Cracking the Modern Code

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
-Charles Darwin

The Modern community has expressed their grievances about the format’s issues, with the most notable culprits being the excessive variance for competitive play and the following cards that promote ‘unfair’ linear strategies:

I understand and respect the frustration associated with these, but I’m here to tell you there’s hope. I agree that we need change, but I don’t think it will solely come from banning or unbanning anything as this may merely be just a “band-aid solution”. Wizards could release cards exclusively for Modern (similar to Commander products) that provide players with new ways to handle existing problems, and potentially, spawn new decks. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s the answer we’re looking for, either.

This will arguably be met with controversy and opposition, but I confidently stand by the following sentiment: If we want real change that will bring long-term stability to the format, it will need to start with us, the players. It’ll require a shift in perspective and an understanding of the way the format functions on a fundamental level.

While Modern’s variance can make it difficult to prep for, or predict the metagame at large tournaments (especially without consistent data), it’s important to remember that many different decks actually share several common designs and format principles. In fact, various decks can be grouped together as subtypes and variants of one another.  What you can expect is that Modern has a defined pool of about 20 decks that are considered to be the “best” in the format.

It’s also important to keep in mind that Modern is generally a 2:1 Aggro/Midrange:Control/Combo format, with more than 50% of decks being creature-oriented.

Top 5 Format Fundamental Elements:

  • Graveyards
  • Artifacts
  • Small Creatures
  • Spells
  • Lands

Reference: Ari Lax’s The New Way Modern Works

These fundamentals, or principles, should inform your deck choice and the way you design your 75. Build for the format, tweak for the metas.

Knowing this, it’s important to play versatile, cross-performing cards that can be combined as packages, and overlapping gameplans, against different archetypes and format principles, not just particular match-ups or metas.

I’ve posited that this is the key to cracking Modern’s code.

During my research on this topic, I came across this comment on Reddit Spikes that supports the idea of playing cards, or ‘packages’, that overlap against different match-ups:

Original post from Reddit user PeanutButterPorpoise.

Interactive Staples:

These are just a few of the most noteworthy, but you can check out the rest of them here.

Runed Halo

Although Runed Halo isn’t commonly played, particularly because it doesn’t mesh well with Planeswalkers and it costs WW, I’m an outspoken advocate for it and consider it a format staple hate card that can disrupt, and even shut down, various strategies from multiple axes.

Gul_Dukat, a reputable MTGO player, referring to Runed Halo vs Izzet Phoenix.

The case for Runed Halo:

  • Relevant vs Dredge, GDS, Burn, Affinity, Hardened Scales, Storm, Ad Nauseam, TitanShift, Amulet Titan, Eldrazi, Hollow One, Infect, Bogles, Phoenix.dec., and more
  • Pseudo-removal vs creatures with protection, such as Spirits, Slippery Bogle, Etched Champion, and Stormbreath Dragon
  • Pseudo-hate vs recursive creatures and spells that target you
  • Shuts down decks with minimal threats
  • Similarly to Wall of Omens, it forces overextension into sweepers
  • It can be a four-for-one. This is valuable for UW vs creatures since the deck doesn’t have access to other efficient spot removal like Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push
  • Protects you from creatures with Haste and creature lands after sweeping the board
  • Allows us to attack while defending

Master Runed Halo by studying and referring to my Runed Halo guide.

Flexibility, Versatility, & Adaptability

Curryvore’s UW Midrange [5-0 11/18]

Creatures (14)
Restoration Angel
Snapcaster Mage
Vendilion Clique
Wall of Omens

Spells (20)
Serum Visions
Blessed Alliance
Cryptic Command
Mana Leak
Path to Exile
Settle the Wreckage
Spell Snare

Enchantments (1)
Detention Sphere
Lands (25)
Cavern of Souls
Celestial Colonnade
Field of Ruin
Flooded Strand
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain
Mystic Gate

Sideboard (15)
Cataclysmic Gearhulk
Celestial Purge
Ceremonious Rejection
Disdainful Stroke
Lyra Dawnbringer
Rest in Peace

For all intents and purposes, let’s take Curryvore’s approach to UW compared to Miracles. What his deck lacks in card advantage and raw power, it makes up in flexibility and versatility. The deck generates value differently than Miracles. Most cards in the main are essentially modal spells and have multiple roles, so they’re relevant across a variety of archetypes, from Aggro to Combo and everything in between. Creatures with Flash is a significant element that allows this approach for better role assessment and adaptability, regardless of match-up or meta.

Vendilion Clique is a perfect example:

  • Information
  • Disruption
  • Pressure
  • Blocker
  • Cantrip

To master Vendilion Clique, check out this guide on Channel Fireball.

Reference: My interview with Curryvore.

It’s also interesting to note that Curryvore doesn’t think or play the deck as ‘Midrange’. It’s more of a hybrid. He views it as a Control deck with the ability to shift gears/roles accordingly, such as turning the corner and beating down if need be.

Neo’s Tip: 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.

The deck’s design and philosophy is a lot like Joe Losett’s recent successful Stoneblade list in Legacy:

Joe Losett’s Stoneblade [GP Richmond 6th place 9/18]

Planeswalker (2)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Creatures (13)
Snapcaster Mage
Stoneforge Mystic
True-Name Nemesis
Vendilion Clique
Venser, Shaper Savant

Spells (21)
Council’s Judgment
Force of Will
Spell Snare
Swords to Plowshares

Artifacts (2)
Umezawa’s Jitte
Lands (22)
Arid Mesa
Cavern of Souls
Flooded Strand
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta

Sideboard (15)
True-Name Nemesis
Vendilion Clique
Council’s Judgment
Spell Snare
Back to Basics
Blue Elemental Blast
Containment Priest
Nahiri, the Lithomancer
Supreme Verdict
Surgical Extraction

It’s a formula that’s been proven to work across formats dating back to Caw Blade, Delverless, and UW Flash in Standard.

Flexibility, Versatility, & Adaptability.

Assess & Adapt.

This is my Modern Mantra.

In case you missed it:

I recently wrote an article about Curryvore’s continued success with UW Midrange in Modern and why it’s well-positioned not only for the meta, but for the nature of the format.

Logical Fallacies & Common Misconceptions

I agree with Corey. Don’t complain, but also resort to the “just dodge it” plan in this format.

Another common misconception I come across is how players evaluate cards. Their quality and value is often contingent on their relevance against a few specific matchups they may not even play against among the breadth of Modern decks. Instead, they should be looking at the big picture by assessing them based on how relevant they are to their design and within the nature of the format. For instance:

“Card X isn’t good right now because of deck Y and Z, so I took it out.”

Repeat after me:

Modern has no meta-game.

Modern has no meta-game.

Modern has no meta-game.

Did it sink in yet?

Modern has no defined metagame, unlike Standard. Metas have changed faster than they used to, particularly since the end of the data era. What it does have is trends and cycles.

Players also make too many impulsive changes to their decks, going as far as messing with numbers on core cards, based on small sample sizes and external influences, such as other lists, top 8’s, MTGO 5-0’s, tournament reports, etc. Example:

“Card X underperformed today so I might change it to something else.

If this is your rationale, I suggest reevaluating your perspectives and the way you design your 75.

Be conscious of trending decks and weaker matchups by making subtle tweaks (if necessary), but definitely don’t warp your deck because of them.

Master Your Craft: Assess & Adapt

Every deck has its share of unfavorable matchups, but with adequate knowledge and experience, one CAN design a balanced and versatile 75 to almost beat anything in Modern, given the deck choice is suitable to support this approach, such as Corey Burkhart’s Grixis Control, Reid Duke’s or Jadine Klomparen’s Jund, Yuta Takahashi’s UB Faeries, and Takaya Saito’s (Curryvore) UW Midrange. Ironically, they’re all ‘fair’ 50/50 proactive and interactive Midrange/Control decks that have the ability to win through damage, which is valuable, and rewarded, in Modern. They’re also flexible, versatile, and adaptable for the format, not just for a particular metagame.

Simply put, if you’re not playing a linear deck, this is the recommended way to go. That said, it’s a notably underestimated approach, with Jund being an exception. In terms of traditional Control, Jeskai is more apt to adopt this style than the more linear UW Miracles.

Furthermore, these players have mastered their craft and continue to play them over other competitive options. They ride their decks through shifting metas, while continuing to tailor and adapt their lists to the field. Success in Modern isn’t always about playing the best decks, but playing what you know best.

That’s not to imply that certain decks aren’t better positioned over others against a known field. There’s just an inherent, invaluable, and virtual advantage of mastering your deck, knowing the ins and outs of your 75, being familiar with the way opposing decks operate and how to best approach them, and successfully leveraging experience and skillful play.

Decks can be adjusted to take on nearly any deck in the format, but if you go too heavy into fighting one particular angle, it’ll leave you more vulnerable to other deck types. Hypothetically, you may gain 20% against one particular archetype, but did you compromise 10% against the rest of the field to do so? It’s all about checks and balances.

You can respect the top decks in the format, or more difficult matchups, by utilizing flex spots as relevant tech, such as I have by playing Runed Halo in the main of UW Midrange, but you shouldn’t design your deck to gun for anything unless you’re playing at your LGS. In other words, don’t metagame Modern. Instead, focus on ensuring your deck can consistently execute what it’s designed to do and that it’s the best version of itself. Then hope that your best 75, and top decks, are better than theirs.

You win some, you lose some. Just be sure you don’t lose your perspective.

Moving forward into 2019 and beyond, you can either continue complaining about Modern’s problems or you can be the solution by studying the format and mastering your craft.

Your investment will be rewarded beyond just winning, but by also becoming a better designer, player, and student of the game.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

I appreciate you taking the time to read what I consider to be the most complex subject I’ve tackled and covered to date. I hope you found the wealth of information comprehensive and valuable in laying out a foundation to help you take your game to the next level.

Have a happy, healthy, and successful new year, in life and in Magic.

As always,

Assess & Adapt.

Be water, my friend.

References & Further Reading: