Destruction Derby

It seems weird to talk about Modern right now, considering the Pro Tour just finished, and Standard just got a brand new meta-game to dissect, but interestingly enough, the Top 8 showed that Standard is in no way anywhere close to being solved. Eight different archetypes made the top 8, with even a few more posting impressive win totals in the standard portion. I would hazard a guess to say that the pro tour actually made standard even more difficult to figure out. So, in light of this, I think I’d like to put down a few words about Modern. More specifically, why Modern more often than not feels less like a carefully planned chess match, and more like two dump trucks being driven head-on into each other.

Before I break down my specific thoughts about Modern, I’d like to touch on the other two main constructed formats, and explain why I think Modern slots right in between them, and this creates the havoc that is Modern. On an extremely simplistic plane, a format has two main aspects that govern how it plays out. Power and consistency. By power, I simply mean the overall power level of the cards as a whole, not as individual cards, and the same regarding consistency. Standard is normally what I would consider to be a low power/low consistency format, I would consider Legacy to be a high power/high consistency format, and our good friend Modern slots right into the middle as a high power/low consistency format. This is where I feel the insanity of modern comes from.

I’ll start with Standard. Currently, as it usually is, is a low power/low consistency format. By this I mean, that while there are individually powerful cards, like Archangel Avacyn, Collected Company, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, the overall power level of the format is generally pretty low. Over the last few years creatures have been getting better, and spells have been getting worse, but cards that are staples are on average one or two converted mana cost higher, or are in other ways slower or more restrictive than they are in the eternal formats, to do similar things. Instead of Lightning Bolt, there’s Draconic Roar, instead of Path to Exile, there’s Declaration in Stone, and instead of Tarmogoyf, there’s Sylvan Advocate. Now, these standard cards are very powerful in their format, and do the things that they are supposed to do, but on the whole, do not match up toe-to-toe with the staples in the older formats. And they don’t have to. They work just fine in standard. As far as consistency goes, Standard is also lacking. There are very few cantrips, very little deck manipulation, and what few options there are, are generally expensive, sorcery speed, and require one or more other things to go right before you get their intended effect. Compare cards like Slip Through Space and Oath of Jace to Brainstorm or Ponder. Let’s take a look at one of the decks from the Top 8 of the most recent Pro Tour to see where I’m going with this.

 

B/G Aristocrats, by Luis Scott-Vargas

7th place at a tournament in Madrid, Spain on 2016-04-24

 

Maindeck:

Creatures

4 Blisterpod

4 Catacomb Sifter

4 Duskwatch Recruiter

4 Elvish Visionary

4 Loam Dryad

4 Nantuko Husk

4 Zulaport Cutthroat

 

Enchantments

3 Cryptolith Rite

 

Instants

4 Collected Company

 

Legendary Creatures

2 Liliana, Heretical Healer

 

Basic Lands

8 Forest

4 Swamp

4 Hissing Quagmire

4 Llanowar Wastes

3 Westvale Abbey

 

Sideboard:

1 Fleshbag Marauder

2 Tireless Tracker

2 Ulvenwald Mysteries

4 Ultimate Price

2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

4 Transgress the Mind

 

This deck best encompasses what I am saying about standard. The deck is full of 4-ofs for consistency, and has a few very powerful cards such as Collected Company and Liliana, Heretical Healer, but overall, this deck has a ceiling on its overall power, and it is completely dependent on whatever random card is on the top of the deck at any time. There is also very little ability to make sure your mana cooperates in the way you want it to. Even in this two color deck, it is possible to get stuck on one color, or to be flooded or screwed, with little way to dig out. There are cards to help avoid this, such as Cryptolith Rite to fix colors and ramp, and Westvale Abbey, which provides an alternate win condition as well as flood insurance, but otherwise this deck operates pretty linearly. I’m not trying to say that this is a bad deck, it made Top 8 of a pro tour, I’m simply saying that compared to Modern and Legacy, this is a lower powered, and less consistent deck.

Speaking of Legacy, that format is a different animal altogether. Legacy would be what I would consider to be a high power/high consistency format. As with anything, this is not a completely blanket statement, as there are always inconsistent decks, like Goblin Charbelcher decks, and decks that lack true power such as Goblins in its current iteration, but overall, decks are very powerful, do very powerful things, and do them on a regular basis thanks to the card drawing and deck manipulation offered. Cards like Ponder can set up the next few turns, Sensei’s Divining Top can control pretty much every card drawn throughout the game, and Force of Will keeps the most degenerate decks honest. Legacy decks and sideboards are chock full of powerful 1-ofs, and this is in part because of the sheer number of cards that a player will see throughout the course of a game. This makes sure that the Tarmogoyfs and Deathrite Shamans of the world are always primed for their next appearance on the battlefield.

Now, what does this all have to do with Modern? Well, Modern sits in an interesting middle ground. Modern has a pretty high number of staples that are also staples in Legacy. Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets, Gurmag Angler, Vendilion Clique are premiere threats, and Lightning Bolt, Abrupt Decay, Thoughtsieze, and Chalice of the Void are all premiere forms of removal and disruption. What Modern does not have is the deck manipulation and cheap protection that Legacy has. Without Brainstorm, Ponder, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Force of Will, it’s significantly harder to craft a solid board state while maintaining a backup plan. The banlist does a good job of keeping the really degenerate things from taking over, by keeping the rituals to a minimum to stifle storm, and the absolute monsters like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Deathrite Shaman off the battlefield. What it also does, however, is make sure that the deck manipulation and cantrips are at a bare minimum.

So here we have a format of very powerful cards, but little ways to make sure that you always have what you need exactly when you need it. That’s the core of what makes Modern the way it is right now. The only way to guarantee consistency is to make sure you have a lot of similar effects and threats, and streamline you mana enough to make sure they get cast. And without having access to premiere manipulation, you can’t lean on too many silver bullets to get you out of jams, so the best defense becomes a good offense. If they go big, you go bigger. Case in point;

Infect

Justin Kessel

1st place at IL States on 4/24/2016

 

Creatures (14)

1 Spellskite

4 Blighted Agent

4 Glistener Elf

4 Noble Heirarch

1 Dryad Arbor

 

Spells (26)

1 Rancor

3 Become Immense

1 Dismember

4 Groundswell

4 Might of Old Krosa

1 Mutagenic Growth

1 Twisted Image

4 Vines of Vastwood

4 Gitaxian probe

3 Serum Visions

 

Lands (20)

2 Forest

3 Breeding Pool

4 Inkmoth Nexus

1 Verdant Catacombs

4 Windswept Heath

4 Wooded Foothills

2 Pendelhaven

 

Sideboard (15)

3 Kitchen Finks

1 Viridian Shaman

1 Wild Defiance

1 Dismember

2 Dispel

3 Nature’s Claim

1 Spell Pierce

3 Twisted Image

 

Infect is a deck that looks on the surface to be a creature beatdown deck, but really just plays out more like a combo deck. This is a stark contrast to its legacy counterpart, which has cards like Brainstorm, Daze, Force of Will, Ponder, and Crop Rotation to make sure it always either has what it needs, or can better protect its few threats. The Modern version, is far simpler, with more of a ‘HULK SMASH!” approach. Legacy infect looks to thread the needle, trade a few resources, and set up a situation where victory is assured. Modern infect is going to brute force its cards through, and hope that there isn’t too much interaction on the other side. It truly is a “go big or go home” deck, and more often than not, it is doing something more powerful than what the other deck is doing.

There are absolutely exceptions to every rule, and counters to every example, but I would like to think that all of us who have played in a Modern event, whether it was large or small, at some point have been in a situation where, even against a deck that might be one yours has trouble with, they stumble, can’t recover, and you run them over. And I KNOW we can all remember a time when we played a burn deck, and ripped ten land in a row looking for one last Lava Spike, or we cast a Serum Visions needing any removal spell, draw a Scalding Tarn, and see Terminate and Doom Blade with the scry. That is a rough feeling, but it’s one we have to get used to. Until we get some good old fashioned manipulation, sometimes we’re just going to hope our big stuff is bigger than the big stuff the other person is playing. And avoid playing Lantern control. Because that is miserable to play against, I don’t care HOW powerful your cards are, but that’s a topic for another day.

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