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Solutions Not Problems: Adaption in Modern

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

Solutions Not Problems: Adaption in Modern

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

A few months ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would only write articles that I thought were meaningful and worth reading. I believe Alex Majlaton made several really good points in his recent blog post that the state of Magic content is “dismal” and oversaturated. Alex contends that there’s just too much content out there and I believe he’s right. In an effort to meet Alex’s critiques, I hope to only put out content that is unique, content that fills a void or discusses uncovered territory. I want every piece I write to be something that people can use and cannot find anywhere else. As such, I have decided that it’s worth writing about how to approach deckbuilding in current Modern… This sentence seems so incredibly counter to what I had just said. Everyone talks about Modern, everyone has a sideboard guide, and everyone has a wheelbarrow full of hot takes akin to Monty Python’s “bring out your dead.” I don’t plan on replicating this. I challenge a fundamental assumption that people have about Modern: it’s stale, boring, and broken. Modern’s roots were about reproducing Standard decks and carrying them over into a larger pool. However, in recent months, people have said that you can’t brew in Modern and there are only a few correct deck choices. As a result, each season offers more homogeneity amongst the winner’s metagame and it seems like everyone gravitates to “the best deck” and Modern has become less diverse. I’ve written in the past about ‘how to brew’ and I think now is a great time to do so again.

Where is Modern Now?

If you have read any content on Modern, you could say it’s universally clear that the community believes that Izzet Arclight Phoenix and Dredge are the best decks in the format. Arclight in particular has been omnipresent and dominant. Folks have taken this information, particularly Phoenix’s dominance, and pointed out that both of these decks are Faithless Looting decks and that makes Faithless Looting a broken card and a card that should be banned. I think this is at best silly logic, and at worst, lazy logic. After a short hiatus from Magic, I returned asking myself “how do I beat Arclight Phoenix and Dredge?” I quickly came to the realization that the ways that Modern tended to address both were through Surgical Extraction or Leyline of the Void. The astute among you would quickly point out that Surgical, while great against Arclight, is insufficient against Dredge. Moreover, many of you will rightly point out that spending 8 slots on 2 different types of graveyard hate is a waste of pressure sideboard slots. Modern has experienced a lot of homogeneity within the top 5 decks, but remains a format where you will always see extreme diversity among the community at large. Everyone has a pet deck, everyone has had a home brew. Competitive or not, Modern offers them a home. This means that you need, as you have always needed, broad answers to address the problems in front of you. This is to say: you can’t show up without a plan for the opposition. So why are we still bringing sideboard cards that are good against only one of Modern’s pillars? Can we iterate and make changes to adapt?

Modern’s lifecycle has always been a thing of beauty to me. Modern changes based on three things: new printings, Pro Tours, and bannings. However, it has been my belief for a long time that I can make changes to Modern through my own preparation. If we take some time to think about why a format changes after a Pro Tour, it’s because 400 people have sat down and made a concerted effort to pick the optimal deck after examining the field. Unlike Grand Prix, Star City events, Pro Tours have multiple teams of players spending weeks at a time trying to solve, or at the very least, understand the totality of a format. Hundreds of games are played and serious changes emerge from it. Why can’t I do the same? From what I can tell, Pros do not accept the TLDR on Modern that is pontificated by the masses. Instead, they put in the work and real changes emerge as a result. Sometimes this is new decks like Eldrazi. Sometimes this is tuning decks like Hollow One. Insight from the last Pro Points Podcast indicate that there are brews, there are adaptions, and there are pet archetypes that all make their way into the conversation. Why can’t you or I set out to reject the current state of the format with the same gusto? All of this buildup is to say that just like R&Ds new Standard vision, Modern has ample answers to every problem in every color. It is within our reach to build decks around cards that answer all the problems.

The Bullet Points Section

Corbin Hosler wrote a great tweet (novel) about Izzet Phoenix. His argument is that people have misunderstood what it’s doing. Corbin makes three great points about Phoenix:

#1: It has explosive capabilities that propel it over bad matchups, but, its explosiveness is not unlike the power level of other decks
#2: Its high card velocity allows it to make the best use of its flex slots and see cards to effectively win matchups
#3: People misevaluating how to plan for it and beat it are a large part of why it keeps winning

Corbin is very smart. He’s able to articulate that just because a deck uses the graveyard, doesn’t mean that a graveyard hoser is the right serum. While a deck like Dredge lives in the graveyard, Arclight Phoenix only dabbles, Arclight’s use of Crackling Drake even insulates the deck from being run over by this hate. It’s important to take time to consider why your deck is losing a matchup. I believe that in Modern you’re usually losing for only one of a few reasons:

#1: Your opponent gets to take too many game actions before you’ve set yourself up.

This is either because of their lower mana curve, or your clunky mana curve. Izzet Phoenix and Dredge have mana curves that are enormously below average and so they can set themselves up well early and churn through several spells late. This overwhelms things like slow, haymaker strategies or decks that have one counterspell to hold up.

#2: Your opponent takes over the game after it reaches a certain point.

This happens when a deck has drawn too many answers or gotten its board/life total out of your reach. Decks like Jeskai/UW/Tron/Scapeshift/Amulet usually just win games where they get to put lots of mana into play and win off of inevitability. While many of these decks suffer from taking early game actions, they have constructed their deck to have an element of ‘inevitability’ late.

#3: Your opponent has complete control over one of your tools

A deck like Dredge will always lose if it doesn’t have control of the graveyard. Many decks fold when they can’t cast their spells under Blood Moon, play their cantrips through a Chalice of the Void or attack through an Ensnaring Bridge or an enormous First Striking, Lifelinking, Trampling, Boggley Boi. If your opponent can control your resources, linear decks that don’t have a plan B or a flexible way to get around this hate often fold.

These are the tenants that I take with me when I’m brewing. I have to make sure I can consistently set myself up in the early game. That comes from clean manabases, early tutors or card selection, and early interaction. Oftentimes, decks get propped up on these early cards: Thoughtseize, Ancient Stirrings, Faithless Looting, Mox Opal, Thought Scour, Aether Vial, Noble Hierarch. People are flustered by these cards and other things like them because some people only have access to certain spells, but, I think that we should instead view them as tools that we have access to in order to build strong decks. If you can’t compete with these cards early, I’d suggest adding some to your deck. As a brief anecdote, my local game store (45 minutes away) runs a Saturday Afternoon Proxy Modern event where you can bring 10 proxies and play a Casual REL event. I love to bring fresh, unique strategies. Two weeks ago, I brought a BG Midrange deck that used Eldrazi Temple and a Traverse package to build up to an Emrakul, the Promised End late game. Emrakul costs 13 mana and Traverse requires some set up. So I used early Discard, Fatal Push, and Assassin’s Trophy along with Engineered Explosives to stem early aggression and progress the game later and later. I also used Sakura-Tribe Elder to accelerate myself ahead of my opponents. Using cheap cards always makes your deck more effective. If you can’t play those cards you need to focus on shutting them down: Chalice of the Void being the most common example in this format. However, it’s important when making these plans that you have some adaptability. My Traverse deck got much worse when my opponents used splash hate for Arclight and Dredge to disrupt my Delirium plan. I needed to be able to adapt. This is another huge reason brews fall apart. Your cards need to be efficient and powerful in their own right. Having cards that are weak without another card only puts more pressure on you to find those cards quickly and efficiently. The same goes for tutors and other toolbox cards, sometimes too much selection gives your deck a lot of air.

Last Thoughts

All of this brings me to finally answering what I’ve set out to do at the beginning of my article: How the f*** do you beat Arclight, Zach?! Innovate! Arclight Phoenix and Dredge have been running rampant because no one chooses to adapt. Last week, Tron won 3 PTQs. I can’t imagine it has anything to do with the 4 Main Deck Relic of Progenitus and its ability to go way over the top of these decks once you reach the late game. Corbin’s tweets (article) highlight that you can’t just approach these decks on a single axis, you have to demonstrate a plan after the fact. Graveyard hate can stop the broken starts but Discard is another strong tool against Phoenix. Similarly, Auriok Champion is a strong tool against Dredge. These cards help attack the decks in a different way. As cards like Keranos and Blood Moon emerge from Phoenix, I have a lot of interest in copies of Celestial Purge. Trinket Mage is a card that is very interesting to me in this new format as well. Not only can it fetch graveyard hate, but, it can find Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives that can address other axis as well. To some extent, I think I’m naming cards here rather than telling you where to go, but, there’s a reason for that. Modern has so many decks, so many plans, so many ideas, it’d be impossible for me to tell you what’s best for your deck, not to mention you wouldn’t get to go through the fun of figuring it out yourself. There’s lots of room to innovate in this format, it’s just a matter of finding your lane and playing enough games that you cannot just understand that you’re losing, but, why you’re losing. Once you figure that part out, I think the rest is pretty easy.

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