Modern Misfits: What To Watch For

At the halfway point of his series, Anthony talks about one of the ways he likes to macro theorize Modern. Learn more about the format before GP Richmond!

Today I was going to give you my reaction to the banned and restricted announcement along with how Born of the Gods could change the format. Unfortunately, said announcement won’t take place until the exact time this article gets published. I thought about a sort-of preparation "if this gets banned/unbanned" piece, but most of that would be worthless since only one out of a large combination of things I could talk about can happen.

So for this week we’ll take a little detour and talk about one of the ways I like to macro theorize Modern as a whole.

In many different competitive communities, you’ll hear different philosophies about their game and its system(s). For example, in the fighting game Street Fighter 4, many will express emphasis on the neutral game (think of a stalemate or parity in Magic terms) since many matches can lean heavily on how well one can create and subsequently push an advantage from nothing (even when neither player is actually hitting each other). Growing up on fighting games has given me this sort of mindset when I approach Magic: figure out where the most important things happen, learn those spots, and then proceed from there. Granted, attempting to simplify it in just that way doesn’t really work here, but it gives me a starting point at least.

I’m of the firm belief that Modern is one of the most difficult—if not the most difficult—formats to approach due to just how quickly information moves without the presence of constant major events. To put it in perspective, think about how much people would play different Legacy decks if card availability weren’t such an obstacle; you’d see change at a much more rapid pace than you do on the SCG Open Series right now. Modern is in a state where everyone is doing new things every single weekend, and the format only averages about one major tournament a season! A lot of friends tell me that in Legacy familiarity with your deck can go a long way toward success followed by matchup analysis.

Well, in Modern, I believe that it’s the other way around. Knowing what other decks are trying to do means more in longer tournaments because of the sheer broadness and volatility of not only the format as a whole but the games in the format. This is partially the reason why I don’t really get those that have this "every deck is the same as another" claim. There are very distinguishable characteristics of most of the decks, and even if there weren’t, it doesn’t really matter if they’re all the same as another. How each deck executes their plan is the important part, and you need to be ready for as many different angles and executions as possible.

If, for example, Jund, Mono-Black Devotion, and U/W/R Control have the same "grind you out" game plan but their execution of said game plan differs, then you’re going to get crushed if you think that you can simplify and jumble them all into one solution. This is what makes Modern so attractive to me. It rewards proper deckbuilding, sideboarding, and "doing your homework" before a tournament even begins!

That said, don’t think that you can skimp on familiarizing yourself with whatever you’re playing. It won’t end well. The skills you use to prepare for a tournament are still just as important.

One of my theories about Modern is that it puts a great amount of emphasis on the numbers two and four. The format establishes itself and is defined by these two numbers. In fact, almost every normal game you see revolves around twos and fours, and we aren’t just talking about mana costs here. It’s easier to tie in these two numbers to things like converted mana cost and land drops and indirect things like Shock Lands, Thoughtseize, and Birthing Pod activations, but what about things like combat math and sideboarding? Tron can play a turn 3 Karn Liberated, but is that the important turn or is it your turn 2? What you do to prepare for it? Maybe it’s really turn 4, the turn after Karn lives or dies.

When looking at a format like Modern for the first time, perusing the best decks and cards in the format is usually a good start. Finding what makes those decks tick is a step further. For me, I wanted to find out how the inner workings of a deck’s design correlate to what other decks are doing and if there are any similarities at all. As it turns out, many decks have a similar pivot point involving the numbers two and/or four, a point which can define how the game can shape up for them.

Let’s break down these two numbers in more detail.

Converted Mana Costs & Pivots

I’d give a rough estimate of about 90% of Modern decks having a strong pivot point that involves the converted mana cost of two and about 70% of them involving four. Here’s a look at many of the maindeck cards that are actual ideal turn 2 and 4 plays at both of these costs:



Yes, that is a lot of cards. You probably question the viability of some of them, but that doesn’t really matter at all here. The point is that each and every one of these cards are pivots in a given game—cards that can set the tone by themselves and give a game the most context.

This can mean a number of things, but in a general sense it’s good to note that a card can change in context no matter how linear that card may look. A resolved Dark Confidant in a Jund mirror may be a great way to generate a steady stream of cards in game 1, but it may also be used as bait in a different game for a future Tarmogoyf. Your plan for dealing with a pivot card may not work out the same way as it did the game before due to how each player infers the game, even in the almost impossible chance that the game state and hand content are exactly the same. Context is everything.

"Well duh. Every card at every converted mana cost can be like that in Modern."

This is true, but there is no other converted mana cost that contains more pivot cards in Modern so the effects are magnified. It’s the reason why cards like Spell Snare go from decent in other formats to ridiculously powerful in Modern. The only other converted mana cost that comes close to this amount of focus is one, but I feel that there can be a lot of argument there because of how little interaction and actual decision making there is in one stack on turn 1. We don’t have cards like Force of Will, Daze, and Misdirection to influence our lines as heavily on turn 1.

The closest thing we have to that is the Shoal cycle, and that’s too limiting to really discuss at length (except for maybe Disrupting Shoal, but even then). Three doesn’t really line up properly either unless things turn out awkwardly or improperly (missing a land drop, etc.) or you’re up against the decks that do start operation on or around turn 3 like Goryo’s Vengeance Reanimator and Tron. Other exceptions to this are cards like Birthing Pod (which is essentially a two-drop off of a dork or a four-drop when you want to cast and use it in the same turn), Splinter Twin / Scapeshift (which aren’t really pivots at four since straight-up winning the game is much different than defining it), and Phantasmal Image / Ghor-Clan Rampager (since they’re generally much more about context within themselves than anything).

Turns & Catalysts

When it comes to the actual turns 2 and 4, things sort of break down further from there. If the converted mana costs two and four are the most important pivot points of a game, then turns 2 and 4 are the most important action turns. While there is a pretty hefty amount of overlap, the "big picture" decision making is what makes this important both in gameplay and deckbuilding. How much do you want to invest in your actual twos and fours, and how much do you want to be able to minimize theirs? Do we want a Spell Snare, Hero’s Downfall, or Maelstrom Pulse type of effect to offset their converted mana cost four pivots when on the draw, or do we maximize what we have in hopes for outmuscling their pivots or outcarding their answers to ours?

To go even further, we can look at catalysts—cards that aren’t necessarily of primary roles but allow for certain cards and game plans to go from good to insane when one or more conditions is met.

Delver of Secrets is a prime example of this as a powerful turn 1 play (although it’s technically turn 2 by our definition). When it transforms, all of your reactive spells turn into catalysts that also convert into three damage. A transformed Delver greatly increases the rate of Remand, ruining your entire turn 2 pivot and advancing theirs by half of a turn and a card as well as leaving your overall curve in shambles. Getting your curve back on track after a play like this takes a short while, right around turn 4, which is perfect timing for Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command.  

This snowball effect is something that Delver decks are known for, but it’s actually pretty common among many other decks as well. U/W-based control decks use cards like Supreme Verdict to increase the effectiveness of Sphinx’s Revelation, and Merfolk decks use Spreading Seas to essentially turn their lords into burn spells. An argument can be made for singular discard spells being exceptions to this theory, as Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, the like are all trying to preemptively react to these things, but it’s heavily reliant on the context of your deck, its plan, and the game itself. Sometimes you’ll play a discard spell to make the coast clear for your turn 2 play, and other times you just need to keep them off of their play to buy time to set up a future turn.


Lastly, I believe that turn 2 is when one needs to figure out what deck your opponent is on (or at least have it down to a couple of decks) and turn 4 is when sideboard cards often decide games if unanswered. Here are a couple of short kinda-sorta corner-case examples that are worth considering.

Let’s say your opponent leads with a Scalding Tarn (not necessarily passing the turn). What do you put them on? You can probably come up with at least three different decks from there, maybe five. In Legacy, there’s so much going on in the first turn of the game that you’re almost forced to put your opponent on one or two decks from the get go or risk getting catch-22ed or in some cases just dying. You’re very rarely at risk of being caught in those situations so early in Modern, but you risk being in a heap of trouble if you can’t figure most of it out by turn 2.

If your opponent then plays a Stomping Ground untapped, paying two life, and passes the turn, then what do you put them on? Can our turn 2 effectively change the complexion of that game and/or figure out their plan, or will we hand them the ability to change the complexion themselves with their own turn 2? Is it worth waiting? Can we afford to wait?

In a sideboarded game, your opponent slams Stony Silence against you, playing Affinity, on turn 2. You sideboarded in two Disenchants, but you can’t seem to find them until they’ve already played their Squadron Hawk and Honor of the Pure. Now your Disenchant is much less effective because of how much this combination puts the ball in their field even if your robots break free. You now need the Disenchant plus a way to kill Honor and their creatures!

I’m a huge advocate of sideboard cards that either completely (or at least severely) shut things down proactively, give you something else on top of their reactive effect, or hit multiple of the same type of card. What if that Disenchant were a Back to Nature or Tempest of Light instead? Now we’re waking our robots back up and slowing down their clock by a significant amount as well as covering our Bogle matchup!

Not every case is as extreme as the ones I mentioned, but it does help show how valuable it is to identify what’s important and when they’re important and prepare for them as best as possible.

That’s all I have for this week. I hope that this gives you a unique way of looking at the format. There’s a lot going on in Modern with so much yet to be explored, and now that we’re at the halfway point of this series, we’re going to start fleshing out even more of what it has to offer. Next week, as promised, we’ll talk all about Born of the Gods and what it brings to the table and how today’s banned and restricted announcement will affect the format.