I dislike change. Seemingly innocuous things like trying a new restaurant, moving to a new job, or even travelling can throw me for a loop. Something I've learned through many hundreds of forced expeditions, bizarre foods, and new friends is that it's never as bad as I make it out to be in my head. I have become extremely adept at imagining worst-case scenarios and coming up with a dozen reason why I might dislike a new thing. After all these years of being proven wrong, I still haven't learned to ignore my first impulse to dislike or dismiss the change at hand. I imagine that this aversion to new things is a defense mechanism to protect myself. I can think back to big transitions in my life, and it's not so much that I was worried about the unknown but instead feared of losing what I already had.
To date I've written tens of thousands of words in articles, forum posts, and social media. I've logged countless hours on Magic Online, car rides, and have been to more FNMs than I can count. I've played in hundreds of events, built a half dozen cubes, and seen formats rise and formats fall. I podcast; I stream; I am deeply involved in the community. One would think that after nearly twenty years of commitment to Magic and seeing countless changes that I'd be less volatile to changes to the game, but, of course, that's not the case.
My last real break from Magic was a brief time after the release of Mirrodin. Throughout the years, Standard, Extended, and Draft have been my go-to formats, but I also dabbled in formats like 5-Color and Vintage. It only makes sense that my current favorite formats are Standard, Legacy, Draft, and Cube. There's something about big card pools and drafting that I really appreciate that continues to draw me to the game.
I think I enjoy the variety and variance that these formats offer. In a format like Draft, I feel like I can rely on my years of experience to help me beat otherwise technically better players. I like Legacy for the same reason I liked playing old Extended and Vintage. I can draw from a familiar card pool and interactions, and I'm able to discover new interactions with every new set that gets released. Cube is a combination of everything I love about Magic, so it should be no surprise that it's my favorite format.
I didn't adopt these formats overnight. There were of course long periods when I rejected formats like Legacy and Extended early in their infancy. How could Legacy ever be better than Extended? How could Extended ever be better than Vintage? I vividly remember my first draft and thinking that I'd have more fun cracking the packs and building decks. I actually thought I wouldn't draft again.
You may have noticed there was a format missing from my favorite formats list. Modern. I have so much to say about Modern. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I've been a vocal critic of the format since its inception. There are those that love the format and those that hate it. It may come as no surprise that my first thought after playing the Modern format was that I disliked it. It wasn't half the format Legacy was (literally), so why would I forgo Legacy to play it? It wasn't card availability or even an issue with the environment or decks. I just plain didn't like it.
Modern has only been in existence in its current form for the better half of a year. It took me a bit to shake off my usual dismissive attitude. After having my arm twisted a couple times, chatting with peers who I really respect, and allowing myself to blow off steam that I slowly allowed Modern to creep its way into my daily Magic time. Many of my initial thoughts on the format dissipated as I learned to enjoy Modern for what it is rather than what I want it to be. If I had written this article a year ago like I originally wanted to, it would have been rife with emotion. It was definitely too soon to have anything more than a passive opinion without being insincere. I am, after all, not the best with change.
I've had plenty of time to play the format. It's a part of my morning routine to read up on the best Standard, Legacy, and Modern decks from Daily Events on Magic Online. Understand that these thoughts on the format are not derived from how I perceive the format from the outside looking in, but rather how I've seen it built from the ground up and what I know through playing in events. I have some serious issues with how the format was conceived, how it's currently being managed, and how the communication of its future is being handled.
These opinions aren't intended to bring Modern down; rather, I want to help bring to light some things that may have gone overlooked when architecting the format. I truly believe that Modern is the future of Eternal Magic and that growing and increasing player adoption is absolutely paramount for the future success of the Magic brand outside of EDH, Standard, and Limited formats.
On the Reserved List
When I was going to school, I worked as a line cook at a fairly nice restaurant. When we did our weekly orders, we were required to order massive amounts of Wonder Bread, Kraft American Cheese, and Campbell's Tomato soup. These items were included in the menu right between exotic fish and beef dishes. No one ever ordered grilled cheese and tomato soup. Ever. At the end of every night, we had to pour out a good gallon worth of soup. I finally asked our head chef why we didn't just take them off the menu or spice the dishes up. His answer was simple: "The owners want them on the menu."
Maybe the owners had had an expensive client that threw a temper tantrum when they couldn't have their precious comfort food. Maybe it was compulsion. Hell, maybe it was some cultural superstition I hadn't been exposed to. Either way it didn't make me any less sad to pour that soup down the drain.
Somewhere along the way, the collective at Wizards of the Coast decided that the reserved list should be upheld and that we shouldn't expect dual lands or Gaea's Cradles to hit the presses any time soon. Somewhere shortly after the printing of Phyrexian Negator in a Duel Deck and Wheel of Fortune as a Judge foil, Wizards decided the foil loophole was no longer going to be exploited and announced they would be upholding the sanctity of the reserved list indefinitely.
To me, this felt a lot like the grilled cheese and tomato soup. No one really appreciates the reserved list, and we don't get much of an explanation why a system created over fifteen years ago continues to exist. Is it because of a group of individuals threatening to sue? Is it an internal directive? Is it really never going to be abolished? Do you really believe these Moxen and dual lands will survive another 20 years? The only thing we've been told is that it's here to stay.
There are many people who believe the Modern format was created as a way to have a supportable Legacy. One where Wizards could reprint the staples of the format indefinitely without being restrained by the reserved list. I can definitely see this being a logical reason to have Modern around. This is not an article about the reserved list. I made my peace with the list years ago, and the subject has been covered by people far more eloquent than me.
Here is the harsh reality. The reserved list will kill Legacy and Vintage. It's not a matter of if it will, but when it will. If you continue to play Magic and assuming the reserved list doesn't go away, you will eventually read the announcement on Daily MTG as Wizards pulls support for Vintage and Legacy. It's for that reason that Modern is so important. It is quite literally the future of Eternal Magic.
Why I Don't Currently Connect with Modern
I played Extended from the inception of the format to its death. I never looked forward to rotations in any form. I remember when they rotated the Revised duals and every block through Masques out of the format. With each rotation, the format got a little grayer and a little weaker and support from players dwindled. I think the last major three-year rotation of the format (removing OLS block) was the nail in the coffin. I used to play nothing but Extended and Draft on Magic Online. After the rotation, you'd be lucky if an eight-man fired in a week. When they went to the new yearly rotation, my impression was that players ultimately felt like they were playing old Standard, and the format died.
You might say that Extended was mismanaged and that's why it died, I think that'd be half-right. I believe it ultimately died because it wasn't an endearing format. Many of the best decks from Standard simply transplanted into the format, making it feel more like Super-Standard than its own format. You never felt like you were able to play "your" deck. The format was constantly in flux, and it didn't give you enough time to adapt.
It's just not exciting to rotate blocks out of these old formats in the same way that it is for Standard. In Standard, it feels like a refresh; for Extended, it just felt like a demotion. It definitely didn't help that Extended was a tournament format. You weren't an Extended player in the same way players are Legacy or Standard players; you just played it when it was in season then benched your cards when the next format came about.
So why the hell wouldn't I like Modern? In theory, it is has everything old Extended did and very few of the negatives. It doesn't rotate, it has a well-defined card pool, a reasonable banned list (at least more than Extended and Legacy), and there are more Modern-legal sets than there are sets printed in old frames. I think there are a few reasons why the format just doesn't resonate with me.
It Doesn't Feel Big Enough
This is probably my biggest gripe with the way Modern was architected. Maybe it's because I haven't had a real break since Kamigawa block, but Modern feels arbitrarily capped and the cards and decks feel too familiar. Did Magic design change so much from Onslaught to Mirrodin that this is really the best and most appropriate splitting point? Is it merely this way because it's easy to differentiate whether a card is legal? What about all the random new-frame Dark Rituals and Swords to Plowshares floating around—isn't that a bit confusing?
I remember the debate on whether to have Modern or Overextended take over in Extended's place. Gavin Verhey created a website to track and store tournament results from Overextended decks to make a case for the format. They had their own banned list, and it was picking up quite the following.
In looking at the three additional blocks Overextended opted to include, I found it amazing how much variety it adds to the format. There are cards that could do amazing things in a format like Modern, but Wizards could never let them see the light of day because they would have to go through Standard first. Think cards like Vindicate, Goblins, Elves, Cabal Therapy, Standstill, Fact or Fiction, Pernicious Deed, and the Judgement Wishes. To me Overextended was a great middle ground. Sure, the line drawn for card legality can be a bit confusing, but ultimately, I don't think this line matters for tournament players, especially given the complexity of the current Modern banned list. I can play Emrakul, but I can't play Wild Nacatl? I can't play Ponder, but Kiki-Jiki is legal?
I don't know many people who would actually complain if Wizards did a 360 and allowed all cards from Invasion and forward to be legal in Modern. It's really amazing what three blocks and a couple base sets do to the landscape of a format, and leaving these blocks to die in obscurity aside from the occasional reprint seems like a crime. At the very least, I'd love for there to be a way to allow special box sets like Commander or Duel Decks to be legal in Modern. This would open up the floodgates for a number of cool product releases and really give Modern some color.
It Should Have Never Been Debuted at the Pro Tour Level
One of the many reasons that Legacy has done so well as a format—and was ultimately picked up by StarCityGames.com for a weekly tournament series—is because of the player support for the format. When Wizards announced the change from 1.5, they didn't announce a Pro Tour or Grand Prix. It slowly built a following of players who wanted something they couldn't find in Standard and other older formats.
By the time it finally got events at the Grand Prix level, everyone was surprised at how many people showed up to play. Most importantly, players identify themselves as Legacy players. They are plugged into the format and are some of Magic's best ambassadors.
Introducing Modern at professional events certainly has negative impacts on the format. For one, you have very visible data on the best decks in the format. Having Magic Online decklists posted daily certainly doesn't help the case and has since been remedied. A result of all this data means the format is much less varied than it actually can or should be. If you've played Magic Online, you've experienced this firsthand. I once played several hours of two-man queues against nothing but Storm and Jund. My current streak is several dozen matches without playing against a single counterspell.
In any case, the incentive to brew over playing a deck like Jund or Affinity just isn't there unless you feel like losing your shirt. I think there would have been much different results if they had turned the format loose on the players and had the first Grand Prix or Pro Tour a year later. If anything, the effort to spin up Modern just felt a little forced, and I know I'm not the only one that feels like the format has suffered for it.
On the Banned List
I love analogies. I especially love Magic analogies. There's a scene in Spiderman 2 where Dr. Octavious is demonstrating his Tritium energy machine. He develops this crazy metal suit that is impenetrable by heat which allows him to physically contain the reaction with his mechanical arms. The problem with his plan is that he underestimates or miscalculates somewhere along the way, and even with his fancy machine and best intentions to maintain control of the situation, disaster strikes. I look at the good doctor as Wizards and the ball of energy as the Modern card pool. Each little energy flare is a card like Skullclamp, Stoneforge Mystic, or Glimpse of Nature. Those are pretty easily factored into his calculations because, well, Skullclamp isn't coming off any time soon.
The problem is that with each set new block you have a whole new subset of variables and calculations that have to be done. The format quite literally has to be evaluated every quarter to make sure nothing goes out of whack. What a format like Legacy has that Modern doesn't have the luxury of having is additional mechanical arms. Cards like Force of Will, Daze, Wasteland, Stifle, and Cabal Therapy exist to keep some of the more pesky cards in check. Some of those are reasonable cards, and others I imagine WotC would sooner reprint Mana Drain than let them see print.
In any case, unless the methodology for adding and removing cards from the banned list and managing the format changes or cards like Force of Will enter the format, I wouldn't expect to see any near term changes. Somewhere along the way, however, it will be literally impossible to contain the power of the ever-growing card pool without continuing to expand the banned list. But then you're left with a less powerful and ultimately a less colorful format. At some point, you're not going to have a turn 3-4 format. The card pool simply will only be contained for so long. I honestly think it's better to introduce those measures sooner than later to familiarize players with playing in a format that has free counters, for example, before it becomes something that deters players.
Wizards Doesn't Want Legacy 2.0
Is that so? Remember, the reserved list means Legacy's shelf life will not allow the format to exist another 20 years. The cards will be literally falling apart or so expensive that buying in just isn't realistic for many players. With the success of Legacy, why wouldn't Wizards want Legacy 2.0? It has a huge following, and really the only complaints you hear about the format are that it's too expensive and too fast. I'll argue it's just a hair faster than Modern, and with WotC's continued efforts to print box sets and Duel Decks as well as the ability to reprint cards at will, there shouldn't be huge card availability issues.
What really makes Modern as a replacement format for Legacy so bad? That's the role it will eventually play, so why not breed it to fill those shoes? Why not build a better Legacy? These questions might not have answers yet. I'd love to think Wizards has a five- or ten-year plan for their Constructed formats, but I don't anticipate seeing anything like this on the mothership any time soon. My thoughts on this subject are simple. I believe WotC should market Modern as a better Legacy and give Legacy players a reason to migrate. My hope is that they're already doing this and that there's some timeline pasted in The Pit with milestones like "reprint Force of Will" and "Modern Masters IV (now with new cards!)."
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Last year I sponsored a series of cash tournaments with Modern as the format. With the format being so new, it was amazing to see the brews people came up with. The decks at the top were very colorful, and I was hopeful that the format would continue to see innovation like we saw at our events. Fast-forward about nine months. That's nine months' worth of Magic Online Daily Event results, nine months of articles, and nine months for people to attempt to solve the format.
It didn't take long for the format to create a couple villain decks. There have been plenty of pros and amateurs lamenting the lack of variety in the top decks at the professional level. You might see one new deck a week if you're lucky. I think you can blame some of this on the fact that there is generally less brewing done at the professional level. This trickles down and the grinders tend to play what's doing good rather than something that might be a little quirkier.
I believe there are several decks and cards that are actively bad for the format. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn has absolutely no business being in current Modern. It rarely makes Top 8 of events aside from the random Goryo's Vengeance or Hideaway deck, but its mere existence is a problem for the format. It's a bane on design space, it's an unfun to play with and against, and as long as it's legal, players will stop at nothing to find new ways to put him into play. Emrakul has already had a hand in several cards being on the banned list that might not otherwise be problem cards. Why allow it to remain in the format? Emrakul is the only card not currently on the banned list that I believe deserves a spot.
Jund. I've heard a lot of complaining about Standard decks before, but I think Jund takes the cake for most lamented and talked about deck in Standard. The only deck that comes close, in my opinion, is Faeries. Did you notice that a significant portion of cards that were played in Faeries are on the banned list?
Anyway, the idea of Jund is simple. You don't have any particularly good matchups, but you also don't have any bad matchups. One thing that Jund is very good at is crushing the spirits of unfocused decks. Those brews that you built to attack the Pod and Tron decks won't have a shot. That deck you brewed that does nothing but play one-for-one spells is an actual bye. Jund is very good at adapting to metagames and can attack from many different angles. The best parts of the deck are its mana, its discard, and the ability to generate value.
Here is why Jund is a problem: perception. Perception of a format is extremely important. Perception helps with adoption and migrating players from other formats. If people perceive that their kitchen table brew or quirky combo deck cannot win a match because of decks like Jund, then they will choose to play other formats. While the idea might sound silly, especially for a format that is meant to be played competitively, I fully believe this will hurt Modern event attendance. I would personally rather show up to a 50-person FNM with a variety of viable decks than a 25-person FNM with a bunch of best-deck clones.
I think back to the early 1.5 and Legacy days when I would read about silly combo decks. Those silly combos became a good baseline for brewing and ultimately are why Legacy boasts one of the largest deck pools of any format. I'm not saying the format doesn't need to be competitive, I'm just saying that I think Modern needs a few years of free brewing to create a baseline. Get people excited about brewing and playing the format.
I think there is a perception issue on the management of the banned list as well. Most tournament players understand why Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Glimpse of Nature are on the list, but what alternatives can you give a players that just want to play something like Elves or a control deck? How is it that with such a large card pool that these decks don't exist? Again, these decks just aren't viable because they're simply a turn too slow or don't have the tools to attack the decks in current Modern.
I point out Jund specifically as a problem because I believe it's the worst enemy for these decks. Not only is it extremely good at attacking these kinds of decks, but it's one of the more popular decks in the format so you can expect to face it at the top tables. As for a fix, I am not necessarily calling to ban any card, though I have smiled a bit at the thought of Bloodbraid Elf hitting the bench. I think this is something that can be fixed by allowing more cards to enter the format. As new sets get released, other decks will get tools to fight Jund. We're likely just a nonbasic hoser or removal spell away from unbalancing Jund. I just don't think we're there yet.
The last cards on the list of problem cards for the format are the Zendikar fetchlands. I believe the fetchlands make mana bases slightly too efficient. My current Modern list is a four-color deck with five basics and 20 nonbasics, including nine fetchlands, six shocklands, and a combination of manlands and Scars lands. The Zen lands allow me to skip out on fair dual lands altogether. Legacy does a good job of keeping this greed in check with Wasteland, but Modern will likely never have a card that deals with nonbasics the way Wasteland does (for better or worse).
I've often wondered how Modern would look if players had to use lands like River of Tears or painlands to fix mana instead of the ever-efficient Zen-Rav lands. My guess is that initially it might upset some players, but it might be what Modern needs in the short term until more cards come into the format to punish the greediness these mana bases enable. I don't know that banning them outright is something that has ever been considered, but it could be an option.
I Don't Think Modern Is a Bad Format
There is nothing wrong with the Modern card pool. I don't even have a problem with the current banned list. I just don't believe the format is ready for mainstream consumption. More than any other format, Modern has the potential for big changes to better it. You can do this through reprints, redistricting the legal sets, or changing the vision of the format. Today's Modern isn't bad, but if you don't do one or more of these things regularly, I believe the future state of Modern is no more endearing than Extended was. Change is difficult, and it takes time to acclimate to change. The difference here is foresight.
We know what the landscape looks like today, but are we willing to make sacrifices to ensure the longevity of Eternal formats so that older players can come back to something familiar? Do we have the bones to build a better format than Legacy? What cannot happen is to simply ignore what works well. Wizards cannot ignore Legacy players. Players like playing cards like Gaea's Cradle, dual lands, Force of Will, and Mox Diamond. If you won't repeal the reserved list, then at least build on and learn from what makes Legacy so endearing. Learn from what it does well and badly, and use it as a benchmark to build a better format and a better brand.
In spite of my best efforts, Magic continues to change and evolve in front of me. With each block, box set, tournament change, and new member of Wizards R&D, Magic gets a new identity. Looking back, I don't imagine I would have liked it any better when my shop decided to change the tournament formats they offered or the moment when the Moxen I owned became about as useful as a stack of Ice Cauldrons. Sometimes it's hard to remember that Wizards is working two years ahead of us. Many of the concerns I have may yet be remedied in a future set or release. If my years of playing Magic have taught me anything, it's that I should expect things to change even when I don't want them to.
In the case of Modern, I only ask that more care be put into the format than simply balancing it for play. If it's going to be Wizard's flagship Eternal format and the reserved list isn't going anywhere, then more needs to be done to ensure a successful adoption plan and that it's a fun and endearing format. Redraw the lines and allow more sets, print more safety valves, ban/unban some cards, add some more box sets, etc. Whatever it takes to give Modern the tools it needs to succeed, even if that means WotC does none of these things. I am ready for change. I am ready to embrace Modern. I can only hope that it'll grow into a format worth playing for all types of players and that it will continue to bring people into the game for years to come.