Lately, my spider sense has been tingling and I feel like there’s something up with Modern. To be fair, Magic has been undergoing such a dramatic transformation over the past six months that it doesn’t take super powers of perception to observe that the times, they are a-changin.’
The biggest question mark on the horizon, at least for me, is how Modern Horizons will impact the format. What can we hope for and what should we expect?
Time May Change Me But I Can’t Change Time
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes! Magic has clearly been pretty liberal about dipping its collective toe into the change pool over the past year or so. Actually, it’s more like Magic has been swimming in a sea of new ideas, many of which still loom large on the horizon:
MTG Arena and BO1: It’s been a fundamental change to the way a huge group of players experience and encounter MTG. We already have Arena and it’s a change to how we play Limited and Standard.
Let’s get more Modern specific:
The London Mulligan Rule: I mean, this is another big change that will allow players to see more cards when mulliganing, which increases the value of combo decks, as well as specific hate cards like Leylines and Surgical Extraction (since they are easier to find when you must find them fast). I’m skeptical about the rule, but willing and excited to give it a try and see how it feels.
Modern Horizons: I’ve suggested the idea of a Modern Masters that incorporates new cards and reprints that would be legal in Modern before, but I didn’t think WotC would pull the trigger, since years have gone by without this type of a set coming to fruition. I love the idea of this type of set and the potential it has to put the types of cards into Modern that the format needs without polluting Standard with cards that would be unfit for that format.
Big Changes, and Then B&R: “No Changes”
It seems strange to me that in a world where everything is changing the recent B&R announcement offers “no changes.”
I’m willing to consider the possibility I’m a dissenting opinion. But Modern is the format I least enjoy playing at the moment. It’s not an active hatred of the format, and I don’t want to linger too long on the subject, but given the choice between playing Modern or another option I have consistently gone with the latter over the past six months, which is an immediate departure from how I felt about the format a year ago when it was my pack 1 pick 1 format.
My criticism, and rationale for my preference, is two tiered. First, my impression and observable data suggests that the format is dominated by linear decks. Even decks that are not “pure combo,” for instance Burn or Humans, consistently close the game on turn 4 or 5. Does it matter that there is a distribution of aggro and combo when all of the decks kill that fast, regardless of how?
Secondly, I worry that the type of game play that Modern offers caters too heavily to spikes and doesn’t leave enough room for individuals to be creative. I’ve noticed that LGS attendance is down for Modern in my region. We used to get 50+ and now we are lucky to get 20. The spikiest players are the ones who consistently turn out.
Modern facilitates a certain kind of game. The format is fast. The decks are focused and linear. The interactions are complicated and nuanced. Modern is also a format where the specific information necessary to play at a reasonable level is great.
In truth, there is an element of this dynamic at play in every format. The players who perform well are the ones who understand what is going on and prepare for the interactions that matter. I’m not about blaming gamers for gaming or winners for winning, but with that said, “how can Modern be transformed back into a format with options for everybody?”
I was surprised to see no changes to the Modern banned list, which actually makes me wonder if the DCI is waiting until after the release of Modern Horizons to see what the set’s impact will be. It could be a strong indicator that some significant cards will be entering Modern soon.
Looking at the Modern Metagame
At first glance, the Modern metagame looks healthy.
MTGTop8’s projected winners metagame looks exactly like what we’d want to see:
- Aggro: 52%
- Control: 25%
- Combo: 23%
An almost ideal distribution. Here’s the problem, once we start to delve into the makeup of those brackets:
- Aggro: 52%
- Izzet Phoenix: 11%
- Burn: 9%
- Death’s Shadow: 6%
- Modular Affinity: 5%
- Humans: 5%
(Keep in mind these numbers refer to Top 8 percentage.)
Ladies and gentlemen, these are the five most successful “aggro” decks in Modern. One of the difficult parts about translating the data is that the game has been so dramatically transformed over the past few years. While these are the aggro decks of Modern, all of these stock decks are built around synergistic interactions and mini-combos.
The average goldfish of a Burn or Humans deck isn’t much different from a pure combo deck like Storm. While I appreciate the distinction between the archetypes with regard to representation in the metagame, if the majority of decks’ plans are just to kill you before turn 5 does it matter if they are aggro or combo? The end result is going to be a fast metagame.
Threats and combo facilitators have gotten better and better, and “fair” cards have remained tame by comparison. There was a time when reactive cards were simply better than threats and that was clearly a bad play experience, but I would argue that the game has gone in the other direction where threats outclass available interactions, at least in Modern.
Let’s look at the control decks:
- Control: 25%
- UrzaTron: 6%
- U/W Control: 5%
- The Rock: 4%
- Lantern: 4%
I don’t dispute that Lantern and Tron are control decks in Modern but they are clearly not “fair” decks. In fact, don’t they kind of “go off” on turn 3 or 4 and try to end the game one way or another?
If we exclude those on the principle that they also have the potential to end the game before turn 5, we are left with The Rock and U/W Control variants, which make up about one-tenth of the winner’s metagame. The other 9 out of 10 slots are not looking to play Magic with you in any way, shape, or form. They are looking to wrap up the game quickly.
It makes a lot of sense to me why Modern looks the way it does right now. It also makes sense to me why local attendance has been down lately. While I do believe there are dynamic and diverse aspects to the Modern metagame, I also believe the types of diversity created are similar shades of the same color.
There are 15 broken ways to reach critical mass and all of these options force an opponent to do one of two things:
- Kill you first.
- Have a specific type of card to interact.
One reason the metagame looks the way it does is because “just kill them first” is the best plan A a deck can have in Modern. If you can’t “win first,” you’re automatically in a hole. In terms of deck selection, why not select a deck that always has that option in play?
The second option, have a specific type of card to interact, isn’t mutually exclusive to playing a “fair” or “slow” deck. The top tier of Modern is fast and linear, and finds ways to incorporate “stopper” cards into strategies to create a higher probability of winning first.
Play a fast clock and have some ways to interrupt an opponent with a potentially faster draw.
Another aspect of the format comes in the form of “defensive checkmate” cards:
The Heroes Gotham Needs Right Now?
Any time you add a new piece to a game it has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape for better or worse. What will Modern Horizons give us? Here’s what I’m hoping for:
Let’s start with Force of Will because it’s the craziest of the two options. Countering a spell without having to pay mana is pretty insane.
I’ve heard the argument for Force of Will made many times. It’s risky. But the deeper we’ve gone into the Modern rabbit hole the more I’m willing to consider that desperate times call for desperate measures.
First and foremost, Force of Will would be the single biggest game changer in the history of the format. When JTMS and BBE were unbanned the internet went crazy with people saying, “looks like Wizards just decided to ruin Modern.” I looked at that unbanning and said based on what is being played in Modern, these cards will be lucky to be role players.
Force of Will would change everything. I’m talking burn it down and start over with a new metagame.
Here’s the most compelling comparison I can make for why Force of Will could be a net positive. I’ve played Legacy since the olden days when Mana Drain was legal. When the format transitioned from 1.5 to what we now know as Legacy, the non-blue decks were equally or less broken to what we now have in Modern.
There were some broken cards worth Forcing to be sure: Dark Ritual, Show and Tell, and Survival, but the things people were able to do with these cards were much less synergistic and powerful than the what these cards enable today. In addition, keep in mind that Force of Will had a pretty stacked supporting cast in Legacy. Cards that are relics of the olden times when answers were much better than threats. So, not only was FOW insane and “other” decks worse, but the blue decks also benefited from having Brainstorm, Swords to Plowshares, Daze, Wasteland, and actual dual lands to build from.
This is exactly the type of effect the format needs to create a more level playing field for other types of decks. According to the MTGTop8 winners metagame, roughly 9/10 decks are the types of decks that necessitate a card like Force of Will.
In actuality, the format’s shape is defined by the lack of a Force of Will-type card to keep fast, linear decks in check. I would further argue that the rise of Surgical Extraction in the main deck is a concession to the fact that cheap interaction is necessary in the fast, brutal world of Modern.
Is Force of Will too powerful? I don’t know, which is always the risk. I can’t say for certain whether it is or isn’t. The equation is too complicated with too many unforeseeable variables. The cool thing about Magic is that if it doesn’t work, the card can always be banned and we can move on with our lives.
With that said, the more I think about it the more I realize that I’d like playing Modern a lot more if I could play with Force of Will. It’s not one of those delusional fantasies where I’m the only person allowed to play with it, but rather a version of Modern where Force of Will is actually legal and anyone can use it.
I look at the winners metagame where 90% of linear decks that interact with each other via defensive checkmate sideboard cards (often in the main deck) and I think, “Why doesn’t Force of Will exist in this format? This is precisely the nonsense that Force of Will breaks up!”
Another neat thing about a set like Modern Horizons is that it doesn’t specifically need to be Force of Will that gets reprinted. It could be a completely new card that achieves a similar effect in creating cheap interaction against fast decks.
There’s a million ways to create such a card. Here’s an example:
Counter target spell.
When you cast “Nope” you may exile any number of cards from your hand as you play it. For each blue card exiled, Nope costs U less. For each non-blue card exiled “Nope” costs 2 less.
We could also wind up with Counterspell.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Counterspell would be a huge deal in Modern. It would be exciting and there would be a lot of fanfare, but I wouldn’t expect it to have a huge impact on the winners metagame.
Sure, U/W Control gets to upgrade their Logic Knots, but how big is that impact? The most likely home for the card will be Phoenix and Shadow, and those decks will use the card as a roadblock and a Time Walk.
I’d be surprised if Counterspell doesn’t make an appearance in Modern Horizons. It feels like a JTMS to me—a card that was dominant five years ago, but is likely just a solid utility card in the 2019 meta.
Modern Horizons Predictions
My problem with Modern is that 90% of the decks in the winners meta hit critical mass and end the game on turn 4. The best strategy to combat this dynamic is:
- Win first.
- Defensive checkmate cards.
I don’t think Modern is a bad format, but it’s not my favorite right now. Modern has a deep style of game play that appeals to a lot of people, but isn’t Modern supposed to be the format that appeals to everyone?
It’s the universal paper format. Huge card pool. Tons of option. No reserve list to ensure nobody is priced out of participating. Legacy and Vintage are great, but unrealistically expensive to the majority of Magic fans. Modern is the evergreen Eternal format where everyone can play and there are lots of play style options available.
Can a format where 90% of the winner’s metagame deck choices are, or border on, “unfair” decks, appeal to a broad audience?
I have another pressing question to wrap up with: Why are we getting Modern Horizons now and not three years ago when Modern was #HYPE? One speculative answer to that question is that the format needs shaking up in a way that simply isn’t reasonable to do via Standard legal cards.
The cynic would say it’s a money grab. But why not three years ago? I think there’s a realization that Modern has issues that will be difficult to solve without putting undesirable cards like a Counterspell into Standard.
A year ago, I would have said, “no way” to Force of Will in Modern. Today, I’m torn. On principle, the card is bananas, but on the other hand Modern is so full of monkey business that maybe bananas would be a good fit.
While I don’t think it’s likely that we see Force of Will in Modern Horizons, I don’t actually think it’s impossible that we will see Force of Will in Modern at some point or another. In the past, I would have defaulted to “It’s impossible, no way.”I’ll admit a large part of that attitude was entrenched in the fact that I saw WotC’s attitude toward Magic as extremely risk averse.
What I’ve seen from MTG in the past shatters much of what I believed about the willingness to take risks and make dynamic changes:
- Significantly improved cards, sets, and format design
- London mulligan rule
- Complete overhaul of tournament system
- Modern Horizons
WotC has been doing everything but playing it safe lately and I’m a big fan of their boldness. Also, consider how much hype would be generated by the announcement that Force of Will will be Modern legal.
For that reason alone, I think Force of Will in Modern will always be on the table.
I would be a lot more excited to play Modern if Force of Will existed in the format. I wonder how many people share that sentiment. The context would be completely different from what we have now and I can’t even begin to speculate about what I’d play or what other people would play. With that being said, I would prefer to roll the dice on a version of Modern that had a ubiquitous answer to the 9/10 decks in the winners metagame that are spamming linear strategies.
I fully expect that Modern Horizons is going to change the format in a dynamic and significant way. Otherwise, there’s really no reason for it to exist. I’m excited to see what WotC chooses to do with the set, as it is a vessel for supplementing the format in a way we’ve never seen before. I’ve been looking forward to a set like this for years now, because I think it is the single most significant way to make adjustments to the metagame, other than just banning or unbanning cards to force change.
Life is short, but one thing I know is that it lasts longer when you have a Force of Will in your opener. I don’t know what we are going to get in Modern Horizons, but I’m praying for anything that helps open things up.
Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Well, there was a time when I would have laughed at somebody who wrote an article about Force of Will in Modern, but a lot has changed in the game over the past year and it’s unclear what is or isn’t possible at this point.
As always, I’m happy to discuss various ideas, criticisms, and arguments in the comments section, but keep in mind that the context of the format would be completely altered. I’m less interested in what the metagame would be (because it’s unknowable) and more interested to hear about whether you’d prefer to play Modern with a FOW style card in the mix, or if you prefer the kind of format we currently have.