Despite a lot of recent upheavals where a deck dominates a weekend or two, Modern remains a fairly open format. Even if each weekend one deck is clearly the winner, over several weeks a bunch of different decks successfully make their way to the top of the standings.
This is because every Modern deck has key flaws. No deck is the best deck because everything is exploitable.
The best decks of the format make it difficult to identify and exploit their flaws, but it isn't impossible. Here's the secrets on what really makes those decks fold under pressure.
Weakness #1: Graveyard Hate
Wait, I'm here to provide useful insight. Let's try again.
Weakness #2: No Creatures, No Life Totals
Modern Dredge lacks quite the explosive aspects of its Eternal format predecessors. It leans on a few specific tools for its power. The recursive power of Bloodghast and Prized Amalgam buries opponents trying to care about its creatures, Conflagrate with Life from the Loam makes it impossible for opponents who care about their creatures, and recently Creeping Chill has made things extra difficult for opponents who care about life totals.
So the key is just to not worry about any of those. Just don't play "normal Magic" and it all works out. This is why there have been spikes in Amulet Titan, Ironworks, and Prison over the last few weeks.
Sadly, once you sleeve up your deck there isn't a ton you can do to impact this. This is just a good indicator as to how much graveyard hate you need.
Weakness #1: Drawing First
There's probably an entire extra article about this, but I think one thing people are really bad at in Modern is adjusting their expectations whether they're on the play or on the draw.
Of all the decks in Modern, Tron is probably the worst at adjusting to being on the draw. Its early plays are scripted and hard locked based on the Magic basic rule of one land a turn. It also leans hard on Karn Liberated, who is often game-ending on the play and often seven-mana Vraska's Contempt on the draw. It's not like the deck has a lot of wiggle room try for a better threat if it has Tron assembly in its opener, and cutting too many threats in sideboarding can get problematic.
When playing against Tron, you should be the one making these adjustments. On the play, you can keep slightly looser hands that properly pressure your opponent as long as they fade a turn 4 Oblivion Stone or similar effect. On the draw, you should be aggressively looking for better or more disruptive draws and taking out more time-intensive cards like Liliana of the Veil.
You also must be proactive to punish this. Once Tron assembles Tron, it can turn to its Ancient Stirrings and Sylvan Scrying to finding the right tool to hammer a game home.
Weakness #2: Threat Specificity
Tron is extremely consistent at producing a threat, but as mentioned above it's not the best at choosing what that threat is if you don't give it time.
As a Tron player, you shouldn't be afraid to sideboard out threats that are bad in a matchup. Beyond that, my best advice is to get lucky.
Playing against Tron, this often means avoiding gameplans that lose to Karn Liberated. Going wide has been oddly successful against Tron despite their many sweepers because it forces them to have one of their six or so sweepers and their other threats. Going wide in a way that recurs through Oblivion Stone is even more problematic.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 2 Militia Bugler
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Weakness #1: Breadth of Issues
Humans is really good at combating opposing strategies. It has a ton of interactive pieces for a deck that is 37 creatures and 23 mana sources. If you try to do a thing, Humans can probably stop it. Even the million removal spell deck folds if they start copying Sin Collectors.
The trick is making them juggle multiple things. Almost all their interactive effects depend on the creature remaining on the battlefield. If their Meddling Mage naming Terminus gets hit by Path to Exile, that's an opening. Even if they deploy interaction for each threat you're presenting, their interactive creatures aren't a good clock. There's also the classic aggro bind, where if you try to get far enough ahead to race their Baneslayer Angel, they might just cast Supreme Verdict, and if you have Reflector Mage for it, they might just not draw a creature.
A good example is Hollow One dealing with Humans via Grim Lavamancer and Engineered Explosives. The issue isn't those cards, but that Humans must properly align its threats with those while handling the larger Hollow One threats.
On the Humans side, the best response to your opponent turning their deck into a mishmash of threats you must handle is just jamming. At most, identify their best card or two, gear your interaction for that, and lean hard on the raw power of Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant for the rest.
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 3 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Supreme Phantom
Weakness #1: The Mana Accelerant
It's only natural to compare Bant Spirits to Humans, so I'm not going to fight it. While Humans is also a deck that is drastically better with a one-drop, Bant Spirits has an even bigger power delta in the slot.
When you play Humans, it's often matchup-dependent whether Noble Hierarch, Aether Vial, or Champion of the Parish is the best card to lead on. Regardless, if you start with one of those three, it's going to be a good time.
With Spirits, that isn't always the case. The deck is extremely three-drop centric. If you Mausoleum Wanderer on turn 1, your second turn is often weak beyond a Supreme Phantasm. If you Aether Vial on turn 1, the same thing applies and it doesn't cast Collected Company. You really need that Noble Hierarch on turn 1 for your raw power starts. Without it, the deck is really leaning on flying, Spell Queller, or Collected Company being well-positioned for the matchup.
On the opposing side, that means you really want to Lightning Bolt their Noble Hierarch as it typically buys you a full bonus turn. That's the reverse of Humans, where picking off their real threats is more important. On the Spirits side, it has me wondering why people moved away from small numbers of Birds of Paradise. I get that investing a card without the return of exalted sucks, but so does having clunkfest hands.
Weakness #2: Knowing the Matchup
Bant Spirits has gained a lot of equity because it's hard to play against. Flash threats always make people's brains melt, and powerful sideboard enchantments do the same to them between games. People should be learning the deck's repertoire by now, and they should learning good default decisions. Humans has stuck around through people changing up to not die to Meddling Mage, but Spirits doesn't have the same raw power.
Against Spirits, just know what their and your cards do. Selfless Spirit makes Terminus important and big combats weird. Few players play Rattlechains anymore. Four untapped mana presents a few ways to add lots of power to the battlefield. They will have something like Worship, but few other non-creatures, so having a way to flexibly answer an enchantment would be nice. Don't overload on narrow cards like Destructive Revelry or Dispel because they're still almost all creatures.
As the Spirits player, I would be scouring the format for even more alternative routes to free wins from the sideboard or changing up your mediocre cards. Is Chameleon Colossus good again? You're a Collected Company deck, what's stopping you from playing Scavenging Ooze or a similar card? These aren't necessarily good ideas, but the "optimized" version of this deck isn't going to cut it for long.
The single most unique and powerful card in Azorius Control is Terminus. Any turn with a one-mana sweeper and another spell is back breaking, and the bottom of library clause handles most of the traditional creature-based answers to control decks. It can even manage flash threats with a good Jace, the Mind Sculptor setup.
On the other side of the table, your goal against Azorius Control should be producing threats that mitigate Terminus. That can be non-creature threats like Planeswalkers or enchantments, or specific creatures that make resolving a Terminus problematic. You should also be sequencing your control-resilient threats in a way to make Terminus less good. Don't just run a bunch of Lingering Souls tokens into one sweeper, and maybe keep a Bloodghast or two in graveyard reserve if you have other attackers.
From the Azorius side, you're often fine with them handling Terminus as the rest of your deck still plays. The problem comes on a metagame level as more and more decks start pressuring you from angles that Terminus is weak against. Azorius Control is rarely horrible against the metagame at large but is often made a bad choice because you're facing a world of 45% matchups. Herd immunity is a wonderful thing.
Weakness #1: Jund Sucks, Don't Let Them Line Up
Jund used to be among the most powerful decks in Modern. That was six years ago. Now basically none of the cards in Jund are among the most powerful things you can do in Modern.
The only way Jund really consistently beats you is if all their cards line up well. If you're having issues with Jund, think about a way to blank one section of their deck. Removal is obvious, discard is hard, but I think the underrated one is their creatures. If Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze aren't cards you care about, life gets pretty easy.
As a Jund player, make better life choices. Also, don't hold any of your cards as sacred and be willing to take them out of your deck if they don't line up great. The classic example is cutting Tarmogoyf against Infect so every card in your deck is interaction or something that finds more interaction, or Lightning Bolt against a ton of bigger creature decks. Your sideboard really needs to be full of cards that let you be flexible, and while it isn't Jund, the Golgari Midrange deck that finished second in the Modern StarCityGames.com® Las Vegas Classic is basically the same concept executed really well.
It's weird to say attrition is good against a deck that's almost totally non-interactive, but if you can trade cards with Burn, it usually ends poorly for them. They are pure Philosophy of Fire, exchanging cardboard for damage. They have few ways to make one card do incremental damage, an effect often called "a creature." Outside of doing something totally broken and winning way faster than Burn can imagine winning, the best plan against Burn has two steps.
Force as many exchanges of their cards for yours.
Once they're topdecking, kill them quickly before they draw enough spells to kill you.
Plan your early turns to kill their creatures as soon as possible. Immediately take every trade of spells offered. If you run them out of cards with a buffer of life and something attacking, you're a massive favorite to win the game.
As Burn, your goal is to understand how your opponent plans on exchanging cards and not let them do that. Read an Emma Handy article or two . If it's discard, run your cards out as efficiently as possible. If they leave up an obvious removal spell, maybe see if your creature can be cast later. If they have counters, do the traditional wait and overload their mana plan. If they have a specific lifegain effect, wait on Skullcrack and force them to end up on the wrong side of the trade.
Just a reminder these cards exist. Burn's most powerful answer to hate cards is Skullcrack, and anything that falls outside that card's boundaries really strains Burn's resources to answer. They don't have card selection to find an answer, and if they draw more answers than you draw hate cards, it's almost as disastrous as when they don't have the answer. Being down a burn spell sucks.
As a Burn player, the best plan is to hope your opponent doesn't have these cards. You can re-add the green splash for Destructive Revelry, but honestly if a bunch of people start showing up with hate like this, your best plan is to give up the Lava Spikes for a bit. I get that a lot of Burn players do stuff like register TurnOneLavaSpike dot com to post tournament reports, but I have a lot of faith that people are capable of change and good decisions in the long run.
- 4 Hollow One
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Flameblade Adept
- 4 Flamewake Phoenix
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 4 Street Wraith
- 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Weakness #1: Lack of Interaction, Going Bigger
But you can't always play a combo deck. What about playing against Hollow One with anything else?
Hollow One is a linear deck that does something that isn't quite massive and game ending, just quick. It's fairly easy for its payoff to get crunched under something bigger. The most direct example of this is a 6/6 Champion of the Parish being game-ending, but there's a lot of other ways to get to this gamestate. Even if you just do something simple like Path to Exile their first 5/5 and double block their Hollow One, a three-toughness flier blanks the rest of their deck. Don't try to beat Hollow One with only removal; beat them with permanents they can't stop and maybe removal if you need it.
From the Hollow One side, get good at weird math. Weird complicated combats, sequencing optimally for just a little more speed, holding that extra land to maybe keep an extra threat after a Goblin Lore. For the RNG-theme deck, Hollow One is shockingly precision intensive if you want to play it perfectly.
Weakness #1: Kill Them
In a long game, Ironworks is very capable of winning through anything. It takes a dedicated deck to really lock them out. They are also pretty good at interacting and stopping people trying to race them.
It's worth a mention that Ironworks is basically the only combo deck that's good at interacting. It's much heavier on card flow than most two-card combo decks, so it doesn't suffer from TitanShift issues where you sometimes draw a Lightning Bolt and it isn't enough, or sometimes draw two and it's way too many. Ironworks takes a much smaller density of cards to kill than most engine combo decks, so it doesn't have the Storm issue where drawing two Lightning Bolts means it takes you multiple extra turns to find the Desperate Rituals you need to actually go off.
Your best plan against Ironworks is kill them but make them jump through a hoop to kill you. It takes them considerable time to rebuild if you land a Spell Pierce at the right time, or for them to find an answer to Leyline of the Void and go off. Though with Sai, Master Thopterist that last one might not be the safest any more.
As an Ironworks player, you're actually pretty well set up to change your deck in the face of specific issues. Sai, Master Thopterist was a hint that a big powerful alternate effect can drastically change the dynamic of a ton of matchups.
< h2>Hardened Scales
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Arcbound Worker
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Walking Ballista
Weakness #1: It's Not That Good
Here is where we roll off the good deck bandwagon a bit, and where most of the rest of the format lies. Hardened Scales is a fine deck that's reasonably consistent, but it isn't a great deck. It's like Hollow One in that it's light on interaction, but it's less explosive and resilient.
The are many other Modern decks below this line that aren't offensively bad, but instead of asking how to beat them before you play something else, you should be asking what they beat before you play them. Amulet Titan was that deck for a week because it beat Dredge and was solid against random midrange and other combo decks.
It's also very possible a deck in the format exists that's inherently powerful and has few weaknesses, but the format as it exists now really exploits them already. Death's Shadow is a reminder of what long-term success and subtle weaknesses can lead to in Modern, where a deck that dominated the format for months suddenly hit a turning point where people adjusted to Fatal Push and it faded away with a bunch of bad results for great players.
Regardless, Modern is a format that really rewards you for making informed decisions for reasons on all axes. It's reputation for being swingy and based on lucky matchups really hides a lot of decisions in mulligans, deckbuilding, and sideboarding that add up over an event. If you want to do well at a Modern tournament, you can spend a bunch of time mastering a deck, but you can also spend time mastering the format to make the best decisions with and against everything.