Fear and Loathing at the Gates of Modern

Written by Administrator on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

My opponent just sat there, staring at his cards for what must have been two whole minutes. I’m not exaggerating here. I remember it quite clearly because just as I was finally about to call a judge, he said “I’ll pass the turn.” I really had no idea what he could be thinking about at that moment. My board consisted of a Mystic Gate, a Seachrome Coast and a Tectonic Edge I couldn’t possibly afford to use. On his side was a 4/5 Tarmogoyf, a couple of manlands and a Liliana of the Veil on one loyalty counter. He’d cast her the turn before and forced me to sacrifice my only creature.

Naturally my hand was double Wrath of God and a Cryptic Command plus sundry non-land cards. So while I was reasonably happy he wasn’t using Liliana, I was pretty worried about what cards he was choosing to keep. The game went on like that for four to five more turns. I drew just enough cards to keep him from killing me but never hit my fourth land to reset the game/turn on my deck. Meanwhile he played a land every turn and refused to activate Liliana while slowly beating me to death with Goyfs and Bloodbraid Elves.

I was still live to any land draw until the very last turn, when he finally clawed me below zero with my hand still containing all three lifesaving four-drops I’d started the game with. After signing the match slip, I turned to my teammate, Steve Roias, and said, “I just got beat so bad that my opponent kept three bombs in hand the entire game without casting them.” To my horror, Steve replied, “No he just forgot about Liliana. His hand was basically all land every time I looked.”

That moment is probably when I really started to hate Modern. To be honest, that entire PTQ wasn’t a very positive experience. I went 2-5 with a bad deck (Caw Blade) primarily because I didn’t know the format and I couldn’t draw four lands in a deck with 26 of them. My previous experience with Modern had been better when I Top 8’d a GPT with Zoo. Naturally I snap lost in elims that time because my opponent was on Splinter Twin and I simply did not draw enough Path to Exiles to win two of three games.

In my mind, the format was heavily slanted toward Turn 3 combo decks and aggro decks that could legitimately keep up with combo; so basically Affinity. As you can imagine, this didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun and I had no problem writing off the format after two events. I know there are those of you asking, “Why didn’t you just play a Turn 3 combo deck or Affinity?” That’s a good question. The truth is I don’t actually enjoy playing either decktype in the slightest and despite being super competitive, I simply can’t play good Magic if I’m not having fun. Call it a character flaw, call me a scrub if you must but I literally would pass out from boredom if I spent all day casting rituals and cantrips until I found a Grapeshot to kill you.

Modern Improvements

Considering the above, you can imagine my dismay when it was finally announced that GP Toronto was going to be Modern. I was angry, I felt betrayed by Wizards, I bitched a whole bunch on Twitter and finally I vowed not to go.  I managed to hold out until roughly four weeks before the GP, when it finally dawned on me that all of my friends were going and I’d end up regretting the decision to stay home.

It’s funny how your opinions can cloud your mind and prevent you from using your own good judgment sometimes, but I was lucky enough to snap out of it in time to properly prepare for the GP. I’ll skip the event report, but I can say I have spent the past two weekends playing Modern and I’ve enjoyed virtually every moment of it.  I’m not going to call the format perfect, but considering the sorry state of RtR Sealed, I certainly could have found worse ways to spend an afternoon than playing Modern at GP Toronto.

So what changed? I hated Modern and anyone who knows me personally or follows my Twitter account probably considers this a shocking confession. I’m already preparing for the “In yer face Nina” Tweets from all of the people who supported the format when I was busy slagging it daily on Twitter. That’s fine. Sometimes your butt has to cash the checks your mouth has been running, and when it comes to Modern my mouth has certainly been hard at work. To be completely honest, there were four major factors that ultimately changed my opinion of the format:

I got better at playing Modern

This is simply the truth. Before my first two events, my practice consisted of a couple hundred goldfishes, pestering good players online to look at my decklist and practicing against whatever decks my friends could scrape together. As a consequence I played both events without knowing anything about the majority of my opponent’s decks and I lost a number of games simply because I didn’t understand what was about to happen.

Modern is a pretty diverse format. Last time I counted, I found 23 viable decktypes that could theoretically win a large tournament and have at least some published results. Compared to your average five- to seven-deck Standard format, that’s a lot of diversity. If you are going to enjoy Modern and perform well in the format you are going to have to practice against a variety of decks run by credible pilots. This allows you to memorize the correct lines of play against key card interactions that literally spell game over to the unwary.

If you find yourself hating Modern because of “all the damn combo decks,” it’s probably because you haven’t practiced enough against them and learned how to effectively sideboard for those matchups. I played probably about 600 games with various versions of Spirit Jund on a popular online emulator before the GP and I felt considerably more comfortable playing Modern as a result. You get what you put in.

Return to Ravnica improved the format

Let’s be honest for a moment; there is little more infuriating than losing on Turn 3 (or Turn 4 if you’ve lost the roll) to some guy masturbating in the corner. Whether it be Storm, Eggs, Gifts Ungiven into Unburial Rites/Iona or sacrificing the same Ouphe/Goblin a billion times with a Melira in play, these decks make you want to flip tables every time they beat you.

One of the most frustrating aspects of my first go-round with Modern was the idea that somehow WotC thought a 3/3 cat on Turn 2 was more broken than any of the decks listed above. When I came back to Modern, I was absolutely floored by the impact of RtR on the format. Seemingly innocuous cards like Abrupt Decay, Rakdos Charm, Rest in Peace, Mizzium Skin and most of Deathrite Shaman helped break the lock that combo had established on the prior format.

The first time I exiled a Kitchen Finks in response to its death, I was absolutely hooked. I could finally fight the combo decks on their own terms by taking away their most important resource: the graveyard. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, but actually having the weapons to fight back and construct a 75-card deck that can legitimately handle any type of combo deck in Modern *is* possible now. That alone makes the format significantly better.

Card availability is getting easier

Part of this is WotC reprinting the first batch of Shocklands in RtR and the knowledge that the second batch and cards like Tarmogoyf are on their way eventually. Part of this is also that a number of relatively new cards are big players in the format.

If you’ve been playing Standard you probably have cards like Geist of Saint Traft, Liliana of the Veil and Olivia Voldaren lying around. Stony Silence and Vexing Devil are just regular rares in Innistrad block. Even recently rotated cards like Deceiver Exarch, Inkmoth Nexus, Spellskite, Wurmcoil Engine, Karn Liberated and other Scars of Mirrodin goodies aren’t super hard to find if you’re looking. This doesn’t make Fetchlands or Dark Confidants any easier to obtain, but it’s a step in the right direction and I feel confident that it’s only going to get easier to play the format.

Modern isn’t going anywhere except forward

Despite the fact that it doesn’t please everyone, you don’t have to be a mystic to read the signs. There are seven Modern GPs and a Pro Tour scheduled for next year. Modern is also now a legal FNM format and in the summer WotC is releasing a special reprint set for the format called Modern Masters. When you combine this with an obvious dedication to print new cards that shake up Modern right now it seems pretty clear that WotC is fully behind this format for the time being.

While this may ultimately mean the death of Legacy, I don’t play Legacy so frankly I don’t care. What it does mean to me is that I can buy cards for my Modern deck knowing I’ll probably always have someone to play against and tournaments to attend. I can’t stress enough how important this is; I own at least two Vintage decks I haven’t taken out of the box in years simply because nobody plays Vintage. I have no desire to repeat this experience with another eternal format.

Let’s face it. I’m a stubborn, opinionated old nag and I went into my preparations for GP Toronto with about as negative of an impression of the format as you can possibly have. I came, I saw, I lost a lot and I bitched about it on the Internet. Despite all of this I found Modern worming it’s way into my heart when I finally decided to give it a second chance.

I genuinely enjoyed testing for the Grand Prix and despite going 5-3-1 on Saturday I found myself attending a recent 30-person GPT at the Hairy T North. I went 5-1-1 at the tournament before losing in the Top 4 to a savvy opponent I’d beaten in Swiss, and despite my failure to claim the ultimate prize, I actually had a blast.

Of course, as I mentioned above there are still some problems with the format:

  • It’s still pretty difficult for “budget” decks to meta against combo decks. Decks like Jund and Zoo can succeed. But because the best meta cards for any given combo deck will be spread across multiple colors (although white features heavily for all you card speculators out there), if you’re not running a bunch of Fetchlands, Shocks and Fastlands it can still be a major struggle to not “just lose” to a bunch of decks.
  • Variance is still too high a factor. To be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as I originally thought, but to some degree Modern is most definitely a “do you have it” format. There are most certainly answers for nearly every situation in the format, but the overall power level of the cards means you need to have those answers in hand because you will have very little time to find them afterward. This is why veterans will describe Modern as being a “three-game format” and consider 60/40 to be an excellent matchup against any given decktype.
  • Modern decks are cheaper than they were, but this doesn’t mean they are cheap. Frankly this is a recent trend in all of Magic that’s getting a little difficult to swallow. The simple truth is that building a new deck in almost any format these days is a multi-hundred-dollar investment. You may call me out as a whiner but I personally don’t care; I manage a game store and have access to the vast majority of cards I need to play any form of Magic I should desire. Most people do not manage game stores, however, and telling a new player to plunk down $300-plus or he’s going to lose can be a mighty hard sell in the real world.
  • I still haven’t actually “won” a Modern event I’ve played in. This may be meaningless to you but it’s a crushing blow to my ego. More practice and more tournaments are required I guess. 🙂

Modern Do’s and Dont’s

Despite these problems, I’m comfortable recomending Modern to those on the fence. It’s a rich, vibrant format with numerous complex card interactions and a mind-blowingly diverse metagame. I’ve never had to write a sideboard guide for 23 decks in all my years playing Magic until GP Toronto. If you like options and choices, Modern is definitely something that will appeal to you.

And right now represents a great time to get in at the ground floor simply because the deck diversity is helping to keep prices down across the board. This will only get easier with the release of Modern Masters, and I can see a day coming very soon where Modern tournaments will flourish outside of the dedicated PTQ season. I can’t promise that you’ll love the format but I can say that most of the criticisms I’ve heard are baseless, obsolete or of an extremely personal nature.  If a hater like me can learn to enjoy Modern, I’m pretty sure anyone can.

For those of you that are interested in giving Modern a try, here’s a short list to help you get started:

  • DO pick a solid deck with an established track record of success to start your journey into Modern. This is important for two reasons: it helps ensure you don’t waste money on cards you’re never going to use, and it helps you survive in a constantly shifting metagame. If you want some idea of where to start, I compiled this list of decks with roughly one hour of searching the Internet. This list is a little bit outdated (I made it on Nov. 21), but an enterprising individual would have no problem updating it with a little effort.
  • DON’T waste all your money building a “Flavor of the Month” deck just because it won the last big Modern event you read about. This goes hand-in-hand with our “do” from above. A deck like Eggs is a wonderful choice for an experienced player looking to take advantage of a sleepy metagame. It’s probably a terrible choice for a new player who’s hoping to compete in as many Modern tournaments as possible over a three-month period.
  • DO stick with your chosen deck and learn to adapt to a changing metagame. This will not only save you money (it can be very expensive buying new decks every three weeks), but it will help you become a true master with your deck of choice. As your Modern collection grows you can branch out and try to build some new decks; for a beginner, however, it’s wise to stick to familiar pastures until you have a good grasp of the format.
  • DON’T lock in your final 75 cards without extensive playtesting. Modern isn’t the kind of format where you can plunk down some money for the perfect deck/sideboard and then run merrily on your way. Along with an ever-changing metagame comes constant shifts in “optimal” deck construction. In fact most of the established decks in Modern could function in a 100- to 120-card format, and with so many good options you’re going to want to tinker constantly. In light of this it’s probably a good idea to buy or trade for more sideboard and/or techy options than you could possibly fit into one deck. You don’t want to be the guy running to the dealer’s table at tournament time trying to find a key card that’s long since sold out.
  • DO stockpile Modern staples whenever you get the chance. This won’t be easy but if you’re trading or buying cards take the opportunity to unload excess Standard playables for cards that are good in Modern. For most players buying a whole deck at once is something they can’t afford to do very often and my solution to this problem has been to stick with one deck (Jund) while simultaneously trading for virtually anything else that sees play in Modern. This has made it easier for me to help my team-mates build decks and I’ve slowly gotten closer to my goal of having multiple complete decks to choose from at tournament time.
  • DON’T wait for a playset to buy a particular single for your Modern deck. I manage a game store and I come across this problem all the time. You want three or four copies of a card for your deck but the shop/online retailer only has one. You aren’t going to mise a singleton copy in your deck, so you pass on it because purchasing the card won’t reward you right now. Newsflash guys. Many of these cards are between five and 10 years old. There aren’t a whole lot more boxes to open out there and most retailers get these cards by buying them whenever they see them. Your approach should be no different; if I had a dollar bill for every guy who passed on my lone Vendilion Clique at $8 because we didn’t have a playset, I’d be a (moderately) rich woman indeed.
  • DO try to have fun and maintain a calm approach. Modern isn’t the easiest format to break into for a new player and I can virtually guarantee you’ll lose a whole bunch of games before you start winning. Sometimes you just have to walk into silly combo X a couple of times before you understand how to play around it. You’re probably going to have to read a bunch of cards and you’re definitely going to leave some matches you could have won on the table because of this. This is both natural and why it’s super important that you put in a significant amount of time practicing before you enter Modern tournaments. With that noted, it’s doable and the effort will be more than worth it the first time you turn off a Storm player’s deck through subtle, precise play.

To paraphrase one of my favorite movies of all time, “that’s about all I have to say about Modern.” Despite my best efforts to resist its seductive allure, this format has turned me into a believer after a mere two events. While I’m sure there are those out there who will simply never enjoy Modern, I stand before you as living proof that playing it a few times just might change your mind. Until next time, always remember to fetch your Shocklands in the right order and never slam a Mana Leak until your opponent is finished Cascading with his Bloodbraid Elf. Keep it weird.

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