Last week, I did coverage at Grand Prix Sao Paulo. The event was seriously one of the coolest I’ve ever been to—we had a big screen in the middle of the room that had the soccer games going on (and then the feature matches when those ended). We had lots of food trucks inside the venue with good food (I had a strawberry Nutella waffle). We had a massage stand, an Unlimited Draft, and we even had cupcakes to celebrate Magic’s 25th anniversary.
It was also Modern. Originally, I wanted to do a “state of Modern” type of article, but I thought it was better to do it in Q&A form. This way, I get to talk about the topics I want to talk about and I also get to answer some of your questions. So I asked for suggestions on Twitter, and here are the results.
Is KCI the deck to beat?
No, I don’t think so. The concept of a “deck to beat” doesn’t really apply to this Modern format.
To me, the “deck to beat” is a deck that is both very powerful and very popular. It’s the deck you’re aiming to beat, and if you can accomplish that, you’re already halfway there. It’s a deck I test all of my brews against, and if they get crushed by it, I dismiss them.
Temur Energy, for example, was the deck to beat in Standard—a huge percentage of the field played it, and you couldn’t justify playing a deck that just straight-up lost to it. More recently, the deck was Mono-Red and B/R, to a lesser degree.
In Modern, we’ve had decks to beat—there was a PT where 30% of the field was Abzan, for example—but we don’t have one right now. There’s simply no deck you must beat, because the most popular decks in the format are 10% of the field, which means you should play against them once or twice in a tournament. As a whole, people just play what they like, what they’re used to, or what they have the cards for—the Modern metagame is very slow to adjust and people won’t immediately flock to a deck even if it is better (see the people playing Merfolk right now, for an example). KCI in particular provides another barrier of entry, because it’s so hard to play on Magic Online.
If I’m about to play a Modern GP and I have a deck that is 0% versus KCI, that wouldn’t faze me one bit. Similarly, if I have a deck that is 100% versus KCI, then that will not be enough incentive for me to play it. Simply put, my primary goal when playing any Modern tournament is not to beat KCI. Therefore, it is not the deck to beat.
Is KCI the best deck in the format?
That’s a different question, but the answer is less clear to me. I think that if we snapshot this single moment in time, then I think the answer is “yes”, but in a day or two it could easily be “no.” KCI has been doing very well, but there are some factors that could explain that other than that it’s just good:
It’s hard to play on Magic Online (and in person too), so people don’t get many reps against it. They’ve seen lists, but they don’t truly know how it operates. Several cards that people think will flat-out beat KCI just won’t, whereas the cards that do beat it (Stony Silence, Rest in Peace) have mostly been ignored. On top of that, people often misuse their hate cards, keep mana up when they don’t need to, don’t keep mana up when they have to, etc.
Because it’s complicated to play both in person and online, it’s a low percentage of the field. This means people are less likely to dedicate sideboards to it. You might want to play three Stony Silence and three Rest in Peace, but it’s hard to justify that when KCI is less than 5% of the metagame. If it truly becomes a huge portion of the metagame, then it can easily be hated out.
There is the perception that it’s hard to play (which it is), which means that people who are inexperienced with it or with the format are not going to play it. If I’m about to play a tournament without testing, then I can pick up, say, a Humans deck, and I can win the tournament. I’m never going to pick up a KCI deck out of the blue.
So we can say that of all the Humans pilots, about 50% have a ton of experience with the deck. Of the KCI players, 95% have a ton of experience with it because it’s not a deck you just pick up—if you’re playing KCI, you’re going to commit to it because otherwise you just can’t play it. Therefore, KCI’s conversion numbers are artificially high.
That said, it is a very good deck, and it’s certainly tier 1. If people decide that they want to beat it, they will be able to, but while there isn’t incentive for people to do that, then KCI could just be the best deck in the format, so there’s incentive for you to get in while you can. The issue is that, at some point, people will be fed up with it, and then they will beat it, and you have to be careful to not be part of the KCI-bubble when it bursts.
Which version of U/W/x Control is the best?
In my opinion, U/W is the best right now, and it’s not particularly close. I’ve played Jeskai before, but that was when I expected Humans, Affinity, and Burn to be bigger portions of the metagame than they are now.
I think U/W is better than Jeskai for three main reasons. First, more of your removal exiles. You play cards like Terminus or Condemn instead of Bolt and Helix, and those are better against Hollow One, Dredge, and Bogles in the case of Terminus. They’re worse against Steel Overseer and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, but your deck is still fine against those strategies.
Second, the resurgence of planeswalkers means that you don’t need incidental burn to kill. Both Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria are kill conditions and while they certainly aren’t fast, they also aren’t glacial.
Third, you get to abuse Field of Ruins. You can play Field of Ruins in Jeskai, but it comes with a cost, and you probably can’t play four. Field of Ruins, complemented by Spreading Seas or not, are a huge part of your plan against decks like Tron and Scapeshift, which are just very bad matchups for Jeskai. Not playing red also makes you safer against Blood Moon and opposing land denial. I’ve played matches of Jeskai versus U/W where I lost because my opponent simply got rid of all my white sources, for example, which would never happen in straight U/W.
In sum, I think U/W gives away percentages in matches where it’s already good, but in return gets a much better chance against the other matchups. So, for example (and these are just made-up percentages to illustrate the point, though they aren’t wrong by much): Jeskai is 75% versus Humans, but it’s 15% versus Tron. U/W is 60% versus Humans, but 40% versus Tron, and it goes similarly for Affinity/Hollow One + Dredge, for example. Unless Humans + Affinity vastly outnumbers Tron + Hollow One + Dredge, then you’re better off with U/W.
What is the best linear archetype for someone who is unfamiliar with the format?
If you’re unfamiliar with the format, you should choose a proactive strategy, so no U/W Control, for example. If you want to play an aggressive deck, then I recommend Humans—it’s very powerful and all you need to do is study the top decks a little so that you know what to name with Meddling Mage. If you want to play a non-aggressive deck, then I recommend Tron.
How do you predict metagame changes and prepare for a shifting format?
(Plus a lot of other questions about the Modern metagame.)
Well, in Modern, you don’t try to predict it. That’s the thing with Modern—it’s resilient and changes slowly. At the risk of getting too philosophical, imagine, for example, that Standard is a small stream. You throw a rock in it and it might change the course of the whole thing. The stream as you know it might cease to exist and a new one might be formed. Small changes in Standard have huge consequences. Modern is a river. You throw a rock in it, and it’s not even going to notice. Eventually, you throw enough rocks that it will slowly change its course by a couple of degrees maybe, but it’ll still be the same thing.
So even when something happens in Modern, I don’t think you are in any rush to adjust to it. I’ve certainly given up on trying to predict metagame changes, because there’s no way to know how quickly people are going to react. Some react in a day, some in a month, and some simply never do. So my advice for people playing Modern is to look at the present. Don’t try to predict the future because more often than not you’ll fail, and even if you do succeed, the rewards aren’t very big.
This is part of the reason why it’s recommended that you choose a deck and stick to it. Obviously, if it’s horribly positioned you shouldn’t play it, but it’s rare that a deck in Modern is horribly positioned, and overall you get more percentage points by playing your deck proficiently than by choosing the “right deck for the metagame.”
How do you choose your sideboard against such a wide format? Should you play targeted bullets or versatile cards?
I think both approaches are valid, and it depends on what type of deck you have. As a general rule, control decks have a lot of polarized cards game 1 (cards that are either bad or great depending on what your opponent is playing). Think Path to Exile, Supreme Verdict, Terminus, Lightning Helix, Fatal Push, and so on. Those decks have a lot of cards they need to take out against several matchups, which means that they need to board in multiple cards against everyone. So they’re looking for more generic answers—think Disenchant or Ceremonious Rejection over Stony Silence. Those cards are worse in the right matchups, but have more applications. Control decks can play a couple of copies of those super hate bullets, and often do for matchups that are very hard, but they try to diversify more because you can’t have a sideboarded deck in the mirror with Path to Exile and Terminus in it. Those control decks also see a lot more cards since they play long games and have card drawing and card selection, so having a 1- or 2-of of a targeted hate card can be useful because you’ll find it over the course of the game.
Proactive decks usually do not have polarized cards game 1, or not nearly as much, which means that they never need to take eight or ten cards out. They want to keep their game plan intact as much as possible, which means that they don’t need generic cards and are better off with targeted bullets—pick the best card for a given matchup and play a lot of them. They also often play shorter games or don’t have access to card draw, which means that they can’t rely on eventually finding a 1- or 2-of.
Who wins: Humans or Jeskai?
I think Jeskai wins and it’s not close. I don’t know where this myth that Humans is favored versus Jeskai started, but as far as I am concerned there’s no truth to it. Jeskai removes all of the creatures! If I had to play a Modern tournament and knew everyone would play Humans, I’d just play Jeskai (and in fact I did exactly that when I thought [wrongly] that everyone would play Humans at the PT. I did beat all my Humans opponents too!).
Is U/B Faeries playable?
Playable yes, good no. I think it’s between tier 2 and 3, except there are like ten decks in tier 1 and another ten more in tier 2.
The biggest problem with Faeries in Modern is that the incentive to be Faeries just doesn’t exist. You’re going through all those hoops to make Spellstutter Sprite happen and then other decks can just play Snapcaster Mage instead and get the same kind of effect all the time. Bitterblossom was an amazing card in Standard, but it’s not nearly as good in Modern, and the variety of threats in the format make it very hard to react.
When testing a brand new deck or archetype, what are the first questions you need the deck to answer?
I think the most important questions I want answered are:
- Do I have a powerful game plan? As mentioned before, it’s very hard to metagame in Modern, so I don’t want a deck that relies on my opponents doing things—I want a deck that can win on its own merits. In ten rounds, I might play against ten completely different archetypes that will do completely different things, so my cards have to be powerful.
- Do I have free wins? This isn’t a deal-breaker (since control decks often don’t and can be good in Modern), but it’s very relevant. In Modern, a lot of people just fizzle. Tron decks have draws where they don’t find Tron and do nothing. Bogles decks have draws where they mulligan to four and don’t find a Bogle. Affinity decks have draws that play their hand out on turn 1 and then don’t draw any business. KCI has draws that don’t draw KCI. Living End has draws where they never find Living End. The list goes on. A lot of Modern decks have fail rates and think it’s good to play a deck that can exploit those because when those draws happen, you have to win—it’s bad to play a deck where Tron will brick for five turns and still beat you.
What do you think of the hate cards that were printed in M19 for Modern specifically?
In general, I don’t see a problem with printing cards for other formats, but I’d rather they were elegant and actually good. Amulet of Safekeeping and Alpine Moon are so “in your face” about what they do, and they have no ramification for Standard, which makes them particularly bad rares—opening a pack and seeing a card like Amulet of Safekeeping will create a mixture of disappointment and confusion because that card clearly does not belong in Standard. On top of that, neither Amulet of Safekeeping nor Alpine Moon are particularly playable.
Cards like Isolate, however, I’m completely fine with, because those look like Magic cards. They can be played in Standard—they likely just won’t be—and they aren’t obviously aren’t designed for Modern.
That’s what I have for today! See you soon.