deckbuilding is finding the linear approach that opponents are not accounting for in deck construction. Burn certainly folds to a set of cards, but someone has got to bring them to the table, and this weekend, it was clear nobody did. This points to the true power of linear decks in Modern. Interactive decks are required to figure out exactly what permanents they must account for. Linear decks beat every opponent who did not answer that question in the appropriate fashion, while still occasionally grinding out a win against those who prepared but stumbled.

Storm mostly played as a worse Burn deck on this weekend, but once folks are loading up on Kor Firewalker, and if the spectrum shifts towards the Kolaghan’s Command decks as opposed to the Stoneforge decks, don’t be surprised if Paul Muller is the one hoisting a trophy instead. These decks are bolstered by their redundancy and are exactly what you are looking to play into a field of countermagic, discard, and Turn 5 linear strategies.

Large Mana

Large mana had a somewhat bizarre weekend, as the specific version you played mattered a lot. Field of Ruin seemed like it was up to the task of holding down Mono-Green Tron, but TitanShift lists came to play, capped off by a trophy in the Magic Online PTQ. Again, consider the answers. While I lauded Pete Ingram’s choice to play four copies of Force of Negation in Azorius Control, that left the deck with a Primeval Titan-sized hole. Likewise with Ceremonious Rejection and Stubborn Denial from Grixis Death’s Shadow decks.

If I were playing big mana presently, I see TitanShift as the clear choice due to light interactive elements and ability to play through disruption. It just feels like Modern Horizons served to stack the deck against Mono-Green Tron. The fair archetypes the Urzatron used to prey on have picked up tools that move the matchup closer to a 60/40 than the long-perceived 80/20.

As for Amulet Titan… we’ll always have Season One of the 2019 SCG Tour to look back on.

Battlefield Swarmers

These decks differ from Humans in their approach by leaning on their disruptive elements to a much lesser extent. They mostly seek to assemble as lethal a battlefield as possible while providing some small speed bumps along the way. While the merits of this approach often hinge on how your speed bumps line up with the format, it’s harder to get things wrong here. If you make big enough creatures early enough in the game, most of your opponents will die.

Merfolk has long been a meme, but it makes sense for the same reasons Spirits does. Evasion avoids the Batterskull subgame and instead pushes a race that Merfolk has potential to win. I’m not saying I’m picking up the Fish anytime soon, but I do understand why its devoted pilots got to experience a rare ray of sunshine this past weekend. Both blue tribal decks also benefit from a shift to the single-target removal designed to account for Stoneforge Mystic. Merfolk laughs off this effect with a huge number of redundant Lords, and Sprits can just shut off removal with Drogskol Captain and has an absolute lightning rod in the form of Giver of Runes.

Meanwhile, Eldrazi Tron succeeded on the back of a good weekend for Karn, the Great Creator and Chalice of the Void. Paying actual mana for spells was back on the menu in Modern and Chalice of the Void was more than ready to make that difficult for all parties involved.

As for Affinity, it’s definitely a deck that some people play. That’s all I got. The world is a mysterious place.


Respect graveyards in Modern or Dredge gets your trophies. This will be true until the end of time, and it’s doubly true if the format slows down, as it has recently. You have the power to stop this. Use it wisely.


Last week I made clear that the quality of the various Whirza lists was the question we simply had to answer. The deck feels broken to me, and Harlan Firer showed up and confirmed that instinct. Harlan passed on Stoneforge Mystic here, but it’s worth noting that Urza pilots who did well in the Magic Online PTQ mostly went the other way. I think the more powerful mode of Urza will remain focused on Goblin Engineer, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see dedicated Urza pilots keep Stoneforge Mystics in their quiver, ready to deploy when the metagame calls for a standalone threat.

The specifics of the build are not really what I want to focus on here. Instead, I want to point out that in a format hard focused on artifacts after the unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic, Urza still managed to rise to the top of the Open and was a single game away from also winning the Magic Online PTQ. This is the best deck in Modern right now, and it has all the hallmarks of so many other past best Modern decks.

Minimal interaction. Combo kills out of nowhere. Solid secondary plans in sideboard games. All the boxes are checked. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. If you want to get a leg up on the next six months of Modern while everyone meanders about and slowly comes to this conclusion, start playing it and learning it now.


The primary takeaway from all of this is that linearity in Modern is still king and likely always will be due to the nature of the card pool. 62% of Top 16 appearances were claimed by linear decks. That percentage holds exactly when we narrow our sample size to Top 8 competitors. And when looking at trophy winners, all three were linear decks. That doesn’t disqualify Stoneforge Mystic as an overall improvement to the format. There have been times when these ratios were much crueler, and the Turn 5 linearity of the present format is a tremendous improvement over the Turn 2 linearity of Hogaak. I would argue this new metagame shows glimmers of hope for those who dream of a Modern which more closely resembles traditional Magic.

Stoneforge Mystic has improved the status of true interactive decks by shortening the window in which they must maintain control of the game. Despite this improvement, there will always be holes in your gameplan, as evidenced by the massive success of Burn this past weekend. Finding the best method of avoiding your opponent should remain the default strategy, but the focus on Stoneforge Mystic as a primary tool for fair decks has opened up metagame share for decks that hard target the Stoneforge Mystic axis of interaction and present acceptable (but not great) matchups against linears. This explains strong weekends for both Jund and Grixis Death Shadow.

Returning to my hypothesis from last week, I don’t believe Modern’s paradigm has changed… but it has shifted in a way that makes it more palatable.