Ever since Magic Arena introduced Best-of-One gameplay, there has been an uptick in modal cards in each set. We no longer get cards like Smite the Monstrous, and instead get cards like Defend the Campus. New mechanics often have a component of card selection. The dynamic between Lessons and the learn mechanic in Strixhaven was basically build-your-own-modal-cards. The modal DFCs from Zendikar Rising provided players with more choices because their lands could be spells. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms takes this to a whole new level, and I expect this to have a massive impact on the feel of the Limited format.
In my opinion, there are three main functions of modal cards in Limited:
1. Increase the density of cards played across archetypes
You Hear Something on Watch fits the bill for this. The decks that are interested in Rouse the Party aren’t interested in Set Off Traps. However, since all Limited decks are based around creatures, either mode will be useful in certain situations. So even though certain decks are only really interested in one of the modes, they will appreciate access to the other mode.
2. Provide access to effects in Game 1 that generally are only available after sideboard
A Grey Ogre that comes with a Treasure token may not be the most exciting card, but it’s playable, especially in a deck that cares about splashing or playing expensive cards. The fact that Plundering Barbarian has the potential to destroy an artifact, a historically difficult to interact with permanent, makes me much more excited about it as a common. One of the most disheartening experiences in Limited is when your opponent casts a card that will beat you, and you know you have nothing in your deck that can interact with it. Shatter effects are often relegated to the sideboard, and hence that kind of disheartening experience can be pretty common in Game 1. Cards like Plundering Barbarian help on this axis and I’m happy there seems to be plenty of modal cards in the set.
3. Mitigate part of the disadvantages that tend to come with a particular effect
Cancel may read like a consistent card, but it’s quite risky. Some decks will play it, and it’s never truly embarrassing, but holding up three mana is incredibly difficult to justify. Nessian Courser isn’t a great Magic card, but you’re often forced to cast your counterspell on it because wasting three mana and falling behind on the battlefield is too risky. Furthermore, drawing it later in the game while being behind is incredibly problematic. You Find the Villains’ Lair doesn’t resolve the first problem because card disadvantageous selection is never ideal in the early-game, but being able to fire it off later to find what you need is appreciated. I imagine I’ll play with this card more than I play with many Cancel variants for this reason.
The real question is: “what happens to a Limited format when a large density of the available cards are modal?”
Agency. Less non-games. Less games where you feel like you can’t possibly win. Cards that provide more options, particularly given the three types of modal cards described above, help minimize the amount of helpless situations.
That’s all good and everything, but what does it mean for the format? How does that affect which cards you should prioritize and what strategies will perform well?
1. Aggressive decks need to be more explosive and synergistic than normal
Every macro archetype has types of games that favor them. Aggressive decks are my favorite way to play Magic, and they prey on draws where the opponent stumbles or can’t get a creature on the battlefield early. Some modal cards, like Shambling Ghast and Dawnbringer Cleric, have modes that are particularly impactful against aggressive decks. And, in general, modal cards often help bridge the early and the late-game because the different effects provided will often be better at different stages of the game.
Furthermore, aggressive decks tend to be able to capitalize on modal options less because they’re most interested in redundancy and linearity of effects. And this isn’t even considering the new venture into the dungeon mechanic, which is another modal mechanic that favors longevity (which also isn’t great for aggressive decks). Especially because one of the common early modes will be making a 1/1 Goblin token, making one-toughness aggressive cards less appealing.
I’m not saying aggressive decks can’t be good in this format, but your normal curve out with some combat tricks style aggro deck will be behind the other decks in the format. I still have my eyes on Bruenor Battlehammer as a synergistic option that hits hard for the Boros deck in the format.
2. You need to be prepared to play around a wider array of abilities and spend more energy reading your opponents
Trumpet Blast is a narrow effect. Often I won’t play around that card, even if it exists at common, because it’s rare for a Limited deck to be able to play the card unless it is a truly dedicated token strategy. However, You See a Pair of Goblins is a Trumpet Blast variant that I will be more likely to play around since the default mode of creating two 1/1 Goblin tokens is a playable Magic card. Additionally, I’m more likely to debate if my opponent has a card like this due to how they play the game. If I don’t make an attack with a one-toughness creature, and there’s a weird pause, I need to think about playing around flash Goblin tokens, but I also need to prepare for playing around Trumpet Blast. Overall, there will be more effects to play around because the cards that provide narrow but impactful effects will be on modal cards that make the maindeck often.
Modal cards are one of my favorite styles of design that WotC has been leaning into lately, and I’m extremely excited to see how it drives the Limited format for this upcoming set. It could really go in any direction, but that’s the beauty of it. There are options for any axis thanks to the breadth of effects modal cards provide for the format!