Getting Good at Modern – What Modern Deck Should I Play? by Katie Roberts

How do you choose what Modern deck to play

How do you choose what Modern deck to play?

Last week we covered some things to consider when testing a variant of our Modern deck. I thought that testing a variant of my existing deck rather than a completely new one would be a good place to start, potentially making my existing deck stronger or more interesting with a minimal amount of card acquisition. The variant I tried did not overlap much with my current deck; it contained a load more expensive cards and a more controlling gameplan.

While I loved the build and enjoyed playing it, I realised that I did not gain much from testing a ‘variant’ over ‘any other deck in the format’. Unless fortune favours me in Modern Masters 2017 and I draft Blue Black control with Damnation and a playset of Liliana of the Veil*, there’s probably not much chance of the alternative build of Black White Tokens that I tested being a more natural choice than any other deck. I may as well expand my choices.

*Edit after drafting Modern Masters 2017: it didn’t.

I’d like to revisit that phrase ‘any other deck in the format’ and take a moment to reflect on the enormity of this as I mentally float through the Blinding Light of a Starfield of Nyx as Pyrite Spellbombs blink at me. Okay – Modern is not that big, but it is big. How do I decide which Modern decks to test?

Building your first Modern deck isn’t like building a draft deck. In draft, we find a lane and stick with it – a few pieces of mana fixing or some decent removal might push us into an archetype. While it is natural to factor our existing Modern cards into our decision, I consider it unlikely that we will happen to own a playset of Windswept Heath to base our deck around.

With an average card collection and budget, how do we decide what to build? Let’s look at a few things that might help us make this decision.

What do we like to play?

One day, you’re insta-locking Hanzo in Overwatch when an owl flies through your window and drops an envelope on your keyboard. You inspect the package cautiously – because the last thing your zoological deliveryman probably handled was a dead mouse – and unfold the contents. The letter inside informs you that You’re a Magic Player. The following few months pass surprisingly quickly because they’re not relevant to my analogy, but they’re probably full of chocolate flavour beans or musical frogs or something. At some point in the future you eagerly pull an oversized hat over your ears and hear the words “CONTROL PLAYERRR!” resonate through your skull. You bounce away happily and spend the next few years studying the best counterspells.

That probably didn’t happen when we started playing MTG. Nothing close to that probably even happened in Harry Potter because it’s been a decade since I read the books and my memory is worse than a… thing with holes in, what’s it called…

What we enjoy playing will depend on what we are interested in and what we are good at, amongst other factors. These factors are likely to converge – winning is fun – but challenging decks with a higher skill ceiling can also be rewarding. Our personalities will come into it, as well as unconscious effects that determine what we do with the cards in our hands.

Some people probably have strong preferences for one playstyle over another when they take up MTG. Lots of us take a while to figure it out – or don’t even develop a strong preference for years. There is no real pressure to “know” which type of player we are; focusing on a narrower set of decks may help us get better at them but might mean we are less flexible in limited formats. It’s probably all a trade-off, but one from which we can maximise value from by focusing on.

What if we are interested in playing every deck and don’t know what we are best at? I for example have never piloted a constructed deck that I didn’t have fun playing. Whilst enjoying everything makes us the easiest people to please, gives us the most options, and sounds like a weird thing to complain about, it doesn’t help us narrow our deck choices in any productive fashion.

One option to this is to pick up and play anything, revelling in the fact that we enjoy 8-Rack as much as Stompy. We can’t change the fact that we enjoy each deck as much as the next one, and why would we? We can do a little better than this if we look at the other big factor that determines what we enjoy playing: what we are good at. Critically asking ourselves what style of deck awards us the greatest win percentage could be valuable.

Choosing a deck that suits the playstyle we are best at seems like a good move. The flipside could also be valuable if we have a little longer to prepare – picking up a deck that allows us to practice playing something we are not good at will likely make us more flexible player. It probably depends on whether we are testing for an MTG tournament in one month or six months, and how often you can play MTG. Personally, I am open to learning to play a control deck, but would also be happy playing aggressively.

It has taken me two and a half years to realise that I play better on the beatdown than on defence. I am more likely to gravitate towards decks that allow me to be on the offence more frequently than the defence, i.e. aggressive decks. However, I am far from exclusively an aggro player and would play a more controlling deck if it ends up being the best choice for me.

I’ve taken a while to say “pick a deck that you enjoy”, haven’t I?

What cards do we have access to?

Obvious thing is obvious. Owning a playset of Tarmogoyf is a pretty compelling reason to play a deck that requires a playset of Tarmogoyf (I don’t own any copies of Tarmogoyf.)

Our collections are a pretty good place to start when deciding what to play. If we have a collection of cards that are played in Modern, we may be able to form a large part of a deck without trading/buying much. This is not the case for me; the majority of my rares are janky old things and some are playable in Standard. But without a doubt, playing with what we own seems pragmatic.

As somebody who enjoys playing everything, playing with what we own can seem like the best place to start. However, my thoughts on this have changed a little recently. If we stick too closely to the idea of playing with our existing collection, we could end up playing a sub-par deck or one that doesn’t suit our playstyle. If we are in a position to trade or buy cards we can expand our ideas a little and may end up with a better deck.

Our access to cards may extend further than our own collections. If we are part of a strong local gaming community or have close friends who play MTG, we may be able to borrow each other’s decks. This may not be practical as a long-term solution, but saves a load of time when testing whether we enjoy a deck or not before building it.

What will other people be playing?

One of the criticisms of Modern is its matchup dependence. Some games are highly favoured to go one way or the other due to what’s in the decks rather than who is piloting them. We can go to a tournament having extensively tested our deck and play against a stream of terrible matchups, whilst our friend pilots the same deck as us and has wins more games because their matchups were favourable.

We cannot guarantee our luck on the day, but we can influence it. Having a look at the current high level meta when choosing a deck should be sensible, and if we want to go further we could consider how new releases could influence the decks that people play. I’m going to make sure I speak to better MTG players than myself and those who compete more – and ask them what they have played against recently.

Remembering that a GP meta may be worlds away from the meta at our local game store is also worth considering, so I’ll be taking this into account.

What will be best in a tournament setting?

I don’t know about you, but after my seventh round of a Grand Prix I start announcing Swamps as Mountains and confidently announcing the Path to Exile in my hand as I cast Raise the Alarm. My Poker Face deserts me and skips merrily into the sunset chasing butterflies.

When playing in a pub or a cafe, or even at FNM, we can often afford to spent a little longer deciding whether to play our Marsh Flats or Plains than when we are at a GP – the setting is more casual. We play a few games and go home feeling reasonably fresh, unless we took Legacy Miracles to FNM after our 14-hour work day at the Centre for Unpredictable Noise Research was cut short by a drunk brass band having a fight using our office equipment.

It may sound like a weird criteria to choose a deck on, but I like taking decks to tournaments that maximise my chance of acquiring coffee between rounds. Keeping a clear head at tournaments is vital – I envy people who can keep cool after several rounds with no break, but that isn’t me. This is another reason that I would like to lean towards the aggressive decks. Win fast, lose fast, acquire caffeine, carry on.

It is great from a learning perspective to play more complicated decks, but if we are not confident in our ability to take turns quickly we could have little time between rounds at a tournament, or worse, end up with a game loss. If we value our time between rounds highly, we may want to consider a deck that wins games in few turns compared with other decks. So, more Infect and less Nahiri Control if we think it will make us less likely to forget to play around Remand late in the day.

My comparison between control and aggro is not universal – maybe we are the type of person to keep a more clear head by playing control matchups, it is just a fairly straightforward example. Whatever your preference, factor in whatever will help you play best at tournaments.

How will you learn about the deck?

If you are considering playing the same deck as a friend, you can learn together. Having somebody else give you direct advice on your plays based on their first-hand experience of the deck can be extremely useful. Bonus points if your friend is a better MTG player than you are – you can learn a lot.

Choosing a highly tested, optimised, deck that is the subject of high-level coverage may be advantageous because lots of resources exist to help us learn to play it. We can learn when to hold open mana when playing Nahiri control, how to sequence our affinity turns. Choosing a deck that we created ourselves as a home brew will not give us such detailed resources, but working it out ourselves will be rewarding.

What about your opponents?

The flipside of building a better-known, highly analysed deck is that your opponents may be more likely to know your gameplan and play more effectively against it. I remember my first Modern tournament, piloting a borrowed copy of Infect a month after I started playing MTG. I was tapped out and as the game moved to my opponent’s turn four, he cast Splinter Twin on his Deceiver Exarch, both of which were new to me. He looked relieved. I looked expectant. “Go on”, I smiled, as my opponent demonstrated their infinite combo which I – of course – had not yet learned to play around.

From that moment until it was banned, I knew not to tap out on turn four when playing against Splinter Twin. It was easy to remember, had a large payoff, and was my first experience of playing around a specific card in Modern. But until we know about Splinter Twin, we won’t play around it.

If we have played Modern for a while, we might know that four open mana may represent Collected Company in an Abzan deck or Cryptic Command in a control deck. Being naïve to these hints can leave us at a significant disadvantage as we let our opponent get away with their best plays.

Similarly, choosing a deck that our opponent does not know how to play around could give us an advantage. If we play Modern, turns out we know the creeping fear that weaves into our minds alongside thoughts of “what… is… my opponent doing?” So, we could use this to our advantage!

Of course, well-known decks are talked about for a reason; they are likely to be powerful. Anything else may just not stand up to high level decks. But if we can find an off-the-radar deck that can stand up to the known Top Tier – surely that is living the Magic dream. Brewing/finding a deck that suits the description is pretty appealing, especially since there’s quite a while before the tournament.

As for whether I will go for this strategy or pick a deck that is well-established in the meta, that’s left to decide!


A lot of things can go into our decision of which deck to play. What we end up with will depend on what we have, what we can test with/against, our budget, what we find fun and what we are good at.

So, many things to consider. Some people will always tell you that you’re doing it wrong unless you pick something top of the meta, but your choice of deck depends on what matters to you. Go and have fun choosing decks!

Community Question: How do *you* go about choosing what deck to play in Modern? And what advice would you give a new player who’s trying to choose what deck to play?

Thanks for reading,


Getting Good at Modern - What Modern Deck Should I Play? by Katie Roberts
How do you go about choosing what deck to play in Modern? And what advice would you give a new player who's trying to choose what deck to play?

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