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Introduction to Modern 2015

It was the best of formats, it was the worst of formats. Wizards is trying very hard to create an affordable eternal format, and the product of this experiment is Modern. From its not-quite-eternal card pool to its extensive and shifting ban list, it is a format full of possibility.

With a season of PPTQs and an associated Pro Tour on the horizon, Modern is steadily becoming a relevant format for much of the year. Whilst it will never achieve the popularity of Standard, if you plan on playing the competitive events available in your area, you will find yourself sleeving up a Modern deck sooner than you might think.

There are some general rules for Modern that apply to most decks. This article will consider the format as a whole and try to explain not only how the format works, but how various macro-archetypes interact. We will consider the hypothetical meta-game, the decks that are good and that people should be playing, but this breakdown will almost certainly not directly reflect your local metagame. There are a couple of reasons for this, and both are due to card cost and availability.

General Rules

Investment

People who do not play Modern often will likely play a cheap deck. One or two colour mana bases, few expensive mythics and rares, and a straightforward game plan, be it beating down or assembling a combo. At a PPTQ the majority of decks you face will likely be of this sort. People who take the format more seriously will take the time to acquire the cards for one of the top tier decks. The investment in both time and money to assemble these decks is enough that it is unlikely that this player will have many decks to choose from, and will continue to play the same archetype regardless of how well it is positioned. So remember that for any event that you are likely to attend, most people will be playing the deck they have, rather than the best deck.

Turn 4 Format

Modern is often thought of as a turn four format. Most combo decks cannot kill you until turn four, nor can most aggressive decks deal 20 before then. Whilst it is possible to kill on turn two or three, the decks that are capable of this are inconsistent. However, you can quickly fall a long way behind, as if the game tends to last only 4-6 turns, each one wasted is an opportunity lost. As a result, cards with a CMC of over 3 need to have a huge effect, either winning the game on the spot or dominating a board state.

Creatures

Good creatures in Modern tend to cost 1-3 mana. Deploying something good on turn four is often too late for it to attack, and so creatures like Thrun, the Last Troll and Thragtusk see relatively little play, unless it’s in the sideboard.

Removal

Removal is super efficient. Everyone has access to Dismember for one mana removal, but red decks have Lightning Bolt and white decks have Path to Exile as well. Of the expensive removal, Abrupt Decay is the clear winner as it hits all the cheap creatures that people play to achieve parity with the one-mana removal. If your two-mana creature dies to a one-mana removal spell you’re losing tempo, so the creatures played need to either be super cheap (Delver of Secrets), ‘beat’ removal (Kitchen Finks and Lingering Souls) or be so powerful that you can afford to lose tempo some times because when they stick, they win the game (Tarmogoyf, Young Pyromancer).

Counterspells

Counterspells tend to cost one mana (Spell Snare, Spell pierce) or two mana (Remand, Mana Leak), and so getting playing spells costing over three can set you back a long way. Hand disruption is also prevalent, with Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek in the main deck being supplemented by Duress in the sideboard, as well as Sin Collectors and Tidehollow Scullers lurking in fringe decks.

So essentially, over the years of cards printed that are legal for Modern, the cheapest and most efficient are playable. This leads decks to be constructed along several different lines. I will mention lots of decks here, but will not provide deck lists – these are so varied and malleable that you will best be served by finding several examples of each and looking for similarities.

Deck Types

Agressive Decks

These try to win the game quickly, with a bit of disruption to back it up. Affinity, Infect, Zoo, Merfolk and Boggles are some of the decks that get stuck into the red zone early. Affinity and Infect are genuinely good decks, boasting combo-like draws that kill on turn two or three as well as the ability to play a longer game on the back of Inkmoth Nexus. They are often quite good at racing the true combo decks of the format, but can be weak to the disruption offered by the attrition decks and the interactive combo decks.

Non-interactive Combo

These decks try to assemble some combination of cards that immediately lead to a dominating position, if not an outright win, and have little ability to interact. This covers decks such as Storm, Amulet Bloom, Ad Nauseum, Living End, and Reanimator. They try to race the aggressive decks (being on the play is hugely important) but can struggle to maneuver around the disruption presented by the attrition decks. I would also include Tron and Burn in this category, as both try to assemble a game-winning state by turn 4, and neither interact very much.

Interactive Combo

Whilst Splinter Twin is the obvious example of this style of deck, Scapeshift plays a similar game. These decks play removal, counterspells and cantrips whilst also packing a one or two card combo that wins the game on the spot. Vulnerable to fast starts from opposing decks and hand disruption, they sometimes needs to spend the early turns setting up, and stopping to disrupt the opposition makes this more difficult.

Attrition Decks

Junk, Jund, UWR, Delver and Tokens are the usual suspects here. These decks try to disrupt their opposition whilst sticking a threat or card advantage spell. They can often struggle with the non-interactive combo decks that are not vulnerable to their type of interaction and have redundancy (Tron against Junk/Jund, Storm against some builds of Delver and UWR).

Overall

The problem with Modern is that there are so many decks that work so differently that it is difficult to prepare for all of them. Any interaction you play needs to be extremely cheap and efficient. You need to either kill people by turn four, or be ready to stop them killing you by then. Sideboard slots are precious, as there are powerful hosers available for almost every archetype but not very much overlap. Stony Silence is great against Affinity, but how many can you afford to have in the board if you also want Illness in the Ranks for Splinter Twin, Rest in Peace for Reanimator, Leyline of Sanctity for Burn and so on?

The best decks, in my opinion, are in no particular order:

Infect

Amulet Bloom

Splinter Twin

Junk

Affinity

Burn

To keep things simple, a testing gauntlet should involve at least one deck from each macro archetype, as if you have limited time, the differences between decks within strategies are less important than understanding the pacing and interaction of the format. Remember to test side-boarded games too as the plans for the best decks do not overlap much if at all.

Remember that most people will be part-time Modern players. If they don’t concede to your combo on the spot, that’s not because they’re a jerk, it’s probably because they don’t understand it. There are also plenty of opportunities to miss triggers, incorrectly resolve awkwardly worded spells and make mechanical errors using unfamiliar cards. Try to keep your own play clear and tidy, and make sure that you understand your own deck very well.

If you are new to the format, don’t be ashamed play the deck you have available. Any of twenty or more decks could win on a given day, so there is less pressure than in Standard to play one of a few ‘best’ decks. If you want to play the format more competitively, look to the established archetypes. These decks will never be a truly bad choice. Practice with the deck you choose, and especially your sideboarding plans, it is going to be more likely to yield success than borrowing your friend’s $3000 dollar foil Jund deck and going in blind.

Thanks all, It’s been fun.
Chris Cousens

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