A Magic: The Gathering Deck Builder’s Guide to Modern
Now is the winter of our discontent… or at least, it is if you enjoy playing Magic: The Gathering. Courtesy of the infinite wisdom of Wizards of the Coast we’re in the middle of a break of more than two months between PPTQs and a staggering four months between European Grand Prix. For competitive Magic players, there have been few blanker gaming calendars in recent memory.
I’m not entirely cut up about it. I’ve been on a terrible run of results since the release of Battle for Zendikar, and I’ll admit to being ready for a break from the grind. I’ve come to dislike the current limited format quite intensely, and I’ve struggled to find edges in Standard. At GP Brussels I gave up on breaking the format – or even just coming up with a clever metagame choice – and just slammed Siege Rhinos. I went 6-3, losing my day 2 win-and-in for the second consecutive Grand Prix, and that’s likely the last competitive Standard I’ll play until Oath of the Gatewatch comes out.
The compensation for scrubbing out (again) was getting to sink a large number of excellent Belgian beers, scoff some waffles and, perhaps best of all, spend some time jamming Modern on the Sunday. Modern is a format I’ve really grown to love over the last year or so, and I wish it got more time in the competitive spotlight than it currently does.
I know the format has plenty of detractors, and for the most part I get where they’re coming from. A not insignificant number of games involve combo decks racing blindly towards their haymakers without any meaningful interaction, and plenty of potentially interesting matches end the instant one player lands one of the format’s many ludicrously overpowered hate cards (hi, Blood Moon!). Frankly, Modern produces many of the most one-sided and least satisfying matches of Magic you’ll ever play.
On the flipside though, I’d also say that 90% of the best matches I’ve played have been in Modern. You can get some incredibly close games where the tiniest decisions have a huge impact on the result. It’s also an absolutely fantastic format for brewers. The field is far more diverse than in any other format, and just about any strategy has the potential to be viable given the right circumstances. The card pool is simply huge, meaning that there’s always potential to discover cards or interactions that have previously been overlooked.
You might assume that by now all the best decks are known and set in stone, but the rise in recent months of the Grishoalbrand combo deck proves that theory wrong – each of the key pieces of the combo had existed for at least a couple of years before anyone figured out that they worked together. Nourishing Shoal went from being a bargain bin rare to a money card overnight, because everybody had (quite reasonably) assumed that a lifegain card which 2-for-1’d you and required that you play expensive green spells was a mile away from being constructed-playable. I don’t imagine it’s the last diamond we’ll find in the rough in this format.
There’s also more incentive right now to play and brew in Modern than there has been for some time. With no competitive events before the next set comes out, focusing on Standard offers minimal value, whilst work put into Modern is liable to continue being useful for some time to come due to the much slower pace of change in the format. We’re also at the time of the year when prices of Modern staples start to bottom out, with the Christmas lull in competitive play coming in the run up to the Modern Pro Tour – the one time of the year when Wizards are likely to make changes to the Banned List. That means that, so long as you successfully avoid buying into cards that are getting banned in a couple of months, you can pick up new decks to try out at a relatively low price.
What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is to give you a rough guide to tuning and brewing competitive decks for Modern as it stands, and for getting the best out of your decks in any given metagame. You can do some pretty wild things in the format, but if you want a serious shot at putting together a deck that will take down PPTQs next year, there are certain strictures you need to work within, so I’m going to have a go at laying out the guidelines to help you – hopefully – take your deck from the kitchen table to the top level.
YOU CAN’T BEAT EVERYTHING, SO DON’T TRY
Modern is an absolutely vast format with an enormous range of decks and strategies seeing regular play. It’s a simple fact of the format that it’s essentially impossible to have a good plan against absolutely everything, and trying to do so is going to lead to a deck which is stretched too thin to have a cohesive and effective plan of its own.
If you look at all of the Tier 1 and 2 decks currently in the format, they all have a “bogeyman” match-up that they accept losing to a significant percentage of the time. Even Jund, which is often described as being “55% against the field” has a rough time against Bloom Titan and an even rougher ride against Tron. Tron players love being paired against Jund but can struggle with Blue-Red Twin, which is perhaps the most resilient deck in the field in terms of having relatively few negative match-ups, but itself will ultimately lose more often than not against Jund.
The point is that whilst there are specific pillars of the format (which I’ll get on to in a moment) against which you need to have a plan, it’s acceptable and indeed inevitable that you will have a bad time against at least one popular deck. The key to “beating the field” is picking your spots. In a format as wide-open as Modern, gearing up to beat one specific deck is a losing proposition, as even the most popular decks rarely exceed 10% of the field in a large tournament. The best way to go about building a deck is to identify the decks which are the flavour of the month and then find a deck which has game against each of them, and which ideally struggles against decks which are on the downswing.
In order to predict what’s going to be more or less popular at any given event, I’d recommend keeping a close eye on the stats for recent tournaments online and in paper. MTGGoldfish.com and MTGTop8.com are both great resources for identifying trends, so use them frequently. These stats will never be precise, of course – it’s particularly worth being aware that the online metagame is determined in large part by the relative cost of the decks, and regional variations in the meta can twist numbers in paper tournaments (for instance, at GP Porto Alegre recently, there was an exaggerated volume of otherwise out-of-favour Zoo decks, and a much lower proportion of non-interactive combo like Bloom Titan than I might expect to see elsewhere).
Once you’ve built up a picture of what the format is likely to look like for a given timeframe, you can start to work out what you need to beat to get the best percentages. Certain decks, specifically Affinity, Blue-Red Twin and Jund, are simply so popular and ingrained into the format that they will almost never represent less than 5% of the metagame. As a result I’d be very wary of playing a deck which had a bad match-up against more than one of those decks, as the odds of running into multiple copies of those three at any given event are much higher than normal.
One of the upshots of being willing to have a bad match-up against a given deck is that it’s often better for your match-win percentage to simply ignore that deck entirely and hope not to face it rather than dedicating valuable slots in your 75 to giving you a slim chance of beating it. If you’re playing Jund, for instance, there’s a very solid argument for not even attempting to sideboard hate specifically for Tron, because your chances of beating it are so poor – even with multiple slots dedicated to the match-up – that you’d only be taking percentage points away from other match-ups to chase a losing cause. Now, you might want to be boarding cards like Fulminator Mage anyway because they’re good in other match-ups, and if they can fit into your other plans and still boost your chances of stealing a match against Tron, then that’s great. But I would still strongly recommend factoring your nightmare match-ups out when tuning your decks. If you decide that the right number of Fulminator Mages for the rest of the field is 3, then don’t add a fourth just so that you can go running after some tiny edge against a deck you’re still losing to – you’re better off spending that slot elsewhere to reinforce a good match-up or gain an edge in a close one.
This doesn’t mean that you should completely rule out sideboard slots for bad match-ups, but the key is to make sure that the card you’re using to beat them is a hard hoser. If you’re playing Tron, Fulminator Mage is a nuisance but far from unbeatable. But if you’re playing Affinity, then Stony Silence is a stone-cold beating. There’s a big difference in equity between running Stony Silence in the board of a deck that “loses” to Affinity and running Fulminator Mage in the board of a deck which “loses” to Tron. Ultimately I would still prioritise finding sideboard space for cards that keep your good match-ups strong postboard and which give you the edge in close games, but if you still have slots for sideboard cards which can give you free wins against otherwise rough match-ups, then it’s fine to use them so long as you’re making sure the cards in those slots do enough work to actually make a bad match-up winnable.
When making decisions about which decks you want to be able to attack postboard, I’d also remember to factor in the depth of the format by aiming to play cards that can do work against a number of different decks. The more narrow your answers are, the more likely you are to suffer from having dead cards in your 75 come the tournament itself. Stony Silence is actually a good example of a card with more breadth than you might think at first glance – whilst it’s primarily thought of as a hoser for Affinity, it also shuts down Lantern Control and a large portion of Tron. Compare that to, say, Shatterstorm, which is great against Affinity and Lantern Control but poor against Tron. Barring synergies with the rest of your deck, Stony Silence is generally a better choice if you play both colours because it has a wider range of uses.
Ultimately, one of the key goals of deckbuilding in Modern is to make an informed decision on which portion of the field it’s most necessary to beat and which decks you can reasonably accept losing to. Once you’ve made that decision, focus on building your deck to maintain the best possible win percentage in your good match-ups and trying to find edges in your closer match-ups first, and make trying to find ways to win your bad match-ups your last priority.
You might really hate losing to Tron, or Blood Moon, or whatever card or deck you dislike the most, but the goal in competitive Magic is to obtain the best possible win percentage against the field, not to achieve the emotional satisfaction of beating a deck you personally don’t like being paired against. You can aim for that if you really want and probably get there quite easily, but once you do get there, you’ll only find that a different match-up suddenly starts bothering you instead. No matter how angry it makes you when you run into that match-up, I would encourage you to remember that anger leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to going 0-2 drop.
HAVE A PLAN FOR THE PILLARS OF THE FORMAT
This is, of course, an obvious statement as it applies to every format to a greater or lesser extent, but it’s important to know what the pillars of the format are and ensure that, whether you’re brewing something new or just refining a long-standing deck, you have a clear picture of what your plans for them are.
In terms of specific strategies, here are the plays you must have a plan to beat if you want to succeed in Modern:
- Turn 3 Deceiver Exarch into Turn 4 Splinter Twin
- Turn 3 Primeval Titan ready to attack for lethal
- Etched Champion equipped with Cranial Plating
- Twenty points of burn being thrown at you in the first four turns
- Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf into Liliana of the Veil
- Turn 3 Karn Liberated (or other big colourless beastie)
Of course there are many more strategies than that currently in Modern, but these specific choices represent the best “normal” draw available to the most popular and enduring decks in the format. When you’re piecing your deck together, you need to decide how you’re planning to beat those draws, and factor that in.
Note that, as mentioned earlier, a perfectly reasonable answer to “how do you beat (for instance) a Turn 3 Primeval Titan?” might be simply, “I don’t”. And that’s fine, so long as you don’t expect to face off against Bloom Titan all day, every day. When a deck is popular you need a plan for it, and in the above cases I’m talking about the most popular decks available, and – barring bans – the ones likely to continue showing up at tournaments for the foreseeable future, so these aren’t the plays I’d advise being cold to if you can help it.
Some decks naturally have their plans built in – Bloom Titan itself for instance intentionally plays only the most minimal amount of interaction in game one in order to maximise its speed. In other words, it aims to beat the plays listed above by winning the game before they happen, and that’s an extremely good strategy provided you can pull it off consistently enough.
If you can’t do that reliably, then you need to construct your deck around the idea of having draws and lines of play which can realistically win you the game under the circumstances I listed above. Note that Modern deck construction isn’t simply about maximising your chances of beating those lines – I would still always advocate being proactive in your own gameplan rather than concentrating on reacting to your opponents’ best draws – but you should aim to have your plan directly incorporate ways to beat good draws from your opponent.
A good example of that is shown by the way that Remand is built right into the framework of the way that Blue-Red Twin operates. It’s a particularly fine answer to two of the scenarios outlined above – the early-game Karn Liberated or Primeval Titan – but instead of just answering questions, it directly contributes to your own game plan, as it draws you towards your combo whilst providing tempo for the matches where you need to win fair. If you can weave your answers and your gameplan together, you’ll inevitably create a stronger build. Jund is another great example of this, as its discard suite is both an answer to difficult questions and a great supplement to pressure on the hand from Liliana of the Veil and pressure on the lifetotal from Tarmogoyf.
It’s also worth keeping track of which specific cards are in and out of favour in various decks at any given moment. Always know what cards your opponent is likely to have access to, and then you can play around more of the right cards and structure your decks more appropriately. MTGGoldfish.com keeps track of the percentage of decks that certain cards appear in online, as well as the number of any given card that specific decks are playing at that moment. That data can be absolutely invaluable, so make sure to be up to date with it whenever possible.
Oh, and whatever deck you’re putting together, and whatever gameplan you’re working towards, always remember the one absolutely inviolable rule of Modern deck construction – don’t be cold to Lightning Bolt. Twin plays four. Jund plays four. Burn plays four. Affinity plays four of an almost strictly better equivalent. The card is everywhere and defines which creature cards are playable. If you want to play a creature that dies to Lightning Bolt, you need to ensure that it either provides immediate value, can be reliably protected, or is liable to win the game on the spot if you do untap with it. You may well have a sweet Prophetic Flamespeaker brew in mind, but if you build your deck around a card that goes down to Bolt, you’ll need to find a way around that or else spend a lot of time losing a key card at a significant mana and tempo cost, and that’s a great way to pick up a lot of losses.
TRIM THE FAT
So you’ve studied the metagame, worked out what you need to beat and what you can stand to lose to, and you’ve got your deck’s strategy against the field worked out. Once you’ve reached this point, it’s down to tweaking, tuning, and deciding on the last few slots for your deck. This is an area that I suspect many players lose significant percentage points in, and it’s an area in which I’ve learned many hard lessons myself over the last year or two.
Modern is a much faster format than Standard – games are on average shorter by the better part of two full turn cycles – and one of the upshots of that fact is that you get punished far more severely for drawing a suboptimal or situational card at the wrong time. In Standard, it’s far easier to get away with playing a techy “pet” card because if it doesn’t serve a good purpose, you generally have much longer to make up for that lack of efficiency. That’s why Patrick Chapin can reasonably play a card like Hallowed Moonlight in the maindeck of Esper Control in Standard – when it’s great, it’s great, and when it isn’t, it cycles and the punishment should be fairly minimal. In Modern though, maindecking a Hallowed Moonlight is asking for trouble. You don’t usually have the time to play cards purely because they can cycle for 2 mana if they don’t proactively achieve anything – spending your turn 2 cycling is a turn you weren’t able to Remand or Mana Leak something, and boy can that hurt.
The classic example of this type of card in Modern is Shadow of Doubt. Now, I love this card personally, because deep down I’m a horrible person who grins evilly at the thought of getting value whilst preventing people from playing a real game of Magic. But I’ve discovered over time, and to my cost, that you generally just don’t have the room to jam the griefer’s one-of into most decks. Shadow of Doubt is of course much less situational than Hallowed Moonlight because the vast majority of decks play fetchlands at least, but unless your deck is packed with answers for the cards that get into play because you didn’t counter them, the opportunity cost on running a card like that is just too high. That isn’t to say the card has no home, or that other similarly situational cards can’t work in the right build, but that card has to directly function within your strategy to be worth the slot.
The point I’m driving at is that in Modern every card must function as synergistically as possible within the framework of the rest of the deck. If a card doesn’t either directly help your plan along or prevent your opponent from derailing it, it probably isn’t worth adding to the deck at all.
Synergy is so crucial in Modern because you’re required to build your deck to be as efficient as possible in order to win, and that means that synergy generally trumps power level when it comes to deckbuilding considerations. To give you an example that refers back to those we’ve already touched on, let’s say you want to brew up a Jeskai Delver deck. In the course of deckbuilding you decide that you need to dedicate some sideboard slots to Affinity. As we’ve already discussed, you should presumably play Stony Silence over a slightly weaker spell like Shatterstorm, right?
Wrong. In this deck, having Stony Silence on top of your library on the turn you want to flip your Delver of Secrets can cost you the game. Losing a turn from your clock is simply brutal in Modern. So you accept the lower power level of Shatterstorm and play that instead – or perhaps, if you also play cards like Abbot of Keral Keep and Snapcaster Mage in your deck, you instead play Vandalblast because you can more reasonably flash it back or cast it off an Abbot trigger, even if the power level against Affinity is a bit lower still. Remember that the power level of a card is not synonymous with the power level of your deck. Just jamming the best cards of any given type is not a winning strategy – your aim should be to create an efficient and well-oiled machine rather than a great big sledgehammer.
This concept of pushing efficiency and synergy over power level is also important when building combo decks. If you’re trying to piece together a fast combo strategy one of the most important things to do is to figure out how many non-combo slots you can afford to have to provide interaction or protection for the combo itself. There’s a simple reason that a deck like Blue-Red Storm doesn’t have room to play countermagic or removal – failing to draw a couple of non-cantrip spells in a row on a combo turn will usually result in a fizzle. Likewise, Bloom Titan needs a critical mass of combo pieces to function so a typical maindeck features no cards at all that aren’t either a land, a combo piece, or a way to find any missing combo pieces (one of the best things about the deck is that cards like Pact of Negation are not only protection but a combo-kill with Hive Mind, so they can interact without eating into much-needed combo slots).
If you take the Ascendancy Combo deck that I played in Copenhagen earlier this year, even in a deck with a huge number of cantrips and a combo engine which actively loots away bad cards, there is only a tiny amount of room to play situational interaction and still have the deck be fast and consistent enough to win games before your opponent kills you one way or another. Not that this lesson applies solely to combo decks of course – the rule of thumb is that if a card doesn’t proactively contribute towards winning the game, you need a very good reason indeed to have it in your deck. Deck efficiency is absolutely key to success in Modern and its importance can scarcely be stressed enough.
LEARN TO LIVE WITH THE TILT
So you do your research, build your deck to be able to beat everything except, say, Affinity because that’s the right thing to do, go to the tournament and watch your opponent bash you with Arcbound Ravager for three rounds in a row. Oh, and you’re playing a blue deck and in round four your opponent dropped a Choke on turn 3 in both sideboarded games. Welcome to Modern!
Yes, Modern can be a severely tilting format. It’s the main reason why the haters are indeed gonna hate, and why it’s hard for even the most diehard Modern fan not to sympathise with them from time to time. But when you have a fast format in which you don’t get to play Force of Will, these sort of results are simply inevitable sometimes.
The one major piece of advice I’d give to anyone working on a Modern deck is to focus on whether you had the right build for the field, win or lose, not the matches you actually played. If you take Jund to a Grand Prix and face Tron four times on day 1 and get crushed, it can be incredibly disheartening, but remember that if you look at the stats later and see that Tron was, say, 3% of the field and Blue-Red Twin 15%, then you may well have been playing the right deck and just lost to variance.
For some reason it seems to be much easier to put a few matches lost to flood or screw down to variance than it is to put a run of bad match-ups down to the same thing. Just because you took a beating from your bogeyman deck a few times in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re playing the wrong deck, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jam tons of hate cards for those games the next time out. Try and check the stats for the field as a whole before you jump to conclusions which can end up reducing your expected match-win percentage at the next event because you got a false impression of your deck or the format from one tournament. It’s Modern. You will lose some games to hate cards or bad match-ups and you will lose them hard. If you accept that as a fact of the format and not let it cloud your judgement, over time you’ll find yourself picking up more wins.
To give you an example, in the last Modern PPTQ season I played a couple of events with Ascendancy Combo and Blue-Red Twin and lost a lot to Jund and other Abrupt Decay decks. So for the next couple of events I built a Twin deck which included a Young Pyromancer package, figuring that it would help me to beat the decks I was losing to so much.
And I was right – I went 100% in matches against Jund and friends for the rest of the season – but got no closer to making any Top 8s because instead I was now losing the rest of my games. I’d taken percentage points from my good match-ups to give to the match-up I was meant to accept losing to. Ultimately, the correct decision would have either been to accept that I’ll take the odd beating from Jund because the numbers against the rest of the field were good enough, or I should have looked for a totally different deck if the numbers didn’t line up right. Instead I let my Abrupt Decay-focused tilt lead me down the wrong road. Like I said, hate leads to going 0-2 drop.
One way or another I really do hope that each of you find ways to improve your Modern deckbuilding from this article, that you can take something from the lessons I’ve learned in the past – without having to go through all of the losing I did to learn them – and I look forward to facing off against your creations at a Modern event someday soon. Unless you’re one of them scummy Jund players, obviously.
Thanks for reading,