Modern’s a Better Format Now—Why?

It’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the Modern format. Back when it was first introduced, I felt it had a number of flaws that made it unsuitable for high level competitive play, and playing Modern over the years has reinforced that belief more and more. I’ve always been vocal about my opinions, and now I’ve become the poster child for disliking Modern—I’ve been approached by more than one person who wanted me to sign “Modern sucks” on their playmat, for example. Yet, even I think this Modern format is pretty fun, and I kind of want to play it—I’m even considering attending the Modern WMCQs when 2 months ago the chance of that happening was 0.

But why is that? Why do I like Modern more now?

Modern Is No Longer a PT Format

This is excellent news for the format as a whole. WoTC has stated multiple times that they do not dedicate much time to testing Modern. Sure, they think about it when they’re designing cards, but the bulk of their testing (if not all of their testing) is done to make sure Standard is a good format. Even then, they often miss things—they didn’t fully comprehend, for example, the degree to which players would push mana bases in the new Standard format. That’s understandable, because there are about 10 people making sure something isn’t broken and there are about 10,000 trying to break it. When you have a Modern PT, you incentivize hundreds of the best players to break it as well, and there’s a decent chance that they will see something that WotC didn’t.

Take, for example, the current format—there have been 2 GPs and a MOCS , yet I’d say that there is still a lot of room for exploration. How good is Nahiri, really? Do you want to play her in a blue shell or in a black shell? Do you want to play more Pithing Needles now? How about something more drastic, such as Zealous Conscripts? Is Tireless Tracker good? How about Traverse the Ulvenwald—can it be played in a different deck? Are there other Ancestral Vision decks? Thopter Foundry decks? And that Dredgevine deck—is it good? Does it want Neonates? Is there a Goblin Dark-Dwellers/Boom Bust combo deck?

Those are all questions that there aren’t answers for yet. Obviously there are some people with opinions, but there isn’t an accepted answer—it’s not “known” whether Jeskai Nahiri is better than Mardu Nahiri, for example (and my guess is Mardu, for whatever that’s worth, because Lingering Souls is great). This makes me excited to explore the format and it makes me want to play it because I feel like there are things I can discover, there is a payoff, it’s fun and interesting, and challenging instead of simply jamming stock decks against each other for 8 hours a day. And this is, again, is true right after 2 GPs and a MOCS.

Had any of those tournaments been a PT, I think the answer to all those questions would already have been answered, because you’d have 400 very dedicated and incentivized people working to solve them, and if 1 single person of those 400 found it, the whole world would know the answer—there would have been 1 good tournament, and then everything else for the next year or so would have been the exact same. Simply put, the format would be boring.

Since Modern is a non-rotating format, solving or breaking it is a bigger deal than it is in Standard, because once it’s solved it’s very likely to remain solved for a while. Even if nothing is broken, it’s boring to play the same format over and over again. Since nothing ever leaves and those cards that do break in are usually not strong enough to make a big difference, WotC is forced to resort to periodic bans to address problematic decks or shake up the format a little bit. Bans directed at professional play end up taking a much great toll on the people who aren’t playing professionally, because those are the people who take the time and money to build one deck and stick with it. Modern is a popular format because you can do exactly this—you can build a deck over months and then play it for years to come, getting better and better with it and never having to spend much more money—and the competitive bans stop you from doing that.

You can draw a parallel to Legacy. I love playing Legacy and I think it’s a great format, but I don’t think it should be a PT format. The first problem is card availability—people had trouble finding 20 Secure the Wastes last PT—imagine how it would be to try to find 20 Candelabras or Imperial Recruiters. The second problem is that I don’t think Legacy can survive the kind of scrutiny it would be placed under if it were a PT format. Legacy thrives and is so healthy in part because there is little incentive to break it, so people play what they like more. This creates a scenario where there are 20 viable Legacy decks, and you can play whichever one you want. If there were a Legacy PT, I don’t think you’d see those 20 decks at the PT or after the PT because it would become clear that one deck is much better than all the others, and at that point, the stakes are too high for you to give up on a deck advantage.

In sum, I think removing Modern as a PT format is better for everyone, whether you are playing at the PT or not. If WotC commits to supporting the format (and I have no reason to believe they won’t, as you still see Modern GPs, WMCQs, WMC, Worlds, and MOCS), this simply makes the format more varied without having to resort to bans.

You Can Now Play More Generic Answers

WoTC did a pretty good job with bans and unbans. I wrote that the Twin ban was a mistake, and I stood behind that opinion at the time the decision was made, but when you group that with the new batch of bans and unbans, I think it makes the format healthier. As I wrote back then, I agree that Twin was oppressive and should go, but I thought it was a necessary evil for blue to exist in the format. Now that they’ve banned Eye of Ugin and unbanned Ancestral Visions, and printed some cool cards like Nahiri, the decision to ban Twin makes a lot more sense because those decks no longer need this oops-I-win-at-instant-speed factor.

A lot of people think that pros love blue and therefore “can’t stand a format where blue isn’t good because they love blue #Blue4L,” but this is not true. The reason pros like blue as a whole is that blue provides generic answers. Blue doesn’t have to be the best color, or even very good—it just has to be playable, because if it isn’t, you end up in a spot where the format is all about matching the right answers to exactly the right threats. In a format as diverse as Modern, where decks rarely top 10% of the field, it’s very hard to have the right answer because you can’t jam 4 of every hate card in your sideboard. As a result, you end up with 1-2 of each thing, or you choose a couple decks to hate and ignore the others, and those situations simply aren’t fun for either player.

Blue allows you to play answers that reach across multiple combo decks. Instead of having to sideboard a specific card against each archetype, you can maindeck Remand, Spell Snare, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Cryptic Command, Vendilion Clique, and so on, which are cards that give you game against all combo decks. With the Twin ban, your only way to have generic answers was discard—Thoughtseize, Inquisition, and Liliana. The reason Junk and Jund decks have historically been so popular at the PT level is that they are one of the few ways to have game against everything. Now that Eye of Ugin is banned and Ancestral Vision is unbanned, you can add blue decks to the equation again. Since you have those blue decks, you also have the decks that are good against the blue decks gaining strength.

If I’m going to compare Modern to Legacy again, those blue cards would play the same role as Force of Will. Legacy is great but without Force of Will in the format, it would be awful because everyone would die on turn 2. The mere fact that Force of Will exists makes you adapt, and as a result makes the format healthier, even if you aren’t playing the Force of Will yourself. Decks have to dedicate slots to their own disruption, which makes them slower, and you can now race them more easily with your White Weenie deck. Remand is, of course, no Force of Will, but combo decks in Modern are also slower so you don’t need Force of Will.

TL;DR: Modern is now a better format because it looks a lot more like Legacy.

Moving Forward

Right now, it seems that the format is in a healthy place—there are some combo decks, some aggro decks, some control decks, and a lot of stuff in between. At the MOCS,we saw 11 different archetypes from 13 players, and it’s 11 truly different decks, not decks that are like each other but being named differently to fabricate diversity. At GP Charlotte there were 7 different decks in the Top 8, and GP Los Angeles had 7 decks as well—a lot of those decks were cool and unique. There is even a Merfolk deck that won a GP, which seems to be an inexplicable phenomenon that happens once every year, like a comet. The best part to me, though, is that those decks all seem truly viable, and they’re mostly “normal” decks—they aren’t combo decks that require specific answers to beat—they’re just your humble creature decks or control decks. Even the combo deck that won the GP (Ad Nauseam) is a lot less degenerate than what we’ve seen before—it’s a normal deck. It looks like you can play whatever you want in Modern and have a chance to do well—so different from the 30% Jund or 50% Eldrazi metagames we had in the past.

That said, there are 2 decks that worry me a bit—Infect and Affinity. Those decks still seem to be above the curve, even though it doesn’t look like there are a lot more people playing them than there were before. Infect clearly breaks the turn 4 rule—sometimes it breaks the turn 3 rule—and I really wish it was a little bit slower because games you lose against it can be very frustrating.

Affinity is a different animal. It doesn’t break the turn 4 rule often enough (though it can kill turn 3), but it often creates scenarios where you can’t win already on turn 1. It doesn’t matter if you are dead on turn 3 if you know you will be dead turn 4 no matter what and there is nothing you can do about it. Affinity is the biggest offender when it comes to making Modern a “draw sideboard card or die” format, since it’s so hard to beat Affinity without dedicated hate, yet it’s easy to beat if you do have hate. This has been the case for years and I’m very surprised that no action was taken against it. To make matters worse, one of the few decks that historically had a good matchup against it even without sideboard cards (Splinter Twin) is gone. I think the format would be healthier if people didn’t have to dedicate 20% or more of their sideboard to cards that were good against Affinity and bad versus everybody else, and it would also be healthier if we had fewer “did I draw it?” games.

While they could theoretically ban something to fix those issues, I don’t think this is something they should do right now, as the players don’t know how the format looks (and there is no PT to worry about). I do think the format would have been better had they announced a Cranial Plating ban alongside the Eye of Ugin ban, but the window has passed and it’s better to wait and see what we have on our hands. Banning cards is a tricky business, and this would be a scenario where I think the costs could outweigh the benefits.

Instead, I think it’s up to the players to put those decks down if they rise too much. Luckily, Affinity is easily hateable, so it’s very unlikely to dominate as a wave of hate will put it back in its place. Infect is a bit harder to flat-out hate, as hate cards (like Spellskite) are easier to answer, but you can still tune your deck to beat it with cheap removal and with cards like Lingering Souls if it becomes a problem. As long as you don’t forget about those decks, they won’t cause a lot of problems, and, if you do forget, then it will only take 1 tournament to remind you.



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