It used to be that when you thought of discard spells in Magic you'd think of Mind Twist or Hypnotic Specter. Dark Ritual + Hyppie was a common opening in Magic's early days. A little later on we saw Hymn to Tourach. But as the game has matured, there's one card that dwarfs the others as the most ubiquitous, most iconic discard spell of all time:
Every time it's been in Standard it has ruled that format's metagame, from Faeries to Mono-Black Devotion. It's also been a staple in Modern and Legacy for as long as those have been popular formats. Inquisition of Kozilek, Cabal Therapy, and Duress all see significant play in the non-rotating formats as well, demonstrating the power of one-mana discard spells as a whole.
Modern in particular has been dominated by these targeted discard effects. Without Force of Will, Daze, and Wasteland, they are far and away the best option for fair decks to combat a sea of powerful, linear strategies that is so widely varied that you cannot possibly sideboard appropriate hate for them all. And so they form the basis of the most successful fair decks in the format.
For many years that meant Jund and Abzan. Then Grixis Death's Shadow ruled the roost for the last year. Now that means Jund again because Bloodbraid Elf is back. No matter which fair deck is on top, it's clear that discard spells are going to play a pivotal role, and thus, it's incredibly important to know how to effectively wield them. To that end, Reid Duke produced one of the best article's in Magic's history, which is still relevant for fair players today.
However, not all of us like to fight fair like the eminent Duke of Sugarloaf. Some of us prefer to explore the depths of what the Modern card pool offers and come prepared with brutally powerful decks that can end games in a blink of an eye or overpower any midrange opponent. While I respect their power and certainly enjoy the back and forth gameplay involved in playing midrange decks, the notion of playing a pile of efficient threats and broad disruption just isn't that appealing. The most beautiful part of Magic is watching seemingly unrelated cards come together in creative ways to make something that is greater than the sum of their parts.
Modern offers plenty of opportunities to engage with this aspect of Magic, much more so than Standard or Draft, or even Legacy, to be honest--a format that has a fairly narrow range of viable unfair decks at the moment.
Many players decry the non-interactive nature of these decks as unfun gameplay, but I've always appreciated seeing a deck impose its will on the other through various attempts by the opponent to disrupt it. It's rewarding, and skill-intensive, to build a powerful list that is well-prepared for the opposing defenses and leave them feeling helpless.
But the Reid Dukes of the world are out there to stop us from having our fun. His Thoughtseizes must be paper thin after years of heavy shuffling and damp from the tears of his many victims. I'm here to ensure that you're not added to that list.
It may seem impossible to insulate yourself from the effects of a card that is so generic. After all, Thoughtseize can take any card. But there are steps you can take to mitigate its effect. Note that I'll be focusing on how to apply these principles to playing unfair decks, but if you still want to play fair in spite of my ode to unfairness, the information here will still help.
Make Your Topdecks Better
This is the most common advice for combating discard spells that is dispensed in Magic articles. Typically it's in the context of playing midrange mirrors and sideboarding in big, powerful effects that can take over a game that inevitably goes long.
You can't stop Thoughtseize from trading one-for-one in the early game. It's going to do that, and that means games against heavy discard decks are games played light on resources. Therefore, you need each card you're left with to carry more weight, and more powerful individual cards are better able to do so. The fact that they are more expensive is less relevant since the games are going long anyway.
But for unfair decks of all stripes, bringing in individually powerful threats doesn't make a lot of sense. These decks are built to do one thing and do that thing well. They don't have the support from the rest of their deck to leverage something like Elspeth, Sun's Champion or Chameleon Colossus.
But that isn't the only way to give yourself better topdecks. Rather than focus on quality, you can focus on quantity. By that I mean increasing your deck's velocity with cantrips, other card draw, and card selection effects. When you have a high enough velocity, you can replace whatever card your opponent takes with Thoughtseize in a reasonable time frame.
Obviously blue cantrips are the easy way to do this, and there is no shortage of combo decks in Modern that utilize Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. In these decks you can also look to Ancestral Vision as a powerful sideboard option that turns the long game in your favor. But the deck that utilizes this angle of attack the best isn't blue at all. It's Tron.
Have you noticed how Tron decks, despite being rather explosive, always seem to have a ton of cards in their hand? That comes from the ridiculous number of cards in their deck that replace themselves. Chromatic Sphere, Chromatic Star, Relic of Progenitus, and Ancient Stirrings all dig deeper into their deck. Couple that with a relatively low land count and you have a recipe for finding threat after threat after threat.
TitanShift also does this fairly well, so long as they can stick a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. If they can, all of their otherwise dead ramp spells or extra lands turn into Lightning Bolts while any of their main threats end the game on the spot. Of course if they cannot stick their key land, then that plan folds completely, so it's a more tenuous plan.
Adding these cards to your deck also serves to blunt the information advantage that these discard spells provide. If your opponent takes a key spell but sees two copies of Serum Visions, they are going to be operating on very limited information--those cards could turn into anything. However, if they see a pile of threats and removal, they can effectively sequence their next two or three turns and make your decisions as difficult as possible.
Empty Your Hand Quickly
We know that discard spells are weak topdecks since your opponent is often empty-handed as well, so it follows that pushing the game to that stage as quickly as possible could mitigate the effectiveness of heavy discard decks. The primary example here is Affinity, which frequently empties its hand on turn 2 or 3. Elves also wins games against Jund this way, usually with a Heritage Druid draw.
This plan has the added benefit of ending the game quickly, further punishing the opponent for having dead discard spells in their hand. Even if you have one or two left and their discard spell trades for something, applying that kind of early pressure punishes them for not interacting with the battlefield. No matter how cheap they are, discard spells are negative tempo, so forcing the game to be played on a tempo axis rather than a card advantage one is advantageous.
However, if you want to pursue this plan, you have to keep in mind that your opponent is likely to cut down on discard spells when sideboarding, and you have to adjust accordingly. Therefore, this is mainly a plan to be used in game 1, and having a deck that can implement it while also transitioning away from it is challenging.
I wouldn't look to change a lot of my deck to make it more explosive for the discard matchups, but rather look to emphasize that part of my deck in game 1 if it's possible. That means playing more zero-mana artifacts in Affinity (likely Welding Jar since it plays well against removal) and maxing out on Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel in Elves. These are small changes and won't move the needle by much, but every little bit counts.
Utilize the Graveyard
When I played Dredge, Jund was among the matchups I most wanted to play against. Unless their Thoughtseize stripped my only enabler it did close to nothing, as I actively wanted every other non-land card in my deck to end up in the graveyard. With game 1 being so easy, the onus was on them to consistently find their hate in the sideboard games and have me not find a countermeasure, which was a tall task.
These days, B/R Hollow One is the graveyard deck of choice, since it's both more explosive and more stable than Dredge, and the same principle here applies. Once the pump is primed, which happens on the first two turns of the game and with cards that you have many redundant copies of, discard spells are ineffective. These decks also have many cards that discard is ineffective against, and they tend to be among the better cards in the matchup. You simply can't Inquisition of Kozilek away a Lingering Souls or Bloodghast.
The card here that makes almost any graveyard-centric deck in Modern tick is Faithless Looting. From Dredge to Hollow One to Mardu Pyromancer and the offshoots of that deck that are now emerging, Faithless Looting does everything you want against discard decks. It adds velocity, generates card advantage with other graveyard-matters cards, and has flashback itself so you can't completely answer it with a discard spell. It's been one of the most powerful cards in Modern for a while, but it's only recently that the metagame has caught on and we've begun to fully realize its potential.
Jund may be the deck that plays attrition the best by conventional means, but you can't out-grind decks that don't care when their cards go the graveyard.
For the most part I think players in Modern don't mulligan enough. The format is fast and punishing if you stumble, and the vast majority of decks in the format are capable of dominating a game with a strong six- or five-card hand.
However, when you know the game is going to be played on low resources and go long, then the need for a strong opening is significantly reduced. As long as you have a hand good enough to not get run over by a Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant, then you should side with keeping as many resources as possible. Any extra land to guarantee you can cast a Collected Company immediately after you draw it or even pitch to a Liliana of the Veil activation could be critical.
This isn't a tactic that necessarily positions you better against Thoughtseize itself, but against the decks that play Thoughtseize. Jund and its ilk are looking to reduce the total resources available in a game and rely on their individual card quality to carry the day. They play the highest individual power level cards, so beating them on this axis is unlikely. You need to beat them on quantity of resources, hopefully with a boost from internal synergies.
The exception to this rule is land-heavy hands, which are much more of a liability against discard decks. In a longer game you'll have time to draw out of a land light hand, while flooding is a significant issue. I'm much more apt to keep a risky two-lander or even one-lander than I am to keep a four- or five-lander that might be left with nothing after a turn 1 Thoughtseize.
After weeks of worrying that Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor would turn Modern into a midrange fest, it certainly seems like the various unfair decks of Modern are here to stay. G/W Hexproof, Storm, Infect, and Tron have all had successful weekends recently, and Storm in particular looks quite strong in this metagame since it utilizes several of the principles I outlined above and Jund has significantly weakened its major predator in Humans.
Midrange decks certainly have their place in Modern, and the format would be miserable without them, but I'm glad that Magic has a format where non-interactive decks can shine. Standard is always dominated by fair decks, and Legacy is moving in that direction as well, as Deathrite Shaman tightens its grip on the format. Modern is the format for those of us that don't want to fight fair, that look at someone drawing 28 cards with a Griselbrand on turn 2 and smile.