Modern is officially going on one full Pro Tour Qualifier season in age and I can honestly say the format is amazing. It has reached the point that Wizards appears to have been guiding it towards since the inception of the format for the Community Cup where you can play any style of deck you want. Games are decided by interaction and skill as opposed to things like a 20/20 cast on turn 2 or if you drew your sideboard hate for their legions of 2/2 Zombie tokens that plagued similar formats in the past.
Rather than try to jam a bunch of new semi-tested tech down people's throats without time or events to test it I'm going to recap how the format has shaped up so far in an attempt to show how the stage is set for the seasons to come as well as answer some big fundamental questions about the format that have come up over time. The starting point I've chosen for this is right after the last bannings when the format was still reeling from the "loss" of Zoo.
Stage One: The Hyperlinears
In the dark the early contenders were the decks that best punished unprepared opponents by just killing them as they tried to do something cool.
After the banning of Wild Nacatl Storm seemed like an easy place to start. The primary issue it had before was that the speed of Zoo put it a little behind the mark of where it needed to be. The other factors promoting Storm's early rise were the low cost of the deck (around 30 Magic Online tickets at the start of the format) and the fact a solid list had been displayed by Hall of Famer Bob Maher at Worlds.
The fourth Pyromancer Ascension worked its way into many lists but beyond that not much changed in the maindeck. The biggest change is that Faithless Looting has taken over for Desperate Ravings now that Dark Ascension is legal.
Storm is very good at dismantling random brews and is very resilient to standard discard packages but its main weakness was exposed very rapidly. The deck is an all-in combo deck with absolutely no backup besides just playing through a piece of hate. Without Rite of Flame you no longer had the brutal speed of the Australian Empty the Warrens lists from Philadelphia and due to a multitude of reasons there wasn't a good way to slot in interactive cards. If your opponent showed up with the right disruption and a clock or just a faster deck you were hard pressed to pull out a victory.
Affinity aka Red Robots:
I've written a lot about this one before but the gist of it is Affinity had put up a decent showing a Worlds a Top 4 performance at Philadelphia in the hands of Chikara Nakajima and had survived both bannings completely unscathed. The deck is an interactive turn 4 combo deck with a reasonable plan B with the combo being Cranial Plating plus a creature that can attack. With the need for a turn 3 kill eliminated by the updated banned list Atog-Fling fell out of favor in exchange for other cards that prevented interaction (Etched Champion) and more copies of Cranial Plating (Steelshaper's Gift).
Affinity really shined in a world of people underprepared for it and managed to keep putting up results even as people started loading up on hate. I made Top 8 of a PTQ early in the season despite having to win my last three rounds against Jund opponents who boarded in a minimum of seven artifact removal three of which were Ancient Grudges. As the format has adapted the deck has gone from absurd to just another top tier competitor that ranges in value from week to week.
A big strike against it was the adoption of Spell Snare as a heavily played format staple acting as a mana efficient answer to Cranial Plating that stops it before you even take a hit. Etched Champion also became less unstoppable with Mutavault and Vedalken Shackles taking up more of the metagame. I would not be beyond playing this deck in the future but there are other options that might attack specific metagames better.
Splinter Twin was another deck that lost relatively little from all of the bannings which is shocking as it won Pro Tour Philadelphia. Preordain and Ponder are definite upgrades from Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand but the issues from the loss in consistency were easily solved by just jamming in more combo pieces.
In terms of combo decks Twin both has a ton of play to it and is high variance. You have a lot of open slots for interaction and the options are plentiful. Dispel and Spellskite are fairly standard but the other seven or so spaces vary between Flame Slash Vendilion Clique Grim Lavamancer Remand and many more options. Beyond specific spells your combo pieces themselves are interactive. The Twiddle ability of Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite does far more than just let you make infinite Faeries/Clerics allowing you to Fog Cranial Platings or force your opponent to use their mana for interaction on their end step.
At the same time the lower quality of your cantrips makes finding your exact pieces more of an issue. Often you are left in topdeck positions to win and just have to spin the dice over two or three draws. Sometimes you just have to assume they only have one piece of interaction (or don't have the Combust) and just kill them. It's fine and the deck is extremely powerful but it's not something for everyone to have every other match riding on a coin flip.
The deck performed poorly at Grand Prix Lincoln but it's still a threat and has made strides since then. Mana-efficient blue decks were yet again an issue and Vedalken Shackles was a real threat to the combo but as those decks fade into the background expect Twin to make another stand as the best. The latest tech from the West Coast has been Vines of Vastwood. Not only is it more copies of your best anti-disruption spell but it covers things Dispel can't like the aforementioned Shackles or the nightmare scenario of Combust. Twin was gone for a while but it definitely should not be forgotten.
Stage Two: Fair Fights Back
So given a bunch of linear decks that are just trying to kill you and be done with the match what are you going to do?
Fight back with the best disruption possible and efficient threats allowing you to keep up mana as necessary to ensure their gameplan is blanked.
Pro Tour Top 8 competitor (and not Grand Prix Champion) Tom Ma was one of the early prolific adopters of the dreaaaaaaaaaaamy combination of Bloodbraid Elf and Liliana of the Veil which is casually backed up by a pile of other absurdly powerful cards.
There really isn't a lot to say about Jund. It's honestly just the same Jund deck everyone has grown to love (or not) over the years. Liliana is a huge boost as it does everything you ever want it do but it's just another value card in a deck full of value cards. Jund has the same strengths: you do the same thing every game your cards are all good and if their hand isn't exciting you can just run them over with good stuff. It has the same weaknesses: your cards aren't the fastest and if your opponent is just doing something broken you can die.
Still Jund's break into the format represented a shift from just jamming the most abstractly powerful things at each other to try to interact. Probably the most important part of this specific deck is that it is able to win against almost anything. Worst-case scenario you can just turn some dudes sideways and race. Few of the other fair decks have threats on the level Jund has making it a reasonable safe choice for almost any field.
Not far gone from Standard Caw-Blade decided to show up again when someone called for an efficient interactive deck. As always it looks and feels underpowered at first glance but grinds with the best of them. Shades of the banned Stoneforge Mystic appeared in the form of Steelshaper's Gift once people realized they would be fine paying one mana extra even for equipment that isn't Cranial Plating.
Comparing this list to the old post-ban Standard ones would be unrealistic. Instead it's much closer to the current Legacy Stoneblade lists. You have a pile of cheap answers Snapcaster Mage to two-for-one and some other cheap threats to let you generate some kind of clock while leaving your reactive options open.
The deck was very good at being fair and punishing people for trying to force through specific spells and for grinding out blue mirrors with Squadron Hawk after Squadron Hawk but you have no real trumps. This deck is your traditional old school slow and steady wins the race style control deck. Eventually you have things that do things and they don't and you win. Of course the same problems facing the Legacy list appear here. If your opponent has some big effect that attacks from an angle you aren't ready for it's easy to be left with a bunch of cards that don't matter while they grind you out.
I ran into Tommy Ashton playing this deck early on when I was locked in to Affinity and despite the matchup not seeming like it should be difficult I was legitimately scared. A few weeks and a few tweaks later he was digitally holding a blue envelope.
People always associate Faeries with Bitterblossom but you could win a lot of games the normal way. Zvi was winning with Mistbind Cliques before they had Faerie Rogue tokens to exile and people can still win with them now.
This deck is almost identical to Caw-Blade but with a bit less two-for-one resiliency and a bit more ability to just trump their plays due to the 4/4 Mana Shorts. I would advise them for similar purposes with Caw-Blade being a better deck against aggressive decks and Mistbind Clique shining when your opponent tries to just midrange you.
Of course what would a discussion of "fair" decks be without the least fair blue creature in the format? More familiar RUG lists and some U/B lists swirled around the format early on but eventually fizzled out. The real piece that made things click was recognizing that Delver of Secrets promotes an aggressive style deck and wants more one-drop friends to hang out with. With Steppe Lynx still remaining in the format as the best one-drop creature clock in cases of nut draws the combination of those two and burn spells proved mightily efficient at dispatching opponents.
Another parallel between the two formats this list is functionally very similar to the Legacy Delver decks. You have the ability to sometimes just make your opponent not play the game. At the same time you absolutely need a threat active for multiple turns to bridge the gap from their twenty life to your six or so points of reach. If they just gum things up and have a couple cheap removal spells you'll find yourself hard pressed to win.
Stage Three: The Hybrids
If your opponents are focusing on these grindy decks with a bunch of specific answers and little in the way of dominating effects how do you get ahead? Grind with them toe-to-toe but have some way to go over the top. To put a time on this shift it occurred around Grand Prix Lincoln.
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Entomber Exarch
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Harmonic Sliver
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Reveillark
- 3 Viscera Seer
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 3 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
- 1 Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
- 1 Dryad Arbor
Another holdover through all the bannings Melira was a place people started in the format only to find it still was a bit behind the more broken decks. That said it still had game against them and as things like Splinter Twin fell out of favor and the toolbox got more and more refined the deck became better and better.
Against controlling decks they are hard pressed to touch you. You have a bunch of resilient threats and multiple trump angles. None of the other fair decks can actually beat infinite life plus the rest of your library coming up and Birthing Pod by itself is enough to grind through something like Caw-Blade.
As far as weaknesses this deck is still a midrange deck at heart. You are the best kind of midrange deck with Tutoring and a combo but you're weak to combo and similar shenanigans. If you know what to expect you can fill in the blanks of the deck with targeted hate to Tutor up but the format is broad enough that this isn't necessarily realistic.
Another more or less direct port from Legacy this deck has been stomping on people since Bronson decided he wanted to win Grand Prix Lincoln with it. The Life from the Loam engine is a great angle against control decks trying to grind you out while against more aggressive decks you have a very Jund-esque base to build off of. Seismic Assault just kills people scarily fast with Loam and Raven's Crime is often just a soft lock against combo.
Similar to Melira you still have some mid-range issues. You are less concerned with things like removal or reanimated Elesh Norns but at the same time are a bit slower out of the gates which matters if your opponent is heavily stack based. I've started playing Burn for fun in Modern and am definitely much less scared of Loam than Melira if only because I know I'll have five turns against Loam to throw things at them. Melira can easily combo out on turn 4 or even 3 if necessary but Aggro Loam doesn't have the same early game.
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- 1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
- 1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
Tron is a deck that just existed at the start of the season but wasn't really a serious contender until later on. A couple of big breakthroughs for the deck happened at around the same time and as of now I would probably call it the best deck.
The first was the shift towards "normal" blue decks. Tron has always been an archetype that dominates control and midrange decks by making a million mana and doing weird unstoppable things with it and its rise to power coincided with those decks becoming the bulk of the metagame.
The second is the splicing of traditional Tron shells with a secondary combo engine either in the form of Gifts Ungiven / Unburial Rites or Through the Breach. Both of these are extremely powerful game ending effects that give Tron a plan B should it not assemble the necessary lands but most importantly they use things most Tron decks were already playing as half of the combo. You could expect to see Gifts Ungiven in most Tron lists as a way to find threats or the lands and you could expect to see some Eldrazi as finishers alongside an Eye of Ugin. The amount of slots committed to either of these gameplans is fairly negligible and they add a speed element to compliment the inevitability the deck naturally has.
So what beats Tron? Well if you just attack it hard and fast it can easily stumble out of the gates. The term speed in these combos is all relative with both being active turn 4 in ideal cases. If you just want to bash them it will probably work.
Stage Four: Where To Go From Here?
While it looks like the stage should be set for a rock-paper-scissors format it isn't quite that clean cut. These decks are the ten big ones you should be ready for at every event but that doesn't mean you have to play one of them. All sorts of fringe decks have shown their worth from alternate linear decks like Burn to traditional aggressive Zoo decks to things that shouldn't exist but somehow still do like Dredge. Even as I write this I've been hearing buzz about a red-green Tron deck filled with excess copies of Karn Liberated and Mindslaver.
Personally I'm excited to try and find new homes for the powerful combo packages I talked about in Tron. I've been playing an Esper Gifts deck for a long time but I've recently seen a Bant list splashing Lingering Souls starting to pop up. Gifts Ungiven on its own is a very powerful card meaning you really only have to dedicate three slots to the combo. What other shells could utilize something like this? Through the Breach has been seen alongside everything from Fist of Suns to Windbrisk Heights. Is there a deck that can reliably make a 15/15?
There are also a ton of other less powerful linear strategies to explore. Dredge seems very good even despite being "banned out of existence." Narcomoeba is still legal as are Stinkweed Imp and Bridge from Below. The means exist and a shell has been putting up minor results online. What other ways are there to improve it? Protean Hulk is still a card; is Faithless Looting enough to enable Footsteps of the Goryo as a way to make that happen? Can a cascade combo deck exist? Even Land Destruction has put up finishes. There are a ton of slightly less broken strategies to dodge the hate; it's just a matter of timing them right.
As for the format as a whole there are a few questions that keep coming up:
Question 1: Is this just Legacy Lite?
No the format has a fundamentally different feel. There are no decks like Belcher Reanimator or Dredge. The combo decks are still on par in terms of clock with the fastest aggro decks. There's no pressure to Force of Will people and the ability to Force of Will people doesn't even exist. As a result of this people are more reasonably able to just play aggressive decks when they want to and come up with big game decks that cast spells that actually cost four and aren't Jace the Mind Sculptor. If anything Legacy is currently drifting more towards what Wizards wants Modern to be right now albeit with the caveat that if things start getting too fair someone can just show up with Lion's Eye Diamonds and teach people a lesson.
TL;DR: You can do a bunch of wild and crazy things in Modern with less fear of just getting killed.
Question 2: This format started off very heavy on linear decks but stabilized. Given this trend was the post-Philadelphia swath of bannings necessary?
See above. The Philly era combo decks were too fast to allow any fair deck to compete with them. You couldn't just race them with Zoo or something similar; you had to pack hard hate. This also meant the more midrange decks had to be devoting a giant portion of their decks towards answering the issue as opposed to doing more interesting things. As a result the format would be more like the post-Berlin Extended format with a few extremely powerful decks edging the rest of the metagame out. There might still even be 7-8 top tier decks without the bans but it's a lot easier to beat Jund than it is to not die on turn 2 to fourteen Goblins or a 10/1 infect creature. As a result we have a format where there can be week-to-week surprises and people are consistently rewarded for innovative deck building.
Question 3: PTQ attendance for Modern was notably low at some points. Is this just going to become another Extended where there isn't any real off-season action and it only exists when people are forced to play it?
I referenced this issue on Twitter last week but the gist is I doubt it.
The first issue is that this is the first season and people are still building their way into the format. It isn't like Extended where when you buy cards for one season and have no idea how good they'll be next year. This is an Eternal format where cumulative investments matter. People are still a bit gun shy after how fast the mid-sized format has changed lately. Give it a year or two and Modern will boom. We are also at a point before any serious reprints have been made aimed at making the format more accessible. Various Wizards heads have said time and time again part of the reason for Modern existing is this ability to reprint cards to draw in new players. Once this happens things will loosen up.
The other issue is that the professional tournament organizer to store-run PTQ shift compounded any attendance concerns. Even disregarding any case-based issues news of events just travels slower when the sources aren't centralized. This means people have less time to try and assemble a deck once they find out about the event assuming they even do at all. I'm not sure if the store-based system is right or not but this is definitely a kink that needs to be worked out.
I'm excited to see where Modern is heading and I'm looking forward to the distant future of the second Modern Pro Tour in Seattle as well as the Grand Prix along the way. If you haven't tried the format out I would suggest you do so. There has been a long struggle to find a fun format where a newer spectrum of older cards is usable and but I think it's finally here.