The Present And Future Of Modern

The Modern project was our next, best hope for a turn-four evergreen format. It failed. But in so doing, it became something greater: Our last, best hope for diversity.

The Modern project was our next, best hope for a turn-four evergreen format.

It failed.

But in so doing, it became something greater: Our last, best hope for diversity.

We now have two choices. If we wish, we can try of make Modern into the turn-four format it was originally meant to be. If we do this, we will have to ban a large number of additional cards. Having banned them, we will likely have to then ban still more, and as new sets come out other cards will follow. Eventually we may succeed at our goal, but in doing so we would give up what we have now, a minimal banned list and more importantly a diversity of decks.

The alternative is to accept that Modern will never be a turn-four format because that’s not how sufficiently large groups of Magic cards lend themselves to formats. Modern can be a turn-three format full of diversity, with much of that diversity being combo decks. Some are even calling them Charbelcher decks, in the sense that they try to do one thing and do it as fast as possible. These decks will then have to deal with each other, which will restore balance (but please, and this goes double for you kids on Magic Online, don’t try to Restore Balance).

Both paths have their advantages and disadvantages. I’m going to make the case for letting the format survive in its current form, at least for enough time to see if the diversity is temporary. Steve Sadin also pointed out the obvious, which is that we can tone the decks down slightly by hurting their search without stopping people from having their fun. I’ll start with the decks from the PT, and then proceed to the current banned list.

Cloudpost (19.7% day 1, 11.9% day 2)

The entire time we were playtesting I couldn’t understand why Cloudpost decks weren’t awful. If your opponent was playing any of the combo decks, your game one could be described as “lose.” Cloudpost would never win a race against them and didn’t interfere much if at all, so the only hope was a fizzle. With so many strong combo decks out there—and clearly in my mind being the place to be—wouldn’t this be the biggest fail from a dominant deck in history?

It turned out I wasn’t missing anything. There were some Through the Breach versions that tried to keep pace and did less badly, meaning that the standard version revolving around Amulet of Vigor and Primeval Titan did that much worse. The good news for Cloudpost is that everyone now knows that the deck is awful, causing a decline in numbers and letting control try to compete again. If Cloudpost is only one deck among many, control can punt the matchup in order to be otherwise well positioned.

If we ban Cloudpost, we’re taking a fun and unique concept and tossing it aside when the deck in question was getting its ass righteously kicked by a variety of opponents. A fifteen-card sideboard can’t hope to answer all of them, and Cloudpost alone shouldn’t be keeping control down to 2.2% of the field for much longer. Cloudpost is also more than one deck, since at a minimum there are Green Post, Simic Post, G/B Post, Breach Post, and Blue Post. There’s also the possibility of a control version of Cloudpost. Many are those who try to utilize this harsh mistress.

However, if you want to turn this into a turn-four format, you have a problem. Cloudpost decks can win on turn four, either by getting Primeval Titan down on turn three or by casting Scapeshift on that turn, and usually win on turn five unless they are stopped. Letting that combine with the inevitability inherent in the deck would lead to a deck that dominates a post-ban Modern, so Cloudpost would have to be banned. 

In terms of dealing with Cloudpost, many people assume that the lands have to be the target, and that’s not true at all. There are plenty of ways to attack. Pure speed is the best, but also their threat count is usually low; their lands are vulnerable; Bribery gets you an Emrakul; and to actually do anything to you they are forced to attack, which Nassif went after with Ensnaring Bridge.

However, if we ban all manner of combo cards until they can’t kill until turn four, what happens to the turn four to five “combo” deck that has a one-card combo and inevitability? That’s right. It gets the axe too.

Zoo and Affinity (15.6% and 7.7% day 1, 19.9% and 11.3% day 2)

Affinity was my backup deck to Storm, and on reflection that’s where I should have been if I’d had more time to prepare. Unfortunately, my teammates reported it couldn’t handle Zoo, and I didn’t have much time to test on account of not being able to stay for day 2 even if I’d made the cut so I let the matter drop. Exactly the right number of cards were banned from the deck, and Affinity is where it should be. Zoo is obviously fine.

In many ways it’s true that these two aggro decks are the ‘good guys’ in the format, old-fashioned, honest decks that are fun for the whole family. Zoo offers you a lot of choices, and it’s in many ways unfair to say ‘there are only two aggro decks’ when one of them is Zoo: Boom / Bust Zoo and Countercat don’t have that much in common, and neither is that similar to the one-drop version. That gives us three at least somewhat distinct variations with secondary variations on top of that. Affinity can go red; it can go blue; it can go blue/black to get Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas; and even going white in theory has its charms. I realize that’s not ideal diversity either, but it’s still diversity.

What would be the advantage of an aggro deck that wasn’t Zoo and wasn’t Affinity? Such a deck would have to be severely disruptive to make up for the loss of time. Goblins aren’t good enough. Merfolk are one idea but are badly positioned unless things change a lot. Countercat seems to do what Merfolk wants to do but do it far better. Using large amounts of discard is another concept, but so far no luck. Over time perhaps new options will emerge, but perhaps not.

Ascension and Storm (11.1% day 1, 13.3% day 2)

The line between these two decks is murky enough that I will combine them. Ascension often Storms; Storm often plays Ascension.

The faster versions of this deck are the fastest decks in the format except for the fragile Juliet. They have a higher turn-two percentage than anything else; they are favorites to kill on turn three if they must, and if they can afford to wait until turn four, they are highly unlikely to fail uncontested. I built mine for pure speed, playing the full sixteen Rituals, although Finkel felt strongly that this was far too many, because I felt that those were where many decks would try to stop me so I could use more rituals to go through counters.

Winning first is also one of the best ways to beat hate, and with Gitaxian Probe you often know when that deadline is. There are a lot of matchups where more rituals are far and away the right configuration. However, it does make the deck more likely to fizzle, or to fizzle in the fact of hate, than it would if you played more ways to reinforce the deck. Pyromancer Ascension transforms the deck from one that barely gets there to one that can do hundreds of damage.

The one mistake I am confident other players made was putting too many lands in their builds. Fourteen is plenty; certainly fifteen is the upper limit. You actively like two-land hands over three-land hands, and one-land hands are fine if you have multiple blue cards. Lands in your hand or drawn off the top later are death because they don’t add to your storm count. You need storm count of seven to beat an opponent who doesn’t help you out, so on turn three going first you have nine cards to work with in order to cast seven spells. You can use cantrips to get there, but extra lands cause a real issue.

Ascension is different, since once you activate it, the deck starts digging and making things progressively better and better for you. If you’re trying to be resilient, Ascension is for you, but it dramatically reduces turn-two percentage and makes turn three less likely as well. The flip side is that turn four becomes more solid, especially against resistance.

Do these decks present a problem? On the storm end, you’re dealing with turn-two kills, and that’s bad, but you basically can’t turn two through any discard or any kind of counter, and even when left alone it’s not that common. Even turn three is damn hard to do if they’re actively getting in your way.

In general Storm decks are fragile to the point of fairness compared to other decks. In addition, hate is very good. Winning through a Thorn of Amethyst or Trinisphere is possible but difficult, and most hands won’t be able to do that on turn three. Winning through two such effects in reasonable time is de facto impossible.

Mindbreak Trap counters the Grapeshot or the Pyromancer’s Swath, which more often than not will stop you if you weren’t actively playing around it. Discard buys you at least a full turn per spell, often much more. Ethersworn Canonist can be killed, but Rule of Law is game unless you bounce it.

Playing with Ascension, especially when trading many of your Rituals in for Remand and Lightning Bolt and other real spells, slows you down but gives you real game beyond winning first and more resistance to most everything in your way. The problem is that if you go to the Ascension end, then the deck fails completely without Ascension itself, which opens up a huge weakness that can be attacked. I also expect there to be more hybrid and creative attempts at such decks, trying to get as much resilience as possible while also being as fast as possible. I still like the hybrid approach because it can fight through using Ascension but can also win without it, but it’s still very much a deck that must use most or all of its cards to win.

Going into the tournament, Splinter Twin was the deck we were most scared of playing against, because they could counter our attempt to win and then win themselves, whereas we couldn’t stop them if they tried to win. The other issue is that it is tough to not know what disruption you are up against.

However, now that we know that they can afford Remand and then a few Dispel and perhaps Spell Pierce, but nothing more, you can play to beat that. Starting Ascension gives you an easy path, since on turn two it forces them to burn a Remand as their best-case scenario, and if you activate the Ascension there’s nothing much they can do to stop the win. If you go first, you can even spend turn three putting it back on the table without any risk in the room. I certainly think that if the Twin decks stand pat, the Storm decks can handle this matchup, forcing Storm to take a bigger role in the metagame and justifying the massive amounts of hate people brought to the tournament for it, or at least seemed to from where I was.

Like all Charbelcher-style combination decks, if you want to beat them, you can, provided your deck gives you a reasonable base to work with. Even Cloudpost decks could have a reasonable post-sideboard game.

If you want to break up these decks, no one card will work for all of them. If you’re going to ban a Ritual it will be Rite of Flame, but there are plenty of substitutes waiting for you even if they aren’t as good. Storm will still be around, and it will still threaten the turn three kill. You could kill Ascension and that takes out the Ascension end. You could kill Grapeshot to take out the default kill engine, forcing the storm end into Empty the Warrens. If I had to take out two cards I suppose it would be Grapeshot and Pyromancer Ascension, although Rite of Flame probably isn’t doing the long-term health of this format any favors either.

You could also point to Preordain and Ponder, and possibly Serum Visions as well. Serum Visions is far more competitive with those two than people think, as the extra information from drawing a card can be invaluable. It’s not enough to justify the delay on drawing the Preordain cards, or being forced to wait two turns if you want both of them, but the decline in quality involved is relatively low. Banning Preordain and Ponder would force these decks onto Sleight of Hand and Serum Visions, which would weaken them but definitely not kill them. It could be the little push needed to bring things into balance, and it works on the next problem as well.

That next problem is to note that while these decks are good, the best combination deck is an even bigger problem that stole the Pro Tour from our heroes:

Splinter Twin (16.8% day 1, 18.5% day 2)

Splinter Twin is a Standard deck made more consistent by the availability of Pestermite as a second Deceiver Exarch and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker as a second Splinter Twin. Instead of a deck that might win on turn three and mostly plays a regular game until it gets an opening, this is now a deck that kills on turn four unless you stop it and plays relatively little normal game. In theory it can kill on turn three, but this is highly unlikely barring a Gemstone Caverns since you need to pay three and then pay four. With only a two-card combo, half of which is a lousy but relevant creature, this deck can play a much better normal game than the other combination decks and do a much better job playing through hate.

Essentially Splinter Twin is a deck that does exactly the maximum that is theoretically supposed to be allowed in the format for combo decks, and does it while also playing a decent regular Magic game. If you take out all the combo decks that kill on turn three, Splinter Twin becomes the best combo deck by default and by a large margin since anything slower is vastly worse. There would be room for other combo decks due to extreme amounts of targeting aimed at Twin, but they’d be inherently worse decks and there’s no special way to go after Twin. You can play any number of cards that prevent Twin from winning while they’re in play, but none of them are especially devastating.

Even worse, Twin can win the hard way. When I was testing what would happen if Sam Black met Twin in the semifinals, it was clear that this build of Twin could win game one by refusing to ever try and pull off the combination! The inevitability provided by Punishing Fire was very strong.

The good news is that banning Splinter Twin—although it means telling people they can’t play their Standard deck in Modern (could you make a rule that any Standard deck is legal in Modern, the way you can play an Event Deck in Standard?)—solves this problem. I would suggest the strategy of banning combos until Splinter Twin is the fastest combo, then ban Splinter Twin, and doing all of that now, if we were interested in the turn four format. Otherwise, we run into the other trap to avoid, which is facing the same old Standard decks over and over combined with a lack of deck diversity. If anything must go, Splinter Twin must go. Kiki-Jiki alone should be at a reasonable level at that point. Probably.

If you decide to hurt the deck by banning Preordain and Ponder, you weaken its search slightly but don’t change its fundamental nature. There are also advantages to playing less dig in the deck. When you ban a card, you often give a deck new tools you didn’t anticipate. The deck would care, but likely not care all that much.

So in the business spell banning scenario we’re now banning Cloudpost, Splinter Twin, Grapeshot, and Pyromancer Ascension. What’s next?

Blazing Shoal (4.8% Day 1, 4.6% Day 2)

Right. Problematic pesky purveyors perpetrating poison. The top eight version has resilience, but requires two and a half exact cards to kill on turn two. The version with Glistener Elf kills on turn two enough that it’s possible it does so more than Storm, but is much easier to step in front of. It has a great trick, but can probably only do it once and without much protection.

As this is Suicide Poison, it was requested that this deck be known as Juliet. So we have both the problem of a deck that can usually kill turn four through resistance, often kill turn three and occasionally turn two (Mono-Blue Infect) or a version that frequently kills you on turn two or at least three (Juliet).

Before the tournament, Zaiem Beg asked me if he was crazy for choosing Poison over Storm. Was he playing in Berlin and passing on Elves? I told him no, he was in Rome and he was opting for High Tide over Tolarian Academy. There are so many good combination choices! As it turned out, the High Tide role was more like Splinter Twin, and Poison was more like that funky Hacker number starring Gushta’s Scepter or maybe Adrian Sullivan Necro-Dreadnaught.

The blue poison deck is fun. It creates a lot of interesting decisions. When I was testing with it, I felt like I was playing real Magic, even if many games did end with trying to win on turn two or three and finding out if they had it, or realizing I had a lock on a kill. Juliet is likely less interactive, since you pretty much have to go for it and hope, but that probably has its charms too. It’s great to have a different angle.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of two-drops that you need to bounce to win, short of attacking one point at a time, you have to counter back for every removal spell (or play a Spellskite first), and need to assemble a three card combo with no real secondary use for two of the three parts. In its own way, it’s fair, balanced, and cool. It won’t dominate, people will learn how to play against it, and it will have its place.

Of course in the turn four format you need to kill Blazing Shoal. Add it to the list. In the world where you’re taking out dig, this deck gets hurt more than any other because it is the most reliant on assembling its pieces. Sleight of Hand is much worse than Preordain. That might be enough to knock the deck from the top tier.

Elves (3.1% day 1, 2.0% day 2)

Without Glimpse of Nature, Elves has struggled as a combination deck, and the lack of Umezawa’s Jitte hurts the transformation to a beatdown deck. The deck still works, but not good enough that it’s actually worth playing… yet. However, wipe out all of the above, and it’s much less clear. I strongly suspect that the Elves lists played in Philadelphia were atrocious. Players had three weeks to prepare, and the best combo players quickly realized that there was more fertile territory elsewhere. The problem is that Elves can still do its thing on turn three quite well, if only the deck actually worked. You hate to pick on a guy while he’s down. I’d be inclined to let this one go for now since its results were so atrocious, but do we want to take that risk? Maybe we should dial it down slightly and take out Cloudstone Curio, or kill Heritage Druid and end the question once and for all…

Project Melira (2.6% day 1, 3.2% day 2)

Melira isn’t a turn three deck, but it has tons of play and resilience and kills on turn four. You can’t kill it; you clearly can’t, but how do you get into the space where you’re good enough to compete with this for space and not too good to be allowed? It’s a tight squeeze.

Other combo weirdness exists already, including multiple graveyard decks and Hive Mind. Goryo’s Vengeance certainly kills on turn three often enough, and could easily prove to be a problem (in the sense that it becoming playable is a problem) once people look more seriously.

So the turn four format requires banning at least the following: Cloudpost, Blazing Shoal, Pyromancer Ascension, Grapeshot, and Splinter Twin.

That leaves behind Zoo and Affinity as the beatdown decks, a few funky combination decks like Elves and Project Melira and Living End, and room for control decks to rise, plus whatever is created by Innistrad and the unbannings. There will still be turn three kills, since the moment those decks aren’t good people, will ignore them, and then they become at least tier two, but one or two more rounds of bannings should do a reasonable job of stopping that.

What about the banned list? Surely there are some spicy ones there that can rescue us. To some extent, this is true.

The Easy One: Ancestral Vision

Ancestral Vision is the card you would design to try and fix this format. You want control to be able to win without tapping out, so here’s how you draw cards and gain advantage without tapping out. You want a turn four format, so here’s the platonic ideal of a turn four card. On turn one you now have a choice. You can prepare for battle next turn with Preordain or Ponder, or you can prepare for the long game with Ancestral Vision and hope things aren’t too bad when the cavalry arrives. That seems like a fair trade-off. It’s a powerful card, but it can only help achieve what the format currently needs.

The Second Best: Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Cloudpost is a better engine and you can’t run both. There’s no reason to not let people have Valakut fun if they want to. If you ban Cloudpost, you can move this to “Oh Lord, Not Again.”

The Other Side: Ancient Den, Chrome Mox, Glimpse of Nature, Great Furnace, Hypergenesis, Seat of the Synod, Skullclamp, Tree of Tales, Vault of Whispers, Stoneforge Mystic

We know what would happen if we brought these back. Elves and Affinity are seeing play already, so no need to encourage them by turning on overdrive. Chrome Mox is mana acceleration, which makes things even faster than they are. Skullclamp and Stoneforge Mystic are insane. These obviously stay banned. Once Batterskull entered the mix there was no reasonable way to tolerate Mystic anymore.

“Oh Lord, Not Again”: Dread Return, Golgari Grave-Troll, Bitterblossom

We are so sick of these cards and decks, or at least I know I am. Dredge is not a fun dynamic to have to deal with, and I’m very happy to see it left out in the cold to die. Bitterblossom and Faeries are similar. There’s a reasonable argument that letting an aggro-control deck that never taps out after turn two into the format would help contain many of its problems, but the cure being worse than the disease is a chance I’m not willing to take.

We’re sorry about that: Sensei’s Divining Top and Mental Misstep.

Neither of these cards is good for Magic. This is a very hard argument to make against a card, as I learned when I tried to step in front of Damnation during Planar Chaos development, but now that we’ve managed to bite the bullet I see no reason to undo such good work.

Mental Misstep needs to be banned in Legacy, not unbanned in Modern, as it clearly destroyed the Gentlemen’s Agreement and reduced a healthy wide-open format with a small card access problem (okay, a freaking huge card access issue) into a sea of RUG decks and Mystics. It’s not clear if it is too late to fix that, but we must try. If it is allowed to remain, I won’t be able to help thinking that perhaps it will be because damaging Legacy wasn’t seen as such a bad thing. The decision seems so clear otherwise.

Dark Depths and Sword of the Meek

These were two great combinations that go great together, but are they actually a threat? Dark Depths is a turn-three activation if you can’t use Chrome Mox, which means a turn-four kill, and it requires two exact cards plus exposing a creature. What allowed the deck to be so strong was the combination of the two halves that took such different approaches. Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry don’t kill on the spot either, and so leave you vulnerable to any number of combinations potentially including Emrakul and the attack step. The risk is reintroducing Thopter-Depths to the world, making the combo situation even worse. I’d be content to let sleeping combos lie, as both halves could likely find new halves to combine with, but I’d also like to see someone show me the deck that uses only one of the two, especially Dark Depths, and causes a problem. One guess might be a Birthing Pod deck that uses Knight of the Reliquary to fetch Dark Depths and can therefore assemble everything very quickly with only the Pod and using only two to four slots on the combo. That sounds pretty scary. Let’s play it safe.

Get Your Weapons Ready: Umezawa’s Jitte

Umezawa’s Jitte is the best Sword-style equipment ever printed, although several of the Swords, especially Sword of Feast and Famine, are competitive for the right deck. There are two dangers with Jitte. One is that it would be the only equipment anyone uses, but given no one is using equipment at all that’s hardly an issue.

The second is that Jitte causes aggro decks to turn on each other, since the Jitte version beats the version without Jitte, thus forcing everyone to play it and making the decks worse elsewhere. That’s a possible concern, but Jitte is also good at fighting several of the combo decks. It stops Twin (one hit for Pestermite or Kiki-Jiki, two hits for Exarch), stops Shoal, and gains you life against Storm. Elves is a double-edged sword in multiple senses, since Elves uses Jitte to transform historically, but it’s also a card that Elves has a hell of a time battling through. Therefore, I’d be inclined to allow the Jitte to return.

The Big Man: Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Many of us are deeply sick of him, and he’s clearly a very good card, but does he help or hurt what this format wants to become? Control decks need a good long-term win condition, and Jace is strong in that role. Trying to play Jace more aggressively is liable to get you killed, so it’s unlikely to be a four-of or be constantly on the board. It seems absurd to worry about a four-drop that can at most Unsummon on the turn it hits play given what else is out there and how dangerous it is to tap out, especially when Cloudpost can overpower Jace even if he sticks on the table. I think we should bring him back, but this is the call I think is close if only for general “Oh no, not again” reasons.

Thus, my recommended actions:

Ancestral Vision is unbanned.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is unbanned.

Umezawa’s Jitte is unbanned.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is unbanned.

Preordain is banned.

Ponder is banned.


The alternate world:

Ancestral Vision is unbanned.

Blazing Shoal is banned.

Cloudpost is banned.

Grapeshot is banned.

Pyromancer Ascension is banned.

Splinter Twin is banned.

…and then possibly a few more, which may or may not include Preordain and Ponder, but in these situations historically we’ve chosen to do less rather than more at the margin.

Which of these options sounds like more fun?