This is a follow-up to Francesco Neo Amati’s “Cracking the Modern Code” (12-18-18).
In his article, Francesco Neo Amati discussed how to approach Modern and where UW Midrange stands within the format. There are some unclear notions that are presented, which I hope to alleviate in this article. His argument of “Modern having no meta” has ground as a statement yet is unclear on what it means. I would argue that Modern has a metagame, but how the player uses the information that the metagame provides is up to them. This extends into how Midrange decks operate in the format, with how they are built and tuned. His examples of Vendilion Clique and Runed Halo support his idea of cards being both flexible and versatile, not how to evaluate their individual strength and their ability in gamestate situations. Evaluating a deck and recognizing its ability to play in the format is not about tuning a deck to be the best possible iteration of itself, but figuring out how that iteration can contend against the rest of the format. I think it is time to uncrack the “Modern Code” in order to clarify some ideas that Amati presented before understanding how to approach Modern. From there, I discuss what it means to play a Midrange deck in Modern and how it should be approached in a more specific manner.
What is a “Metagame”?
Richard Garfield presents the idea of playing in a metagame as such; “When you play a number of games, not as ends unto themselves but as parts of a larger game, you are participating in a “metagame”. This means that a metagame is the environment in which a game is played, or “a game within a game”.
Though, this does not clearly represent the point of a metagame, it adds more understanding of how the term “metagame” is applied. Modern is a format within the game of Magic. Each Modern tournament occurs within the format of Modern. Both of these concepts fit the notion of metagame, while approaching the different applications of the term. One could say that Modern has a metagame but it’s also true that each tournament has its own metagame within the larger environment. This can go deeper, though that is unnecessary to the point.
The idea of a ‘game within a game’ takes on a more focused definition in the context of Modern. The metagame of competitive Modern is the plethora of competitive decks that are played. These decks create the basis of how Modern is talked about, almost becoming synonymous with the format itself. When people refer to Modern, they are not discussing the format but rather they are referring to the competitive structure of Modern and competitive tournaments that precede it. While decks can be Modern legal, it does not mean that they are Modern-competitive; only that they are Modern playable. In this idea, the second instance of “Modern” mentioned in Amati’s article takes on the role of the competitive play of Modern. The competitive Modern format is what people regard as the metagame of Modern, where the metagame that is tournament specific can vary from tournament to tournament. It is the cyclical metagame from tournament to tournament that sets the basis from how an overarching metagame is viewed. The overall collection of decks that create the parameters of Modern are the overarching metagame, which is what should be looked at when trying to prepare for a tournament environment. The overarching metagame supplies the information for the trends and cycles of the Modern format, and it is that information that bleeds into the decks of the tournament and the tournament metagame itself.
In Amati’s article, he claims “Modern has no meta”, or furthered, “Modern has no defined metagame”. This is one of the concepts I’m here to dispute or at least provide some clarity to. “Meta” is shorthand for “metagame” but is not used in the same measure. “Meta” is often attributed to the smaller scale metagames that are discussed in context to the overarching metagames, to establish a discrepancy between the two ideas. The two terms are used interchangeably when discussed without context, but it is the scale of the metagame that helps us to understand and approach Modern. Modern as a competitive format has a metagame, which is used to help construct a deck and prepare for a tournament. Modern has a metagame, while it is tournaments and LGS that have a meta. “Meta” becomes the shorthand for how individual metagames in Modern are discussed.
This overarching metagame is represented through data provided by Wizards of the Coast, however there is not nearly enough data to paint a clear picture of the entire metagame. Wizards of the Coast withholds information from every type of event, so the fully established metagame cannot be properly constructed. Their available data, while not imparting a full image of the metagame, does enough to provide players with tools to work with, when trying to understand what the metagame of Modern includes. It is not the data that is withheld that supports the overarching metagame, but the data which is given up through MTGO 5-0 Leagues, Modern Challenges, SCG Circuits, and Grand Prix. There will never be a true picture of Modern until players have access to all of the possible data. This is not necessary, though, as there is enough data to paint a picture of decks that are common to face within a tournament. The withholding of information does not change the picture nor does it change how the format is approached. It should not be used as an argument for the inability to metagame, or that there is no defined metagame. Rather, there is no use to metagaming in Modern through deck choice. There is no winning strategy where attacking an archetype or strategy specifically through deck choice exists.
Amati says that “Modern has no meta” is a fine enough statement on its own, but then compares it to Standard, which has the same structure of establishing an image of the metagame as Modern has. The differences in Modern and Standard are that Modern has a bigger card pool, a non-rotating card base, and a different Banned and Restricted List. Modern is a much different format, but that does not take away from the ability to have a defined metagame. The same method of viewing Standard and recognizing that metagame can be applied to Modern. It has a much bigger metagame than Standard has due to it being non-rotating and having a much bigger card pool, so the parameters of the format are much different. I’d argue that Modern has as much of a defined metagame as Standard has.
The “trends and cycles” of Modern patterns that develop in between tournaments transition due to the shift of contending decks from tournament to tournament. Each individual tournament has their own metagame, with that data only being available once the tournament has come to a close or close to doing so. A tournament that has not occurred has no established data to present information on the metagame, so people are left to use available data from the “trends and cycles” to help develop an understanding of the overarching Modern metagame for the upcoming tournament metagame. Modern has a defined metagame, with the available data. Use that information to help develop a plan for what the tournament metagame might be. While there is no defined metagame for the tournament that is being prepared for, I’d argue that the idea that “Modern has no meta” is inaccurate or that the meaning is unclear.
Using this information to prepare for a tournament can vary from player to player, and there is no true method to doing so. But the information provided to the player provides the player with decks that consistently perform and are most likely to be played against in a tournament. This constructs a foundation to attack the format from, while also adding information to what kind of decks are strong within the format. Modern is flushed with hyper-aggressive and unfair, proactive decks. And it is these decks that consistently perform in the highest level of play regardless of the pilots. In order to find success on a consistent basis, playing one of these decks is advised. However, if playing Midrange, or fair and interactive decks, is the desired approach, then there is a way to do so in Modern. It is not going to be consistently represented nor is it going to consistently perform. That is part of the fun. Playing Midrange means forgoing a competitive nature for a more playable one and acknowledging that Midrange is not consistently competitive. Instead, it is finding enjoyment in playing the strategy first and being successful secondarily.
Playing Midrange in Modern
Fair interactive decks have a problem in Modern. This is usually known as the “drawing the wrong half of the deck” problem, but it also comes with how the deck is constructed. Amati’s modern mantra, “Flexibility, versatility, and adaptability. Assess and adapt” provide enough context to this, as cards need to have the ability to be flexible, versatile, and situationally adaptable to the matchup. Yet, figuring out a deck such as this is impossible to do so due to how limited the use of individual cards are and how different the strategies of Modern are. Rather, it discusses the desired style of play without understanding the shortcomings or problems of playing Midrange. Midrange decks attempt to have a fair game against each deck in the format. Their role is defined by the matchup at hand. Each card is individually power, with their power level being equal to the power level of the format. In order for a Midrange deck to perform in the format, it has to have answers and individual cards that are powerful enough to make it difficult for unfair decks to have a chance to fight through their cards. Power level is the keystone rule of an individual card having a place in a Midrange deck, where it is the collection of the individually powerful cards that construct the ability for a Midrange deck to perform and have success consistently. That is why these decks are known as “good-stuff” and you’ll see little-to-no lackluster cards in the deck. And if they are, they occupy a small quantity of the deck for the sole purpose of shoring up some issues.
This idea of “flexibility, versatility, and adaptability” has almost nothing to do with the individual cards, but rather establish the role of the fair, interactive deck. A Midrange deck is the manifestation of the belief of “Who’s the Beatdown?”, with the deck itself having to be flexible, versatile, and adaptable to the matchup at hand. A fair, interactive deck has no linear gameplan that it follows. This means that the deck has a gameplan that is dependant on different factors during a match, instead of the strategy of the deck. Interacting with the opponent, while a strategy, has no concrete gameplan to follow. The gameplan depends on how the fair, interactive deck is going to interact with the opponent. A Midrange deck does not construct a strategy until the game starts, trying to figure out the role in which it is going to interact with the opponent. This becomes an issue when trying to create a deck so “it’s the best version of itself”.
Amati explains how to play the deck itself, “Put your opponent in a position to misplay and exhaust their resources. Play as though you’re already ahead/winning by playing in reverse and visualizing the end-game”. There is an unclear meaning behind this; And while I understand the sentiment, I am not sure I know what it means. It is impossible to play as if “you’re already ahead” when you’re always behind, as there are different situations with either mentalities. When playing from behind, you’re trying to put yourself into a position to win. This can be noted by the first part of the statement, “put your opponent in a position to misplay and exhaust your resources”. If there is any advice to take, this is one of the best ones to consider. This statement defines how to play a Midrange deck, with the focus of trying to force the opponent into a situation where the stumble just enough to win the game. Playing Midrange means winning by close margins, with the idea to be to put the opponent into a position to “misplay and exhaust their resources” until it is possible to switch gears and close out the game. Though, this can only be done once the tides of the game shift and the Midrange player can start playing as if they’re ahead, but not before. It is the second part of the statement that confuses me.
When playing from ahead, you’re trying to put yourself in a position where you cannot lose. If you play like you cannot lose, then you look to closing out the game as fast as you can. This is different for Midrange decks, due to the fact that the deck does not set up trying to win the game but through the opponent off their game until an opening to win the game is found. A Midrange deck does not have the capability of playing ahead, when the idea of playing ahead is about putting together a gameplan and following through with that gameplan to win the game from the start of the match. Linear decks have a gameplan together from their opening hand, it is the configuration of the deck helps to consistently make it possible to enact this gameplan. A Midrange deck does not have the ability to play ahead when its gameplan depends on what the opponent is doing and how they are constructing the gameplan, as that means that the Midrange deck is always playing from behind.
The role of the Midrange deck should depend on the situation at hand and adapt to that situation. If the deck is playing as if it were ahead, it would always be in the aggressive role while not setting up the position to be in a controlling on. The Midrange player should not realize the end-game, either, as there is no clear image of how the game is going to come to an end. Once the player is ahead, they can switch thought processes to then close out the game. The Midrange player sets up the game by creating a situation that allows the role to turn from control to aggressor, shifting gears to focus on closing out the game instead of playing as if they were ahead the entire time. It is possible to make the opponent over-extend and exhaust their resources, but this is not always the case with Midrange decks that play individually powerful cards. Most interaction will occur on a one-for-one basis, with a form of card advantage to help gain a resource advantage over the opponent. The Midrange deck needs to win the game by forcing the opponent into a situation where they cannot win the game and using that situation to apply enough pressure they cannot come back into the game. This is what Amati means by “Put your opponent in a position to misplay and exhaust their resources”.
Evaluating Individual Cards
Part of playing Midrange is knowing how individual cards help the deck to operate. Not just their roles, but also their individual strengths and synergy with the rest of the deck or format. The examples that Amati provides are through “Vendilion Clique” and “Runed Halo”, which are cards that interact with the opponent in different ways but interact with the opponent nonetheless. It is in this instance that the idea of “versatility” and “flexibility” are applied to individual cards. This is helpful when looking at cards initially, but not when applying them to a fair and interactive strategy, as a card should not just be flexible and versatile. If this is the case, then these cards are not main focuses. Rather, they are support cards for the rest of the deck. This is where tuning a deck comes into hand. Individual cards that become vital to a Midrange archetype need to have a strong base level for them to have use. Earlier I mentioned that individual cards need to be powerful, in order for a Midrange deck to compete on the same level as consistently performing decks. If this is not the case, then the Midrange deck will not consistently perform. It will have a more difficult time trying to contend in the format.
Jund Midrange has access to many powerful cards, such as Assassin’s Trophy and Liliana of the Veil, while still having problems interacting with the whole of the format. Assassin’s Trophy is fine removal that has a wide range of applications, but it does not contend against decks like Dredge or Arclight Phoenix archetypes, as those decks can ignore the card in most situations Scavenging Ooze helps to make the card stronger, but then that is more synergistic and not individually powerful. Liliana of the Veil is a powerful card, in most cases. This does not compete on the same level as Karn Liberated from Gx Tron or Hollow One from BR Hollow One, though, as it becomes easy to play around through developing a board state, discarding cards that have a recursive attribute, or simply making the impact of the card not matter. The engine side of the card, or reusability, helps to push forward pressure toward the opponent. The coming together of these individually powerful cards help to form an ability to consistent perform in the format, but these cards need to be individually powerful beforehand.
Vendilion Clique is a unique effect that has applications across the field, as even Amati mentions that it can act as “information, disruption, pressure, blocker, and cantrip”. That is a versatile display of what ways Vendilion Clique can be used. It does not bring attention to how strong the card is or if the card is worth playing because of how strong it is. Versatility and flexibility do not equate power level, and a card is not consistently powerful if it is defined by the situation and style in which it is used. Vendilion Clique has the potential to be strong, while not sustaining a consistent power level. The power level depends on how it is used and the situation at hand, which is vital when consider what cards should be used. For Vendilion Clique to be strong on a consistent basis, it needs to be able to be powerful in the context of itself, not by the situation or what choices are made when casting it. The flexibility of the card does make up for some weaknesses the card provides, though the transitioning power level of the card leaves a lot to be determined with how much application it has in such a deck. The card is not individually powerful and situationally useful. This becomes a support card to shore up some issues that a deck like UW Midrange has, while become necessary to win games against most other matchups. Vendilion Clique is not a card that should fill such a role, when its ability only shores up certain matchups and not the majority of decks in the Modern metagame.
Runed Halo is weaker than Vendilion Clique and requires more work to have have means to apply it within a game or match. At least with Vendilion Clique, it can be used on its own to apply pressure, even if that pressure is in small increments. Runed Halo only has utility in the matchup if it has a target. Otherwise, it is a dead card that provides no value to the game and does not further any gameplan. It takes away from the opponent being able to close out the game, but only from one source when many decks can either play around it or ignore it. The card does not provide enough individual power level to contend against the rest of the format, even when all of the areas it can be utilized in provide some utility for the card to be have applications. Relying on the opponent to provide use of a card means that the card does not have any individual power level, or even help a player to further their game plan. Its uses do not outweigh the lack of strength that come with the card. Runed Halo fits a more focused style of “tuning” due to Arclight decks and such having such an impact on the format. This card becomes a necessary support card that solves a clear issue that the deck has, without taking away from other matchups or require other cards to be individually powerful.
With UR Arclight decks being more potent in the current metagame, Runed Halo has more use in the format but does not have consistent utility against the shifts and cycles that come with the metagame. There will come a time where Runed Halo is weak and should not be used. This is what Amati means by “Tune a deck for matchups”, but it should go further than that. It should not just be individual matchups or decks, but a collection of decks. Arclight decks are varied, in this case, which supports his claim to use the card currently and leads to the idea of tuning to correctly be used in this scenario.
It is a fine idea to find cards that have multiples uses, but for them to be impactful they have to also be powerful in their uses to have any effect on the gamestate, or being able to win the game on any consistent basis. Midrange decks play individually powerful cards that have a wide variety of powerful use, in order to compete on a more competitive basis rather than being just playable. If looking for individually powerful cards from a fair, interactive perspective, I would look at decks that perform on a more consistent scale, such as Grixis Death’s Shadow, Bant Spirits, 5-Color Humans, and Mardu Pyromancer. These decks have individually powerful cards, or at least cards that have a powerful ability that does not rely on what the opponent is doing to have utility in the game. Rather, they fill a role for the deck to operate on a secondary level which can become a primary strategy to winning the game, without having to rely on the opponent to define the role of the deck. Each card does something on their own, while come together to be even more powerful than their base level.
The Misconceptions in Misconceptions
Amati brings attention to a tweet from Corey Burkhart, “just dodge it”. There is some detail left out when considering this tweet, which I want to bring attention to. Burkhart’s advice does not mention the idea of “dodging” these decks but accepting that there are going to be bad matchups for any deck, as no deck can solve the format forthright. His advice is: “Have a plan for them and fight as hard as you can when paired against them”, which is what players should be doing. This misconception that Amati focused on the idea of “just dodge it” is one that becomes a misconception. This advice breaks down the advice to a single adage, taking away from the true meaning of the statement. It is better for decks to face good or great matchups than it is to face bad matchups. Good matchups usually have a good outcome, so the player should hope that they dodge the bad matchups in efforts of getting paired against good ones. If it comes to it and the player has to play against a bad matchup, then the player should have a plan against them and fight as hard as they can to win, even if winning is an uphill battle. Amati’s argument dismisses the actuality that it is impossible to prepare against the wide metagame, extending this into the belief that Modern does not have a “[defined] metagame”. The problem is that fair, interactive decks come with their own set of problems that “comes with how the deck is constructed”. It is, though, that tweaking a strategy to have game against a more likely matchup is enough to bring reality to his claim. This is known as “tuning” a deck. Decks will have to adapt to the defined metagame and prepare for certain matchups above others. This also helps to give cards utility and a clear image of what decks are capable of performing consistently.
Constructing a deck in Modern is about realizing that there is a gameplan and finding the most effective tools to help develop this gameplan in the most consistent way. For linear decks, this is easy to do as it is about finding tools that help to focus the strategy and help make it more consistent. Nonlinear, fair decks do this to a more secondary degree, since the role of the deck depends on the matchups at hand. Their secondary strategy becomes a linear gameplan, but that gameplan depends on what the next step to have a favorable position in the game is. Constructing a deck is not the same as winning with the deck, as the competitive nature of the deck needs to be as strong as the rest of the format or has strong as the average consistently performing deck of the metagame. Winning with the deck is the success rate of matches, with also keeping tracking of what those matchups are; Success leads to a positive win record with the deck consistently. I don’t think that I can agree with Amati’s definition; “Success in Modern isn’t always about playing the best decks but playing what you know best”. Individual success is not the same as consistently performing decks, and individual success is not consistently performing. Individual success is just winning, which leads to “success” in the long run. Unless the player finds “success” to be such, but that is more of a note on the personal connotation of the word and not the denotational aspects when applied to how strong a deck is and how much it performs consistently.
People who are masters of their deck are not consistently performing, as seen by how regularly Burkhart, Reid Duke, Klomparens, and Saito achieve their results. It is no surprise when these players win, but it is does not occur from tournament to tournament. These players are not always the ones at the top of the standings, even if they are considered masters of their deck. It happens often, though, where we see Burkhart or Duke at the top tables. That says more about their ability to play than their deck of choice. It is not the deck that is consistently performing but the players who are playing these decks are the ones consistently performing. Choosing a deck to consistently perform with is choosing a deck that is going to consistently perform, as it has to have a consistent gameplan and ability to win the game without losing traction against any specific matchup. Linear decks have a much higher ability to perform well because of the ability to consistently win the game without relying on the opponent to do anything. Linear decks could be playing against a goldfish and their cards will perform at the same rate as if they were performing against an average matchup.
Amati mentions that “focus on ensuring your deck can consistently execute what it’s designed to do and that it’s the best version of itself”. There is some misconceptions that come with this notion, when applying it to more nonlinear decks. This notion can be applied to decks that have their own linear gameplan, but not to decks that are designed to interact with the opponent and win the game through interacting with the opponent. Interaction is used in a variety of different matchups that change the role of the card, even if it has a specific effect. Creature removal is not always about removing random creatures but problematic creatures. Hand disruption and counterspells has more utility than creature removal, and that leads to different reasonings behind the use applications of the card. Midrange decks have no capability of being able to consistently execute what it is designed to do (unless there is a secondary strategy), when it is designed to interact with the opponent and throw them off their gameplan until there is an opening to switch gears from the controller to the aggressor. From there, the Midrange deck wins the deck. A Midrange deck relies on the opponent to consistently execute what it is designed to; the power level of the deck is reflected in how it interacts with the opponent and how it wins the game through such interaction.
Modern cannot be solved; here is no code to crack. There are different ways to compete in the format, but some are more apparent than others. In order to compete in the format, a deck must be as strong as the average consistently performing decks. That is the closest regard there is to “finding success” in the format. A Midrange deck is defined by the matchup it is in, having no ability to perform at the same level consistently. I am not trying to deter you from sleeving up UW or Jund Midrange, but there is actuality to the idea that Modern is not some code or that there is any singular way to approach the format. The best way to find consistent success in the format is to find a deck that performs consistently and then become the player who can consistently play that deck at the level it performs at; not to play a deck that has the possibility to be powerful but forms its gameplan to the matchup at hand. Every deck has the power to be good in a format as wide as Modern if they meet good matchup after good matchup., but that does not mean every deck will be able to perform at that level consistently.
If you want to play such a deck, know that more factors than just what the 75 consists need to go right before the deck can be consistently performing. Think of Modern more as a playgroup where you’re the new kid on the block who needs to make friends, you have to force yourself to talk to each clique before you find one that sticks. If you want to be that kid in such a wide playgroup, find the deck that lets you have more fun than trying to force yourself to be something else. Realize that while any deck can be playable in the format, it does not mean that every deck is competitive. But to have fun, you do not need to play competitively. Now, make the deck that you’re playing to be as competitive as it can be and forget about trying to win the game. Have fun playing the game with the deck you choose, and you’ll find success eventually. This is not the formula to have success with in Modern and it should not be the approach taken to having such success. Instead, it is about finding a deck that suits the player and then move forward from there.