Grand Prix San Diego is this weekend, and I don’t know if you’ve checked out Modern recently, but it is pretty crazy. I would not be surprised if there are more than 30 viable strategies in Modern, even if some of them are a little sturdier than others. And this is not just 30 aggro decks or something. The format has a healthy dose of control and combo right beside the midrange and aggressive decks. In other words, the format is pretty big and that can be daunting for a brewer.
Typically, when I go to brew for a format, my favorite approach is to attack the metagame in areas that I see multiple decks share the same weakness. But when you are talking about a format with so many viable decks, how can you possibly find a deck that attacks each of them? If 10 of the decks just get around your counter strategy, you don’t have much of one in the first place.
But, while that may be my preferred method of brewing, it is not the only one. Each format and each metagame are different, so bending your method of deckbuilding to best suit the environment is crucial. But just how in the heck do you go about brewing for a format in which everything is playable?
I feel like I need a group of Magic Cheerleaders behind me as I say this, or possibly an infomercial about skin care rolling in the background. We already touched on this, but with dozens of viable decks, it is very difficult to construct a deck that can reliably shut all of them down while still able to win itself. Modern is so powerful that to shore up a bad matchup requires too much sideboard space and very targeted hate cards, making it nearly impossible to accomplish.
Now, this does not mean that all reactive cards are bad, but rather an entirely reactive deck probably is. Feel free to include [card]Mana Leak[/card] in your tempo Bant list or [card]Surgical Extraction[/card] in the sideboard of your Twin list. Those are reactive cards, sure, but they serve a specific purpose in a proactive deck.
It can be a little confusing at times to narrow down what is proactive and what isn’t in a format as large as Modern. Every deck is doing powerful things, so how do you know if you are the one forcing the issue? In general, I would ask myself this: does my opponent need to stop my game plan in order to execute his own? Sometimes, this can be messed up by one deck just being faster than another (maybe Eggs outraces Zoo and needs not account for anything Zoo does, but that does not make Zoo a reactive deck), but for the most part, it holds up.
If your win conditions are 3 [card]Vendilion Clique[/card]s, 4 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s, and a few [card]Jace Beleren[/card], I think it is safe to say that your opponent can fail to account for those cards against his combo deck and be just fine. Those cards might do the physical damage, but the harm is done by the counterspells and disruption, allowing whatever win condition remains (e.g. a ham sandwich) to clean up. Those decks are not proactive, even if they have a proactive card or two in them.
Commonly, control decks are reactive, whereas aggressive decks and combo decks are thought of as proactive, but there are many exceptions to both sides. Midrange is a bit of a murky area and can be built anywhere along the proactive to reactive scale—but for large, unsolved formats, I would again favor the proactive side.
An example of such a midrange deck would be quite similar to the control scenario we considered earlier, but much more dense in its threats. Whereas 4 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s and 3 [card]Vendilion Clique[/card]s are not very threatening, a big part of that is that with so few threats, you are unlikely to have more than 1 or 2 down at a time. In a proactive midrange deck, your threats are similar, but you have a much higher density of them. Staring down a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], a [card]Dark Confidant[/card], and a pair of [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]s is scary, and you definitely feel the need to end the game quickly.
Pick Your Risks
One thing that I like to do when I feel I have a good handle on a format is take relatively high risks backed by my predictions. Do I feel aggro is going to be heavily played? Let’s go ahead and front load the deck against aggro. I did exactly this for Pro Tour Gatecrash. I put the field on a list of specific decks and ended up being right, but had I been wrong, my deck would have had serious problems. I felt comfortable with the format and with what I expected others to be playing, so I took a risk.
However, as the field widens, as it usually does for Modern and even moreso for this tournament, making predictions about the metagame becomes too difficult. Sure, you can still take risks, but your confidence level is much lower. This means you need to pick your spot for risk-taking.
At the Pro Tour, the risk I took was huge. If my prediction had been off, I would have lost far too many game 1s to have a chance at winning the tournament. But what if the risk I took was smaller? Well, in fact, I did take a smaller risk. Right before the tournament, I opted to include a single [card]Rakdos Charm[/card] in my sideboard to combat reanimator decks. I figured between it and the [card]Slaughter Games[/card] in my board, I could beat them.
But I also knew that [card]Rakdos Charm[/card] had very little use elsewhere. I could have gone with no graveyard hate, taking a risk that way, but instead used a little bit of my sideboard space for a niche answer. I brought in that Charm exactly once against a control deck, and it was not very exciting. I took a risk and it didn’t pay off, but because it was a small enough risk, I did not pay for it severely. If I had been wrong about how many aggro decks were in the format, I would have gone home on Day One, but being wrong about the amount of reanimator when the cost was to include 1 additional sideboard card for the matchup was only mildly annoying.
For a brew in Modern, there are a lot of chances to capitalize on the small-risk options and avoid the larger-risk ones. There are a multitude of extremely potent but niche sideboard options available in Modern. Including [card]Stony Silence[/card] or [card]Rule of Law[/card] in your sideboard might prove to be completely dead throughout the tournament, or a single copy could be drawn in the right matchup and singlehandedly swing a match. Those types of risks are more than acceptable in moderation, and I would even argue are encouraged, to give you potential edges without being an all-or-nothing proposition.
In the end, you are relatively safe by being entirely proactive with little concern for what your opponent is doing, or by having broad enough answers as to not be caught with too many dead cards throughout a game.
Borrow and Brainstorm
Many brewers look to attack a format from the ground up. They have their creation and they own it, win or lose. Sometimes, that mentality can be healthy, and taking pride in your work is always good—but at other times, you need to throttle back and shift mentalities altogether. Let’s go back to what we talked about earlier—Modern has a wide array of viable strategies.
What are the chances that each of those strategies has generated a perfect list?
What are the chances that each of those strategies is equal in power level?
What are the chances that there are other strategies not yet explored in the format?
Naturally, as the number of known decks increases in a field, the amount of unknown decks there are likely to be in the field decreases. And naturally, we would assume none of the lists are perfect yet, but some are certainly further from perfect than others. And it is highly unlikely that each deck is exactly the same in power level. So, in an ideal world, would we not take what is working, leave behind what isn’t, and create an even better working product?
If we know there are reliable and stable decks operating at 80% of what they could be, and we know that one of these very decks might be among the top 2 or 3 decks of the format, and we then are able to improve upon the list with technology not seeing play, we could arrive at something special.
It is fine to start from the ground up if you happen to be inspired to do so, but it is in no way required. In a wide open metagame, collecting pieces from decks that show a lot of potential is a potent starting point. Brainstorming is essential to brewing, but it can be layered on top of a stable base at times, rather than needing to form that base itself.
Sometimes, it will be a simple card interaction from deck A that you enjoy, and a mana base from deck B that you think is particularly strong. Combine the two and fill in the cracks with your brewer’s glue, and you might have a winner on your hands. Other times, you will take the entire foundation of a deck and simply add a twist. The point is that you are taking a foundation that has proven itself viable and going from there, helping to limit the risk you might be putting yourself into with a completely new, undeveloped strategy.
Brewing, much like playing Magic, is dynamic. As things changes, pieces move, and formats rotate, your approach to any given tournament might need to be different. Brewing for Modern is quite different than Standard, and it is important to understand why. Standard might be diverse, with a half-dozen decks at tier 1 or whatever, but Modern just blows that out of the park.
In general, for such a diverse format, I want to play it safe while still exploring the boundaries of the format. If I have decided there are no decks worth playing, so I would hope that when the brewing process begins, I can reasonably control myself and stay within the context of the format as generated by those “unwanted” decks.
Of course, there should be no pressure to brew for a format like Modern. There are dozens of viable decks to choose from. Forcing brewing is something that has done harm to me in the past and I know can quickly become a bad habit, so if the creative juices are not flowing, sit one out and play Eggs like the rest of us! See you in San Diego!