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My Five Modern Lessons From 2021

Ari Lax’s verdict on 2021 for Modern? Awesome. He lays down five key MTG lessons learned from a tumultuous yet positive year for the format.

Fury, illustrated by Raoul Vitale

Yesterday, Dom Harvey gave you a great look at the day-by-day history of the whirlwind year Modern just had. It’s hard to believe a year ago we hadn’t even had the Tibalt fiasco happen yet, and the format has been through many phases since then.

This is the application of all those twists and turns. 2022 Modern is starting off in a fairly defined state, and a lot of that is because we had to learn a bunch of new things over 2021 to get here.

1. Midrange Mirrors: Unkillable Threats or Pure Attrition

Bloodbraid Elf Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Through the years of Modern midrange mirrors, or midrange against the control decks that were honestly borderline midrange, it’s hard to define anything as a really clear path to victory. Card advantage mattered, but so did cheap runaway threats, but so did big runaway threats, but so did creature positioning to manage those threats that were planeswalkers, but so did weird things like getting bashed to death by Celestial Colonnade. There’s probably an entire Brad Nelson article about the Jund VS Jeskai Control matchup that describes every phase of the game. Or maybe he just says he’s Jund Guy™ and posts a sideboard guide. Actually, that might even be two or ten different articles he wrote over the last decade.

In 2022, that’s not the case. There are two clear ways midrange mirrors go. Someone has an unkillable or unmanageable threat that the other person needs to try their hardest to push their way through first, or it’s a game of raw attrition that someone runs massively away with. There’s a narrow third case where Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer goes unanswered and messes someone up, but that’s honestly in the ballpark of something else going horribly wrong like mulliganing to oblivion.

Unholy Heat Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Three cards created this outcome, and one of them isn’t even a 2021 card: Unholy Heat, Prismatic Ending, and Lurrus of the Dream-Den.

Dark Confidant Liliana of the Veil Unholy Heat

The first two answers homogenized a lot of the games that just ended early in midrange mirrors. Imagine the bind of Dark Confidant and Liliana of the Veil that used to happen. Unless you had the sideboard-worthy Celestial Purge, there wasn’t a good way to handle them both with a single card. You can’t always draw a hand that has two specific answers to cover everything, and you definitely can’t do that through a Thoughtseize.

Now you just need to draw an Unholy Heat, or draw two Unholy Heat to beat Thoughtseize. Same with Prismatic Ending. You can’t just steal a game early by having the right threat for their answer when their answers handle anything. You can’t even steal a game with a lot of the old late-game threats because they still die to those cards, namely Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

This creates the divide. You need something that dodges those answers in a very specific way, or you need to win the games those cards trade for everything and anything.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath Field of the Dead Urza, Lord High Artificer

There used to be a couple of cards that beat the removal and won the attrition game and were good rates. You can look most of them up on the Modern Banned List, and the rest of them have another issue I’ll get to in a bit.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den Yorion, Sky Nomad

The divide is cemented by Lurrus of the Dream-Den, aka the nine-card opening hand. You really can’t ride the line between attrition and unanswerable threats because the best attrition card means you can’t play the majority of the hard-to-answer threats. You could be a Yorion, Sky Nomad deck to fight them on starting card count with a bunch of cantrips and Solitude and… oops, that’s just another attrition deck.

Monastery Swiftspear Stormwing Entity

Some of these trends emerged in the early half of 2021 as the last of the previous mess got cleaned up. The Izzet Prowess VS Rakdos Prowess (Lurrus) debate is basically the same thing as the current Izzet Midrange VS Rakdos Midrange (Lurrus) debate. Do you want Lurrus to grind out a long game, or do you want the big blue threat that doesn’t die to the one-mana answers?

Murktide Regent Seasoned Pyromancer

The midrange cards are good enough you can mix and match them as you please, but you should make a clear decision up front about how you’re handling mirrors. Are you the attrition deck? If so, choose your companion fighter. If not, find the threat the current answer set can’t beat and hammer away.

2. Modern Is Still a One-Drop and Combo Format

Fatal Push Champion of the Parish Krark-Clan Ironworks

Since the printing of Fatal Push in early 2017, Modern has been a format of making the most efficient play or making the play that ends the game on the spot. Fatal Push didn’t have any of the drawbacks of Path to Exile and was so much more card-agnostic than Lightning Bolt that it collapsed the entire two- to four-drop spectrum into things that die. The dominance of Grixis Death’s Shadow was only answered by Five-Color Humans, a deck that aimed to be even more efficient to punish Thoughtseize, and this bridged into even more pushes down the curve to free spells unless you were one-shotting people with various Karns or combos.

Simian Spirit Guide Skyclave Apparition

The banning of Simian Spirit Guide was the end of a long chain of things pushing back on this trend, and we had a brief era where things were weirdly inefficient like it was the early 2010s again. The best deck in the format was Selesnya Company, a double three-drop creature combo deck that also leaned into four-drop spells and didn’t have one-drop answers or threats anywhere. The other best deck was probably a bunch of one-drops with prowess, but nothing was really pushing you to hyper-efficiency.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer Dragon's Rage Channeler Unholy Heat

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Modern Horizons 2 sent us back into the old paradigm with the trio of red one-drops. You need the one-mana answer to Ragavan or you lose. Like I said before, your threat will trade for Unholy Heat unless it’s expensive and specific.

Fury Solitude

We are even back in the era of free stuff, albeit with answers instead of threats as the free cards. The answer to any clunky deck in Modern’s problems is finding a way to shove some Elemental Incarnations in there because the only things cheaper than one-drops are free-drops.

Stinkweed Imp Goblin Charbelcher Chalice of the Void

I did start this off with saying the options were one-drops and combo, and you can still choose combo. You just have to be really sure that what you’re doing ends the game. Peek at the various cascade combo decks and think about how important it is for Temur Crashcade to play Fury and Dead // Gone whereas Living End gets away with ignoring everything because cascading into twenty power is a lot more than cascading into eight power.

3. Play the Good Cards, Ding Dong

I feel like I’ve said this every article for the last few months, but you should play the good cards.

Primeval Titan Mox Opal Faithless Looting

It used to be that the really good cards in Modern took significant commitment to play. You couldn’t just play the good ones; you had to play an entire deck to maximize something really broken. When you got to play two at once, like Ancient Stirrings and Mox Opal, that was an obscene triumph.

Tarmogoyf

Maybe there was an era before that though where the good cards were just the good cards. You put Tarmogoyf in everything because it was Tarmogoyf, and it was hard to be better than Tarmogoyf. Tarmogoyf with Splinter Twin was the best deck in the format for a while. I Top 8ed a Grand Prix with Tarmogoyf Birthing Pod. People sideboarded into Tarmogoyf in Infect. Maybe I’m going crazy, but I’m pretty sure Tarmogoyf Tron showed up in events. The effort to play Tarmogoyf was so low and the return of Tarmogoyf-ing over every other creature and red answer of the era so high that you just kinda did it because you could.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer Urza's Saga Solitude

That’s where we are now, but there are 30 different Tarmogoyfs with the power infusion of the last couple of years. If you aren’t playing them, are you even trying?


You don’t have to be a good-card pile. There are lots of good reasons to explore the rest of the format and get good lineups against the popular strategies and good cards of the week. But the winning Azorius Urza (Yorion) decks are artifact decks that sure play a lot of Solitude, Stoneforge Mystic, and Counterspell.

Skyclave Apparition Expressive Iteration

This isn’t a “Modern Horizons 2 is broken” thing. This was happening before Urza’s Saga or Ragavan. Selesnya Company became a better deck when it just jammed all the Skyclave Apparitions. Every deck got better with Expressive Iterations after Strixhaven. The really good cards these days are interactive Standard cards that get pushed for eternal formats, not just weirdo linear stuff that adds up over a decade.

4. Hate Cards Are Still Good, for Different Reasons

Stony Silence Rest in Peace

It was a feature and bug of Modern for years that the hate cards were so crushing when cast. You needed them to stop the Mox Opals of the world, but the games were Stony Silence or bust to the chagrin of many players looking for a less binary experience.

Chalice of the Void Teferi, Time Raveler Blood Moon

We got the monkey’s paw version of that. The hate cards are more maindeckable than they really have ever been and matter against a wider spread of decks than they ever have… but they also only matter as much as you let them.

Sanctifier en-Vec

There’s no better showcase for this than Sanctifier en-Vec, which is an absolutely gross hate card by many metrics. It’s a hate card aimed right at the fair Rakdos-based decks, covering barely half the things the unfair decks do with the graveyard and ending up right in the crosshairs of the catch-all Prismatic Ending against the decks that care.

Dress Down Prismatic Ending

But if your Rakdos deck loses to Sanctifier en-Vec, that’s kinda your fault, right? You could have built a Rakdos-ish deck with sufficient coverage to make the card merely good against you and not utterly unbeatable. Cast Dress Down and blank it, splash for Prismatic Ending, maybe play a bunch of Engineered Explosives and Pyrite Spellbomb. Even if you didn’t deserve getting Sanctifier’ed because you “are a fair deck,” you could have fixed the issue before it happened.

The same thing applies with not diversifying your spell costs against Chalice of the Void, or having bad mana against Blood Moon. There’s probably a bad-guy deck somewhere that deserves to get hit, like Living End or Amulet Titan, but you aren’t priced into building your deck in ways that lose to those cards the way you were in 2018. This is the “embarrassment of good card riches” issue popping up in a different way: you can just play different good cards and build a deck that doesn’t fail in that specific corner case.

So the next time you lose to Rest in Peace because it turns off your Kroxa, Lurrus, and Dragon’s Rage Channeler, consider if that’s why people put Death’s Shadow in their deck. Or if your Counterspells in Izzet Midrange are getting shut off because everyone is playing Teferi, Time Raveler, maybe switch to a different Ragavan deck for a bit. You’re no longer colded by Stony Silence no matter which Mox Opal deck you play, or even playing the guessing game of if people will have that card or Ancient Grudge, or the luck factor of drawing Nature’s Claim and a green source today.

Teferi, Time Raveler Goblin Charbelcher

And if things get really bad and the maindeck hate cards pile up, there’s always been a large-scale counter-exploit to really send a message. It almost deserves its own point as a lesson, but the Azorius and Four-Color Control (Yorion) metagame getting solved by Gruul Belcher (Kaheera) multiple times as a pattern is something you should really look for in the future.

Make an informed choice to not lose to hate cards in general, or make the informed choice that people won’t play that one card this week. Either way, the experience is entirely in your hands even once you make a broad archetype choice.

5. Modern Is the Best Format for a Lot of Reasons

Why are Commander and Modern the most popular formats these days?

Variety of options, uniqueness of options, and flashiness of options. You get to play what you want, have it feel how you want, and get excited about playing with it.

Standard rarely captures any two of these three, let alone all of them. Vintage and Legacy, among other issues, lack uniqueness as every Brainstorm or blue card pile bleeds into each other. Pioneer has variety and uniqueness, but no one has figured out if it is flashy (maybe because they haven’t played it). Of the competitive formats, Modern is the only one that consistently has all of the above.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath Expressive Iteration Solitude

You can’t have this discussion without mentioning that Modern started 2021 in a much worse place than it is today, but every action taken in the format and almost every printing has pushed it towards the right place.

Simian Spirit Guide Solitude

As much as the big three principles I listed above, there’s another intangible the format has worked towards this year. Let people play their cards and participate more. The free cards are interaction that happens after you cast your spell. The big finishers are Archon of Cruelty or Serra’s Emissary that technically let them keep playing, not Griselbrand that instantly kills them. Even if you can play combo decks that break the rule of letting your opponent play to the end, they are milder than in the past in terms of relative speed and clock use.

I have some amount of faith that this a trend that will continue moving forward. Even in the extremely overpowered Modern Horizons 2, I think only a handful of cards were bad bets in terms of play pattern and at least one of the problems was clearly someone in Play Design really liking Solitary Confinement. The problems in Standard are mostly cards that violate these terms, and the power lately in the last few sets has really tried to avoid pushing them.

There are other issues that could be addressed to make the format better, but they are largely outside the actual gameplay and metagame. It’s always possible for another hard turn like War of the Spark to happen, but with so many things going right for Modern right now, it’s really hard to mess them all up at once.

2021 has been another weird year for competitive Magic formats, but Modern has somehow come out way ahead of the mix. Even if 2022 is just as weird of a year, I have high hopes for Modern’s ability to withstand every reasonably possible thing and remain the great format it is today.