Modern should be left alone. One way or the other.
We could recognize that it’s a relatively healthy non-rotating format and continue to support it without additional bannings or unbannings.
The other option is to conclude that non-rotating formats have some serious competitive issues, issues that cannot be stamped out, and therefore Modern should be left alone. On the shelf.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa wants to have it both ways, and he suggests we keep tinkering with Modern. I suspect he is looking for a holy grail that can’t be found. (Ari Lax has expressed a sentiment similar to PVDDR’s following my initial draft of this article—references to PVDDR in this article can be taken as references to a somewhat more forceful version of the arguments presented by Paulo and Ari. Neither of them truly claimed to have all the answers, and I have to give them credit for that while also responding to the claims they did make.)
To the extent we all agree Modern isn’t a great PT format, we might disagree as to why, and as to whether bannings or unbanning can fix it or should be attempted.
Non-rotating formats like Modern include thousands and thousands of legal cards. What defines a non-rotating format is that while the number of legal cards increases at every new set’s release, there is no rotation of older cards scheduled to leave the format, like in Standard. Furthermore, if the number of legal cards is growing at a flat rate, the number of combinations of cards grows exponentially. The number of total combinations is bafflingly large. While the number of truly viable combinations is several orders smaller, we don’t know exactly how much smaller. This space is so large that there is no way all combinations have even been considered, not even all the tournament-viable ones, let alone evaluated against some criteria of viability.
Given all these possible decks, why did 30% of the participants in Pro Tour Fate Reforged play Abzan Midrange (the artist formerly known as Junk)? Abzan has flexible hand disruption in Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize and flexible removal in Abrupt Decay, Maelstrom Pulse, and Liliana of the Veil (which can eliminate large creatures, hexproof creatures, or just go to work on the opponent’s total hand size).
The flexibility of these reactive spells, and the strength of the ancillary components Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Lingering Souls, and Siege Rhino make Abzan Midrange the reactive deck of choice. It’s extremely hard to be more reactive than Abzan in Modern for the reasons PVDDR outlines—a player faces too many different kinds of threats to sit back and react to everything.
So Abzan was certainly the safest reactive deck, and quite possibly the best reactive deck, to bring to the Pro Tour of this new format. Okay, cool. What do we make of that?
PVDDR assumes that 30% Abzan is a somewhat fixed figure rather than the metagame of this one tournament—the "first" tournament. He writes of the rest of the metagame, “most of those decks are what we would classify as ‘unfair decks’—they are hard to beat unless you specifically prepare. Most of them are also very easy to beat if you do prepare. The problem? There are too many of them, and you can't prepare against everything.”
So we can’t bring one deck that prepares for all the rest, well, except for Abzan. We can’t bring Mana Leaks and Cryptic Commands and just do our thing (though we can bring our Inquisitions and Lilianas). Why is that a problem for the rest of us?
This is where the article fell short. He explains why other reactive decks are struggling, but not why we ought to care.
If the principle supporting the thesis is that there ought to be a top-tier way to play reactive Magic, well, there is—Abzan. If the principle supporting the thesis is that there ought to be more than one tier 1 reactive deck, it starts to sound like a strange first principle. Worse, it sounds like a moving target. Wizards of the Coast delivers a non-rotating format where a 4-mana rhinoceros is attacking and blocking for a big chunk of the metagame and our response is “Well what about Snapcaster?” Really?
And about that 12% of the field that was Burn, everyone on Twitter was quick to spot that the deck isn’t all that interactive, and functions like a combo deck.
@mtg_law_etc because people don't want to gamble on being colded by sideboard cards. Burn is just another combo
— Paulo Vitor (@PVDDR) February 17, 2015
— Ari Lax (@armlx) February 17, 2015
Sure it functions like a combo deck, except for the fact that a newer player can execute the kill, a newer player probably has intuitions about how to stop it that aren’t completely backward, and most people even showed up with several cards that do interact with the deck by killing one of its many creatures or by gaining life. And if they didn’t this week, they can next week.
But we’ve been over this already. From an immeasurable number of combinations, some powerful ones are going to emerge. There is going to be combo, there is going to be linear aggro, and if it seems too “unfair” that generic answers can’t be made to handle it all, it will be tempting to start spotting patterns in the metagame and making up first principles that the patterns violate.
Where Have All the Blue Decks Gone?
PV suggests that unbanning Ancestral Vision could be the answer.
How would this deck with Ancestral Vision handle all the various “unfair” decks anyway? The article leaves it to the reader to determine, but we know it would be through versatile reactive cards like the same Inquisitions and Thoughtseizes that are in Abzan, and/or the just as familiar and annoying blue cards like Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. It’s still going to lose to Affinity and Burn as much as Abzan does if it shows up with the same number of hate cards. So what’s the point?
This world with blue reactive decks that can handle all the other top tier decks is, for many others, a dystopia of Spell Snares and Lightning Bolts followed by flashed-back Spell Snares and Lightning Bolts.
Rock, Paper, Scissors
If I take a less cynical reading of PV’s thesis, I would say he is arguing against a metagame that feels too much like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Match outcomes are driven too much by matchups and arbitrary sideboard choices, and not enough by tuning and gameplay decisions. This is a fair critique of non-rotating formats. But Paulo offers no reasonable way out.
“If $500 won’t help, what’s $2000 gonna do?” Regarding the expanded sideboard, yes, you make reactive decks better. But you'll make Affinity and Burn worse. What principle does that serve?
Mark Herberholz had this take on the sideboard expansion issue: “20-card sideboards seem like a bad idea. Isn't the benefit of playing Burn, Affinity, Storm, etc. that your opponents have that pressure on those sideboard slots and can't have something for each matchup. If you had more sideboard slots, wouldn't this just kill off those streamlined archetypes? I don't see that as a good thing. Sure it's random if you decided to fade Affinity and get paired vs. it 3 times, but how is this different than you deciding to go light on lands and getting mana screwed? Magic requires an element of luck, both in the games and in the pairings. The choices we make when building our decks and sideboard are important based on a metagame, this adds to the complexity and fun of the game. By increasing the number of SB slots you reduce the importance of those decisions, and in my opinion take away from the fun in deckbuilding.”
All right, at this point I’ve given PVDDR enough grief for not stating his principles that I better state mine.
My Principles of a Healthy Non-Rotating Format
• No deck or decks are so good that even if everyone expects them, they still enjoy a win percentage that is frighteningly high. (This is basically where we were with decks like Treasure Cruise Delver & Pod in pre-bannings Modern.)
• A competitive deck this week is still competitive next week, though of course its precise position in the metagame may shift. (If this doesn’t hold, why pay the tax of not rotating the format? A truly warped metagame will strain this principle by making some strategies that have always been tier 1 or tier 2 unplayable. The fact that we can’t always sideboard 2 Creeping Corrosion and 3 Stony Silence, and thus shrug off Affinity, is a feature not a bug. The little kid [be it Karsten or Rietzl] that loves his or her Affinity deck needs this to be the case.)
• No card or combination appears everywhere, in this deck and that deck, with these other cards and those other cards, because it is so powerful or so easy to use or both. (This is why fetchlands SHOULD be banned and why Deathrite Shaman had to take a bullet for these sacred cows. This is why Wasteland and Brainstorm would be banned in Legacy if it were ever going to be a Pro Tour format with a coherent banned list.)
This is a first draft of these principles, created out of whole cloth by one person (me) for this article, so I’m sure there is some tweaking to be done. I welcome input in the comments below about what you would change. The point of the exercise, however flawed this first draft is, is to seek the guiding light that appears when we ask ourselves “what do I actually care about?” In this case we also need to make sure that we aren’t answering the question personally (“I care about feeling safe and secure when pairings go up rather than nervous about matchups”) and claiming to answer it from the perspective of what is best for the format or best for the majority of players.
Rock/Paper/Scissors is just how powerful decks interact—in the absence of a mediator like Abzan or Blue Aggro-Control that can hover around 50% against a wide range of decks. The criticism is that these rock-ish, green/black reactive decks are the only ones that are viable, but something has to be best. For years in non-rotating formats it was/is blue decks.
Now black decks are having a moment in the Modern sun, but that means Spirit tokens and Rhinos running around attacking and blocking, which is great. It means deck lists of 75 cards that are obviously good in an obvious way. Abzan isn’t all bad by any stretch, and you have to be really careful about releasing a blue antidote like Ancestral Vision to the monotony, for the true opposite of monotony is frightening chaos. Even something like casting Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites and a fatty that locks the opponent out or draws 14 cards is looming just under the surface of Modern.
When people suggest unbanning Sword of the Meek, I want to shake them. You ever play against that combo? It’s as fun as playing against Lingering Souls combined with receiving a root canal.
If you can’t handle Modern at its worst, you don’t deserve it at its best. That didn’t really make sense, but it worked for Marilyn. Hoping to get paired against the right decks doesn’t just reward hope, it rewards prediction of the metagame, judicious use of the allocated sideboard slots, sometimes radical adjustment of the mulligan strategy we’re used to (as Martin Juza proved last PT), etc. Non-rotating formats require different things to go right in order to win, but as Heezy pointed out, tournament Magic relies on a mix of randomness and preparation. For non-rotating formats, if you can show up and not have bad matchups, something is likely very wrong.
All the other decks have to give up percentage against Deck A to gain percentage against Deck B. Twin has to decide whether to play midrange or go full combo, depending on the metagame. I played an Affinity deck with 4 Tempered Steel to try and combat Stony Silence. My game-1 win rate was worse as a result. The reactive decks, when they go to sideboard hate cards, should face the same trade-offs. You can stop some of the other decks some of the time, but not all the decks all the time.
Not wanting another Modern Pro Tour is a reasonable desire. Non-rotating formats are not like small rotating formats—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But I think if you compare the metagame of Pro Tour Fate Reforged to a set of reasonable criteria for what a healthy non-rotating format looks like, this Modern format passes the test.
[Editor's Note: This article incorrectly referred to Modern as an Eternal format instead of a non-rotating format.]