At the #SCGINVI, I played Golgari Midrange in Modern to a true even finish. This was largely just conceding the point of figuring out what was good. I hated everything, wanted to play Thoughtseize, and determined you can't play Death's Shadow and expect to survive an Arclight Phoenix. I wouldn't advise playing the deck, but that said, I'm not sure what I would advise at this point in time.
Why did I hate everything I tried? Over the last few weeks, I've had a recurring experience in Modern: I pick up one of the new cool decks and play it. I get demolished by a powerful deck from 2014 like Tron or Burn. I play that throwback deck, and it's terrible for some other reason. Repeat in a loop.
Originally this article was titled "Every Deck in Modern is Bad." Then halfway through explaining why, I figured it all out.
This isn't just a rock-paper-scissors effect. Every deck in Modern just became fundamentally less directly powerful over the last few months, and this requires a real redefinition of the format's rules of engagement.
Linear Decks Condensed
There are a ton of really powerful decks in Modern that have caused many complaints for years. None of them are good right now. Storm, Burn, and Tron are the ones that come to mind. It isn't like when Fatal Push was printed and a new piece of disruption broke the format. People just stopped winning with the raw high-power decks. What happened?
The key to this can be found by looking at the field through the lens of Tron.
- Small creatures
The story starts with Creeping Chill. Dredge was previously bad against Tron, but the extra direct damage flipped things around. This represented yet another chip shot across the board to Tron's percentages following a long train from Hollow One, Field of Ruin midrange, and more. The deck just stopped being a great choice.
The classic problem of Modern has always been finding room for all the hate cards. You could free up space by being a linear deck yourself and just killing people, but scaling back at all from the faster decks makes this a huge issue.
If Tron isn't good, that's a huge weight off your shoulders. The Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks aren't threatening on the same scale as Karn Liberated, and Amulet Titan is its own mess that's hard to care about. You need minimal or even no dedicated land hate.
What about spells? Well, the Modern banned list has that on lock. The spell flurry combo decks must go through some intermediate. Graveyard hate and a sweeper for Goblin tokens handles Storm. Ironworks is barely considered a spell deck. Ad Nauseam is largely not good enough anymore. Burn is interesting along this axis but struggles against Creeping Chill.
Regardless, you don't need a Rule of Law or a ton of Negates to cover this sector. Graveyard and creature hate tends to cover the worst of it, with as many counters as you would want against control covering the rest.
As a result, it's just really easy to cover all the angles. Whatever linear deck you select, you're battling through hate or are a step slower than the most linear decks.
It's like a monkey's paw wish. You wanted Tron gone and now it's bad. Suddenly the Modern immune system of hate cards has had a wild reaction and this caused a giant collapse of how the format works.
Ironworks and Dredge
I may have overstated things to say every deck is less powerful, because two decks certainly smash some foes. Dredge and Ironworks are both good decks and they keep winning a lot. The finals of the #SCGINVI and both $10,000 Cube Draft Modern Qualifiers were face offs between these two decks.
Dredge might be the closest I can come to a direct deck endorsement in Modern. Considering I spent a literal decade not doing it, this is high praise. There isn't a lot more to it than the reliable graveyard deck as advertised, beyond the occasional mess of a hand. If you're playing creatures, you will get buried by Conflagrate or Darkblast. If you're playing midrange, you need to land a hate card and hope they didn't draw the answer to it. If you're playing combo, it's a race and a hope Dredge's sideboard cards didn't matter.
Ironworks is worth more of a discussion. It's very powerful and very resilient but has some well documented flaws. A good clock with a splash of disruption is obviously good, but if the other really good linear decks are just so much worse against a generalized hate card you can't justify playing many of the decks that provide this.
The broader issue is that your deck is vulnerable to a lot of styles of hate that a lot of different decks can field. While Ironworks has several ways to fight through these cards, the issue comes when the hate cards are backed by another layer of anything. You can find your one Sai, Master Thopterist or one Nature's Claim, but if they stop that with discard or counters, your cantrip artifacts will still be shut off by Leyline of the Void and you aren't a favorite to get anywhere else.
When the format was Dredge and Ironworks as the top targets, things were pretty simple and it felt like people were starting to push back a little harder than I was comfortable with. This weekend at the #SCGINVI, we saw a bit of a reversal related to other decks, and as a result some of the Ironworks decks were able to break through and crush the end game of the event. The overall point is that Ironworks is beatable if everyone tries, but external factors removed some of the pressure from the deck this weekend, resulting in a great result.
Ironworks is still a very threatening deck, but it's going to vary a ton week to week whether it's a good choice. Its fortunes are oddly tied to Dredge's; if there's a ton of hate aimed directly at Dredge, then Ironworks is going to have a rough time with several decks. If the Dredge hate starts branching out to try and cover other angles, Ironworks can sneak back in as a secondary effect and mess people up.
Is Resiliency Even Good?
What flipped the script on graveyard hate last weekend? Crackling Drake, just like Ross Merriam has been saying was the graveyard hate breaker for weeks.
Crackling Drake invalidates any broad scope exile effects. You can try to Surgical Extraction down Arclight Phoenix, but that's about it. If you spend a card on Rest in Peace, your Izzet Drakes opponent is happy to play Arclight Phoenix as a four-drop with you down a card against their mediocre flying beatdown, then play their twelve power four-drop and draw a card.
But despite praising its resilience to hate, Izzet Drakes is the epitome of the deck that loses to the 2014 linear deck that I described earlier. Izzet Drakes as it exists now is going to get punked out by Tron or Burn a lot of the time. It just isn't killing on the same time scale as the true linear decks barring your absolute best double Arclight Phoenix draws.
That means the deck is leaning hard on its few interactive cards to hamper other decks that might outrace it. If that's Infect, you're probably fine, but Ironworks or Tron is just going to laugh at what Izzet Phoenix is presenting. Both Ironworks decks in the #SCGINVI Top 8 advanced a round by crushing an Arclight Phoenix deck in convincing fashion.
The onus is really on the Izzet sideboard to have the exact right answers for everything in an efficient way, and here's where things start to remind you of old Modern. The Drakes decks are Izzet, a color pair notorious for not having knockout answers in post-Twin Modern. Mana efficiency is also fundamentally baked into their requirements to keep Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix functional, so with the limited options and broad scope of things it needs to fight, the Izzet Drakes deck starts seeing sideboard holes.
Wait, some good threats, but needs to find the right answers? Dang it, we got tricked into playing a midrange deck, didn't we?
That's also the problem with Hardened Scales. It's just a midrange deck when you compare it to the real proactive threats of the format. And it doesn't interact beyond Walking Ballista and the sideboard - it just hopes they interact and that they don't have a dedicated hate card.
If Izzet Phoenix and Hardened Scales are the midrange decks, what are the old midrange decks? Just Golgarbage? I think we have seen some hints of what is coming when peeking through a couple decklists.
Jadine Klomparens identified Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet as an awesome card last week, but I don't think she followed that to the last step. Let's go back to something I said last week about Counters Company:
"Resiliency is just free these days. Hardened Scales is resilient to removal with Hangarback Walker and modular. Ironworks is resilient via Scrap Trawler and Buried Ruin, which is basically free once you activate Krark-Clan Ironworks. Why would I spend mana for these effects when the rest of the format doesn't have to."
The classic midrange game isn't about having the right answers for the threats presented by linear decks because those don't exist in the same way. These new "midrange linear" decks like Izzet Phoenix and Hardened Scales are playing threats that don't get answered in huge densities, or, in Izzet's case, with so much cantrip velocity there may as well be multitudes of them.
You aren't going to Fatal Push your way out of that.
Your spot removal needs to be a tool to keep things manageable, not a full attrition gameplan like it use to be. The decks we're used to calling midrange or control need to bridge into the realm of Prison decks, with a hard hate card somewhere covering for their weaknesses to grindy linear decks.
With such a focus on graveyards, that hate card is currently Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet for black decks, Anger of the Gods for red decks, or maindeck Rest in Peace for Azorius. If the format trends back more towards creatures, maybe that's Grim Lavamancer or Liliana, the Last Hope or even just maindeck Ensnaring Bridge. Look at all those lock pieces in the Golgari deck.
The Resulting Mess
The redefined rules of Modern as the dust settles in the Guilds of Ravnica era are:
- The Midrange Pitfall
If your deck isn't goldfishing your opponent on turn 4 the majority of the time, it's a midrange deck and not a classic linear deck. Maybe it has some linear aspects and it doesn't have to be a classic attrition midrange deck, but it's going to play some midrange role.
- Resiliency is Free
Tons of amazing threats shake off removal without using mana. Don't pay for threat recursion.
- Speed x Resilience = Greatness
If your deck is a legitimate fast linear deck, consistency and hate cards are the two hurdles. If your deck touches the graveyard or artifacts, you're going to run into hate cards every match and need a plan to beat them. Your fail rate also needs to be very low because all the slower decks will punish you for fumbling a turn or two. Ironworks and Dredge are the baseline - you need to do as well as they do or get real special to shine. It's not the time for Goryo's Vengeance.
- Slower Linears Need Good Interaction
Any linear deck that's actually a midrange deck needs a reliable plan to stifle the faster linear decks. Lacking interaction is not an option. Humans and Bant Spirits are excellent examples of this and even Hardened Scales is fine because it's so good at accessing sideboard cards via Ancient Stirrings.
- Attrition Isn't One-for-One
If you're building a deck based on running your opponent out of threats, think Prison and not Jund. Because resiliency is free, there's too many ways to end up behind on a clean trade. You want cards that blank their threats in bulk.
This isn't the Modern we have known since Fatal Push. A lot of small changes have built up to this, but finally a new baseline of the format has snapped into place. I got left in the dust the last couple of weekends trying to play 2017 Modern. Don't make the same mistakes tomorrow.