I'm finally home! And I've only got one thing left to do before getting back to the comforts of the familiar Standard Legacy and M13 Limited formats. I've spent my summer exploring the vast world of Modern and I need to share my experiences...
In my travels there were times when I followed paths blazed by other players before me. Other times I left my maps behind me and traveled deep into uncharted territory. But Modern is a cruel and hostile place. At the bottom of the deepest oceans and in the middle of the thickest jungles I found few answers and more and more questions.
Sadly my travels led me neither to an awesome deck nor to tournament success. Nevertheless the time wasn't wasted. Like all explorers the real fruits of my labor will be in the maps the charts and the logs I leave for those who come after me. Though I have no firm answers my goal today is to offer you my readers what I've learned. Perhaps you'll see some hidden secret in the information I lay out. Or better yet perhaps you'll use it to delve deeper into Modern than I was ever able to and find the answers I was looking for.
The Nature of the Format
Modern may have the deepest card pool of any Magic format in history. Of course technically speaking Legacy and Vintage have a longer list of legal cards. However the power level of those formats is so restrictive that the overwhelming majority of those cards cannot be considered by tournament players. In Vintage any non-linear deck will start with the same list of fifty cards and the remaining slots will be filled with whatever you feel supports them the best. In Legacy the presence of cards like Daze and Wasteland rule out all expensive cards except in decks built to cheat them into play. Most importantly those formats have cards and strategies that are clearly so powerful that there's little reason to look beyond them.
Such is not the case in Modern. The extensive banned list has succeeded in ensuring that no strategy outclasses the rest or even stands out as a clear "best." While there are a handful of ever-present cards that help to "define" the format successful deckbuilders have shown that there is a place in Modern for cards like Bonfire of the Damned Ranger of Eos Huntmaster of the Fells Glen Elendra Archmage Baneslayer Angel and even Olivia Voldaren.
My intention is to point out the wide range of possibilities in Modern and the countless things to consider while building a deck. In doing so I fear I may have given a false impression of a format where you can "do whatever you want"; such is not Modern. Banned list aside because of its extensive card pool Modern is still home to extreme decks like Tron Affinity Birthing Pod and Storm combo. Each pulls you in a different direction and those who try to beat them all at once will end up drawn and quartered. Simultaneously the format's "fair" decks like Jund U/W and Delver play the most brutally efficient cards in the game's history and are honed to a razor's edge by months of tournament success. Building without discipline will leave you at a colossal disadvantage.
The most memorable aspect of my Modern testing was how brutally close every matchup felt. Testing in sets of twelve games 6-6 was a common result and things almost never came out more extreme than 7-5. Part of this is the fact of no strategy stands out as a clear best. Strange as it may sound the other reason for such even statistics is the swinginess of the format. Certain uncontrollable (perhaps uncontrollable) factors have such a large impact on the games that they largely outweigh small matchup advantages.
The Die Roll
Playing first matters a lot in Modern; there are no circumstances in which you should choose to draw. This may not come as a surprise as being on the draw is a disadvantage in nearly every Constructed format. However the disadvantage is even more evident in Modern for a few reasons.
The most obvious is the Ravnica shocklands. The aggressor hardly needs to worry about their life total and is able to enjoy a fetch-shock mana base as smooth as the ones in Legacy. The player on the back foot however will repeatedly face the choice of accelerating the opponent's clock by playing their lands untapped or falling further behind on the board by playing them tapped. "I'll take three and Lightning Bolt your Kird Ape."
A second reason why the die roll matters is tempo cards like Remand. There's no feeling like holding up a Remand when you have an advantage on the board. You get to watch your Steppe Lynx maul your opponent knowing that you'll untap again next turn with an equally large board advantage. Factor in other permission spells and Snapcaster Mage and some games are over before they begin. On the flip side holding up Remand when you're disadvantaged or even on the board is typically a losing battle.
The most important though perhaps least tangible reason why being on the play is important in Modern is the flexibility it gives you in playing around your opponent's cards. Consider a hand with a Spell Snare and a sorcery speed one-drop like Delver of Secrets or Serum Visions. On the play such a hand is perfect: you can play the Delver and have up Spell Snare by the time they hit two mana. On the draw though things are not so easy.
If you play your creature like normal the opponent may resolve a devastating two-drop like Dark Confidant rendering you behind and your Spell Snare useless. If you hold up the counter they might progress their game plan in a different way like attacking with their one-drop casting one mana spells playing tapped lands or passing with an instant up. Now what if you have to play an untapped dual to hold your Spell Snare? What if you need to Serum Visions to hit your land drops? This is just one of many examples of how much easier it is to play around opposing cards when you're on the play. Winning the die roll gives you the ability to establish a board first and then be ready to fight your opponent's spells when the time comes.
What can you do to improve your chances once you recognize the importance of the die roll? Well much of my Modern preparation consisted of throwing pennies in wishing wells for better luck in that regard. Beyond that all you can do is identify and play with cards that help you come back from behind when you're on the draw.
Permission spells though often a necessary evil are not the cards I'm most excited to be playing in Modern. Discard spells are much more appealing as they're good on either the play or the draw and can serve to break up an opponent's mana curve without having to guess what spells they're going to cast on any given turn.
The best way to stabilize against an early rush and to come back from behind as you might guess is cheap removal. Lightning Bolt is the best card in Modern and I cannot imagine playing any kind of "fair" deck without four copies. Path to Exile is also good but is not a great turn 1 play for obvious reasons. It can be a real liability against decks like Jund and U/W since they can use every mana you give them to activate manlands even into the late game. Finally we cannot forget about Storm and Tron which can often play to make your creature removal dead. The fact that Lightning Bolt Lightning Helix Tribal Flames and to a lesser extent Burst Lightning and Pillar of Flame can go straight to the opponent's head makes them universal and appealing.
The die roll is not the only reason I call the Modern format "swingy." The other is the lack of card selection. Without Ponder and Brainstorm mana screw and mana flood determine an abnormally large number of games. Particularly in grindy matchups between two "fair" decks you'll often find the player who floods first will be the player who loses.
What to do about this problem? Either bring your nickels dimes and quarters to the wishing well or design your deck to be more consistent in this regard. Serum Visions is a bad card in part for those games where you're on the draw (described above) but I have to admit to its usefulness in smoothing out your draws especially in combination with Snapcaster Mage.
The single best way I've found to tackle this problem is manlands. Jund and U/W rarely get flooded or screwed because their high land count reduces the number of one and two land opening hands while built-in action from their lands mitigates the effects of a mana flood in the late game.
RUG Delver was always and will continue to be my fallback deck in case I can't find something I like. It's truly a 50/50 deck with no matchups that are very good or very bad. My general complaint is that the deck feels underpowered it's not capable of nut draws and you never blow your opponent out of the water.
As mentioned above I'm not a fan of Spell Pierce Mana Leak or Deprive. At best they trade one for one and it often takes significant effort to get them to do even that. However their presence gives the deck resilience and flexibility and ensures that you have game against the unfair decks and answers to difficult to deal with cards. Spell Snare is the one counterspell I like (in small numbers) because it doesn't become dead as the game drags on and it's mana efficiency can allow you to jump ahead in the early game.
A nice thing about RUG is that it has the best sideboard in Modern. Combining Blood Moon with plenty of burn for mana creatures gives a lot of decks a hard time. You need not completely blow out your opponent with Blood Moon for it to be good (though you will have those games also). You can use it in a fair capacity to shut off opposing value lands and bottleneck their colored mana. Ancient Grudge and Threads of Disloyalty are similarly among the best sideboard cards in Modern and not every deck can have access to them. Red offers you extra burn and sweepers blue offers you more permission and green offers life gain and enchantment removal; you really get it all.
You could certainly do worse than to commit to RUG Delver early in the Modern season especially since I feel the deck still has room to improve and evolve. Thought Scour can offer an instant speed cantrip that grants greater flexibility in holding up permission and makes Snapcaster Mage a true instant speed threat. Phantasmal Image either maindeck or sideboard offers a reasonable answer to Geist of Saint Traft which is a problem card for the deck.
U/W/R is the more aggressive and tempo-based build of Delver. While RUG reserves the option to grind long games with hard counters and Vedalken Shackles W/U/R maximizes the chances of easy wins from unanswered Steppe Lynx and Geist of Saint Traft.
U/W/R plays with many of the format's absolute best cards and puts up very respectable numbers statistically. However it's the stereotypical Modern deck in that the die roll matters a lot it's vulnerable to screw or flood and its cards change dramatically in value depending on whether its pilot is winning or losing.
While I don't have a whole lot to say about U/W/R Delver I should address the deck's flagship card: Geist of Saint Traft. Geist helps to define Modern in a way that other cards—even ones that see more play—cannot. Snapcaster Mage for example is a brutally efficient card but that's about all there is to it. You can beat a Snapcaster Mage if you have a good draw and if one gets you all you can really do is grit your teeth and hope they don't draw a second copy. You aren't changing your deck in any kind of dramatic way to prepare to face Snapcaster Mage.
Geist of Saint Traft on the other hand is a card that you will definitely lose to if you don't build your deck with it in mind. It's difficult to remove and difficult to race and the decks that play it have any number of ways to push through blockers. If you remember one thing from this article it should be that blocking is not a good solution to Geist of Saint Traft. A quick scan of Mr. Shenhar's decklist will show thirteen maindeck removal spells as well as four Snapcaster Mages to back them up. How many creatures will you have to leave on defense to feel safe? Even if you can successfully block the Geist it serves as a Lava Axe effect and the opponent might follow up with a second copy or a Restoration Angel to reset it for next turn.
Liliana of the Veil Pyroclasm effects discard and permission are all reasonable answers to Geist of Saint Traft but each comes with its own problems. The sad fact is that there is basically no way to profitably handle a Geist so the best solution is to simply play with your own. That way you get to have an answer in your deck as well as a powerful card capable of granting easy wins.
I've already mentioned my love for manlands and U/W has some great ones. In fact the real appeal of this deck is its mana base. You take minimal damage rarely get color screwed and get to play a whopping ten value lands for the late game!
Certain decks—Jund comes to mind—have a real problem handling Celestial Colonnade. They cannot win the game before it comes online and it's somewhat difficult to beat a free Serra Angel in any kind of fair fight.
Lands aside though I don't love the U/W deck. It plays the awkward permission spells of Delver but it doesn't even have the opportunity to win the die roll and establish an early board presence! This is the type of deck where you'll basically always start out behind and be looking for an opportunity to claw your way back.
RUG W/U/R and U/W represent the "safe choices" of Modern. All three are rock solid and will have no unwinnable matchups. At the same time all of your opponents will be prepared for you and you'll rarely be a huge favorite against an experienced Modern player. You have answers to everything in the form of permission but you'll have to play smart and have a little luck to be able to steer the game the way you want it.
Next week I'll describe my travels in the land of Jund as well as my visits to some of the more extreme strategies of Modern.
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