Modern is the best format in the history of Magic.
This statement may be hyperbole, but it’s absolutely based in fact. I can’t think of another format that offers the same incredible things Modern can. There have been times when players could advocate doing anything you want to in a format and where the most important thing was understanding how your own deck works.
The number of viable decks that you can succeed with right now feels virtually endless. I can find over 50 different decks to 5-0 an MTGO Competitive League in any given month, but it goes further than that. Sure, players will experiment on MTGO and sometimes you get there, but there are dozens and dozens of decks that are completely capable of winning the next Modern Grand Prix or large premier event.
Taking a look at last week’s Modern Challenge on MTGO, here are the Top 8 decks from that tournament:
- Mono-White Eldrazi and Taxes
- Grixis Cruel Control
- Mardu Pyromancer
- G/B Tron
- R/G Ponza
- G/B Midrange (Jund, no Red)
Continue down the Top 16 and you’ll find Jeskai Midrange, Eldrazi Tron, U/W Flash, 8-Rack, and Affinity. If you look at recent previous Challenges, you see top results from U/R Moon (either with Breach or Kiki-Jiki combos), Burn, Storm, Infect, Blue Tron, W/B Tokens, Living End (with and without As Foretold), Abzan, Delver, and all varieties of Collected Company decks and Death’s Shadow decks. This isn’t even a comprehensive list.
Knowing that you can show up with any deck you want and compete at the highest level is a great feeling. Going to FNM and playing against all different types of decks is fun. Going to a GP, as I have multiple times in the past month, and playing against 10 different decks in 12 rounds makes things interesting.
I love this about Modern. I think Modern is an absolutely wonderful format in this regard.
So then why am I writing this article and why do I have any negative thoughts about the format as a whole?
- I don’t want Modern to change.
- I am not upset about Modern. I am not salty about Modern. I am not mad about the state of Modern. I absolutely do not want Modern to become Standard.
- I don’t want Modern to be a Pro Tour format, and I believe that this is the best-case scenario for the majority of Modern players.
When I say Modern is great, know that I am being utterly sincere. I flew thousands of miles to go play a Modern Grand Prix recently because I enjoy playing the format. I like the diversity and I love the passion that many in the Modern community hold for the format.
Now, I am also playing Magic as a professional player. That group is the overwhelming minority of players. I don’t want to see this smaller community warp a fantastic environment.
That said, if I’m going to play Magic at the highest level, I’m going to play to try to win. I want to get the biggest advantages I can through all fair measures. I want to playtest my deck, know my matchups, and be able to metagame well to get all the edge I can before the tournament starts. This is close to nonexistent in Modern.
Many people will argue against that point, but I stand firmly by it. There are a number of matchups between some of Modern’s most popular decks that are incredibly lopsided. Whether it’s Tron against Abzan or Burn against Storm, there will be matchups where your opponents take their first turn and you will know your back is firmly against the wall to try to get the win. This is totally acceptable for any format, and a huge part of where metagaming comes in.
The problem comes when there is little you can do to improve some of these matchups short of dedicating your entire sideboard to those improvements. An Abzan deck with a 15-card sideboard dedicated to Tron may or may not even be a favorite in the post-sideboard games. You will commonly hear Merfolk players say that they cut all of their hate against Affinity because the matchup is so bad that it isn’t worth the dedicated slots to make it only marginally better. There is nothing “wrong” with any of this—if Affinity were going to be a huge part of the metagame, you would theoretically have the option (especially as a professional player with hopefully access to more cards) to just not play Merfolk.
If the metagame is going to be dominated by aggro decks, you can’t just jam in your “anti-aggro” cards. While Leyline of Sanctity, Timely Reinforcements, and Kor Firewalker are great cards against Burn, they do nothing against Affinity, Humans, and Infect. Your best cards against Affinity will do nothing against the majority of other aggro decks. If you play watered down sideboard cards that just allow you to 1-for-1 trade with a creature, you’re not doing much to improve any matchup.
Diversity is desirable. It’s especially great for watching coverage. The last thing I want is for there to be fewer decks in Modern. That said, I can’t possibly metagame for it. There is no strategy that is popular enough for me to choose a deck that counters it well. If I play dedicated hate cards for a strategy in my sideboard, the odds that I’ll run into the individual deck isn’t particularly high, and then the odds that I’ll draw my hate cards and they’ll matter in those few games is even lower.
This seems to be where a number of people make the argument about “pro-privilege” and wanting a smaller metagame to be able to gain your edge instead of “sucking it up.” I see tweets telling me how I feel and what I’m thinking, many of which state things along the lines of “I want to turn Modern into Standard so there’s only 1-3 decks and I can get my edge.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I flew thousands of miles to play in a Modern Grand Prix earlier this month and I wouldn’t play a Standard tournament that was hosted in my own kitchen. I’m over it, and I’ve been over it for a long time. Standard has some major issues that have been brought about by design mistakes, and unfortunately I don’t think we’re likely to see the end of them.
The energy mechanic was a mistake, or at least it was a mistake in implementation. Rogue Refiner would have been a fine and reasonable card if it were a 2/2 and only made 1 energy. Instead, the best cards in Standard were Rogue Refiner, Attune with Aether, and Aether Hub. All of that wouldn’t even be a major problem, except for other major design flaws.
After speaking with PV this weekend, he pointed out that he didn’t believe that the energy cards were even the biggest offenders in Standard. He also didn’t say that it was Hazoret, Glorybringer, or The Scarab God. The biggest issue with Standard in his opinion, and I agree, is that cards like Negate were printed.
The energy decks were beatable. In fact, you could build decks with a very high win percentage against Temur. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like the easiest thing to do. Longtusk Cub could run away with the game, Whirler Virtuoso and Rogue Refiner were pure card advantage, Bristling Hydra required specific answers, and they are often different from the ones required by Glorybringer or planeswalkers like Chandra. The thing is that Standard does have plenty of answers. You had plenty of ways to match them in cards and to take control of the game. You could build decks that had a greater than 65% win rate against Temur Energy… in game 1.
Then you get to sideboarding, and Temur could bring in Negates and/or Spell Pierces. Now these more expensive answers that could steal back some card advantage and tempo were totally, well, negated. Not only did Temur get all of the best main-deck cards for the energy mechanic, but they also got the best sideboard options.
If these sideboard options hadn’t existed, we would have seen some radically different results. You could build Esper Control in a way that you’re heavily favored against Energy, but then maybe you’re getting crushed by Red. Decks like Tokens and other big mana strategies could prey upon the midrange deck that doesn’t have a 2-mana instant that counters everything in their deck. Instead, we get the world we’re currently living in, where it takes another round of bannings to make Standard any fun at all.
This is what I desperately don’t want to happen to Modern. The fact that answers exist but they aren’t necessarily the most powerful in the world is a good thing. A Stony Silence against Affinity is excellent, but it still loses tons of games. A Fulminator Mage against Tron is worth some real percentage points, but it doesn’t totally shift a matchup completely or come close to it.
I don’t want Modern to radically change, but playing a professional tournament where there are livelihoods at stake on something as random as Modern also doesn’t work. Here’s my big issue: If I were able to 100% completely predict a metagame and know exactly how many of every single deck would show up in the next Modern tournament and what kind of sideboard strategies they would be utilizing, would I be able to create a large metagame advantage? I firmly believe that answer is “no.”
If I knew what the Top 8 of the Modern Challenge or the last Modern GP were going to be and I were to choose my deck knowing that before going back in the past to play, I don’t think I would have gained a real edge. Knowing what all my matchups were at GP Santa Clara, I would have made no changes to my Modern deck, and my record wasn’t particularly good.
This likely sounds like complaining to some percentage of readers, but I assure you it isn’t. This is what makes Modern a great format, but it’s also what makes Modern a format that doesn’t really go with the spirit of the Pro Tour. Yes, the best players in the room will still win slightly more often than others, but the skill edge against the best in the world will never be that high. Losing that ability to gain any edge from metagaming and making correct decisions before the tournament takes a lot away from the Pro Tour.
A number of tweets I received were, “if you don’t like Modern, go play poker” or “if you don’t like variance, go play chess.” A great idea! Thanks! The thing is, I do like Modern, and I do like playing on the Pro Tour. If the next PT format is going to be Texas Hold ’em or chess, I will totally work on my games there.
But what if we casuals love watching you pros play it? I mean, if it sucks for you to play but is fun as hell for all of us to watch you playing it…
— Tolarian Community College (@TolarianCollege) January 8, 2018
The Professor brings up a great point here. What if lots of players out there want to watch the professional Magic players play their favorite format in Modern?
Let me start with what I believe is the best counterpoint: What if Modern needs to change to allow it to remain a part of the Pro Tour? Now, part of what makes Modern great is that there is a huge amount of diversity, but what if that were no longer the case? What if the pros do find a “best strategy,” and that necessitates bans to allow it to remain a part of the Pro Tour?
How about if that doesn’t happen at all and it turns out the ecosystem of dozens of decks remained totally balanced. We’ve had plenty of people looking at Modern for some time now and nobody has come up with a consensus way to get an edge yet, so why should that change? I believe that to be likely to continue, but for how long? What if the same thing that happened in the last Modern PT were to happen again and groups of pros were to break a deck similar to Eldrazi? Now, with Eldrazi, only Eye of Ugin needed to be banned in order to keep it under control, and the splash damage was only really to Tron in that regards, but what if that isn’t the case this time? What if Ancient Stirrings had to go and we lose Tron, Amulet decks, Lantern, etc.? What if Mox Opal had to get the axe? What if it were multiple cards that killed multiple decks, thus spinning the format into a state where there was a new dominant strategy that forced more bannings?
More eyes on a format isn’t always a good thing. Now, that isn’t a reason to keep the format off the Pro Tour stage alone, but it’s a “be careful what you wish for” situation. For all the reasons all of us love Modern, featuring on the Pro Tour puts it in harm’s way.
So what if you agree with that point, but you still want to watch pros play with your favorite decks in your favorite format? Hopefully, there are other ways that Modern can be promoted in a less professional atmosphere that the Pro Tour. Things like Team Modern Super League feel like an excellent way to watch your favorite players playing with your favorite decks. More events that combine the fun with the competitive are perfect for highlighting a format as diverse and popular as Modern. It doesn’t need the cutthroat Pro Tour stage.
I also firmly believe that Modern Grand Prix should continue and be promoted. I also believe that they are much higher variance than Grand Prix of other formats due to the nature of Modern, but that’s totally fine on stages that aren’t the Pro Tour. Giving everyone a chance to play larger scale events against some of the professional players is great, and while I don’t think that there should be more Modern GPs necessarily, they should continue in their current numbers.
Last weekend, my wife went to a Modern FNM at our local game store. She had a great time playing her favorite Modern deck, Titan Breach, and got to play against lots of different decks by similarly minded people who were also just happy to get to play their favorite deck against a wide variety of decks. Some had never played against Titan Breach before and were really excited to see who would come out on top.
The thing that most people were talking about at this FNM, however? Fear. Every last person was terrified of their deck being banned. Even the Burn player couldn’t help but chime in about how scared he was that they were going to make some banning that would destroy his favorite deck. While this isn’t necessarily a “reasonable” response, and I don’t know how common this feeling is among the majority of Modern players, it’s unfortunate that some number of players feel this way. The odds of something being banned go up dramatically by having these decks on the biggest stage. I don’t want that, and I don’t think you want that either. I want everyone to feel secure that they can build their favorite deck, foil it out if you’re so inclined, and that you can enjoy playing that deck for as long as you want to and not just until the pros find a way to “break it.”
So the easiest solution is not to feature Modern on the Pro Tour (this is without even going into detail about how bad Modern is at promoting whatever the newest set is for Wizards of the Coast). The cards I think are closest to receiving a ban are Mox Opal and Ancient Stirrings, but I see not even a small amount of reason to consider banning anything at this time. It’s possible some things could become unbanned and still have a great format, likely in the realm of Bloodbraid Elf and not Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I really have no idea.
I think the best way to make Modern into a great professional format would be to increase the number of sideboard cards available. Whether this number is 20 or 25, it does some pretty cool things. If the haymakers were so good that it would invalidate strategies then this idea wouldn’t really work, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, this would allow the midrange decks to have more game against the aggro decks as well as the big mana and combo decks. This means more interactive games of Modern and fewer “coin flips.”
This would also mean that some of the more linear strategies that may be hit hardest by these larger sideboards could do some exciting things. By having access to more sideboard slots, transformational sideboard plans become a reality. It really doesn’t take that many sideboard slots before you can turn your aggressive Burn deck into a more controlling Blood Moon strategy, and that could be a really sweet aspect of professional Modern.
It’s also possible that it’s just ridiculous to have more sideboard slots in Modern than in other formats, and having different rules would be confusing. That being said, the 15 card-sideboard is fairly arbitrary, and while it has been around forever, that doesn’t mean it can never change as the game continues to evolve. Getting rid of mana burn or damage on the stack were met with predictions that Magic would never recover and this is the beginning of the end. I assume making a large change like this would receive similar reviews even if it ended up working out in the end (I also have absolutely no idea if this would actually work out as intended, so it would require some real playtesting of the format going forward).
In the end, I love Modern for what it is. It’s very close to the perfect format for showcasing what Magic is capable of. That’s exactly why it shouldn’t be a Pro Tour format.