There's always a boogeyman.
Play a matchup more than once or twice and you'll quickly identify what boogeymen lay in store for you. Things are going fine and then look at that: There's a copy of The Scarab God you can't beat. You're feeling pretty good about your spot, but then a Jace, the Mind Sculptor comes down and two Brainstorms later, you start to see the writing on the wall.
Some cards are better than others.
Maybe you don't care. You have a plan and you're sticking to it. When your deck's working, you Lava Spike them to zero in short order. It's when you draw a few too many lands that Jace starts to look good. Doubling down on your A-plan and trying to win before these cards become relevant is one way to best these haymakers.
For other players, the natural response to losing over and over again to the same card is to look for and start playing more cards that answer it. Dreadbore your Jace. Harsh Scrutiny your Rekindling Phoenix. Rule of Law, turn all your Bloodbraid Elves into Vulshok Berserkers.
Of course, some answers are better than others.
My very first competitive game, way back in elementary school, was chess. I was never very good, and as a result spent a lot of time around newer players, helping them learn the game and such. High-level chess is an elegant game of strikes and parries where players can capitalize on small missteps with game-ending attacks that appear out of nowhere. At the same time, elegant is one of the least appropriate words possible to describe beginner's chess.
Chess games between novices tend to end in one of two ways. Some kids become enamored with the all-in, gimmicky strategies of chess and relentlessly go for the Scholar's Mate (a simple, four-move checkmate) or a variation thereof every game. When that doesn't work, their games devolve into all-out brawls where every opposing piece must be captured before an attack on the king can commence.
And that's kind of the way of things in novice level chess. Games end quickly due to memorized attacks or they end only after one player has had every last one of their hopes and dreams crushed over the chess board. The clever mid-game attacks that can end the game with pieces still on the board are beyond the skill level of players at this level. Unable to trap the king while its army survives, beginners focus on capturing the biggest enemy threats. First they try and capture the queen, then they go after the rooks. Bishops and knights are the next to fall, after which pawns will get picked off as the king is forced to run. One player has pieces, the other doesn't. The winner is clear.
Magic players often exhibit the same tendencies, except in our game, it's not just the beginners. Often, it's correct to select and execute a non-interactive strategy, the parallel to the memorized early attacks of the novice chess player. Every format has decks that fit this mold, and choosing one of them is something players of all levels should consider for every tournament. Case in point:
No, the troublesome part of this analogy is when Magic players think it necessary to have an answer to everything. It's an understandable belief. You can only lose to Glorybringer so many times before you start to think that maybe some of your cards should be able to get said Glorybringer off the table. When playing a deck that doesn't plan to win before Glorybringer comes down and that is trying to establish the kind of battlefield dominance that Glorybringer is so good at disrupting, it's only natural to think you need to be playing some anti-Glorybringer technology. But do you?
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to beat The Scarab God in Standard. Yes, the first point discussed was being sure to play cards that could answer it. However, that wasn't the only point discussed. Answers are great and all, but they aren't the only way to beat a card. And in my experience, winning a game with your opponent's best card still on the battlefield is one of the most satisfying ways to win there is.
Finding ways to beat cards without playing specific answers is especially important in Modern because the format is so large. In Standard, if the card The Scarab God is causing you fits, you can afford to make some pretty drastic changes to your list in order to better handle it, because you know a full third of your opponents are likely to cast it against you. In Modern, even if every U/x Control player in the room has against has elected to play the full four copies of Search for Azcanta, you could still very easily win the whole tournament without ever staring it down. That's just how Modern is.
The Three Tiers of Adaptation
So, you want to go to a Modern tournament. You've picked out a deck and you've been practicing with it as much as your schedule will allow. Your only problem in the world right now is that you can't seem to win a single game after your opponent puts spell X on the stack. You've decided that you're not comfortable losing to X at such a high rate, as you believe you will see a lot of it. Where should you begin in trying to increase your winrate against this card?
The operative maxim here is this:
The best adaptation among those that achieve your goal isn't the "winningest" one, but the smallest one.
The idea here is that when you decide to make yourself better against card X, it's of critical importance not to tunnel vision in on this card. Sure, you can probably make yourself 90%+ to beat that card, but doing so will often leave your decklist both completely unrecognizable and just worse against the rest of Modern's wide field. Instead, you want make the smallest possible change that also raises your chances in the spot enough to make you happy. Working to minimize the severity of the change rather than maximize your win rate ensures that you don't chop down the whole forest in order to save a single tree.
My method to accomplish this is to start with the smallest possible changes and work my way up. The first category of changes I consider are playstyle changes. That is, I think about how I can play my cards differently in order to have a better result against card X. I think about everything from my overall game plan in the matchup to optimal sequencing to the relative importance of card advantage and mana efficiency in my quest to beat card X by merely playing the same cards I've been playing all along, but now playing them a little differently.
Also included in this tier is finding uses for sideboard cards that you hadn't previously considered. Maybe the graveyard hate you always pack is historically terrible in this matchup and you've never considered bringing it in before, but now that they are packing card X, your graveyard hate actually has an application. Modern's size has selected for flexible sideboard cards throughout its entire history, so it's common for the sideboard cards you're already playing to have new and unexpected uses as the metagame changes.
Next, I start to consider soft answers. Generally, these are cards that don't directly answer the card in question, but do enhance an aspect of my game plan that is particularly good against card X. Ideas for soft answers generally come to me as an extension of my work in adapting my playstyle to beat a certain card. Often a certain play pattern is nearly good enough and the cards you need to have access to in order to make it actually good enough are apparent.
Alternatively, soft answers can be cards that are in the same class as cards that you do typically play, but that have historically proven to be weaker and thus, have fallen by the wayside. However, with the rise of card X, these soft answers have new utility that the previously determined 'better' cards do not. Often you see these patterns occur with the removal suite in decks, as previously unpopular cards see increased play to handle the new threats in the metagame. Because the class of card, removal, is still the same, these changes do not register as particularly drastic.
Only after I've exhausted every possibility I can think of in the previous two tiers do I start to look into hard answers. These are cards that have a huge interactional advantage with card X, that answer it cleanly and leave you fairly ahead on the exchange, but that are very narrow and won't be of much use to you in other matchups and spots. Often you will be able to think of some other uses for them, but don't kid yourself: if it wasn't for card X, you wouldn't dream of putting these cards in your deck, and the other spots you've found for them are marginal at best.
There's times when hard answers are your only options, but they're few and far between. They are the most constricting option available to you, and the option most likely to inflict damage to your win rate in other matchups. In spite of this, they are still the most popular kind of solution with Magic players at large, likely because they do what you want them to very obviously and spring to mind easily. I'm not going to talk about hard answers any more today despite their utility every now and then, because my goal for this piece is to work on ways to beat cards without playing the clean answers. Just remember that if nothing else you do works, feel free to play that Destroy Target Permanent effect of your dreams.
Time for some applications, and what better adaptation examples to draw on than the two biggest shake-ups to the Modern format in the last year?
We'll start with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Now, Jace has not proven to be nearly as formidable as we feared when news of his unbanning hit, but it's often fear that causes adaptation, not reality. I know many players who were going as far as Pithing Needle in their quest to not lose to Jace, a hard answer if I ever saw one. What did my process look like, you ask?
The first thing to ask is what situations is Jace good against you in? With Jace, the answer is whenever he gets to sit on the battlefield and use his zero ability multiple turns in a row. When Jace dies immediately, he's just a very expensive card draw spell. When he gets an extra turn, he's a very cheap card draw spell. When he gets two extra turns, he's ethical cheating.
So, how do we stop Jace from getting those extra turns? Simple, we don't concede the battlefield to our opponent. We need to attack Jace down the second he enters the fray. We need to punish our opponent for choosing to spend four mana at sorcery speed. We need to make our opponent unable to have mana to both defend Jace and cast Jace.
The very first thing I tried in my testing was to give less respect to Supreme Verdict. Previously against U/x control matchups, I tried very hard to present a single threat at a time and only let their wraths be one for ones. Because of Jace's bounce ability, I decided to up my ideal battlefield state to two creatures in these matchups.
And you know what? For the most part, that was all I had to do. There's a reason Jace isn't taking over Modern in the way everyone feared.
The truth is that the optimal Jace play patterns are easy to grok. You want to be able to attack Jace down right away, which means maintaining a battlefield of two or more creatures. Jace's lack of success isn't because these play patterns are easy to understand though, it's because they are easy to achieve. All of the decks in Modern that Jace is theoretically good against are good at creating imposing battlefields, making it difficult for him to find success.
The more interesting parts of the Jace adaptations are the various soft answers people started playing. Dreadbore, for instance, has started seeing much more play since Jace got unbanned. It's that exact scenario I discussed previously: a slightly worse removal option that mostly does the same thing as Terminate in a slightly worse way, but is much better against exactly Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Even the spike in play of Lightning Bolt owes something to people adapting to Jace. There's other reasons to be playing Lightning Bolt right now, sure, but being able to kill a greedy Jace is definitely on the minds of pilots choosing to register Lightning Bolt.
These things are important to note and keep an eye on, as they are things we will want to pull out of our bag of tricks later if Jace becomes better positioned in the format. Right now I can't recommend playing Dreadbore over Terminate, but two months from now? Who knows.
Jace adaptations are on hold right now, as the metagame overcorrected to a perceived threat that never materialized. If someone finds a Jace shell that works, we'll see more Jace adaptations come out of the woodwork. In the meantime, we've only just begun adapting to this girl:
Again, the first thing we should ask ourselves is what situations does Bloodbraid Elf beat us in, and how can we avoid those situations? Bloodbraid Elf is good when she's giving her controller two cards for the price of one. You can make Bloodbraid Elf bad by either making the 3/2 haste body not worth a card, or by minimizing the chances that the cascade hits a real spell.
Think of it from the perspective of the Bloodbraid Elf player. They want to cast Bloodbraid Elf when anything they hit is going to be good. Ideally they're at parity or very close to it and casting pretty much any spell in their entire deck is going to pull them ahead. Now flip the script.
You want them to cast Bloodbraid Elf when they need a very specific cascade. Maybe you prioritize aggressively trading off creatures, so that the battlefield is empty when they go to cast Bloodbraid Elf and any removal spell they hit is worthless. Maybe you up your frequency of going all-in on a single threat, effectively forcing their Bloodbraid Elves to cascade into removal.
Or maybe you forget about the bonus card and seek to assemble a battlefield of creatures that can easily rumble with a Bloodbraid Elf, turning the front half of the card into a non-entity.
The problem with Bloodbraid Elf is that, unlike Jace, these play situations are difficult for many decks to achieve. Simply varying how you play your cards is unlikely to greatly enhance the probability that you reach these beneficial game states. It's time to look at some soft answers. But first, look at this Grand Prix Phoenix Top 8 list.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 1 Dark Confidant
- 1 Dire Fleet Daredevil
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 1 Mirran Crusader
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
How did this Five-Color Humans deck adapt to handle Bloodbraid Elf?
Dark Confidant is another must-answer threat in a deck of must-answer threats. The Five-Color Humans deck is excellent at assembling battlefields of huge must-kill creatures like Champion of the Parish alongside tricky disruptive creatures like Meddling Mage that are also must kill. Dark Confidant enhances this angle of attack, adding another creature that the Jund deck cannot let live, severely restricting what Bloodbraid Elf hits are good. An excellent soft answer.
The copy of Mirran Crusader is bordering on a hard answer, but I'll allow it. It works against Bloodbraid Elf on nearly every axis. Most of the creatures in the Jund deck don't block it and most of the removal doesn't kill it; what is Bloodbraid Elf even supposed to hit? At the same time, Bloodbraid doesn't tangle with the Crusader herself either, making the 3/2 body significantly less relevant.
Cutting the Thalia is probably my favorite anti-Bloodbraid decision here. At first brush, it seems like a bad move against Bloodbraid Elves. After all, if they cascade into a non-creature spell with Thalia on the battlefield, they have to pay a mana for it. If they Bloodbraided on turn 4, they won't be able to cast it at all! That's good, right?
Trick question. That is good, but your Bloodbraid-wielding opponent will simply not cast their Elf without a mana to spare. Your trick won't work against good players. At the same time, Bloodbraid Elf has caused Jund players to both play more lands and prioritize making their land drops higher. This means that Thalia is less effective than she used to be against the archetype.
This Five-Color Humans list is only a few cards off the stock lists of last month, but those few changes let it achieve favorable positions against Bloodbraid Elf much more often, while not affecting its capabilities in other matchups to a huge extent. A great example of the power of soft answers.
Maybe this all sounds like too much work. It's certainly easier to just throw some hard trump cards into your sideboard, hope to draw them when you need them and call it a day. Here's the real magic at work in this process though: by exploring all these angles, no matter what tier of solution you end up employing, you gain significant edges even when you don't find your answers.
Six weeks from now, a new Jace deck takes off in popularity and is dominating tournaments. You keep losing to its Jaces, and you decide you want that to stop. You explore every way to play your cards you can think of, and nothing you try gets you comfortable with your win rate. You start mixing some planeswalker removal into your interactive slots, and that seems to do the trick.
It's the day of your tournament, and you're ready to go. You play against that Jace deck you've been fearing right off the bat, but you know you're ready. It comes down to game 3, and they slam that turn 4 Jace. You look down at your hand and don't see that Dreadbore you need. Guess you lose, right?
Wrong! Because you spent all that time testing variations on play patterns that could help, you know what to do without that Dreadbore. Sure, your win rate in these cases wasn't good enough for you to not play those Dreadbores, but it wasn't zero. You know what to do when you don't have access to Dreadbore, which you only learned by not skipping directly to soft answers when trying to beat these Jaces.
Put in the work and you'll be rewarded.