Modern Musings

What constitutes a “good” or “enjoyable” TCG format is something that is largely subjective. Something that makes me really enjoy a format could make someone else hate it with a passion. This is not a bad thing though – not every format needs to appeal to every single person. TCGs are great because they can appeal to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. Different formats with variations of legal cards are one of the ways TCGs achieve this.

Today I would like to talk about what is easily Magic’s most popular competitive format to date: Modern. Modern has steadily increased in popularity during thelast five years I’ve spent playing a lot of competitive Magic. Modern Grand Prix continually have fantastic attendance and Star City’s Tour went from having no Modern Opens to more Modern Opens than any other format.

While discussing Modern as a format with some other Magic players recently, one of them made a comment that really struck a chord with me:

“Modern is great right now. If you do not like it currently, you likely have never liked it.”

This comment resonated with me because I couldn’t feel it was further from the truth. In fact, even though Modern has steadily been increasing in popularity, my personal interest in the format is at an all time low currently. The statement got me to thinking though – what has changed in Modern in the last year or so to cause my disinterest in a format that I once really enjoyed? Today, I would like to talk a bit about the things that are different in Modern compared to years past and examine why these changes have caused me to enjoy the format less.

The biggest thing that changed in Modern over the past few years was the banning of some key powerful cards. Specifically the following cards have been removed from the format:

Bloodbraid Elf
Treasure Cruise
Splinter Twin
Birthing Pod

While all of these cards were part of popular, powerful decks at the time of their banning, they all had one thing in common – they were all played in decks who had a primary game plan that was fair. Let me take a moment to explain my previous statement, because I know more than a few people will take issue with it. Especially with regards to Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod.

While people liked to focus on the infinite combo that Splinter Twin enables, the deck played out as a fair tempo game most of the time. For example let’s look at a Grixis Twin list that won a SCG Classic at the end of 2015:


This deck played nine main deck counterspells and eight piece of spot removal, which were supplemented further with four copies of Snapcaster Mage. While the deck could combo kill its opponents, it was generally only forced into doing so against other decks that were themselves unfair. Instead, the threat of a Splinter Twin was used as an additional tool to gain tempo. It forced opponents to represent interaction every turn, thus tying up their resources while the Twin player deployed mediocre one and 2 power creatures and slowly chipped away at their opponent’s life total.

Similarly with Birthing Pod, the primary game plan you often executed most games had nothing to do with a combo kill. Let’s take a look at an Abzan Pod list that top 8’d GP Madrid in 2014:


While the infinite combo of Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder was present, it was not the thing you were aiming to do in most games of Magic. Similarly to the Splinter Twin deck, these Birthing Pod decks were generally only looking to combo quickly against other combo decks. Pod’s primary game plan was to grind out a value midrange game and eventually overwhelm its opponent with Siege Rhinos and Voice of Resurgence tokens.

All four of these cards that are no longer legal in the Modern format went into decks that generated what were often long, interactive games of Magic. The types of games that I enjoyed; where both players took turns interacting with each other. They left me feeling like I made relevant decisions and gave good players plenty of room to gain edges by making efficient plays.

Banning cards is not the only thing that has impacted Modern recently though. The next biggest change in Modern was the introduction of new busted cards:

Baral, Chief of Compliance
Prized Amalgam
Thought-Knot Seer

Baral, Chief of Compliance took the {U}{R} Storm archetype and pushed it to the limit. Instead of being limited to just four copies of Goblin Electromancer, the deck could now play up to eight. Not to mention the upside of Baral looting on occasion and not dying to cards like Collective Brutality.

Prized Amalgam felt like a truly puzzling addition to Modern. Especially when they opt’d to try and unban Golgari Grave-Troll alongside it. It took Dredge from a tier 3 deck trying to enable Vengevines, to something that could often dump double digits worth of power into play by the third turn of the game. Sometimes as early as turn two.

Thought-Knot Seer and friends are nothing to write home about on the surface. Four and five mana cards are fairly slow in a format like Modern. Then we factor in that we can often cast these large threats ahead of schedule with Eldrazi Temple and things get very scary, very quickly.

This one-two punch of banning cards out of decks that led to interactive games of Magic, while simultaneously printing cards that encourage people play linear strategies has left me dissatisfied with Modern in its current state. Which brings me to the big question people always ask when they hear how I feel about the format:

“What should change in Modern?”

The honest answer is likely nothing. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the format is more popular than ever. Just because its current hyper aggressive state does not appeal to me does not mean it is inherently bad.

That being said – in a world where I am being selfish, I would love to see the following cards unbanned in Modern and see how the format shakes out:

Stoneforge Mystic
Bloodbraid Elf
Splinter Twin
Birthing Pod
Treasure Cruise
Dig Through Time

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

All of these cards are exceedingly powerful, but they are also all cards that are moderately slow as far as the current Modern format is concerned. In order for any of these cards to define a game, the game is going to have to last past the first few turns. That is what I want out of a game of Magic.

I think in a format where Kolaghan’s Command exists and Death’s Shadow can be a 9/9 on the second turn, it is comical that people think putting a Batterskull into play on turn three is too strong. The value Bloodbraid Elf generates on average is comparable to Collected Company, which is very much legal and easier to cast than Bloodbraid. The “feel bads” of dying on turn four to Splinter Twin feels a lot better than waiting for your Storm opponent to finish comboing off – something they can do as early as turn two.

Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are powerful cards, but ones you have to warp your deck around a bit in order to play. They are also not playable with the other powerful delve cards such as Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler. Personally I would much rather play against someone setting up for a long game with some card advantage, rather than trying to beat me down with a fast 4/5 or 5/5.

Finally – Jace, the Mind Sculptor has been imprisoned in Modern for the sins he committed in Standards past. Modern is not Standard. Modern has fast brutal decks, where you are dying before you have 4 mana or your opponent’s are tapping three lands to cast Karn Liberated. Other cards that had previously been banned in Modern because they were oppressive in other formats include:

Bitterblossom
Ancestral Vision
Sword of the Meek
Wild Nacatl
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Outside of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, none of these cards have had a large impact on the format. They have been slotted into various tier two decks at different points, but nothing terribly impressive has come from them being introduced to the format. I think there is a very real chance that unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be similar. It would help lift up tier two control decks, without taking over the format.

In closing today, I would just like to emphasize once more that my feelings on Modern are just that – my own. They are subjective and likely many of you will disagree. If you enjoy Modern as it is, great! If you do not think Modern is great currently though, how close are your feelings to what I express here? What would you do if you had ultimate say over what is legal and what is not in the format?

Let me know in a comment below!

Cheers,
~Jeff Hoogland


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