What You Need To Know About Modern

Want some advice for the Modern PTQ season? Patrick Chapin is the man to ask. He examines the metagame online for clues into the future.

The first PTQ season of 2012 is the first Modern PTQ season ever. This marks the first time in the game’s history that a PTQ format has allowed cards printed nine years ago (and never reprinted) to be legal. In addition, the format itself is completely up for grabs, due to the banning of Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire. This PTQ season is going to have an incredible amount of room to innovate, with the metagame likely evolving a great deal as the season goes on.

There are four important basic approaches to selecting a deck for a PTQ season:

1) Select a deck early, tune it, practice with it, master it. Often ideal for those with limited time.

2) Be able to play anything, switching to whatever you believe is best positioned in a given week. Generally requires either a ton of experience or a ton of time.

3) Play the deck of the week. It’s one thing to play Jund when it is the most popular, but to play Jund, then switch to Storm when it is most popular, then switch to the crazy new combo deck of the week, then switch to Faeries, and so on… well, I don’t recommend this approach.

4) Design your own. Requires more time, and you usually have to make a fairly large number of bad decks before becoming good at making good decks (which still involves making lots of bad decks).

“If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy.” -Sun Tzu

Regardless of which of these approaches you use (or use a blend of), it is crucial to get an idea of the metagame you are preparing for. An accurate ability to predict the future metagame is one of the greatest assets a tournament player can have. We must seek to understand how every strategy we are likely to face works, as well as our own.

As there have been no major IRL post-ban Modern tournaments, yet, I have compiled data from 33 Magic Online Dailies taking place between December 24th-January 1st. I awarded four points for each copy of an archetype that went 4-0 and three points for each copy that went 3-1, then divided by the total number of points to arrive at the metagame percentage.

The Magic Online Metagame is certainly not always the perfect indicator of what people will play IRL, but it is the best we have to start with and at least provides a foundation. Card availability online is different from that of paper-Magic; some combos don’t work right online; the metagame can become inbred much faster and easier; and the latest fads are always magnified. All that said, it does provide a base that we can build on, forming a picture of what it is the format is really about.

When Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire were discussed for banning, some critics argued against the bannings, suggesting it would help control too much (not having to deal with those threats). Others argued against them, saying it would just prop up all of the U/R combo decks. Others, somewhat paradoxically, argued against them because it wouldn’t change anything (Zoo would still be the best). In the end, Nacatl was banned so that there wouldn’t be a single deck consistently occupying 25% of the metagame (when even 15% for long periods of time is undesirable for Eternal formats). Punishing Fire was banned alongside Nacatl to help diversify what sort of aggressive decks were possible. While a little over a week of Magic Online results doesn’t exactly mean that much, let’s take a look at the metagame as a whole and see which theory (if any) it supports, thus far:

Archetypes Percentage of Field











U/x Tempo


U/W Tron


White Weenie


Esper Control


Ad Nauseam




U/x Merfolk




U/W Midrange


U/R Twin


Mono-White Tokens






G/W Midrange


G/W Trap


Solar Flare


Bant Midrange


Wu Poly-Tokens


Living End


Misc Combo*


Misc Control**


Misc Midrange***


*Dredgevine, Elves, Goryo’s Vengeance, Through the Breach, Second Sunrise

**Five-Color Control, Grixis Control, U/B Control, Tezzereter

***Bant Lark, 4cVial, W/B/R Midrange

For reference, Modern at Worlds featured over 28% Zoo, 15% Twin, 9% Affinity, and only 2/3rds as many archetypes occupying at least 1% of the metagame (despite no other deck taking at least 5%). That means the format had very few top tier options, much fewer viable archetypes, and a balance far from healthy. The new format has 24 archetypes that make up at least 1% of the field, plus a good variety of rogue strategies. Additionally, this doesn’t even factor in the differences between RUG Delver, BUG Delver, U/R Delver, Grixis Delver, and Mono-U Delver, and so on. Storm and Jund do appear to be a fair bit more popular than the rest, but even those are not over 15%. It has also only been one week, so it is very possible that people haven’t yet figured out how to adapt to them. 

On the whole, there is a huge amount of diversity rearing its head so far, but what about by strategy?

Macro-Strategies Percentage of Meta











While it would not be unreasonable to put Aggro-Control and Mid-Range together, in Modern it actually makes sense to differentiate them. In Standard, there isn’t enough of a difference between them; while in Legacy, very few Mid-Range decks exist outside of Aggro-Control.

Combo taking 34% of the spots isn’t exactly that wild and crazy. At Worlds, Combo was 28%, while at PT Philly, Combo was over 64%. Interestingly, Control is down from 16% at Worlds (though obviously much higher than the 3.3% from PT Philly). Not surprisingly, the banning of Punishing Fire hurts many control decks. As for Aggro, the number of non-Zoo aggro decks has risen from 12% to 19%. Additionally, the number of Mid-Range and Aggro-Control decks has climbed from 11% up to nearly 30%.

Alright, alright, so far, so good. The format just looks good because people haven’t broken it yet, right? Maybe. Maybe not though. Legacy is a remarkably balanced and diverse format that requires very few bans from year to year. The “ban everything until Wild Nacatl is the best, then ban Wild Nacatl” plan may finally be wrapping up. Will more bans be required after this season? It is very possible, but it finally looks like we are on the home stretch. If you want to know whether more cards are likely to be banned, WotC has not made the method to their madness a secret on this one.

If a deck is totally dominating and consistently way more popular than the rest, it is stifling diversity (which actually needs to be dealt with much harsher than in rotating formats, or else the format will get stagnant). Faeries or Jund or Valakut taking up 20% of the field in Standard for a time is okay because in time, the rotation solves the problem. Those kinds of numbers cannot be tolerated for long periods of time in Modern, or it will suffer Extended’s fate, rather than enjoying Legacy’s.

If a top tier deck is relatively consistently winning turn 3, it is too fast, even if it is not the best deck or played by everyone. WotC wants a parameter of the format to be that you at least have a little bit of time to play a real game. If either of these two criteria is met for an extended period of time, keep a real close eye on the strategy. A deck being popular is not going to get a card banned. A deck stagnating the format for long periods of time might.

While it is less formal of a rule, there is also an implicit one regarding creature decks. Wizards wants this format to be a PTQ format that is widely played and enjoyed. One of the basic components of that is creature combat. It may sound funny, but most people like playing games with creatures more than not. As such, WotC doesn’t want this format to slide too heavily towards combo and control for long periods of time. Where is that line? It is hard to say, but I would guess that 50% is a reasonable goal (though not a firm number). Currently, we are comfortably at 58%, so this doesn’t seem to be an issue at the moment.

In beginning our preparation for this PTQ season, it helps to look at each of the types of strategies that should be represented in our gauntlet. We don’t just want to prepare against the most popular decks but rather a diverse mix that accurately reflects the composition of the field. Here is another way of breaking down the format, helping us form a blueprint for our initial gauntlet:

Macro-Strategies Percentage of Meta

Non-Storm Combo




Non-Red Aggro






R/x Aggro




When constructing our gauntlet, we are going to want to try to pick seven decks to fill these seven slots. Non-Storm Combo at 20%, with Aggro-Control only at 7.6% makes it reasonable to select a second Non-Storm combo deck instead; however I would err on the side of as great a diversity of styles of decks as possible, at least on day 1.

The first two decks we need to include in the gauntlet (and that should be the first two we face in testing) are Storm and Jund. Storm was not super successful at Worlds, mostly because not everyone knew about Jon Finkel list. When discussing banning Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire, I mentioned keeping a close eye on and potentially banning Seething Song (because of Jon’s deck). While turn-three kills are not super common, they do happen, and Seething Song is the culprit. Additionally, Storm is generally surpassed only by Dredge in terms of being as far from “real” Magic as possible. This is not the strategy that WotC wants to be the best. I happen to think Storm has a good chance of dropping some in popularity, as people learn how to fight it; however I suspect WotC will take any excuse to ban Seething Song if it is obnoxious this PTQ season.

Here is a current build of U/R Storm:

I don’t think I can get behind only one Steam Vent, and basic Mountain might be loose. I do like the rest of this maindeck. This sideboard is very interesting, so I’d want to try the ideas out before passing judgment. Leyline of Sanctity is great against discard (particularly if they also play Gifts Ungiven, which also targets). Manamorphose lets us cast it if we actually draw it later. Echoing Truth is important as the bounce spell because of its ability to hit tokens, like Empty the Warrens, in addition to bouncing key permanents. Early Frost is one I would not have expected. Presumably it is at its best against Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary, but it just seems like such a crude instrument.

For more on how this deck works, look here . Preordain and Ponder may be gone, but Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand are still good. Additionally, Desperate Ravings is an incredible new weapon, and Past in Flames adds a very powerful new dimension to the archetype. Mindbreak Trap, Trickbind, Relic of Progenitus, Ethersworn Canonist, Rule of Law, Leyline of the Void, Nihil Spellbomb, discard, permission, and plenty of other lock components are all quite useful against Storm. You can beat this archetype if you want to, and right now, it is worth it.

Testing against Storm is a very different beast game one than after sideboarding. This is a reminder of how important it is to test both. Ideally, we test enough games to get a feel for the maindeck matchup, then switch to sideboarding, now that we have an idea of how much ground we have to recover (or have to give). A good rule of thumb for testing against narrow combo decks is to play about 40% of your games pre-boarded.

Playing with Storm is tricky, so be careful. If you are testing against someone who doesn’t plan on playing Storm this season, make sure you look to help them improve as a Storm player to the best of your ability. You don’t want to fall into the trap of only testing against Storm players who aren’t good with Storm. Games against Storm can be very taxing mentally, so be sure to keep the testing sessions positive and productive. Finding ways to correctly finish games (not just always scooping) is important, but so too is not wasting each other’s time. Also, it is totally reasonable to play half of the Storm games at the beginning of the day, half at the end.

Up next, we have the other big dog in the format, Jund. Jund got kind of a bad rap, when it was in Standard, but all things considered, it is a very reasonable bad guy (and one I certainly hope takes the top spot away from Storm). It should be noted that while U/R Storm was more popular than Jund, Jund actually put up more 4-0 records (and significantly more, percentage-wise). This seems to suggest that while Storm may be more “popular,” Jund actually wins a higher percentage of its matches.

Willy Edel’s list is very stock, as just about everyone is running playsets of Goyf, Bob, Finks, Bloodbraid, Bolt, and Inquisition, with Liliana being common. Some number of Maelstrom Pulses is also common, as is the miser’s Thrun. I am not sure about Garruk Relentless, but he sure is a great answer to opposing Bobs! Many people play Blighting, but Will has opted for Thoughtseizes and more Lilianas, which is also reasonable (but should be evaluated further). Blightning is just not that amazing against Storm, due to Desperate Ravings and Past in Flames.

I don’t love the Combust in the sideboard, as I would rather have Seal of Doom against Twin (both with cascade and just to be proactive). I do love the Thorns of Amethyst to punish Storm, however. That is a card I expect to see a lot more of, this season. I also like the mixture of angles of attack against Storm, with discard, graveyard hate, Pulse for Ascension or Empty the Warrens, and lock components like Thorns, backed by a quick clock.

As far as non-Storm combo decks go, this one can vary a great deal. In general, I like to test the extremes of the format, so I’d want to look for a popular combo deck that is as far from U/R Storm as possible (to get the greatest range in testing). Ad Nauseam, Twin, and Hive Mind are all reasonable choices, but Pod is much more popular than any of them, as well as being in stark contrast to Storm. There are basically two schools of Birthing Pod, depending on whether you want to kill with Melira or Deceiver Exarch. Here is an example of each:

Both of these decks are relatively similar, with lots of value creatures, a toolbox of problem solvers, and a combo kill that is tutored up by Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling. It is worth noting that these decks are not actually that far from Elf combo decks and could also be considered “Chord of Calling decks.”

Birthing Pod was a huge beneficiary of Punishing Fire getting banned, as the card could single-handedly lock out the entire strategy. There are still plenty of weak spots to poke at (graveyard hate for Melira or Twin hate for Deceiver, not to mention creature kill and artifact kill being good, plus the recent surge in popularity of anti-shuffle cards, like Leonin Arbiter and Aven Mindcensor).

Overall, this is a very reasonable strategy and must be attacked very differently from Storm (as is often the case with slow combo as opposed to fast combo). This is also a list that can change a lot by even a single card or two getting tweaked. As such, it is important to keep an eye on it every week and adjust it as technology improves. We only need one in our gauntlet, so I’d pick the one that looks toughest for my decks, until we have some idea of which will be more popular.

Up next, we have non-red aggro. This category is tricky because Affinity is the most popular archetype in it; however it also contains White Weenie and Mono-White Tokens (which are tempting to combine). White Weenie is actually further made up of two types, the Martyr of Sands/Serra Ascendant builds and the Leonin Arbiter/Aven Mindcensor builds. It is going to be important to get experience against these various Mono-White aggro decks as the season unfolds, but I would start with Affinity, which we know will be around.

For an introduction to current Affinity, check out Armlx’s article here . I like a lot of what he is doing, though generally my rule of thumb on Affinity decks is that I like them directly proportionately to how much they are Paul Rietzl exact list. Paul generally plays Thoughtcast, so I would make room if I was considering playing Affinity. Mountain could definitely be Shivan Reef, for instance. The first spells I’d look to trim are Shrapnel Blasts, as seven of those types are a lot. Blood Moon and Canonist are vital out of the board. Spellskite is not as clear, but I would also consider Torpor Orb (which seems better against Pod) or graveyard hate (whether it’s Relic of Progenitus, Nihil Spellbomb, Tormod’s Crypt, or a mixture).

Up next, we have the Control decks. No one Control strategy is far and away the most popular, at least on Magic Online right now, so selecting a Control deck to test against is a little tricky. U/W Tron is the most popular and is a reasonable choice, but it is not really very similar to the other Control decks, and we only get one. In many regards, it verges on being another combo deck. Here is an example:

Alternatively, we have Esper Control, which is only slightly less popular but not all that different from U/B, U/W, Grixis, and Five-Color Control:  

Gifts Ungiven and Mystical Teachings are the only top tier Control engines available at the moment. Esper Charm and Thirst for Knowledge are great of course but are generally going to complement one of the big two. Interestingly, Desperate Ravings and Forbidden Alchemy both also compete for the Esper Charm/Thirst for Knowledge slot, depending on your build.

This really does look like a format where it would be safe to unban Jace in the not too distant future but that surely involves first getting to a spot where the format is actually stable for an entire season. Jund and Storm are both not the best matchups for Jace; it competes with Gifts and Teachings, and it is consistently the most requested card to unban. Ancestral Visions is actually probably less safe to unban, since it encourages more things they don’t like, such as “counter all of your spells,” as well as pushing U/x Tempo decks to a great degree. Still, if any blue card is going to get unbanned, it is likely not going to be in March (since that wouldn’t be enough time to really prove the format is stable).

Moving on, we come to R/x Aggro. Not surprisingly, the current favorite is Zoo, though at a much healthier 5.2%. Losing Wild Nacatl does take away a lot of free wins, but Zoo can be built to prey on the decks that are benefiting most from Punishing Fire being banned. Additionally, now that the format doesn’t revolve around Zoo entirely, there is going to be less hate. All that said, it does seem a slightly suboptimal time to play Zoo, as most people are probably still too slanted against Zoo out of momentum (not having yet had the time to make their decks worse against Zoo, as they probably should).

Why would you want to be worse against Zoo? It’s not that you are trying to be “worse”; it is that you only have so many points to put different places. Most people should probably spend more points on Storm and Jund and fewer on Zoo than they currently are.

As you can see, not a ton has changed, though having four extra slots to play with makes building Zoo decks a lot more interesting. As always, Zoo has an excellent sideboard available to it, as you get to use most of the best hate and attack from just about every angle, while presenting a fast clock.

Finally, we come to Aggro-Control. It is not yet clear if Aggro-Control will thrive in Modern, without a card like Ancestral Vision or Brainstorm. That said, Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage are very powerful new tools that might actually be enough. There is no clear consensus on what Aggro-Control should look like, with U/x Tempo ranging from Grixis, to BUG, to U/B, to U/R, to Mono-U, to RUG, though it is the last of those options that has been most successful thus far.

This is a style to keep an eye on, as it is very young and already showing such promise. These types of decks get great fast, and with the format being steered in a Legacy-type direction, it is important to remember how much these decks dominate in Legacy (which is a lot). The lack of a card advantage engine is made up for by putting down a fast clock and tempo-ing people out (just like the Legacy versions). These lists are not yet tuned and have the potential to become monsters. They are also very customizable, letting you beat whatever you want (though not everything at once).

There is nothing quite like a fresh format, and new Modern looks to be very exciting and fun. It is not obviously busted, has tons of strategies to explore, a lot of room to mature, room for play, and has the thrill that goes along with testing a format that could actually be broken! There have been quite a few bans in Modern, but this is the format’s first real attempt at being a healthy and diverse one.

Next week, the first brew-session of the year. What kinds of cards or decks would you like to see built around? Any specific questions about the Modern format you’d like to see answered?

See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”