I believe that what some people dislike about Modern is actually the quality that makes it the most dynamic format Magic has ever known. People are not technically wrong to dislike or be frustrated by certain aspects of the format.
I do think that the dislike for Modern is rooted in a narrow view that is seated in a general aversion to variance, even when that variance is equally distributed.
Seriously, chess exists. If you hate variance, play chess. For real—chess is great and it doesn’t have bad matchups or swingy sideboard cards. The reason you play Magic (and not chess) is because you don’t want a game with no variance.
Why Would Somebody Hate the Best Format in the History of Magic?
I can’t quantify that statement, but it’s fun to think about. I can think of a few other formats in the history of Magic that I think are on the same level, but I’d feel comfortable letting current Modern sit at the table.
There are so many metrics to consider about what makes a truly great format…
Diversity, replayability, difficulty, affordability, popularity, depth, and nostalgia are all factors that might come into play. I would give Modern high scores in most of these categories.
I find the games to be fun and interactive.
I enjoy the fact that there are 40 viable options.
I like that there are not individual staple cards that cost hundreds of dollars each.
These are serious positives that have been true about very few formats in the history of the game (shout out to Pauper for being in the discussion).
Let me tell you a story about the people who are salty about Modern.
Once upon a time last weekend, thousands of hopeful Magicians traveled across the multiverse to compete in Modern Wizarding Tournaments. They had practiced and refined their skills and tactics with diligence all week long and felt prepared for the ensuing duels. Unfortunately, the “DCI Pairing Hat Software” blatantly dumpstered some of them with awful matchups and they were rekt.
“My deck sucks!” they cried angrily. “The only thing that matters are matchups and not skill!” They commiserate with one another. The dejected haters spent the entire car ride home in the tank, racking their brains, and trying to solve the unsolvable puzzle of the best positioned Modern deck. But, ALAS! It was unknowable, and because it was unknowable they concluded that Modern sucked.
The demographic of player that doesn’t like Modern is Frustrated Spike. Frustrated Spike is upset because he or she cannot consistently mitigate or account for the variance of comically bad matchups.
It seems like every deck has some natural predator that absolutely destroys it and if you pull those matchups, the tournament is like charging head first into a steam roller.
For instance, I practiced tuning and playing Storm for two weeks leading up to my tournament and played against Burn six times in nine rounds. The matchup is comically bad for Storm and I went 2-4 against it.
I understand that Burn was a popular choice last weekend but there is no way that it is 66% of the metagame. Bad beats.
The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of a Few Frustrated Spikes
Based on my experience last weekend I have more justification than most to be a Frustrated Spike when it comes to complaining about pairings—I’m not, and I won’t.
First of all, I’m relatively new to Storm. I knew Burn and Grixis Shadow were my worst matchups. I had plans but not a ton of experience. I played well in the sense that I didn’t make any obvious or regrettable mistakes. Yet, after playing against Burn so much, I now have more experience and better plans.
I played a Sunday event and defeated Burn with the sideboard changes I made the night before. On the draw, Spell Snared that Eidolon. Why don’t you go ahead and wipe that smug little smirk off your face, young man? Most satisfying Spell Snare I’ve ever cast.
I’m not saying that the bad matchups are repairable, because they aren’t. They will always be bad. But there are loose percentages up for grabs that are derived from skill and preparation. If the matchup is 30/70, a few points one way or the other isn’t going to make a huge difference, expect when it makes all the difference.
The best complaints about Modern are the comically bad, hopeless feeling matchups that every deck has. If you pull too many it is possible to be super-prepared, play great, and lose badly in demoralizing fashion.
When you run bad, the pairings can really stick it to you. Point acknowledged and conceded. I respect that aspect of Modern is frustrating when it comes into play.
The other side of that coin is that it isn’t likely to occur. The most played decks rarely creep much higher than 10% of the field. The Open last weekend had 84 players on 35 different decks make Day 2. The most represented archetype was Grixis Shadow at less than 10% of the field.
No matter what deck you choose, most of your potential matchups are likely close. I would guess that two-thirds of matchups fall within the range of having a 60%-40% favorable rate. The last third are more polarized matchups, but keep in mind that you’ll be heavily favored as often as you are unfavored.
So 66% of the time you’ll be playing a close matchup. 16% of the time you’ll be a significant favorite. And 16% of the time you’ll be a significant underdog.
15-round tournament. You’d average 10 close matchups, 2.5 favorable, and 2.5 unfavorable. Obviously, you can play your worst matchup 6 times in 9 rounds, and that sucks, but that is the cost of having a format with so much going on. Modern is a historically diverse format. If there are 50 different decks, how would it even be possible for a deck to not have polarized matchups?
The reason that Spike is frustrated and the reason Modern has 50 competitive decks is so obviously simple:
Modern does not have a best deck.
Modern actually has several competing tier 1, or “best,” archetypes and none of them are definitively better with regard to percentage against the field. There is sort of a strange rock, scissors, paper thing going on between several different decks that all have similar equity spread across the huge metagame.
Big Mana – Tron, Eldrazi, Valakut
Fair Blue – Jeskai, Death’s Shadow
Fast (Almost Combo-y) Aggro – Affinity, Burn
G/x Good Stuff Creatures – CoCo, Hatebears, Elves
Linear Combo – Storm, Dredge, Ad Nauseam
Obviously, the format has like 50 decks, but most serious contenders are a derivative of one of these super archetypes, or a hybrid of two.
I wrote that Grixis Shadow was becoming the best deck in Modern because it was a Turbo Xerox deck that was trending way, way up. The problem is that a Xerox deck can only take up so much of the metagame share before people punish the growing contingent of players on Shadow by showing up with Tron, Eldrazi, and Scapeshift.
35 different decks on Day 2 and only 8 Shadow decks (with 84 players) tells us that there is no best deck, yet.
Since there is no singular best deck the format stays fairly wide open to some extent. The counterpoint is a format like Legacy:
In Legacy, there is a clearly defined best strategy: interactive blue decks. These decks make up the lion’s share of the meta and as a result it is foolish to play strategies that are inherently bad against them because you will be disadvantaged in every tournament.
Modern is unique because the dynamic is different from almost every other metagame that we have ever seen in that it lacks a “best deck” that warps the rest of the metagame around it.
Splinter Twin was that deck for the first several years of the format. Wizards nuked Twin, and in its absence there was no emergent “best deck” to fill the void.
As a result, the format was left with several very powerful “best” decks that have polarized matchups against one another. The more a player skews their deck the more polarizing the matchups are.
I said on Twitter that I thought Modern was great, and hoped the DCI changed nothing. A well-respected pro responded: “It’s okay to love dumpster fires.”
Modern is far from a dumpster fire. In fact, as I’ve argued, I think it is one of the best formats in the history of the game because it offers endless possibility by virtue of not having a singular dominant best deck to warp everything around it.
With regard to deck choice, construction, and sideboarding, there are infinitely more choices to consider, but each one has significantly less impact than in a format that is defined by one or two dominant best decks.
The argument of hating Modern can be boiled down to one simple factor: It doesn’t have a best deck. There is no obvious deck that has significant positive percentage against the field. All things end up approaching 50% and some of that even-steven percentage will be derived from polarized matchups, both positive and negative.
People who complain about Modern would have you believe that the only thing that matters is the luck of the pairings and that every game is a blowout, which is disingenuous. There are percentage points to be gained but they are hard to gain. These edges come from playing a ton of Modern and understanding the nuances of dozens of matchups, from predicting tiny trends and shifts in the metagame and making adjustments, and from being innovative in tuning and in using a sideboard.
The finals of the Open was a mirror match between two well-tuned, innovative, and nearly identical builds of Jeskai Control played by two fantastic players who had clearly put in the effort and were a step ahead of everybody else. I guess its a giant coincidence that they both got a lot of lucky pairings and a wild coincidence they were both playing the same deck…
Please, tell me again about how the format is all variance.
Tell me about how pairings are the only thing that matters.
Tell me it is a coin flip format.
Tell me about how nothing you do matters or impacts results.
Tell me how you’re going to switch decks again in search of a holy grail without bad matchups.
Modern doesn’t have a best deck. You can’t just identify that Energy or Delver or Workshops are better than everything else and either play them or something that is good against them and call it a day.
If you want to be a Modern Master, you literally need to learn, prepare for, and understand dozens of matchups—not just four or five—and that is hard. There is no easy or quick fix. The edges are small. The competition is savvy and informed.
If you are in the camp that thinks Modern sucks because of polarized matchups, let me ask you an honest question:
Are you really losing because you are getting unlucky, or are just you being outworked?