Thanksgiving is over and hopefully we've all recovered from our gluttony-induced comas, because there's an exciting couple weeks of Magic remaining before the typical lull at the end of the year. The SCG Tour® stops in Baltimore this weekend for an individual Modern Open before finishing up with SCG Con Winter featuring the Season Two Invitational next weekend.
With two weeks to prepare for two formats and Modern being relevant this weekend, it makes sense to me to focus on that format right now and switch my focus to Standard next week (by which I of course mean plead in vain with Brad Nelson to teach me how to Standard).
In the spirit of the holiday season, you may think I'm here today to tell you about how diverse Modern is and that you can play anything you want as long as you believe. But honestly, that's the myth about how the holidays work. I've been inspired by the harsh reality of the season, which is typified by arguing with your extended family until it's time to line up in the snow for three hours to save a hundred bucks on a TV so you can ignore them next year and avoid the same horrible fate.
The truth about Modern is much less rosy. In Standard, the difference between the top tier decks and the rest of the metagame is quite large, which makes the best decks stand out more, but that gap is narrowed in Modern, which has the adverse effect of leading players into playing subpar decks because certain archetypes are well-positioned or under the radar or whatever other flimsy excuse we use to rationalize the decision.
So here are some things you should know about Modern, even if you don't want to know them:
Dredge Is Just Another Good Deck
I love Dredge. It won the most recent Team Constructed Open, and I would love nothing more than to lock it in, forget about Modern and focus my efforts on Standard. It's definitely of a power level that is on par with the best decks in the format, killing consistently on turn 4 when undisrupted, and can play through hate.
But none of that separates Dredge from the rest of the format. It merely elevates it to the point where it can compete. There are several other decks that meet that criterion, but with Dredge you make some significant sacrifices to get there.
First, the deck is very linear. That makes it more vulnerable to graveyard hate than something like Ironworks or Hollow One, and despite the fact that Dredge quickly receded in popularity after a dominant weekend in Dallas last month, the level of graveyard hate hasn't dipped much since the reaction to its return.
I look through Modern decklists every week trying to find another weekend where Dredge can catch the metagame unprepared and it's just not happening. Players hate losing to Dredge and there are so many other graveyard decks in Modern that using a few extra sideboard slots on graveyard hate is more than reasonable. And while Dredge can win through its share of hate cards, I'm not interested in having to slog through them every single round. Creeping Chill Dredge already has more variance because the land and dredger counts were shaved to make room for the new card, so you often have to keep functional hands that lose to hate and hope thing work out.
Most linear decks look to sideboard away from their vulnerability to hate, but Dredge is not at all malleable. By that I mean there are so many slots devoted to the engine in order to reach the needed level of consistency that you can't make significant changes in sideboarding. Dredge is a stubborn coach who uses the same plays for thirty years because that's how the game should be played. There's a certain respect to be earned from that level of stubbornness, but it's ultimately not advisable.
When Dredge re-emerged last month, the metagame had lots of control and Burn was on the rise, but a decline in those decks and an uptick in graveyard hate has shown that it's not the ban worthy deck it was two years ago, but merely another fine deck that players are willing to put the effort into beating right now. I'd rather not settle for fine.
Azorius Control is No Longer a Good Deck
If there's one trend that has defined Modern in 2018, it's the return of control decks as viable archetypes in Modern. Since the banning of Splinter Twin, control mages had been left rudderless, and early returns on the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor is that the most powerful planeswalker of all time wasn't enough to put them on the map. But when combined with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, control had enough powerful card draw engines that could serve another purpose when needed to compete in the complex landscape of Modern. It was so popular that I was playing Blue Moon in large part to capitalize on its great matchup in control mirrors.
The fact that control has been actively good for most of the year hasn't stopped people from complaining on Twitter about the format and clamoring for a Splinter Twin unban, but that's a rant for another day. The point is that control decks can't be summarily dismissed anymore.
That said, now is not a good time for them. The format has been pushed in a linear direction to combat Dredge, which is a bad matchup itself, and the control decks are built around having good removal and powerful planeswalkers, so they are suited to beating aggro and midrange decks and generally don't match up well with a lot of different combo and big mana decks, which should be on the rise.
And even those good matchups have taken a hit. Assassin's Trophy may have been massively overhyped, but it helps Jund and Golgari decks answer planeswalkers or Search for Azcanta, which are critical to keep on the battlefield in attrition games, and some number of Humans players have migrated over to Bant Spirits, which is a more difficult matchup because they get to play at instant speed, have lots of ways to profitably interact with removal spells, and the power of Collected Company to recover from a sweeper.
I agree with what Ari Lax wrote yesterday , that Azorius Control is rarely horrible, but made bad when facing a lot of 45% matchups, and that's where I see it right now. Control decks thrive when the metagame is fairer, and that's not where we are.
Bant Spirits Has Surpassed Humans
These two have been roughly equal in metagame share for a while now, and they operate very similarly as aggressive decks with heavy disruption that are key off of Noble Hierarch and Aether Vial generating an early mana advantage.
For a while I thought that Humans was better positioned against combo decks because it's a little faster and its disruption is more proactive in those matchups, while Bant Spirits is better in fair matchups because it protects its threats from removal and has Collected Company in longer games. With the format turning linear that would point to Humans being the better of the two, but I'm now of the impression that Bant Spirits is just the better deck.
Bant Spirits still gets to play a lot of good disruptive elements against linear decks with Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller so even if the dichotomy of Humans being better against linear decks and Bant Spirits being better against fair decks holds, on the whole Bant Spirits looks much better off. Thus, the metagame would have to skew heavily towards linear decks to make Humans a better choice on this metric, and too many players would rather play a fair deck even if it's not as well-positioned.
There's also the question of the match between the two decks, where I think Bant Spirits has the edge because of its volume of lords and the power of flying giving them the ability to dictate the pace of the game. If the Bant Spirits player wants to race, there's not much the Humans player can do to stop it because they don't have enough flying blockers to do so. There are going to be games where the Humans player comes out faster and dicatates from a position of strength, but the default is for the Bant Spirits player to be in the driver's seat, which is a significant advantage.
The density of fliers in Bant Spirits also makes it harder for other decks to play defense with creatures. A single Tarmogoyf or Hollow One can hold back a lot of Humans (cough...Meddling Mage…) but not a single Spirit. The value of flying can be lost in a format with plenty of creature-light decks, but it's still one of the best keyword abilities, especially when it's on most of your creatures.
Continuing, the ability to play mostly at instant speed makes Bant Spirits much more difficult to play against. Sorcery speed removal and sweepers are much worse because they can recover immediately, and playing the guessing game against Spell Queller and Collected Company means that over time you'll either hold back in a spot where you could've been aggressive, or get caught playing into them for a massive tempo swing. There's only so much you can do to suss out what's in their hand and play around it, which makes Bant Spirits a lot scarier.
And lastly, Bant Spirits gets to play a real sideboard, with spells. The nature of the Humans manabase means it can only afford to play non-creature spells if they don't require colored mana, like Grafdigger's Cage and Dismember. That cuts out a ton of the best sideboard cards in Modern, like Rest in Peace, as well as powerful spells, like Negate and Path to Exile. Just the option to play these cards is valuable since some of your opponents will play around them.
Humans gets a surprising amount out of its sideboard given the extreme restrictions placed on it, but it's still a significant cost to pay for playing the deck, and one that's no longer tenable now that Bant Spirits is around. "Keep your options open" is one of the oldest mantras in Magic, and we're seeing one of the finest examples of it play out in real time. If you want to play creatures, go for the spooky ones.
Faithless Looting, Ancient Stirrings, and Noble Hierarch are Better than Everything Else
Dylan Hand noted on Monday that these three cards form the top tier of the metagame (he used Aether Vial instead of Noble Hierarch as the representative for disruptive aggro decks, but the message is the same), writing:
Modern's top tier consists of strategies containing these three cards. If you're not playing a deck containing one of these cards, you best be playing a strategy that's at least close to as linear, powerful, and resilient as the decks that utilize them, because "close" is as good as it'll get.
I'll go one step further than Dylan and say you better be registering four of one of these cards. There's no reason to settle for "close enough" unless you care more about playing the deck you enjoy than maximizing your chance of winning the tournament. I'll entertain Storm as a viable alternative, but that's probably a worse version of Ironworks unless you're already familiar with it (aka your name is Caleb Scherer or Paul Muller).
My choice for best Noble Hierarch deck is obvious from the previous section, and as far as Faithless Looting goes, I'm high on Arclight Phoenix, but I'm still not sure on which shell. If you're interested in Izzet Phoenix you can check out my article from last week while Gerry Thompson shared some of his wisdom on Mono-Red and Mardu lists . These decks have been competitive for weeks now and still have room to improve, which makes them more exciting than the established Faithless Looting decks. I also like that they aren't as dependent on their graveyard, making it easier to sidestep the hate that exists to check Dredge.
As for Ancient Stirrings aficionados, you get to register the most criminally underplayed deck in Modern:
Ironworks is complicated and tedious to play, especially if you're trying to practice on Magic Online, but as a combo deck it has the best combination of speed, consistency, and resiliency in the format. Matt Nass dominated every tournament he played with the deck earlier this year, forcing everyone else to adapt, and we did.
Graveyard hate was a real threat to disrupt the combo that was tricky to play around, and Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace specifically stopped Chromatic Star, Terrarion, and half of Ichor Wellspring from drawing cards, limiting the deck's velocity. Stony Silence was a nightmare that had to be answered with Nature's Claim. Surgical Extraction also shot up in play and ended the game if timed well.
Cards like Ghirapur Aether Grid and Wurmcoil Engine could do some damage in the face of sideboard hate, but the deck was generally held in check. However, the addition of Sai, Master Thopterist has sent Ironworks to another level. It can take over the game in a few turns if left unchecked, buy time against aggressive decks, or generate card advantage against midrange and control decks. It's versatile enough to sneak into the maindeck of some lists, and I'm not sure that we've properly adjusted to its presence because so many players are turned off by the deck's complexity.
Honestly, Mox Opal is powerful enough to add a fourth card to the list of required cards, I just don't like the other decks that play it. But no deck plays a better duo of cards than Ironworks does in Ancient Stirrings and Mox Opal. They are the Jordan and Pippen of Modern. The Shaq and Kobe. The Stockton and Malone. The Joe and Ingles.
I know Modern has a lot of decks and each one has its fan base; I'm a vocal part of some of those fan bases, but I don't see a compelling reason to play something other than these decks. Anything else and you're needlessly handicapping yourself.