Learn Magic the Gathering - Modern
Cards, Drugs, and Rock and Roll – Episode 1 – Modern Format
As some of you may be aware, there has been a recent change in how Friday Night Magic is sanctioned and run which has filtered down from our lords and masters up at Wizards of the Coast HQ. In summary, as opposed to the old system of being able to choose between Standard and Draft formats, FNM is now wide open. The tournament organiser (in this case a certain friendly ginger) can pick from a huge range of Magic formats including Modern, Commander (also known as EDH), Legacy, and even Vintage, alongside of course the original two. In light of these changes and for the benefit of some of our newer players and/or those unfamiliar with anything but standard, I am writing these blog posts as a series of primers on the various alternative Magic formats. I will be explaining the general philosophy behind each format, giving some reasons as to why you should be excited about the chance to play it, and giving you the low-down on some of the most common archetypes and decks.
In this article I will be covering the format known as Modern.
What is Modern?
I’m sure most of you know the concept of the Standard format well, that is a constructed (60 cards minimum) format where you can use any of the cards in the last two story blocks and any core sets in between. Modern is simply an extension of this with a much larger card pool; in Modern you can use any card printed since the implementation of the ‘modern’ card frame, which happened in a set known as 8th Edition back in 2003. This means that you can use any card released or reprinted in any of the following sets:
• Return to Zendikar
• Dragons of Tarkir
• Fate Reforged
• Khans of Tarkir
• Magic 2015
• Journey into Nyx
• Born of the Gods
• Magic 2014
• Dragon’s Maze
• Return to Ravnica
• Magic 2013
• Avacyn Restored
• Dark Ascension
• Magic 2012
• New Phyrexia
• Mirrodin Besieged
• Scars of Mirrodin
• Magic 2011
• Rise of the Eldrazi
• Magic 2010
• Alara Reborn
• Shards of Alara
• Tenth Edition
• Future Sight
• Planar Chaos
• Time Spiral
• Ravnica: City of Guilds
• Ninth Edition
• Saviors of Kamigawa
• Eighth Edition
• Betrayers of Kamigawa
• Champions of Kamigawa
• Fifth Dawn
One other thing that Modern has in terms of card choice is simple concept, that of a banned list. Cards on this list are deemed to be too powerful or two centralising for Modern and as such are not allowed to be played. A recent announcement has removed some familiar cards from Modern in [c]Treasure Cruise[/c] and [c]Dig Through Time[/c], these cards were deemed to have a negative effect on Modern as a format by making certain decks too powerful and meaning you had to either play one of those decks or play something specifically tuned to beat them, which was fun for almost no-one. You can find the current Modern ban list here: Ban List
So what does all of this mean in terms of playing Modern? Put simply, it has a much higher power level than standard due to the huge number of cards available to play. While Khans may have brought us one of the best creatures ever printed (I’m looking at you [c]Siege Rhino[/c]), in terms of spells, artifacts, enchantments, planeswalkers, and lands the older sets often offer up gems which standard cannot compete with. For example if you are playing a white deck and you wish to get rid of a pesky 3/3 flyer, such as [c]Mantis Rider[/c], in standard then your options are limited to such cards as [c]Banishing Light[/c], a 3 mana card that you cannot even guarantee will be there forever and can only be cast at Sorcery speed. In Modern you have access to the infinitely better [c]Path to Exile[/c]; no Mantis is coming back from that! Similarly [c]Lightning Bolt[/c] is far more efficient than [c]Lightning Strike[/c] (2 mana rather than 1 is a big deal!), [c]Liliana of the Veil[/c] is better by far than [c]Liliana Vess[/c], and no artifacts of the last few years even come close to [c]Batterskull[/c] or [c]Cranial Plating[/c]. The sheer variety of Modern also means that it is quite possible to find some odd synergy or combo that no-one is expecting and just run away with games; just as it is possible to simply play all the best cards you can find and have fun.
As with all Magic formats, there are a number of styles of deck, or archetypes, that you can play. Generally Magic has a total of 5 primary archetypes, which can be combined in various ways for a very large number of deck styles. These archetypes are as follows:
Aggro: Simply put, aggro decks want to kill you as quickly and efficiently as possible, they make use of cheap creatures and burn spells to get the job done before you have the chance to stabilise with your more powerful (but more costly) spells.
Midrange: Midrange decks utilise powerful creatures and spells to create an overwhelming boardstate, often with the addition of mana-ramp to achieve this as quickly as possible. They then grind out wins by simply having better permanents than the opponent. A prime example of a Midrange strategy is Abzan in Standard, access to [c]Courser of Kruphix[/c], [c]Siege Rhino[/c], and [c]Wingmate Roc[/c] means simply that if they get their creatures online, they will overpower you.
Control: Control decks seek to keep the board clear, through removal spells (like the aforementioned [c]Path to Exile[/c]), countermagic, and sweepers (such as [c]Wrath of God[/c], [c]Supreme Verdict[/c] and the like). They establish control of the board and then win with the one or two powerful threats that they run, usually backed up by more countermagic to prevent you from killing their win condition.
Combo: A Combo deck simply seeks to play a combination of cards which either win the game on the spot or make it impossible for the opponent to win. The current standard is unusual in that it does have a combo strategy ([c]Jeskai Ascendancy[/c], a creature, [c]Retraction Helix[/c] and a 0 mana artifact creates an infinite loop, growing your creatures to infinite size) however it is not a very powerful one. Modern has many powerful combos such as [c]Splinter Twin[/c] on any creature with an ability that untaps something when it enters the battlefield (usually [c]Pestermite[/c] and [c]Deceiver Exarch[/c]) which creates an infinite number of attackers with haste (on turn 4!) or [c]Archangel of Thune[/c] combined with [c]Spike Feeder[/c] which allows for infinite life gain.
Prison: The fifth and final archetype is an odd child, and as it does not really exist in either Standard or Modern I will be brief: prison decks simply stop your opponent from doing anything at all, often with artifacts such as [c]Trinisphere[/c] and [c]Ensnaring Bridge[/c] alongside very old lands like [c]Maze of Ith[/c] and [c]The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale[/c] (best card name ever). I will revisit Prison decks when we come to discuss the Legacy format.
As promised, I will now feature a couple of decks from Modern in each of the above archetypes; this will just give you a general idea of some of the more popular decks and strategies.
A Zoo deck is a simple concept, lots of cheap yet powerful creatures to quickly overwhelm your opponents. The most common colours for a Zoo deck is Naya, or White/Red/Green, which gives you access to some of the best beaters in cards like [c]Wild Nacatl[/c] (a 3/3 for 1? Sign me up!), [c]Loam Lion[/c], [c]Kird Ape[/c], and the big daddy himself, [c]Tarmogoyf[/c]. Some lists also splash off-colour shock-lands so that they can play the powerful burn spell [c]Tribal Flames[/c] and make it hit for a painful 5 damage. Zoo decks are all about racing to the finish line and not caring about your own life total, and so they often take considerable damage from their own lands, it’s not unusual in Modern for the turn 1 play to be Fetchland, sac, find a Shockland, play untapped and play a 1 drop. While this is a powerful opening, it does leave you on 17 life already and that’s only the start. Zoo is an excellent deck and can be customised however you like however because it is a rather linear strategy, it is also easy enough to play against, and if you came prepared with cards like [c]Anger of the Gods[/c] or [c]Wurmcoil Engine[/c] then your Zoo opponent may have a tough time!
Burn does exactly what it says on the tin, try to burn you out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Spells such as [c]Lightning Bolt[/c], [c]Rift Bolt[/c], and [c]Lava Spike[/c] combine with a few hasty threats like [c]Goblin Guide[/c] and [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c] to get it done quickly. Burn also has the advantage of often being mono-red, meaning it’s cheap as chips to pick up and play! Roadblocks and incidental life gain are the way to beat the burn strategy, with cards like [c]Kitchen Finks[/c] being an absolute nightmare for them to try and get through.
There are arguments for this deck being either Aggro, or Combo, as it is clearly a mix of both. Affinity is all about Artifacts and very very powerful synergies. [c]Ornithopter[/c] may not look like much on it’s own but when the affinity player has 7 artifacts in play on turn two and is attacking you with a ‘Thopter that is suited up with [c]Cranial Plating[/c] then you might understand how scary this deck can be. Abusing Metalcraft on cards like [c]Mox Opal[/c] and [c]Thoughtcast[/c] to very quickly dump your entire hand onto the battlefield is the name of the Affinity game, and it is an extremely powerful strategy, albeit one that falls foul of sideboard hate cards like [c]Kataki, War’s Wage[/c] and [c]Stony Silence[/c] all too often, not to mention [c]Shatterstorm[/c] which destroys all Artifacts… Affinity’s strength is in the fact that the first game against any opponent is often going to go well as you are so fast, then although they board in hate cards you only have to scrape a win in one of the next two games to win your match.
Until recently this group would also have contained the Blue/Red [c]Delver of Secrets[/c] deck, but with the banning of [c]Treasure Cruise[/c] I expect that deck to fade quietly back into tier 2/3 as without the card draw it’s simply not that great.
Interestingly, the most common Midrange strategy in Modern has just been gutted with the banning of the uber-powerful card [c]Birthing Pod[/c], which means that there aren’t too many established decks for this archetype right now, I will however cover one of the eternals and the deck which was for a long time considered the best before the banning of both [c]Deathrite Shaman[/c] and [c]Bloodbraid Elf[/c].
In the Magic multiverse, Jund simply means a combination of Red, Green, and Black. The modern Jund deck seeks to overpower opponents by attacking their hand with cards such as [c]Thoughtsieze[/c] and [c]Liliana of the Veil[/c] while simultaneously having better cards than the opponent, with liberal usage of [c]Tarmogoyfs[/c], [c]Abrupt Decays[/c] and even going bigger into splashy cards like [c]Olivia Voldaren[/c]. It hits these monsters early through use of some mana ramp; cards like [c]Birds of Paradise[/c] really shine in archetypes such as these. Put simply, Jund has excellent creatures backed up by the best removal in Modern, it can sometimes fall foul to non-creature based combo decks or the few strategies that simply go bigger (I’ll talk more about Tron in just a second).
Tron (Midrange – Combo)
Tron is a deck close to my heart as I learned to play Modern with it and it is still a deck I greatly enjoy. The purpose of Tron is to assemble what is known as the Urza-Tron, that is the lands [c]Urza’s Mine[/c], [c]Urza’s Tower[/c], and [c]Urza’s Power Plant[/c], which when combined can make a staggering 7 colourless mana on turn 3 of the game. The combo aspect of the deck comes from finding these land pieces, with cards such as [c]Expedition Map[/c] and [c]Sylvan Scrying[/c], once you have them then the ‘combo’ is as simple as playing something massive. The turn 3 cards of choice are [c]Wurmcoil Engine[/c] (even Goyf is afraid of this bad boy) and [c]Karn Liberated[/c], in my opinion one of the best Planeswalkers ever printed. Going even further into the game you can use the land [c]Eye of Ugin[/c] (which you can find with Map/Scrying like I mentioned earlier) to tutor for the biggest of all the gribblies in Magic, [c]Emrakul the Aeons Torn[/c]. There are few decks which can even hope to do anything once this guy goes on the stack and for that reason, Tron is considered to have the best late-game strategy in all of modern, it can however lose to fast aggro draws or early combos as it doesn’t really do much until that magical third turn, except occasionally cast a Pyroclasm.
Blue/White/Red control in Modern is an exciting and fun deck to play, despite Modern’s lack of decent counterspells (no Force of Wills here), the best Modern can do at 2 mana is either [c]Remand[/c] (buys you turns and a card) or [c]Mana Leak[/c] (good early but awful late) meaning that control decks in this format have to be a little more proactive. They achieve this by liberal use of value creatures such as [c]Snapcaster Mage[/c] (gets back those Bolts or that Remand for a free draw) and [c]Restoration Angel[/c] which can both be a surprise blocker and also save the skin of another critter. They also play a decent amount of burn in both [c]Lightning Bolt[/c] and [c]Lightning Helix[/c] with the eventual win condition often coming down to the wonderful man-land Celestial Colonnade.
Splinter Twin (Control-Combo)
As mentioned way above, Twin’s kill method of choice involves its namesake enchantment on either a [c]Pestermite[/c] or [c]Deceiver Exarch[/c] to instantly win the game; however in the meantime it will Remand your spells, Bolt your guys, and control the board until it can “go off”. Some lists splash green to add pressure in the form of the ubiquitous [c]Tarmogoyfs[/c] (often known as Tarmo-Twin) but all have a Blue/Red core and all have the combo waiting to finish you off if you make a single slip. Twin is an excellent deck and the choice of many pro players due to the high skill level of playing it and the huge number of decisions it offers during the game, not for the faint hearted.
Another deck named after the combo piece it uses to win; Scapeshift ramps into as many lands as it possibly can then attempts to cast the namesake card, possibly with counterspell backup in the form of Remand and Cryptic Command. If and when Scapeshift resolves then the player will fetch a land called Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle along with as many Mountains as it can, given that Valakut checks all lands simultaneously, if you get 6 mountains then it will deal 18 damage just like that. Scapeshift for two Valakuts and 6 Mountains and that is doubled to 36, scary! The way that it achieves this many lands is through cards such as Sakura Tribe Elder (colloquially known as Steve) and Search for Tomorrow. Scapeshift also made very good use of Dig Through Time to find its pieces until that card was banned recently; we will now have to see if it retains popularity as a deck.
Let’s get one thing straight before anything else. Storm is a busted ability. WotC have rated it top of the list of “Mechanics we will never come back to and reprint” because nearly every card with Storm is broken as all hell. Despite being considerably worse than the Legacy version, Modern Storm is still quite the deck, using Pyromancer’s Ascension to double your spells, ‘Rituals’ such as Desperate Ritual and Manamorphose to keep your mana pool high, and cantrips like Serum Vision and Gitaxian Probe to draw more cards, with the goal of playing a bunch of spells in one turn and casting a lethal Grapeshot, or at the least an Empty the Warrens for approximately half a million goblins. A very difficult deck to play, it also suffers from variance problems, often it’s not so much that the other deck beats Storm so much as Storm beats itself.
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into the more exciting options available in older Magic The Gathering formats, join me next time when we will venture into the dark waters of Legacy, or perhaps just lose all of our friends at Commander. Ciao for now!
P.S. It’s worth remembering that most of your standard decks are also legal for Modern (just take out any Cruises and Dig Through Times) so even if you feel like you don’t have a particularly powerful option I would still recommend coming along to a Modern FNM to see some decks and have fun, if I have spare decks I will certainly bring them along for people to borrow and play with and I encourage those of you with larger collections to do the same!