Modern Stuff: Why the Format Isn’t a Linear Wasteland

First, let’s hit some primary points about Hartford’s top 16 (since we don’t have concrete deck data beyond that):

  • The top 8 was KCI, Amulet Titan, two Bogles decks, Burn, Affinity, Elves, and Hollow One.  Rounding out the top 16 was R/G Titanshift, U/R Breach, Living End, B/U Taking Turns, Humans, Mardu Pyromancer, Hollow One, and Jund.
  • At first blush this looks like some sort of death of interactivity.  Only Jund and Mardu are meaningfully interactive decks, and the entire top 8 are decks that are happy ignoring their opponent.
  • I think drawing any concrete conclusions based upon GP Hartford’s top 16 is folly.  It’s only a top 16, at one Grand Prix.  Modern, over the past year or so, has been defined by a metagame that shifts before any trend or deck really takes hold.  We’re only months removed from Grixis Death’s Shadow, an ostensibly interactive/fair deck, being called the best deck in the format.
  • The only spiciness I could spy here was just some of the decks that got there; U/B Turns and Amulet Titan coming in with legitimate paper finishes, and Matt Nass getting KCI a 1st-place.
  • Before anyone hops on the “BAN KRARK-CLAN IRONWORKS” bandwagon, please remember that there’s a very good chance that KCI is just a fringe above-average deck, and Matt Nass is just several degrees better than you are at Magic.

Much has been made of how linear Modern has been recently, and may be moving forward.  From off-handed comments like “it’s just better to focus on your gameplan rather than interacting with your opponent” to honest analysis regarding the effectiveness of actual answers in Modern’s cardpool, it seems many fear Modern may be entering an era of un-interactivity.  This appears to be a sentiment shared by many pros and prominent players, and is at least partially backed up by recent tournament results.

While I won’t cast aside these fears (as I think there are some valid arguments being made), I think there are reasons to believe that this is yet another “swing” in Modern’s metagame, and we’ll be back to interactive decks sooner rather than later.

I think there is one conclusion we could draw from the recent dominance of aggro and linear strategies: Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf might not actually be good right now.  Specifically Jace; while I don’t think he’s outright bad, he’s clearly not had a large effect on the metagame as a whole.  Going forward, I think he’s going to be good where he’s good and little else.  That sounds elementary, but my greater point is that he’s not going to automatically make an interactive strategy good just because of his inclusion (and I think that’s an assumption many people made).  Just like, oh, every other 4-drop in Modern, he needs to be built around and maximized.

The same is true for Bloodbraid Elf.  Four mana might just be bad in general, but BBE’s volatility can sometimes make her a dud.  3/2 Haste is not close to good enough for four mana in Modern.  If you get a free Liliana of the Whatever, then you’re doing great.  If you hit a Fatal Push that kills nothing, you’ve fallen far behind.  Perhaps BBE needs a shell where her misses are minimized, where her fail-states are still acceptable.  I don’t know if that exists off-hand, but innovation is likely necessary.  Ponza appeared to disappear faster than it came back, and Jund (this weekend’s 16th place notwithstanding) hasn’t lit up the scoreboard too well recently either.

Luckily, we only have 15 years of cards to draw from.  Everyone underestimates this, and almost every time it is the answer to whatever allegedly poisoned metagame state Modern achieves.

So, where can these margins be found?  What technology is there to unearth?

Well, I don’t have all (or probably any) of the answers, but I might have a few.


Thing in the Ice has been largely stagnant since the banning of Gitaxian Probe.  Understandable; Young Pyromancer was left for dead back then as well, until some people realized that paying mana for spells is still fine when you’re getting free 1/1s.  I think Thing in the Ice has a similar return coming.  So many of these linear strategies do not pack the maindeck tools to remove the innocuous 0/4, and getting all of their creatures bounced and being smacked by a 7/8 isn’t a good time for them either.  I think ol’ Thingy is very well-positioned at the moment, because he’s effectively a (temporary) sweeper and a game-ending threat all in one, and that kind of axis is an angle that go-wide decks just have a nightmare with.

Speaking of sweepers, I also think that control strategies are going to need to explore new sweepers.  Supreme Verdict just won’t cut it anymore; it’s a shade too slow, and too easy to come back from for a lot of decks in the format.  Anger of the Gods is great against the Bloodghasts of the world, but looks cross-eyed at Hollow One, or a team of countered-up Humans.

Bontu’s Last Reckoning might sound and even feel bad, but killing it all on turn three might be a necessity.  It’s still a little narrow as it won’t help against recursive creatures, but it will nab Hollow Ones and Gurmag Anglers alike, which is rather critical.  Getting no untap step for your lands sound awful, but the alternative might be severe ouchies, so this might be OK after all.

Settle the Wreckage is a card I’ve crowed about for quite some time, and needs to be taken seriously.  It doesn’t target the creatures at all, and exiles all of them as well.  It’s instant-speed, so it’ll get all of Affinity’s moths (and Etched Champion!), any newly-attacking Flamewake Phoenixes, or any hasty jerks that cost one red mana.  It’s drawback is completely acceptable (since the alternative creature punches).  I’d say the only weakness here is Leyline of Sanctity out of Bogles.

timely reinforcements.jpg

Gerry Thompson hyped this up a ton on the last GAM Podcast, and I wholeheartedly agree.  Timely Reinforcements, against most aggro decks, will probably buy you something like two or three turns by itself.  Snapcaster Mage makes that four-to-six turns.  Not dying is often a bad way to approach control, but if you’re playing a deck that can snap-win a game (like something playing Kiki-Jiki or Through the Breach),  Timely Reinforcements could turn out to be the best card in your deck against aggro strategies.

Peeps have been jamming Jace, the Mind Sculptor into their mid-range and control decks since the unbanning, and have been finding that Jace doesn’t help them when they’re dying before they untap.  Costing four mana sucks.  Costing two mana sucks a lot less.  I think Search for Azcanta may become the de facto “card advantage engine” of choice for control decks, if only because it can also ramp them, fill their graveyard, make their coffee, and look good while doing it.  It’s not a win condition like Jace is, but Search does everything else you want at half the mana.  Not bad.

I think there’s a lot more potential technology out there for mid-range and control strategies, mainly because there’s 15 years of flipping cards to look at.  If linear/aggro dominance continues for another few months, there may be a cause for concern.  In reality, I think the answers are there, we just need people to start playing them.


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