Modern Misunderstood

Brad Nelson continues his quest to find harmony in a format that eludes him! What makes a great Modern specialist? And how is Brad walking the path to being one?

Modern’s been a proverbial thorn in my paw for as long as I can remember.
Always getting a whiff of potential success, yet rarely sinking my teeth
into any meaningful result. This one time

I did win a SCG Tour Open with
Grixis Death’s Shadow

, but besides that I’ve always been the mouse lost in a maze, doomed to
never to find cheese. My misadventures in the format aren’t due to a lack
of trying though. With each new upcoming event I’ve always worked
diligently in effort to find, understand, and eventually master the next
best thing in Modern. A path many consider a fool’s errand as it
potentially takes years to truly become proficient with any specific
archetype, but a path I choose without question nonetheless. My preparation
for this past weekend’s MOCS Playoff would be no different, but that’s not
the heart of today’s topic. More on topic is the fact that I’m slowly now
realizing I’ve never actually looked for the next best thing. It’s
something I’ve said, believed, and educated on, but never achieved.

I’ve never played the best deck in Modern.

Well except for that one time were I ended up winning the tournament…

Today I pay for my indiscretions. Maybe I’ve already paid, who knows.

For years we’ve all heard people, myself included, complain about Modern’s
high variance, degeneracy, and volatility. The list of complaints goes on
and on. Some dislike the non-interactive aspects, while others complain
about how the removal is too good. Well, which is it? Then there’s Tron, a
deck so rage-inducing it has its own memes about the human rights
violations it’s caused over the years. Through all this combined animosity
we should have been able to unmask this format by now revealing the villain
it truly is. Not just a ban here or unban there, but a much bigger overhaul
fixing Magic’s sore spot that is Modern.

But is it really? Is Modern truly the monster so many consider it to be?
For the longest time I believed it was, but it seemed that for every
naysayer like me there were two others ready to defend it. For years I
found it easier to complain about the format, and I won’t lie, I still do
so purely for self-amusement. At least I like to believe I’m self-aware.
Deep down I know many of my issues with it are in one way or another my
fault. It’s just fun to complain sometimes, and there’s very few things
higher on my list of frustrations than Modern. Every time I do vent
publicly, though, it’s always been met by an unyielding obstinance from
those who’ve fully embraced the format as if it were the only way to play
the game.

So, what’s the deal? The draw to Magic has always been its copious amount
of variety and options, but can a format have too much of it? If so, that
could be the exact reason why Modern creates such polarizing opinions.
Those who invest the time and energy get back what they put in often and
those looking for the “quick fix” left out in the cold. After all, it takes
ample amounts of time to learn everything there is to know about the
format, making it even more difficult to keep up with things when things
shift around. Justified or not, it does make sense why so many players
would rather complain about the format when they can’t/won’t invest the
time needed to be successful.

The example that made me first start questioning all of this happened at
Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. For almost half a year prior to the Pro
Tour, Lantern Control was the format’s Boogeyman, yet very few actually
played it. Instead we saw ample amounts of decks like Grixis Death’s
Shadow, Eldrazi Tron, Modern mainstays, and decks to defeat these current
choices. Things evolved ever so slightly when we started seeing Five-Color
Humans picking up momentum, but for the most part the metagame was the same
going into the Pro Tour.

Well, as close to a “metagame” as you can get when pertaining to Modern…

Only nine copies of Lantern Control were registered at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. 464 players participated yet only nine
people played the deck that would eventually win the entire event. The
kicker was that it was extremely well-positioned! Can you imagine if this
was presented as a hypothetical? It would sound ludicrous! I guess we can
try it on for posterity’s sake.

So there’s this deck, right. It has great results, is normally
well-positioned, and very few players know how to properly play against
it or even prepare for it. The thing is though, it’s not highly played
given how steep its learning curve is. You can’t just pick it up and
start winning with it. Given that the Pro Tour is months away you’d
imagine that

more players would have begun preparing with it, but that just wasn’t
the case. Instead the opposite happened, and it seemed like everyone
just ignored it. They banked on it either not showing up, or for other
people to dedicate the cards, time, and effort into beating it. Barely
anyone ended up showing up with the deck, yet it was still one of the
most dominant decks at the tournament!”

I won’t speak for everyone here, but I personally feel I no longer have a
leg to stand on when it comes to speaking negatively about Modern. I knew
Lantern Control was one of the best decks yet did nothing to either be a
part of it or play something to beat it. Instead I wielded Eldrazi Tron, a
deck I was comfortable with. Nothing more, nothing less. I knew my choice
wasn’t the best in the room and knew so for some time, yet I did nothing to
change course. I just kept learning Eldrazi Tron as if I was not self-aware
of the situation.

I just didn’t want to play Lantern Control. It’s as simple as that.

Now it would be easy to pivot over to the same old “reasons” given when it
comes to justifying deck selection:

“I don’t own the cards,” “I’m comfortable with this other deck

or “I want to play something I enjoy,” but these are just excuses
we’ve collectively decided to believe as fact to feel better about our
personal failures. Truly doing what it takes to win, and these reasonings
are in fact mutually exclusive. Everyone wants to win but saying so along
with one of these excuses actually means one wants to win with “X deck.”
More damning is the fact that these reasons aren’t even always true.
Looking at results over the years is indicative that most Modern players do
in fact change decks. If this were in fact false we wouldn’t have seen
Splinter Twin, Grixis Death’s Shadow, or Five-Color Humans become as
popular as they have. Nor would we have experienced “Eldrazi Winter,” or
the reaction to it in such high numbers of Affinity, Living End, or Abzan

People change decks, it’s as simple as that. They just do so when they want
to, not when they feel they have to. These constructs we’ve created to
minimize our own responsibility have negatively impacted us in more ways
than one as we choose to believe them only when we want to. We’ve all been
there before: a new deck pops up on our radar and it’s as if for the first
time in our life we believe in love at first sight. Only it’s not. It’s not
at all. It’s more like an abusive relationship in that we invest all our
energy into the deck yet get nothing back in return. Nothing at all, in
fact, because the deck sucks. At this point we’re attached and will do
anything to try to fix the issue. Maybe the mana’s wrong or it needs
another removal spell. Who knows, maybe it’s just not right for the current
metagame, but things could change in the future. Nope, just bad. We didn’t
go into it concerned about our comfort level or card availability. We
ignored all of that and chose enjoyment as the only justification.

I was intimidated by Lantern Control and manufactured a false narrative
designed to let me off the hook. I did all of this knowing it to be the
case yet still suspended the disbelief, and I like to think many others did
the same. If that’s not concerning to anyone, I don’t know what would be.
Oh that’s right, Modern’s issues unrelated to our own!

Certain decks get treated like this while others do not. Objectively good
decks get subjective biases all the time! Sometimes pulling the masses
towards them and others times away. A deck like Humans, for example, has an
absurdly high number of players flocking to it, while Hallow One gets very
little love outside of the Pro community. No one can argue Humans is a
better deck and they most likely wouldn’t be wrong, but that wasn’t easily
distinguishable when both of them broke out. What is most likely true is
the feeling people got when thinking about playing them.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. Deck selection is such a complex
subject to cover, and it’s even more difficult when the format’s as big as
Modern is. It’s especially difficult to present information like this for
the masses to consume as everyone’s different. Up to this point you may
agree with me or not. My intentions today aren’t to reinvent the wheel.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, Modern won’t be solved in one either, and it
most certainly won’t be me doing so. I simply want to bring you into the
way I’ve started to think and in doing so has allowed me to see things more

Up to this point I’ve been doing my best to dissect the misconceptions I,
and potentially many others, have had about the format. Now we can switch
gears a little as I want to talk about someone I believe gets Modern better
than anyone I’ve met and explain why he’s the potential proof to this
thesis I’ve presented.

Now he may not look like the type of person deserving of respect, but don’t
let his goofy demeanor fool you: Brian Braun-Duin may in fact be the best
deck selector in Modern. Mirrodin forward, he’s a force to be reckoned
with. For those who don’t know this, Brian and I are pretty much attached
at the hip. We both live in Roanoke, are on the same Pro Series Team,
travel to events with one another, and multiple times a week play Magic
together even if that’s just parallel play on Magic Online. Through all
this time we’ve gotten to know each other on a very personal and
professional level. We’d complement each other quite well if I took his
advice in Modern.

If you must ask why I don’t, you haven’t been paying attention.

I sat down with Brian to ask him about his process, mentality, and
execution of the Modern format, and today, I’ll be paraphrasing his
responses. The first thing Brian wanted to make clear was that he didn’t
get attached to any specific decks but did gravitate towards certain
principles. He wants to do something powerful and believes decks under the
category of “Midrange” to be perennially bad. Every dog has its day though,
and Brian did say in certain conditions they can be good choices but can
never stay that way.

You know what? That makes sense!

Jund, Abzan, B/G Midrange, Mardu Pyromancer, Jeskai Control, and many
others under this umbrella have always had moments of greatness, but never
were considered dominant forces. That title was used on decks like Dredge,
Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, Eldrazi, Grixis Death’s Shadow, and currently
used to describe Humans. You know what all these decks also have in common?
Brian played them. In fact, most of the decks he has played have eventually
been banned or made worse by a change in available cards whether it be a
new release or unbanning. He always just plays the most powerful deck he
can find and tries to play the most powerful sideboards in them. He wants
the cards to speak for him and that’s doable in a format like Modern.

He’s also not afraid to play the most powerful deck even when it’s being
targeted. “It’s the best for a reason”, he says,

“and often it still beats people who think they have a good matchup
against it.”

It’s difficult to argue with this as I also believe far too many people
stumble over their own hubris when it comes to matchup evaluations. Brian
doesn’t though. He catalogs all his win percentages and keeps good records
of what he expects to get out of a deck.

You know what? We can just TL;DR this: Brian’s good at Modern because he’s
honest with himself and plays the most powerful strategy. He prioritizes
the act of winning above all and tries many different strategies before
trying to fix one deck in particular. He doesn’t get attached.

I do get attached and even though I know what I’m doing is wrong, it’s
almost like I can’t help myself. I want to constantly find the next best
thing, as that’s one of my quality traits when it comes to Standard. Brian
told me to play Humans in this past weekend’s MOCS Playoff, but all those
misconceptions rattled around in my brain. I wouldn’t be good enough with
the deck given the fact that I haven’t played it since Pro Tour testing,
it’s got a target on its back, and I’m not equipped to dodge the hate. I
want to play the “answer” for it instead.

I picked up Jeskai Control.

This deck got new inclusions from Dominaria! For starters Teferi,
Hero of Dominaria is the Jace, the Mind Sculptor this deck has been
wanting. It felt great in my very first match and has yet to disappoint.
Then there’s Damping Sphere, a card practically predestined to fix all
Jeskai Control’s problems. There were just too many reasons to play this
deck that I absolutely had to! Tunnel vision engaged!

Humans got both qualification slots from the MOCS playoff which means it
took both first and second place in the event I actively chose not to play
it in. Jeskai Control, on the other hand, finished in a respectful ninth
and thirteenth. Is it respectful or just a silver lining I’ve decided to
consider a good result? I do, after all, finish in the top 16 of a lot of
events. Normally I’d be content with this result, but this week I can’t
break from thinking how I knew all along this was going to happen just like
I did going into Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan when I actively ignored
Lantern Control.

Now my intentions aren’t to run my mouth about how Jeskai Control’s bad.
Ben’s take on the deck is actually pretty good, but that’s not a good
enough answer if all I care about is winning as much as I can. Humans is
the deck I should play if that’s my intentions, yet I can tell you right
here and now I have no intentions of putting down Jeskai Control. I’m
emotionally attached and I know it. Deep down I even hope I play it at the
Invitational in June. I’m here, discussing the mental blocks we all have as
Magic players, and still fully accept mine. What do you make of that? I’m
still unsure if I’ve even learned anything today through all of this, so I
have little faith you’ve come out of this a changed person.

Maybe I’m just a creature of habit and must take baby steps. We might all
be. I’m aware but seem unwilling to do anything about. You know, I could
listen to Brian for once and see what happens. After all, I play so many
tournaments each year I can “throw one away” by listening to the person I
respect the most in this format.

Or I can try to make Jeskai better! I’ll probably try to make Jeskai