With Standard in somewhat of a stable state at the moment and my R/G Creativity list in its tuning phase*, I figured this would be a good week to redirect our focus to some Modern. In particular, I wanted to explore the format from a brewer's perspective as I think Modern offers deckbuilders some unique challenges alongside a much wider range of tools to tackle them with.
Modern is the format that looks most appealing to a deckbuilder, especially one who is focused on "breaking the format." This makes a lot of sense, as the barrier to entry is not nearly as high as in Legacy and the card pool is much deeper than in Standard. Plus, we can be pretty certain that there are countless strategies in Modern that could be viable if explored and nurtured for long enough. Just how long is "enough," though?
Despite Modern containing eleven times as many sets as Standard, you still see a similarly small group of cards that rise to the top and appear over and over again across numerous lists. Just as you can expect Tireless Tracker to show up in three or four different Standard lists, you can expect Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze to do the same in Modern.
Individually powerful cards stand out and demand to be played with, but a card does not necessarily need to be individually powerful to work in powerful strategy. These cards, lurking just below the waters of excellence, offer the most promise to a brewer.
Isolating Cards and Strategies
Because the various midrange, control, and aggro decks give plenty of attention to that upper tier of playable cards, as a deckbuilder, you need to be willing to look deeper. Building a deck around Lightning Bolts and Thoughtseizes and Death's Shadows is totally fine, but the chances that you happen to stumble upon the magical build that shakes everything up are slim, based purely on how many other people are trying to do the same thing. There is definitely something there, and if you do miss, you are still playing Death's Shadow and have a pretty good deck, but you also have a lower chance of hitting it out of the park. I would describe the exploration of Death's Shadow to have a high floor but a low ceiling (relative to where other Death's Shadow decks are).
Instead, I think that if you are really looking to make your mark in Modern as a deckbuilder, you should be exploring powerful cards or strategies that are not under the Tier 1 microscope. It might seem a bit strange, but our goals as deckbuilders here is almost the opposite of what it should be. The further we move away from Tier 1, the more likely we are to find a gem that is undiscovered and has the potential to blow up. We are investigating cards that are unplayed or underplayed, meaning there is more opportunity for discovery but also more opportunity for failure. In other words, we are exploring low-floor, high-ceiling territory.
Now, Modern is far too large to just pick any random unplayed card and give it the leading role in your next summer blockbuster. We already know we will be losing time to failed experiments, so we want to save time wherever else we can. In this case, we want to elevate our curiosity towards cards that have unique or powerful effects. One way of doing this is to just glance back at past Standard or Modern decks to see what great cards of yesteryear aren't seeing play in current Modern.
Still, that method won't find you something like the Vampire Hexmage / Dark Depths combo, which famously took a completely unplayable rare and elevated it to a $50 card. So there needs to be some extra diligence on our parts.
As someone who has scrolled through the entire pool of Modern cards on many occasions, here are the areas that I think tend to have the highest return on your time investment:
High-synergy strategies: This includes decks built along a tribal theme, most linear strategies, and decks that use a common resource efficiently. Again, the best cards in the format see a lot of play and we need to find a way to differentiate ourselves from the "Good Stuff" strategies.
If we don't have something setting us apart from those decks in a meaningful way, then why are we not just playing better cards and fully transitioning over to that style of deck?
A good example of this in action can be seen with Tron decks. For the longest time, there has been basically one Tron deck in Modern that used cards like Karn Liberated and Wurmcoil Engine to take over games. Other Tron decks popped up on occasion, but all fell by the wayside as they failed to keep up with the original.
Then, a couple of years ago, the new batch of Eldrazi came out and Tron had something new to do if it wanted to. It had a reason to play new cards as it gained access to new lands in the process and there was a real reason to break away from the traditional path. Whether you find traditional Tron or Eldrazi Tron to be better does not matter so much as realizing that both decks are viable and bring some unique aspects to the table.
Powerful engines: While an engine in Modern can be just about anything, particular areas of interest include anything that can produce mana or card advantage at a profitable rate. This can be blurry, as a card like Birthing Pod is obviously an engine but does not fall neatly into one of those two camps, but it also kind of falls into both camps.
It is important to remember that your engine does not need to directly win you the game, but rather that it need only advantage in you some way that works toward you winning the game. Birthing Pod happened to include an arbitrarily large combo in its deck, but even without that, the card would still be an engine. The Tron pieces from above are a good example of an engine that does not directly lead to the game being won (even if it may feel that way sometimes).
Game-winning effects: These are a little rarer and tend to be focused toward combo strategies mostly. In some ways, this is like building a deck in reverse, where you isolate a potential way to win and then build backwards to make that a reality.
One of the loudest of this effect is Battle of Wits, which cannot really be called an engine or a synergy-driven deck, yet obviously is giving you a clear and direct goal on how to win the game (and how to build your deck).
I actually think Dark Depths falls into this category as well. A 20/20 flyer might as well be a game-winning effect, but it lacked any sort of enabler to make the card viable. Vampire Hexmage and Thespian's Stage both work to enable Marit Lage to do its thing.
The Time Trap
It's time to get real here for a second. While we have discussed some ways to save time brewing for Modern, it is worth emphasizing that Modern is not for the brewer who is faint of heart. We can get started relatively easily by examining individual cards that have caught our eye, but the real work has yet to begin.
People have all sorts of systems ingrained in them that store and retrieve information. Generally speaking, we pull in much more information than we can ever use, so we "sort" that information into various buckets and continue living our lives. This is great for most everyday use, but becomes a problem when your goal is to construct the perfect 75 game pieces out of thousands of available options.
Your brain cannot possibly remember all of the available cards in Modern all the time. Instead, when you begin to think about cards, the ones you commonly interact with and see all the time will jump to mind first. Right now, just think about a few of the removal cards in Modern. I'll give you a second.
Got a few?
Chances are pretty good that you thought of cards like Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, Dismember, and Abrupt Decay. These are all cards that fall under that "good stuff" category from before, and if you were in a speed-deckbuilding competition, they are almost certainly the types of removal you would turn to. However, they are not the only removal in the format and you could have a deck or strategy that actively wants something more specialized.
Here is where you need to start using your time as an investment. Find yourself a good search engine and begin entering relevant search queries until you have a pool of available options that reaches beyond the traditional limits of your brain.
In actuality, removal is probably the tightest category to do this exploration in as most removal functions independent of your primary strategy, meaning that it commonly is just "good stuff," but sometimes it can definitely matter. Playing Galvanic Blast or Dispatch in your Affinity list rather than Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile is an elementary example of this.
When the category of cards you need to reference becomes more specific or obscure, though, being diligent about your search methods becomes that much more important. At the moment, I have a concept brewing that uses token generation along with a bunch of different synergy cards. I was looking for cards that produced the most tokens for the least mana. If I were to rely on only my memory to construct a list of these cards, it would probably say Lingering Souls and Young Pyromancer on it and that's about it. After a search though, I came up with all sorts of interesting ideas like Kuldotha Rebirth, Scatter the Seeds, and Triplicate Spirits.
Ultimately, I might not use those ideas, but to have them in my arsenal, even if that just means crossing them off my list, helps me to be a more thorough deckbuilder and increases the chances of my success. I am trading time for quality, which is the most essential exchange of resources a deckbuilder has at their disposal.
That First Bread Crumb
I am a big proponent of the "teach someone to fish" style of deckbuilding more so than just handing over fish myself. I find it to be more valuable in the long-term and also to line up with my own approach to deckbuilding. That said, I understand just how intimidating a format like Modern can be for a brewer, so I wanted to quickly discuss some of the cards or strategies that I have been intrigued by recently to help get you started on your own brewing process.
Glimpse of Nature is a notoriously broken card that led to degenerate things in multiple shells, most famously Elves. It is intriguing to me, then, that even outside of the (now rule-patched) Expertise cheats, Beck//Call has seen as little play as it has. While the card does cost an additional mana beyond Glimpse, it comes with multiple upsides for that mana. The first and most obvious is that there is a second half to the card, which adds versatility but is not my focus currently.
What excites me is that Beck//Call just sees all creatures entering the battlefield, not just those that you cast. This opens up the deckbuilding space to include token makers or creatures that find another way to enter the battlefield, such as from your graveyard or deck. That is novel space that Glimpse of Nature never got to explore.
I have not quite landed on a list that I would be comfortable piloting at a premier-level event just yet, but the token exploration seems profitable. There are actually three different token generators that have convoke, which had me excited for some sort of token-storm concept, using cards like Intruder Alarm and Jeskai Ascendancy to constantly untap your tokens and mana generators and dig deeper in your deck. This strategy comes with the upside of a viable Plan B that involves just beating down with tokens, which is something most Modern combo decks can't claim.
I ended up cutting Triplicate Spirits, as the double white was proving difficult. The manabase has generally been giving me some issues, which is why a card like Loam Dryad is currently getting the nod over Noble Hierarch. The artifact synergy might be asking too much as well, though the zero-drop creatures are probably essential regardless. Still, just having access to the combo of Sprout Swarm plus Intruder Alarm / Jeskai Ascendancy gives this deck more legs than you might think. The shell above is hardly finished yet, but it should give you a decent starting point for exploring the archetype.
It has an obviously powerful set of outputs and just asks you to enable it as best you can. In fact, the deck I wrote about contains a ton of cards that are just oozing with power in the right home. Dream Salvage can legitimately draw you twenty cards for a single mana. As Foretold allows you to cheat mana costs and cast cards that otherwise couldn't be. Even Shadow of the Grave, which I recently cut, is a huge potential source of card advantage.
Collective Defiance has been testing reasonably well here so far. It provides some maindeck removal and allows us to win by decking the opponent, which might free up space should Molten Psyche no longer be needed. That change could allow us to free up our manabase a bit, as metalcraft may no longer be necessary and we could instead try some Rituals to improve speed and explosiveness. These are just directions I have contemplated in my head, though, and they still need to be put to the test.
Again, I don't really think this list is tournament-ready just yet, but it is getting closer. I must restate that exploring Modern deckbuilding is a time-intensive process and you can't expect results too quickly, lest you become discouraged. Have a little patience and be willing to constantly iterate, and eventually you might turn that coal into a diamond.
I wanted to include Krark-Clan Ironworks on this list because it is easily the most-developed of these cards but offers other unique opportunities. As we have seen since the printing of Scrap Trawler, there is more than one way to skin an artifact and I don't believe all of those ways have been explored. In my latest builds of the deck, I have been giving both Whir of Invention and Tezzeret the Seeker some love, as I feel they are underutilized in other builds but are extremely powerful. I have been enjoying both quite a lot but there are still other ways to go with the list that I have yet to navigate.
For reference, here is my current list, which is a couple of cards different from the last time I featured it.
Of course, these three starter lists have just been my own pet projects and there are still countless other cards and strategies out there waiting to be discovered. Cards like Braid of Fire, As Foretold, Zur the Enchanter, or even Vengevine do some very powerful things but simply do not have an established home just yet. Perhaps they never will…or perhaps that part is just waiting on you. Good luck brewing!