You all know my format preferences are age-based – the older the cards legal, the better I like the format at hand. That being said, with the Season Two
Invitational being the Modern format followed by a GP a week later, it seemed like a good time to get some idea of what the format really looks like. So
today I invite you to join me on my little expedition into a world I usually don’t pay too much attention to. Basically consider this an introduction to
Modern for those among you who, like me, don’t actually play the format, but still want to understand what’s going on during the coverage stream.
Remember, though: I don’t actually play Modern, and as such, don’t take what I have to say here as gospel. These are my impressions from watching coverage,
doing some reading, and scouring the internet deck databases for a snapshot of the latest Modern metagame. If there are any misconceptions, wrong
conclusions, or important details I skip over today, I’d be happy if you’d take the time to let me know where I’ve gone wrong. Thanks in advance!
Well, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s start sightseeing!
The most important thing to remember about Modern – similar to Legacy, in all honesty – is the mana. While Legacy and Vintage have the ultimate color
fixing toolkit – fetchlands and old-school dual lands – Modern isn’t actually that far behind as far as power level is concerned. Having to use Ravnica shocklands instead of the original dual lands doesn’t actually make your mana worse, it just makes it more painful or forces you into
playing a couple of the more conditional duals like the Scars of Mirrodin cycle.
As a result you can still play whatever combination of colors you’d like and assume your mana will be good, but heavy splashing could easily mean you
essentially start the game at fifteen life a lot of the time – good times for the Burn deck. The absence of Wasteland also means you can skimp a little
more on your nonbasic land count, making room for a couple more basics and fetchlands than you would in Legacy.
The next defining feature of a format is the disruption base. There’s a reason a deck like Belcher is fine to have legal in Legacy, and that reason is
called Force of Will. If there were no way to interact on turn zero, allowing a deck with roughly 50% chance to go off on turn 1 to be legal would be
foolhardy at best. As is, Force of Will makes it so that just going all in ASAP just isn’t the highest EV strategy, and Belcher accordingly isn’t breaking
any metagame records.
The Modern equivalent to Force of Will is Thoughtseize as the earliest way to work towards breaking up combos and messing with your opponent’s gameplan.
Now, this has a couple of ramifications. First and foremost, it makes black the best disruption color instead of blue, pushing black midrange strategies.
However, discard’s usefulness in disrupting the opponent is much more time sensitive than that of countermagic. As your opponent doesn’t have to invest
resources into making their play as they would against Force of Will, recovering from Thoughtseize is actually much easier by the means of a simple
This combination of factors means that the best disruption color is pushed into at least a semi-aggressive stance as it needs to end the game before the
Thoughtseize-created timing window closes. Sad times for control decks (though they do exist).
This lack of a true policeman of the format is compensated for to a large extent by Modern’s threats: Where Legacy as a format takes full advantage of
Magic’s zones and card types, the vast majority of Modern decks rely on creatures either as their damage sources or as major combo elements – turning
creature removal spells into premium interaction in a lot of matchups and thereby making overloading on removal an actual viable choice.
Finally, as an Eternal player, there’s the obvious question of library manipulation. After all, much of Legacy revolves around Brainstorming and Pondering
correctly, and as a result, decks tend to be hyper consistent with very few games being lost to things just failing to come together for one player (a
definite boon to combo decks). Modern, on the other hand, has been consciously curbed of the best library manipulation tools by the DCI, resulting in the
absolutely unassuming Serum Visions being the key tool for decks that really need that function to filter their draws. Combine this with a relevant number
of Modern games not taking much longer than Legacy games, and you end up with a format that makes correct mulliganing and opening hands in general even
more important than it is in Legacy already.
My default assumption about Modern without going into detail would be that there are two core best strategies: Splinter Twin and B/G/x Midrange. The reason
for this is simple: These have traditionally always been the format’s foremost archetypes. Splinter Twin is the sole survivor of earlier Modern eras now
that the January ban has taken Birthing Pod out of the picture, and similarly B/G/x Midrange had already proven that losing Deathrite Shaman a while ago
wasn’t enough to push the deck out of the top tier before Treasure Cruise happened.
That being said, Modern seems to be far from a two-deck format. In addition to Splinter Twin and B/G/x being players, there are a couple of different
pillars around which the metagame tends to shape itself.
The Linear Decks
If you prefer for your deck to have a clear plan that mostly tries to ignore the opponent while getting them dead before they can do anything of relevance,
Modern offers you a ton of options, and they aren’t even far behind Legacy as far as goldfishing speed is concerned. Living End, Burn, Infect, Storm, Tron,
and Amulet Bloom all play this kind of game, but they do so in very different fashions, and that’s only among the clearly established decks. Once you look
into the fringe archetypes, there are more weird things waiting to be unleashed (hey, nobody took the Bloom deck seriously before the PT).
Depending on how you like to play, that’s either a boon or a curse. Because of Modern not having something as efficient and powerful as Force of Will to
keep people honest (thereby forcing them to at least run some disruption), these linear decks tend to be actually hellbent on just going off as fast as
possible with little along the lines of actual interaction. Combined with the slower reaction speed and lower occurrence rate of non-removal interaction,
this means that these decks will actually be successful at sidestepping the opponent’s plan more often, leading to more goldfishy games that are then
turned around by overwhelming silver-bullet style hate permanents from the sideboard. Not my favorite way to play (I prefer to grind my combo through a
bunch of little pieces of interaction), but your mileage may vary, though it seems like enough players agree with me to keep the format fun, at least given
how few of them seem to be placing in events.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Master of Etherium
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Vault Skirge
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Twisted Abomination
- 3 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Street Wraith
- 1 Pestermite
- 3 Fulminator Mage
- 1 Jungle Weaver
- 2 Architects of Will
- 4 Monstrous Carabid
- 4 Deadshot Minotaur
- 4 Deceiver Exarch
The Midrange Pillar
With fewer dedicated combo decks and more creatures to interact with, it shouldn’t be surprising that midrange decks have a field day in Modern. This
includes the already mentioned B/G/x decks that have their common ancestor in Jund, but the mix of efficient removal, a minor amount of on-stack
interaction, and undercosted standalone creatures also includes Jeskai (Geist of Saint Traft) lists, things like G/W Hatebears, and the descendants of the
Birthing Pod decks (which are Abzan colors but play a quite different game than the Jundclass of midrange strategies). What all these decks have in common
is their dedication to winning the game on the board by grinding advantages with creatures.
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 4 Leonin Arbiter
- 2 Mirran Crusader
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 2 Restoration Angel
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 3 Voice of Resurgence
- 2 Hushwing Gryff
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Eternal Witness
- 1 Wall of Roots
- 1 Orzhov Pontiff
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 2 Flickerwisp
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 2 Viscera Seer
- 1 Spellskite
- 1 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Restoration Angel
- 2 Voice of Resurgence
- 2 Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Finally, Delver of Secrets can’t help but rear its head in yet another format. The stupid little bugger has become a staple in almost every format it’s
legal in, and Modern is no exception. The formula is the same everywhere: Combine a couple of undercosted creatures headlined by Delver of Secrets with the
most tempo-efficient countermagic in the format, add a bunch of Lightning Bolts and library manipulation for spice, and you have your Delver deck.
In contrast to Legacy, where the different Delver archetypes actually fill a full spectrum of tempo archetypes with different gameplans – as evidenced by
their disruption and removal suites – the Modern Delver deck seems to exist in all the possible (blue-based) color combinations but also to always try to
play the same game with slightly different tools. Does it really matter if it’s Young Pyromancer tokens, Tarmogoyf, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, or Geist of
Saint Traft beating me down before I get Lightning Bolted (and Snapcaster Lightning Bolted) to death? The straightforward play pattern of undercosted
threat into the same set of disruption into burn is repeated in all of them after all.
The Weird Stuff
And here’s what’s truly exciting about Modern: The format is still much less fully explored than Legacy is at this point. Combine with the lower overall
power level, and you get a brewers paradise and a format that makes it easier for rogue players to have a field day. Yes, Legacy already has a vast variety
of viable decks, but at this point, we know a lot of them, and finding new ones is exceedingly difficult because the power level they have to match is so
high. With a large card pool but a power level that is strictly controlled by the DCI’s aggressive banning policy, the range of cards worth exploring is
significantly larger in Modern. I mean, it seems Norin the Wary is actually fringe playable in the format. You don’t really have to look much
farther than that, do you?
- 4 Soul Warden
- 2 Auriok Champion
- 3 Norin the Wary
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Soul's Attendant
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 1 Legion Loyalist
- 2 Purphoros, God of the Forge
Every format has a couple of cards that are more important than others, and Modern is no different. Those cards generally are either extremely flexible
staples with a wide variety of gameplans that are built around, or cards so powerful against a common feature of the format that you just need to keep them
in mind when building your deck and playing.
I already mentioned these in my first theoretical look at Modern. These are what makes the mana work in the format, and you need to keep in mind that
you’ll likely be playing the game with less life than you’re used to from other formats.
These two seem to be the premier non-removal interactive tools in the format, and if I see a land that can cast either card, I’d expect my opponent to have
it in their deck. Instead of true answers, however, both of these are timing window cards: They slow the opponent down, but they won’t really deal with
their gameplan in the long run. This is obviously an excellent thing for linear combo strategies and a pretty bad thing for control decks (which are
missing a great all-purpose tool like Counterspell).
This might actually be the most important single card in the format. Looking at it from the outside, Snapcaster Mage is the reason people play blue in the
first place (similar to how Brainstorm and Force of Will pull people in that direction in Legacy) and likely the best flexible tool to grind with. There’s
a reason Splinter Twin regularly manages to outgrind the dedicated Jeskai Control decks to claim its victories point by point through beatdown. When it
comes down to it, both decks rely heavily on Snapcaster Mage to create the value to carry them through the game. Expect it in anything blue from aggressive
Delver decks to Jeskai Control with Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation.
With Swords to Plowshares not present, Legacy’s age old debate about the best single mana spot removal spell has a clear answer in Modern. Lightning Bolt
is far and away the best tool for the job, in part because it plays so well with Snapcaster Mage and opposing manabases. Abrupt Decay comes in a clear
second as its anti-countermagic clause is much less relevant in Modern (where people generally don’t counter your removal for zero mana), and its
flexibility doesn’t make up for the extra mana you need to spend.
Blood Moon is a particular beating in Modern because manabases are similarly cluttered with non-basics to Legacy, but the incentives are different. Without
Wasteland, the only reason people actually run basic lands is so as to not have to pay three life every time they want to fetch for an untapped land, and
it shows in their fetch patterns. The shocklands push you towards fetching as early as possible to fetch for your non-basics whenever you don’t instantly
need the mana. Playing around Wasteland and keeping shuffles for something like Brainstorm is also a non-issue and as a result you’ll even more often see
games end on the spot when Blood Moon hits. Play this card or play against it, but you need to keep it in mind as it’s actually more powerful than just
about anything else you could be doing in Modern – until you run into the person who does respect Blood Moon (hint: you always want to be that guy when
Moon is even a possibility).
Now this is the weird one for a Legacy player. I mean, this is an 0/4 for two that sees absolutely no play in Legacy in contrast to quite a few other
Modern staples. And yet I suspect this might be one of the most important cards in all of Modern. The reason? Spellskite randomly sits at the perfect
intersection between good utility for you and ultimate hatebear. The robot flagbearer does a great job at protecting your creatures from removal (which is,
I expect, what it was designed to do), but it also just happens to be a pain to most of the common linear strategies. Splinter Twin can’t use its namesake
enchantment without having it stolen, Burn is forced to fire a Bolt a turn at your guardian, Infect’s pump doesn’t work as it would like it to – heck you
can even steal a Slayers’ Stronghold activation from Amulet Bloom. Spellskite just fills so many holes in a format that is often about a lot of very narrow
sideboard answers. It’s hard to not want at least a copy or two if your deck can take even minimal advantage of it outside of messing with opposing combos.
I’m especially curious about one particular card’s performance over the next two weekends: Collected Company. I talked about this card during the Dragons of Tarkir spoiler season, and it seems to have
caught on since then, judging by what others have decided to write about and record lately. Now, for decklists, I’ll leave you in their much more capable
hands – I don’t actually play Modern, remember – but suffice to say that the card is not only extremely powerful, but it’s also wildly flexible in
application. It’s an improved (but disembodied) Goblin Ringleader without the tribal requirements for crying out loud!
So far there seem to be a wide variety of decks that manage to make good use of the card, with decks ranging from fairly aggressive Big Zoo style lists
through Pod-descended Abzan Melira Combo to Elves and probably a couple of others I’m not even aware of. The card is strong, and these weekends will
hopefully tell us how strong exactly and where to best put it. The most beautiful answer would obviously be that all these approaches have similar merit –
either way, I’m excited to find out.
I’m not playing in either the Season Two Invitational or the GP, obviously – what with me being a couple of thousand kilometers away in Europe – but that
doesn’t mean I don’t have an idea or two about what I would play if I could. Maybe sharing those will help those among you that don’t actually play much
Modern but want to hit the big events anyway.
The first thing I’d be looking for are the different Collected Company options. As I said, I think the card is incredibly strong in the right kind of deck,
and as much as I dislike playing with creatures, I love drawing cards at instant speed. Putting them straight into play also qualifies (and thanks for the
free mana advantage). The lists I’d be most interested in are those that can use Collected Company to grind, but also use it to power into a creature-based
combo kill, like Elves or the Podless Pod decks.
The reason for wanting the combo kill is simple: It’s extremely important in a wide open format (and Modern is that) to have a powerful proactive gameplan
you can rely on when you encounter something unfamiliar or something that attacks on an angle you aren’t prepared to defend on. I also believe that a deck
having the ability to close things out in short order is quite valuable in and of itself – in fact, I’ve written a whole article on the subject – and having a decent combo kill does close
things out quite well.
If the options offered to me by the Company don’t actually convince me – or I feel I don’t have the time to learn to play the deck well enough – I’d attack
these events slightly from the left field but with something that’s close to what I’m intimately familiar with:
Why would I play this? Freaking look at it! It’s gorgeous! Literally half the cards in the deck draw at least one card upon resolving, you have access to
some of the most efficient interaction in the format (remember, Lightning Bolt and Remand are two of the three default interactive pieces of Modern) and
you get to combo kill people early using a combo that dodges all the creature removal in the format. The main ways most people can interact with you
(Remand, Thoughtseize, and Abrupt Decay) are all far from backbreaking given the deck’s cantrip density and its ability to recur a destroyed Pyromancer
Ascendancy thanks to Noxious Revival. The one thing I’d be worried about looking at the list is speed, but given that Pascal won a 160 player event with
the deck and top 8’ed another, it seems like the deck is fast enough to not get raced once you figure in the Bolts and Remands.
Aside from just loving what the deck looks like, the other reason for me to play this is simple: It uses mechanics I’m familiar with from playing Legacy
Storm (correct cantrip management, planning convoluted combo turns) – did I mention Pascal also won the Legacy event the day before the Modern one above
playing Grinding Station Storm? – while reducing my opponent’s ability to interact (and my necessity to interact with them) to a bare minimum. The deck
also has that clear, straightforward gameplan you’re trying to set up I mentioned above.
The reason these things are so important is exactly my unfamiliarity with Modern. I simply can’t expect to be playing my A game and to correctly judge
complex interactive situations when I don’t have any experience with how games in the format play out. I just don’t know Modern that well. I do know how to
goldfish a pile of cantrips that kills people by chaining spells, though, so that sounds like something I should be trying to do given the option.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should all be playing this deck if you decide to give Modern a try (I’d recommend it for fellow storm troopers, though,
especially, I suspect, those who liked goldfishing Solidarity like me). However, if you’re about as familiar with the format as I am, you should be looking
for a deck that either fits your skillset and is extremely linear (do your own thing, hope your opponent’s thing isn’t better) or has a very clear and
obvious play pattern you’re particularly good with (e.g. Jeskai Control, just kill everything that could threaten you, grind card advantage, win by
default). Basically, don’t start a midrange war with all the grinding for tiny edges that entails when you in fact don’t know what those edges are and
where to gain them in the first place.
Is Modern Legacy? Nope, sorry, can’t touch that. However in spite of often getting bad press due to how non-interactive combo games tend to be and how
aggressive the DCI has been managing the banned list, Modern actually looks like a really fun and exciting format. You can find a deck to fit just about
any playstyle, there’s a lot of unexplored territory left in the card pool, and games should be by and large decision driven – most of the linear
decks are at least enticingly difficult to play, just try doing Affinity or Amulet Bloom math on the fly when you aren’t familiar with the deck – and the
decks that tend to create “do you have the hate?” kinds of games don’t seem to be overwhelmingly popular. The gameplay in general looks a little too
creature-based for my liking, but hey, there are ways to sidestep that, and I think I’m part of the minority there with my preferences anyway, so maybe
that’s all to the good.
I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to Modern from an outsider for other outsiders. My sincerest apologies to any Modern enthusiasts if there’s
something massive I missed or got wrong. All I can say now is give the format a shot if you have a chance, it actually looks really sweet in contrast to
the midrange hell I remember it being at some point in the past.