Modern has been my favorite constructed format since I started watching and playing it close to 3 years ago. As a deckbuilder, the large card pool was exciting to explore. As a viewer, the large number of decks offered many card interactions that were fun to watch and learn.
Usually modern is a format regarded as rewarding players with a lot of experience. Knowing your deck well and how it matches up with the format adds to your win percentage. However, the format has gone through a number of big changes in 2016 so past experience may not be as useful anymore. Here are a few highlights:
- January 18, 2016: Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom are banned. The Summer Bloom ban was expected due to the speed and power level of the Amulet Bloom deck. Splinter Twin was a big surprise and a controversial announcement, with some pointing to a shake-up for the upcoming modern Pro Tour has the real reason for the Twin ban. The popular UR combo which has always been a format staple was banned “in the interest of competitive diversity” because it 1) pushes its best matchups out of the format and 2) removes the incentive to play other non-Twin blue decks (ex. Jeskai Control, Temur Tempo, Grixis Control).
- January 22, 2016 – April 4, 2016: The Eldrazi winter. Simultaneous with the Twin ban, a flood of powerful Eldrazi were printed in Oath of the Gatewatch. These efficient and disruptive creatures combined with mana acceleration from Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin dominated modern for the next few months. This was highlighted at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch which fueled a conspiracy theory that the Twin ban was intended to lift the performance of Eldrazi decks and sell the new cards. Eldrazi winter continued at the triple modern GP weekend March 5-6 where Eldrazi claimed 13 out of a combined 24 top 8 slots.
- April 4, 2016: Eye of Ugin banned. Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek unbanned. Wizards of the Coast quickly realized the Eldrazi had created an unhealthy metagame. They banned Eye of Ugin which not only turbo-charged some of the deck’s best aggressive starts but also provided it with late-game inevitability. The unbannings were a surprise, but gave blue decks a potential boon just months after having Splinter Twin taken away.
- April 24, 2016: The end of modern Pro Tours. Wizards had wanted to remove modern as a Pro Tour format with an announcement to that effect on August 2, 2014. Due to public outcry, this decision was reversed a week later. After the Eldrazi winter and the perception that the existence of a modern PT was driving policy changes for the B&R announcements it was much easier to get public support for revoking the modern PT the second time around.
This is a huge shakeup in a short period of time. I have largely ignored modern during this turbulent period. But with modern PPTQ season just now underway and a couple of modern GPs coming up later this year I’ve recently turned my attention back to reacquainting myself with the format.
Before I talk about the format at a high level, there are some important new decks that have emerged as major players based on B&R changes and new printings.
This has been extremely popular online since it is an inexpensive deck to build. The printing of Insolent Neonate has really added a lot of consistency and power to the archetype. It can be hated out but is very powerful and resilient against opponents that aren’t prepared to fight it. It has taken awhile to find the right build since there are many options but the core strategy has proven to be solid and the deck has been putting up good results online.
Jeskai Nahiri Control
Jeskai Control has long been popular for blue mages looking for a control deck in modern. There’s been a lot going Jeskai’s way lately. The Splinter Twin ban meant a lot of players were looking for a new Snapcaster Mage – Lightning Bolt deck to play. Ancestral Vision gave the deck a new way to grind people out. The real key to the deck’s rise though was the printing of Nahiri, the Harbinger. One of the big knocks against Jeskai was that it took too long to win. Having access to a flexible Planeswalker that can act as removal early, filter draws and quickly win the game by tutoring for Emrakul, the Aeons Torn has put the deck over the top.
Death’s Shadow has been a card that people have built around in Tier 2 or Tier 3 circles. The combination with Temur Battle Rage has really put this deck on the map. The deck can win out of nowhere, but it needs to draw the right mix of spells.
The Eldrazi variants have adapted to the Eye of Ugin ban and consolidated into a Bant archetype. Noble Hierarch gives some additional acceleration while Ancient Stirrings provides consistency, letting you look for Eldrazi Temple, threats or sideboard cards depending on the situation. This is essentially a disruptive midrange deck that is capable of some busted starts if it draws multiple Eldrazi Temples.
My conclusions about the modern format so far are based on my online experience, a few local tournaments (including the SCG Classic in Worcester), and the MTGGoldfish MTGO metagame breakdown. I expect the online meta to roughly reflect the paper meta, but there may be some differences.
As of 7/24/16, the online metagame breakdown looks like this:
Dredge (6.03%) (combined multiple versions)
Suicide Zoo (6.02%)
Naya Burn (5.27%)
Other Archetypes at 2%-5%: RG Tron, Jeskai Nahiri, Bant Eldrazi, Merfolk, Ad Nauseum, Living End, Abzan Company, Grixis Delver.
Testing Top Archetypes
I played a lot of Splinter Twin before the banning, so since the January ban I have been looking for my next go-to deck. My preference is to play proactive decks that can interact with my opponent to disrupt their game plan while protecting my own (usually through counter spells or disruptive permanents).
In the past couple of months I have tried all manner of decks along the spectrum from aggro/combo to control: Burn, Naya Zoo, UG Infect, Bogles, Elves, Bant Eldrazi, Jund, Living End, Grixis Control, and Nahiri Control. I’ve yet to find a deck that I’m really excited to play, but I think I’ve learned a lot. I’ve collected my thoughts on some of the archetypes below.
I’m grouping these together because the difference is where on the creature spectrum you want to position yourself: burn, burn with Wild Nacatl, or burn with Wild Nacatl, Burning-Tree Emissary and Reckless Bushwhacker. Relying on creature combat to deal damage makes you more vulnerable to decks loading up on cheap removal (Grixis Control, Jeskai Nahiri) and getting bricked by other creature strategies (Merfolk, Bant Eldrazi, Dredge). The potential for explosive BTE draws is not worth sacrificing speed and consistency, so my recommendation would be to stick to a straight-forward burn plan.
Burn has always been a litmus test for other strategies. If you can’t beat burn, you can’t really compete in modern. Burn isn’t doing anything overpowered but it’s consistent and establishes a quick clock. The Dredge and Eldrazi strategies can race burn fairly well with decent draws. Nahiri has made the Jeskai matchup fairly challenging. They have enough disruption to then take over and end the game quickly with Nahiri. Burn can always punish a slow start, but overall I don’t think it is well positioned. Other linear strategies are faster and the midrange decks have gotten better at fighting burn with the printings of Nahiri and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. That said, you can still expect to face it in some number at any tournament.
Infect has been a tier 1 strategy for awhile and that hasn’t changed. It’s one of the fastest goldfishes in the format which makes it a good choice to race anyone. It struggles against the removal heavy decks like Nahiri Jeskai and Jund, but I would be happy to play against most other strategies. Burn is also tough, but I would expect burn to be underrepresented at the top tables in most tournaments. Infect is not easy to pilot so it pays to practice and watch better players to learn the more intricate lines of play. The biggest downside for me has been how infect mulligans. It plays similar to Bogles in that it needs to draw the right mix of threats and pump effects.
Jund was a format powerhouse a few years ago. It was so good for so long that it resulted in multiple bans. The deck has remained playable but it saw a downtick in popularity for awhile. Lately, it has risen as a pillar of the format again and is the highest percentage deck of the online metagame, despite being one of the most expensive decks. It has gotten a few additions over the last year with Kolaghan’s Command and Kalitas. More than new cards, I think the reason for Jund’s resurgence is due to changes in the metagame. RG Tron was collateral damage in the Eye of Ugin ban and having that deck represented in smaller numbers can only help Jund. More importantly, the loss of Twin has left a hole in the meta for a disruptive midrange deck.
Looking at the rest of the top decks, it’s littered with linear decks that need to draw the right mix of creatures and payoff cards (Infect, Suicide Zoo, Affinity). Affinity is resilient but the Infect and Suicide Zoo matchups have felt pretty favorable between hand disruption and removal. Dredge circumvents the attrition gameplan of Jund, but in addition to Scavenging Ooze Jund can prepare for it with Grafdigger’s Cage, Anger of the Gods or Leyline of the Void. Burn is always a tough matchup, but Kalitas does help. The downside to Jund is its closing speed. I’ve lost a number of games where I’ve disrupted my opponent, but then I couldn’t find a clock quickly enough to end the game. When you don’t draw Tarmogoyf it’s hard to end games quickly. I also wouldn’t want to play Jund if I expected Ancestral Vision decks to be popular but that hasn’t been the case online.
I’d say this list is similar to Jund in that it’s a disruptive midrange deck. Eldrazi Temple means the deck is capable of some pretty unbeatable openings like turn 2 Thought-Knot Seer and turn 3 Reality Smasher. Thought-Knot Seer gives Eldrazi something that Jund doesn’t have – disruption and a clock in one card. Ancient Stirrings helps smooth the deck’s draws, but it’s still very inconsistent. You have to mulligan a lot of hands that either don’t have mana acceleration or an Ancient Stirrings to search for Eldrazi Temple.
I think of this as a higher variance Jund. Eldrazi can race better than Jund so it has an improved burn matchup. It can also go over the top of a typical Jund strategy, so I think it is favored there. Eldrazi’s disruptive elements come in the form of expensive board control elements (Eldrazi Displacer, TKS, Drowner of Hope). This makes it effective at mitigating combat-based combo strategies like Infect and Suicide Zoo, but weaker against spell-based combo, though there isn’t much of that at the moment. Sometimes the Eldrazi’s disruption is too slow and mana intensive which makes Jund’s 1-mana discard spells more reliable. One benefit in favor of the Eldrazi is access to powerful sideboard cards out of white.
I didn’t get to test with this one as much but it did seem powerful. Ancestral Vision didn’t feel as busted as I expected. It’s just too slow in a lot of matchups – I’d rather have card selection than raw cards. But Nahiri felt great as a value card that can close games quickly. The deck has access to many great sideboard cards and has a lot of efficient interaction for the many creature strategies. I can’t comment on the Jund matchup but I don’t expect it to be heavily skewed toward one side or the other. I much preferred this deck over Grixis Control where every game was such a grind to play. Grixis can be a fun deck to play with close and interesting games, but it’s not something I’d want to pick up for a long tournament.
Thoughts on The Format
What jumps out right away is that the format is littered with linear aggressive decks: Infect, Suicide Zoo, Affinity, and Dredge are all popular. All of these except Dredge are vulnerable to hand disruption. They are different flavors of creature combo decks that need to draw the right mix of creatures and payoff cards. It’s no surprise that Jund has risen to fight these strategies (and Jund can be built to fight Dredge as well).
Here are some ways to approach the format:
- Creature-Combo (Infect, Suicide Zoo, Affinity, Dredge)
One option is to sleeve up your favorite linear strategy and just plan to race everyone else. These decks aren’t interacting much so mulligan aggressively and just hope that your draw is better than your opponent’s. In a format where glass cannons are facing off, I’d want to be on one that can play some disruption for my opponent. Suicide Zoo seems like a great choice since it gets to play, Thoughtseize, Stubborn Denial, spot removal and whatever color sideboard cards you want.
- Disruptive Midrange (Jund, Bant Eldrazi, Abzan Company)
Here the goal is to take the opponent off their game plan in the early turns and then close out the game before they can recover. I prefer Eldrazi since I think it can close faster and has a lot of ways to establish board control over the other creature decks. If other combo strategies (Ad Nauseam, RG Through the Breach, Storm) became popular I’d rather be on Jund. If dedicated control decks with wraths became popular I wouldn’t want to be on either one. I’m adding Abzan combo to this category because it’s a midrange deck with some disruptive options that has outs to a combo finish. It’s popularity has gone way down, though I’m not sure exactly why. I think the rise of Jund with Scavenging Ooze, Kalitas and Anger of the Gods probably explains it. Also Grafdigger’s Cage has seen a lot more play with the popularity of Dredge and Nahiri. I’m trusting the crowd and staying away from this one.
- Control (Jeskai Nahiri, UW Control)
With all of the linear decks relying on creature combat, it’s possible that there’s an opening for a dedicated control deck with counters, spot removal, and wraths. It would have to kill all of the threats out of the aggressive decks and go over the top of the midrange decks. I’ve seen some UW Control and even Esper Control builds popping up online. I think this could be effective against the established metagame, but I would never take it to a modern tournament. There are too many random decks out there and you are bound to run into some matchups that you didn’t prepare for. If I were to play control, I’d want to be on Nahiri as a fast finisher for when I have to race.
- Non-Creature Combo (Ad Nauseam, Valakut, Storm)
This doesn’t seem like a strong choice right now. If you’re playing these you’re going to have to race a lot of the creature strategies. If there’s a spell-based combo deck with a fast and consistent goldfish then I would play it – maybe that’s Ad Nauseam. If these spell and land-based combo decks were a faster goldfish then I expect they would probably already be seeing play. They are not disruptive and probably a half turn or a turn slower, which is not a place you want to be. I could see these becoming good if the formats swings too much into an anti-creature control direction, but that time is not now.
- Attack From a Different Angle (Living End, Bogles, BW Tokens)
There are ways to have a proactive strategy while also being decidedly anti-creature. Living End just wrecks creature strategies while also foiling Jund’s value plan. You get to advance your own game plan and wrath your opponent for free. In general I want to avoid graveyard strategies to dodge splash hate from Dredge, but Living End gets around Grafdigger’s Cage. I think Living End is well positioned. As I found out though, it strikes me as a metagame deck and you don’t always get the matchups you’d expect. I stopped testing the deck after losing to burn three times. You’ll also need a plan for the Dredge matchup, so pack your Fairie Macabres and Leyline of the Void. Bogles is a hard deck for a lot of decks to beat. It has a tough time with infect, but it can outsize any other creature deck. It does mulligan a lot and I will say that Bant Eldrazi has some good game against it between Spellskite and Engineered Explosives. Jund keeps Bogles in check because of Liliana of the Veil but I’ve found the matchup isn’t that bad with some practice and Dryad Arbor. Finally, BW Tokens gets to play a focused game-plan that makes Jund’s spot removal look silly and also gets to pack discard spells for the linear matchups. Of note, all 3 of these strategies suffer if wraths tick up in popularity.
What Am I Going to Play?
After all that, what is going to be my modern deck of choice? Well I’m still not sure. I haven’t found any deck that I’ve been happy with yet and I haven’t really had much fun playing the format at all (the two are probably related). The decks that I’m considering are Infect, Bant Eldrazi, and Nahiri Control. I think Suicide Zoo, Dredge and Affinity are all fine choices too, but I have no experience with them.
When I have some time I’d like to do some brewing and see if I can attack the metagame now that I have a better understanding of the format. GW Hatebears and Bant Company decks are on my list of archetypes to explore. They are strategies I’m comfortable with and have had success with in the past, so I’m confident they would at least be more fun for me to play. It remains to be seen if they are competitive though. But that will have to wait until after GP Montreal which is coming up this weekend.
Bonus: Has the Splinter Twin ban been good for modern?
This was a hotly debated topic at the time of the Twin ban. We never got to see the effect of the ban because of the sudden Eldrazi invasion. It’s early but we’ve had a couple months now with the new format so we can revisit this topic armed with more than speculaiton. I didn’t want to address this in the main article because it doesn’t help us solve the current format. Modern is what it is now so praising or condemning the Twin ban isn’t going to help us win games next week. But it’s still an interesting question to reflect on so I’ll address it here.
From what I’ve seen the Twin ban has been bad for the format. The predictions at the time were that the format would get taken over by linear decks like Infect, RG Tron and Affinity. Well, as we’ve discussed Infect and Affinity are right at the top of the metagame along with some other linear creature decks. RG Tron is still around but was tangentially hit by a ban of its own.
Let’s revisit the goals stated for the Twin ban.
Have other blue decks become viable? Jeskai Nahiri has seen some play, but I think this would have been the case even without a Twin ban. UWR was a deck before and I think what it needed was the printing of Nahiri, not the banning of Twin. Ancestral Vision couldn’t have been unbanned with Twin in the format, but I don’t think it needed to be. UWR needed Nahiri more than it needs Ancestral.
Has it increased competitive diversity? I’m not going to go back and rigorouly compare the metagame percentages of various decks. I’d say the format is decidedly unbalanced at the moment though in favor of linear archetypes. New decks have risen (Suicide Zoo, Dredge) but that’s on the back of new printings, not the B&R changes. You might argue there is competitive diversity in the format at the moment. You can choose any linear deck you want. I believe Twin would be effective at fighting the top archetypes – affinity and infect are fair but favorable matchups. Pestermite can tap down Death’s Shadow and buy time for the combo. Dredge would probably still be a player in the meta, but again an early combo is an out.
The biggest change is that Jund has seen a resurgence to fill the void left by Twin as a way to disrupt these strategies. Jund is pretty good, but Splinter Twin really had the ability to keep these strategies in check. With Jund you have to control the board through the end of the game. With Twin you had to disrupt your opponent just long enough to try to find the combo. Jund gives your opponent a few turns to topdeck the last combo piece they need to steal the game back. Maybe this is exactly the reason for the Twin ban – maybe the combination of disruption and the ability to win quickly was too good, but I sure do miss it. And I don’t like the format that we’ve been left without it.
The shift away from modern Pro Tours though is a good one. I was in the camp that was disappointed to see modern Pro Tours get taken away the first time. After seeing how Wizards has managed the ban list ahead of the last couple of modern PT’s though, I’m happy to see the change. I’m still fairly certain that Splinter Twin was banned primarily to create a fresh format for the Pro Tour. If the PT wasn’t modern, maybe they wouldn’t have examined the format in the same light and Twin would not have been banned. Without modern PT’s, Wizards won’t have an incentive to micromanage the format. This is a positive, but my fear is that they’ve unintentionally made the format worse for the sake of a fresh the PT and now they won’t have a reason to go back and fix it. I hope I am proven wrong because I’d love for modern to become one of my favorite formats again.