5 Point Plan: Get in Shape for Modern
There are things afoot, my young and hungry Planeswalkers.
This weekend will see several tournaments taking place across the UK, the biggest of which is a PTQ in Sheffield in the Theros Sealed Deck format… however, on the basis that I know absolutely nothing about Theros limited at this stage, I wouldn’t feel comfortable advising you on how to carve a winning path there.
Instead, I’m going to pick the format which will be featured in several GPTs around the country: Modern. It’s my favourite format aside from Cube, one which I’ve played a fair bit – and one in which I’ve received some bruising lessons over the last 6 months.
I’ll give you the benefit of those lessons, wrapped up in a little bit of background about the format. Hopefully, if you have an eye on playing Modern this weekend or in the near future, this article will give you a small leg up in your preparation.
1. About the Modern Format
Modern is a non-rotating format which incorporates cards printed between 8th Edition and the most recent set of the day (currently Theros). When I say non-rotating, I mean simply that sets don’t move out of the format when they reach a certain age, like Innistrad has just done in Standard; instead, Modern just gets deeper and richer with every printing.
It’s also a fairly young format, having only been on the scene since the summer of 2011. What this means is that although there are some solid, prominent decks which tend to place well in events, there is still a reasonable amount of unexplored ground.
It’s often said of Modern that a player can run whatever kind of deck they like. This is true, provided that the player in question is not concerned about getting results.
If one is interested in winning, things become more difficult: there is probably a viable deck out there which fits anyone’s play-style, but finding it can be challenging. This combination of possibility and challenge make Modern a thinking brewer’s paradise.
2. The golden rule of Modern
Whatever you do, you need to be proactive.
I’ve durdled around a fair bit in Modern. I’ve played decks which tried to blow up lands, or grind away at my opponents with Death Clouds and Bloodghasts – slow decks which were intended to put my opponents into a hole they could never climb out of. It didn’t work.
Let’s examine the land death plan. My most treasured pet deck was based on repeatedly destroying my opponent’s manabase, starting on turn 2.
It was very effective at blowing up lands. The problem? Do you know how many sweet threats can be deployed for two mana or less in this format?
The card quality is so high, the mana requirements so small that a stumble over lands won’t necessarily prove too costly in Modern. My deck wasn’t able to consistently finish off the other player before they could draw a dominating two-drop and get back in the game.
There are some decks which can successfully ‘sit back’ in a game of Modern – a couple of which we’ll look at in the next section – but only because they have an overwhelmingly powerful proactive plan to switch into when the time is right.
This is the format of infinite combos, pinpoint discard, blazing fast red aggression, arbitrarily large life-gain and brutal, grindingly powerful mid-range decks. You need to be doing something every turn to progress toward winning the game, starting on turn one.
Go proactive or go home.
3. The Top Dogs of Modern
In a format as diverse as this one, it’s not easy to pin down a typical rogue’s gallery – but these are the decks I think it would pay to be aware of at the present time:
Melira Pod has taken a number of top prizes in recent large Modern tournaments; Pro Player Sam Pardee in particular has had remarkable success with the archetype. It’s tremendously resilient and has several paths to victory – a feature it has in common with other strong Modern decks.
While Melira Pod used to depend on the graveyard for its most prominent winning interactions, the addition of Archangel of Thune to the format has created an infinite-life combo (with Spike Feeder) which can be deployed straight from the battlefield.
There is another deck, Kiki-Pod, which makes use of the same tutoring engine, but it has fallen out of favour recently.
Jund is like an angry, burning zombie: the unkillable deck, immune to bans and sideboard strategies alike.
When a player lists the most impactful, mana-efficient, non-blue cards in Modern, they will typically find themselves writing out a Jund decklist. It’s difficult to hate out because, if good cards were all vulnerable to the same simple, flexible answers… they wouldn’t be good.
If you are going to play Modern, practice playing against Jund. Have a plan for Jund. Because if you don’t, you’ll lose a lot of matches… to Jund.
Affinity has changed beyond all recognition since the bad old days – it barely plays any cards bearing the Affinity mechanic, for instance – but it’s still capable of vomiting a huge volume of very inexpensive artifact creatures onto the table in the first two turns of the game, killing the opponent shortly afterward.
Although a resolved Pyroclasm will paint a sad face on most affinity players, the deck plays eight man-lands which give it some resistance to the traditional sorcery-speed sweepers. I also recommend having answers to a Cranial Plating, otherwise the first top-decked Inkmoth Nexus might be the last thing you see before signing the match slip.
Splinter Twin is my nemesis in the Modern format.
I always get paired against Twin; I always mull to 6; I always keep a hand with one kill spell; they always have the combo plus a Dispel. I am bitter enough, at this point, to make every Twin opponent on MTGO actually play out their kill.
You want my misery, mate? Invest the time and earn it.
Is it any wonder I’ve become obsessed with Abrupt Decay?
I haven’t lost a tremendous number of games to Valakut personally, but it’s a solid deck. It may not be the fastest combo in the format, but it asks so little of the pilot in terms of achieving the win: make lands, resolve this spell, shake hands.
As long as there is a Modern format, someone will be trying to kill you with Valakut. Factor that into your sideboard construction and you’ll do OK.
4. The Budget options
Modern decks are fun, but they are expensive.
I feel bad recommending only options which will require players to remortgage their property, or establish a Ponzi scheme.
Here are some things you can do for a relatively modest amount of money:
A pretty accomplished player, whom I’ve known for some time, has been saying something very wise for the last year:
“People think Burn is a joke, but the joke’s on them. Their decks probably can’t beat Burn.”
He’s right, you know. I’ve played against a reasonable amount of Burn decks in the last 12 months – and I’ve only won consistently with a deck that could play and flashback multiple copies of Lightning Helix.
Burn is brutal and direct; Burn does not care about your subtle interactions, or your draw-step Vendillion Cliques; Burn will spend only a few moments staring into the embers of your smouldering corpse, before it loses interest and heads off to light someone else up in the next round.
If you’re new to the format – and want a deck with a high probability of cutting through all the fancy-Dan players and their foil fetchlands – it would be a good plan to build Burn.
Now you want a deck that has a good game against Burn? You’re welcome.
Let me tell you a story about Soul Sisters.
Earlier this year, I was playing the land destruction deck I talked about in section 2. One of my games against the Soul Sisters deck went like this:
It was outrageous. But it taught me something: do not underestimate this deck.
Just like Burn, people also like to laugh at Soul Sisters. They like to tell everyone that the deck cannot beat a Pyroclasm, etc. People are entitled to their opinion, but to them I say this: any deck which is almost invulnerable to mana-screw – and which can attack me with what amounts to a flying Wurmcoil Engine on its second turn – is worthy of my respect.
If you want to do things which will periodically frustrate sneering know-it-alls, by winning from just a couple of Plains while their fetch-dual manabase won’t come together, build Soul Sisters.
5. What I’m playing in Modern right now
It wouldn’t be an article without a decklist… and it wouldn’t be one of my articles if I wasn’t breaking all of my own rules by the end. Here’s what I’ve been playing – and loving – for the last couple of weeks in Modern:
This little beauty made its way to me courtesy of Pro Player Patrick Chapin, which whom I share an addiction to Grixis Control (although sadly, not a comparable skill level in building and playing it).
After running a decent number of matches with it, I can tell you that Chapin has done something I consider quite difficult: he has created a reactive deck which has a good shot in Modern.
The deck is very focussed indeed, even though its card choices are highly varied; it simply wants to stay in the game until it can cast a Cruel Ultimatum and ensure it resolves. From there, things should get easier, allowing the pilot either to stick a second ultimatum or to safely attack an opponent to death with man-lands. The deck can even go to a full-on burn plan if required, with 11 cards in the maindeck which can go straight to the face, plus Snapcaster Mages to recur them.
A crucial part of this deck’s viability can be found by examining its curve: it runs 35 non-land cards… and 20 of them cost two mana or less. That’s what it takes to interact with the apex predators of Modern – options galore in the earliest turns of the game.
Once we reach the bigger spells, we see a wall of card advantage. Every single spell north of the two-mana line provides value when it resolves, even if it’s only in the form of brilliant mana-fixing and acceleration (as in the case of the singleton Coalition Relic).
The mana base is, frankly, a work of art. Chapin has crammed in lots of utility whilst still balancing his need to have the right colours at the right time. I haven’t changed a single card at this point – I think I’ll need to get a lot of game-time under my belt before I’ll dare to pop the bonnet and tinker with the engine of such a delicate, precise machine.
I’ve personally found this deck a delight to play. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – and certainly not if you’re very new to the format – but it will make an important demographic, the Grixis Degenerates, smile broadly and long. I can get behind that idea.
I hope that those of you playing in GPTs this weekend enjoy a cocktail of good fun and great results (mixed to suit your personal tastes). I’m heading down south on a little gaming holiday, much of which will doubtless become like a Magic training camp for some of my friends who’re just getting into the game… and I can’t wait.
Until next time, Cruel Ultimatum your opponents repeatedly until the tears carve channels into their soft, rosy cheeks. GRIXIS REPRESENT!