Modern has been in a state of flux lately. Gitaxian Probe has been banned, and a swath of new playable cards have been printed in the past year. Foremost among these is Fatal Push, but other important players include the Kaladesh “fast lands,” Walking Ballista, Vizier of Remedies, Renegade Rallier, Baral, Chief of Compliance, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and Cathartic Reunion, just to name a few.
Perhaps most of all, Modern is being played competitively at a blistering pace via Grand Prix, the Magic Online Championship series, SCG events, MTGO Leagues, and independent events. Players are discovering new technology, improving on existing decks, reacting to metagame trends, and trying to out-think one another. It’s a lot to keep track of!
Thankfully, that’s what you have me for. I spent the weekend playing, watching, and researching Modern in an effort to organize my thoughts on the format. Today’s article will be a short primer on what to expect from your next Modern event. It should be helpful for players getting into the format for the first time, as well as for masters who already know the decks, and simply need some advice on how to weigh them in their metagame predictions.
Modern is an extremely diverse format. There are about 30 distinct decks that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Top 8 of the next SCG Modern Open. If you extend that list to include outdated and slightly-less-competitive decks, the number becomes closer to 100. The brewing potential is also limitless, so you can never prepare for everything going into a Modern event.
Instead, I’ll focus on the short list of decks that you’re very likely to face, as well as painting some broad categories so that you’ll have a better chance to understand what’s going on when you encounter the unexpected. I’ll offer my metagame percentage predictions, but these are meant to be very, very rough estimates based on my own research and instincts. The decks you face will differ with level of competition, live vs. online, and where in the world you’re playing.
1. U/B/x Shadow
(Roughly 12% of the field.)
The most popular deck right now is Grixis Death’s Shadow. Death’s Shadow is an extremely powerful card that flew mostly under the radar for quite a long time. Over the past 2 years, players have been working hard to find the best shell for Death’s Shadow, and Grixis is the current winner.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
Daniel Fournier, 2nd Place at the SCG Invitational
Playing with this deck feels scarily similar to playing with Delver in Legacy. It has a low land count, operates very well on just 2 or 3 lands, and a huge portion of its cards allow you to see more cards. This gives it a high level of consistency, and lets it find its answers when it needs them. Combine that with a fast clock and heavy disruption, and you have something that’s very difficult to beat.
Esper Shadow plays similarly, but trades in Terminate and Kolaghan’s Command for Lingering Souls and white sideboard cards. Since Lingering Souls is one of the best cards against these Death’s Shadow decks, it’s an appealing strategy for pseudo-mirrors.
You’ll recognize the play pattern as similar to the old Grixis Delver decks, which need not be an extinct species. Hybrids between Delver and Death’s Shadow are also possible.
(Roughly 11% of the field.)
Once upon a time, Eldrazi was a dominant strategy in Modern. In fact, it was one of the most dominant strategies in the history of tournament Magic. Since then, Eye of Ugin was banned, which crippled the tribe in terms of the consistency of its best draws. But in the games where Eldrazi Temple shows up in the opening hand, you can still see glimpses of its former power.
Eldrazi Tron pairs the Eldrazi Temples with Urza lands, giving itself multiple chances to get lucky and have awesome opening hands. What it sacrifices in colored cards it makes up for in the power of its mana base. This deck has a great intersection of late-game inevitability and early-game nut-draw potential.
Michael Strianese, 3rd Place at the SCG Invitational
Bant Eldrazi and Colorless Eldrazi are two alternative ways to use the raw power of the Eldrazi tribe. Additionally, you’ll see Thought-Knot Seer and a select few others appear in less-dedicated Eldrazi decks, such as W/B Hatebears.
3. G/B/x Midrange
(Roughly 9% of the field.)
Jund and Abzan are personal favorites of mine, and I share that feeling with many, many Modern players. No matter how powerful the other decks get, there will always be a group of die-hards that will carry the torch for Tarmogoyf and Liliana of the Veil.
I actually believe that this is a very good time to be playing G/B/x. Fatal Push is an awesome addition to the color combination, Lingering Souls is one of the best ways to beat Grixis Shadow, and the non-white versions have strong appeal in other matchups.
There’s not one particular version of G/B/x that’s very popular right now. Instead, it’s mostly about personal taste. But at your next Modern tournament, you shouldn’t be surprised to run into Classic Abzan, Jund, Jund Death’s Shadow, Abzan Traverse, Abzan Knight of the Reliquary, or straight G/B Midrange.
4. Collected Company
(Roughly 8% of the field.)
Five weeks ago, it looked as though the new combo of Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies might completely take over the format. While that didn’t exactly happen, it has proven to be a powerful combo that’s playable in several different shells. Plus, Collected Company remains one of the best cards in Modern.
Counters Company (so named because of Vizier of Remedies) is the heir to the old Melira Combo decks. It has all of the same strengths while upgrading to a simple, direct combo that doesn’t require the graveyard. The most appealing aspect of this deck is its customization and the way it rewards the true masters for knowing all of the gameplay patterns and tricks.
Other common Collected Company decks are W/G Elves and Human tribal decks with Thalia’s Lieutenant.
(Roughly 8% of the field.)
Hatebears has been a fringe strategy for as long as I’ve played Modern. But now might be its time to shine. Coming out of nowhere, it had a fantastic showing at GP Las Vegas, and that was followed up by winning the SCG Invitational in convincing fashion.
Death and Taxes
Brian Coval, 1st Place at the SCG Invitational
The Mono-White Death and Taxes deck that Brian Coval used to win the Invitational excels against opposing creature decks, as well as against the mana-hungry decks that are most punished by Leonin Arbiter and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. This deck may not look like much on paper, but trust me when I say that it’s very annoying to actually play against. Aether Vial, Flickerwisp, and Restoration Angel give it access to tons of tricky plays that you won’t expect, and the amount and variety of disruption makes it adept at stealing games.
Other Hatebear variants include W/B Eldrazi Hatebears and W/G Hatebears a la Craig Wescoe.
Affinity gets a category all its own, both in terms of play pattern and in metagame share. It has remained one of Modern’s best decks since the inception of the format, and it was the winner of GP Las Vegas. It’s pretty strong against both Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron, which are the two most popular decks right now.
My first rule of Modern is to never skimp on Affinity hate. Never.
7. Ramp Decks
(Roughly 7% of the field.)
Although Ramp decks take a variety of forms, the simplest (and in my humble opinion, the best) is R/G Valakut. Primeval Titan is a 1-card combo to win the game, and it’s particularly well positioned in a world where other combo decks are being massacred by Stubborn Denial. Other aspects I love about the Valakut deck are its consistency (virtually every card represents mana) and its inevitability. You don’t have to do anything special to win, because you can simply sit there and start triggering Valakut off of your land drops. Its weakness is its single-mindedness and its inability to make big plays in the first three turns of the game.
Clayton Vogelgesang, 30th Place at the SCG Invitational
Other fringe decks that can use Primeval Titan include Amulet Titan and Green Devotion.
A very different, but still quite successful ramp deck is Classic Urzatron. This deck has been around for a long time and its best draws remain powerful enough to compete with anything. G/B is the most popular right now, but G/R and G/W also see play.
(Roughly 6% of the field.)
Like Affinity, Burn will always be out there to punish those who skimp on sideboard hate. The strategy is simple and effective, and Burn gets access to strong sideboard cards of its own.
(Roughly 6% of the field.)
Control has it tough in Modern with so many very different strategies demanding such different answer cards. It’s typically only very well-practiced players that perform well with control. That said, the card quality is there, and it is one of the better ways to beat up on “smaller” fair decks, like Death’s Shadow.
Jonathan Sukenik, 6th Place at an SCG Classic
Like G/B Midrange, there isn’t one particular build of control you’re likely to run into. There’s U/W, Jeskai, Esper, Grixis, Blue Moon, and the slightly more aggressive Spell Queller decks.
10. Blood Moon Decks
(Roughly 5% of the field.)
Much like Hatebears, Blood Moon decks can look unassuming or downright silly on paper, but they wind up playing out much better than you expect. Three common versions of Blood Moon decks are R/G Ponza, Skred Red, and W/R Hate. Brian DeMars wrote a nice primer on R/G Ponza.
These decks are neither as well-rounded nor as powerful as some of the more popular decks in the format. Instead, their matchups are going to be a bit more polarized based on how effective or ineffective a quick Blood Moon is likely to be.
11. Dedicated Combo
(Roughly 4% of the field.)
Storm, Ad Nauseam, and Goryo’s Vengeance are still out there. These are powerful decks that have some very, very good matchups against certain decks in the field. That said, I wouldn’t be particularly excited to play them in a field of Thoughtseizes and Stubborn Denials.
(Roughly 15% of the field.)
Finally, we get to the biggest and most important category of Modern decks—the “other” decks. The card pool is so deep that there are always going to be a huge number of unique strategies possible.
Some decks that fit in this category are very successful, like Dredge and Living End, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them at the top of the standings. They range to bizarre strategies like W/B Smallpox and Taking Turns, and decks that I encountered for the first time in my research for this article such as Enduring Ideal and Grand Architect! Homebrew decks also fit in this category, and there’s really no advice I can give other than to choose a powerful, proactive deck and to expect the unexpected.
That’s the way I would organize my thoughts, and my testing gauntlet, if I had a big Modern event coming up. The only specific decks that you’re sure to encounter are Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron. But you’ll want to have a rough plan in mind for when you face ramp or control. You won’t be able to practice against every deck that’s out there, but if you learn your own deck well, then you’ll know what to do when you run into something you haven’t prepared for.