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By: MarcosPMA, Marcos Rodriguez
Nov 12 2015 12:00pm
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"So do Planeswalkers see play in Modern?"

"Not really.  They're too expensive for the most part.  You can die on turn 2!!  There's no way you can play a Planeswalker that doesn't cost less than 3 mana!!"

2 weeks ago I went to do battle at the StarCityGames.com Modern Open where I hoped to cook up a storm and at least push myself into a Day 2 showing.  I ended up taking the Storm deck I briefly talked about in my last article:

As much as I love Storm, it's not really a viable deck right now.  Battling against blue based decks used to be not a bad matchup, but with the advent of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Kolaghan's Command, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, opponents are coming better prepared against Storm (albeit not being intentional) and it's much harder to win against them.  I tried out the Defense Grids since I thought they'd help out against Counterspell decks, but in practice they ended up being pretty poor.  Defense Grid is very good when you're ahead because a Defense Grid at parity means that the game is going to go long and at some point the tax will be irrelevant.  While I felt that a turn 2 Grid was a must counter for most decks, I would rather have it in play with a Pyromancer Ascension to put immense pressure on my opponent to do something.  Perhaps Dispel/Swan Song is what I want in place of the Grids?  That way I can play a turn 3 Ascension and have a counter ready for their counter.

I'll spare you all the "Tournament Report" because no matter what my end result was the matches usually have the same outcome: either I cast a bunch of spells or I didn't.  What I DO want to talk about are the "rules of Modern"  You see, I didn't do battle alone.  I went up to Denton and one of my good friends came to play in the Open with me.  He's never played Modern before so I built him the simplest deck I could think of while still giving him a chance to succeed: RW Burn.  On the ride there and in between rounds I gave him as much knowledge as I could about the format and explained why certain cards saw play while others didn't.  Having had that conversation, I want to expand on what I said and present some "truths/rules" about the format as to further understand what makes certain decks tick.

1 - 4+ mana is expensive.

Modern is a turn 4 format.  The games don't always necessarily end on turn 4, but a vast majority of them are decided at that point.  Why is this so? The simplest answer is Splinter Twin.  Now, I'm not saying that Twin is the definitive answer, but as anyone who has played against Twin knows, every turn you get past turn 4 feels like extra turns because you could die at any point thereafter.  If you look at the format through the lens of Splinter Twin, playing any card that cost more than 4 mana seems dubious at best.  You can't reasonably expect the game to go longer if they have both pieces of the combo ready on turns 3 and 4.  So if Splinter Twin is the default "best deck" and the baseline of how long games last, then anything you do to beat/interact with it has to start before turn 3/4.  This leads you down a path of playing cards that cost 1 and 2 mana so not only do you gain mana advantage as you use your cheaper card to interact with their more "expensive" cards, you gain tempo as well and can start to pull ahead much earlier than you would in Standard.

Of course, the exception to that rule is if you're breaking other fundamental rules of Magic.  Tron decks can play cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Emrakul while Amulet Bloom can play Primeval Titan and Hive Mind because they're able to generate more than 1 mana per turn.  Normal decks play 1 land a turn and therefore can only produce an additional mana per turn as long as they play a land.  If Tron plays the right 3 lands or Amulet Bloom has turn 2 Summer Bloom, suddenly these cards that they're playing don't seem that expensive at all!  

Let's not forget about Delve!  Since everybody is playing cheap spells and using fetchlands to fix their mana, the graveyard becomes full quite quickly. Tasigur and Gurmag Angler now seem to be quite easy to cast if you're using Thought Scours and fetchlands to get cards in your graveyard (which you'd be doing since you're playing Jace/Snapcaster).  If you're able to break the normal rules of Magic then expensive spells can become viable under the right circumstances.

2 - Removal is very cheap

Path to Exile.  Lightning Bolt.  Abrupt Decay.  Terminate.  Removal is cheap in Modern, really cheap.  To an extent, you can classify cards like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek as removal spells too.  Obviously removal is cheap if you've come to understand that you need cheap interaction to combat Splinter Twin, but it's not just that deck alone.  Infect needs cheap answers, Burn and Bogles need it, actually most decks need some way to interact cheaply.  Take Glistener Elf for example.  If you don't kill it as soon as possible you can die on its first attack!  You can't wait for something like Murder or Hero's Downfall, you have to play the cheapest removal you can because if you wait too long you're risking being dead!

Not only do you want cheap cards because you can die on turn 4, you also want to be as efficient as possible and have the opportunity to cast two spells in a turn.  Imagine a turn of Terminate + Tasigur as opposed to Murder then a next turn Tasigur.  The first option is definitely preferable to the second because you're able to answer their threat and play your own and force them to react to you as opposed to answering their threat and having nothing to follow that up with.  Generally speaking the player that plays the most spells and uses their mana most efficiently is going to be the one that wins the game.  You don't want to lose the game with cards in your hand, you can't take them with you after all!

3 - Creatures need to have an impact

If you're going to play a creature in Modern, it needs to have an impact when it comes into play otherwise you're not going to get anything out of the deal.  Imagine you play a Brimaz, King of Oreskos into any kind of open mana from your opponent.  There are numerous amounts of removal spells they could have that amount to you wasting three mana on your main phase and them getting a bit of mana advantage by using a 2 or 1 mana removal spell.  What if that Brimaz was a Tasigur?  Well, Tasigur could still die on the spot but it's a must kill.  If you untap with Tasigur you have a big creature that has the ability to draw you cards every turn it sits in play.  That's infinitely better than attacking for 3 and getting a 1/1 token.

What about creatures like Viscera Seer and Kitchen Finks and Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit?  While those creatures aren't must kills and aren't individually powerful, they are strong when combined together to form a combo that could kill your opponent.  Individually the cards don't have much impact on the board but because they're part of a combo, their impact is implied and they're worthy enough to play because of how they synergize within that deck.  It also helps that Collected Company is a powerful Magic card and can be card advantage in a deck that really doesn't have a lot of it.

Of course, the best way to have creatures that are impactful are those with enter the battlefield effects.  Siege Rhino is probably the most ubiquitous creature with an ETB effect in Modern because you get something out of the deal no matter if it dies, not to mention that a 4/5 trample creature is pretty large at 4 mana.  Even though Vendilion Clique dies to almost every removal spell in the format, the ability to take away a high impact card from your opponent and have a flying threat makes the card worth playing.  Huntmaster of the Fells gives you 2 life and a 2/2 token when it enters and that's not even mentioning the value it can get you by flipping into Ravager of the Fells and vice versa.

Your creatures need to be as efficient as possible and fulfill the role you want them to fulfill.  Karn can come down on turn 3, Primeval Titan can come down on turn 2.  Your cards have to matter when those things can happen to you in a normal game of Modern.

4 - You need to end the game.

I like a control deck just as much as anybody else but it's hard to make control happen in Modern because you can't beat everything.  There are so many strategies out there that you might not account for and even if you have Supreme Verdict and/or Cryptic Command, if you let one problematic permanent stay around too long you're going to lose the game.  The cards are too strong and too efficient to be trying to answer them like you would in Standard.  Standard has a lower power level that lets you set up a situation where a sweeper will buy you enough time to get to your next one and take over from there.  You'll never get ambushed by a particular strategy or card in Standard because the card pool is too narrow for something unexpected to show up that you don't already have a reasonable answer to.  What happens if you play against Infect and are relying on Supreme Verdict?  You'll die before that happens!  What's your plan against Inkmoth Nexus?  What if you get paired against Storm?  They have too many must counter cards for you to reasonably fight everything they have.

Modern is a turn 4 format.  That means you need to end the game as soon as possible.  Modern is not a reactive format, you need to be proactive.  For the most part, every card in your deck should help you advance your game plan and lead you down to victory.  You can't have an answer for Tron and for Amulet Bloom, Burn, Delver, Jeskai Ascendancy, Storm, Grixis Control, Merfolk, Hate Bears, Zoo, Bogles, etc.  Modern isn't an answer format.  You need to be asking questions in Modern because eventually you'll run out of answers before they run out of questions.

5 - Sideboards are important.

Hopefully whatever deck you pilot has good matchups because I can guarantee that it will have bad matchups.  As I stated earlier, Modern is too diverse to be able to prepare for anything.  Yes, the sideboard cards are strong but sometimes they're not strong enough.  So you can either try and jam a lot of cards to shore up that matchup or accept that you'll lose if you get paired up against them and move on.  There's no point in throwing half your sideboard into a matchup that A) you might not even face and B) is probably still a bad matchup no matter what.

Conversely, the matchups where you're favored and/or a slight dog in are the ones where your sideboard cards can come to shine.  Most everybody has a bad game 1 matchup against Affinity, but Affinity can fold pretty easily to cards like Kataki, War's Wage, Stony Silence, Shatterstorm, Vandalblast, Creeping Corrosion, etc.  Rest in Peace/Leyline of the Void can do wonders against graveyard strategies and Kor Firewalker is a godsend against Burn.  The sideboard cards in Modern are extremely powerful and can almost win you the game on the spot if you're able to play them in the right matchups.  You can't prepare against everyone but those you can prepare for you can get them pretty good.

6 - Mana is good, but not free.

As we're seeing in Standard right now, the fetch/dual manabase can let you play powerful cards that you normally wouldn't be able to in a 2 color deck, but there's a price to be paid for that.  Shuffling is a real cost and may lead to unnecessary draws if you're not used to fetching dual lands and sequencing your early land drops.  The fetch/shock manabase can take a lot of damage and those start to add up once you're in a world of Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt, and Wild Nacatl.  Blood Moon is also a very dangerous card against some strategies if you're relying on Ravnica duals too heavily and don't leave room for basics.  Constructing your manabase is an enormous part of the format and is even more important than it is in Standard.  The fact that most decks use shocks and fetches is what makes Burn so powerful.  If you take 3-6 damage off your lands, then they only need 5 spells to kill you, which is enough for them to play over the course of 4 turns.

Deck Construction

So now that we've talked about some of the rules of Modern, how do decks in the format comply with these rules?  Let's take a look at some of them and see how they work.

Splinter Twin - 1, 2, 3, 4.  Splinter Twin is a combo deck that can win on turn 4 and has the backup plan of being a tempo deck that can get in some shots with Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch while using Bolt/Snap/Bolt to burn the opponent out.  They have cheap counters and removal and all their threats cost between 2-4 mana.

Affinity - 1, 3, 4.  Affinity can have explosive draws right from the start and dump their entire hand by turn 2 giving them a huge advantage in mana spent and resources in play.  They can combo kill with Arcbound Ravager and Inkmoth Nexus, or attack with a bunch of cheap creatures and Signal Pest and force the opponent to deal with every single creature or die.

Jund/Grixis/Abzan - 1, 2, 3.  Jund and Grixis have cheap removal and powerful creatures, but they don't necessarily try to end the game quickly.  Rather, they use their resources to stop their opponents from executing their game plan by using hand disruption/removal and generating a clock with Tarmogoyf and/or Tasigur.

Storm - 1, 4.  The only 4 mana spell in Storm is Past in Flames, which really doesn't cost the player to have 4 lands in play when you consider the fact that they play a bunch of rituals and can get to 4+ mana as quick as turn 2.  All the spells in the deck are cheap and replace themselves and the deck can kill out of nowhere starting on turn 3.

Infect - 1, 3, 4.  If you're going to play a 1 mana creature in Modern, it better be a good one and Glistener Elf is definitely a good one.  All the Infect creatures are efficient because not only are they cheap, the deck has enough ways to boost their power and get them hitting you that it doesn't take that long for you to lose the game to infect damage.

Burn - 1, 3, 4, 6.  Burn is a deck that takes advantage of what spells are being played and how the mana works in this format.  With the majority of players employing the fetch/shock manabase, players are likely to start the game at around 17 life, if not lower.  With a lower life total it becomes much easier to deal enough damage with burn spells and with the plethora of cheap spells, Eidolon of the Great Revel is quite the potent threat.

Tron - 1, 3.  Cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Karn Liberated normally cost 6 and 7 mana respectively, but if you get Tron on turn 3 then all they cost is 3 mana, and they're quite powerful threats that early in the game.  If everybody in the format is trying to go cheap and under each other, why not go over the top and play with extremely powerful cards very early in the game?

Conclusion

When I got back from the Open I went to a Tuesday night Modern event to play some more games after having learned a few things about Modern at the Open.  A friend of mine offered to let me borrow his TarmoTwin deck instead of me playing Storm, and I figured it'd be a nice change of pace so I decided to play it.  I won all my matches that night and most games didn't last past turns 4-6.  The Splinter Twin combo is very real, and in fact it was in some games the only way I'd actually beat my opponent.  The deck felt strong and powerful and being able to win at any turn gave me a lot of options on how I wanted to play the game while my opponent was forced to respect the combo and not leave a window open for me to sneak it through.  Not only that, I always was able to present threats at every turn.  A turn 2 Tarmogoyf and a turn 3 Pestermite leaves my opponent having to decide which of 2 evils they'd like to deal with first.  If they destroy the Pestermite they might die to the Tarmogoyf, but if they feel I don't have the Twin and destroy the 'Goyf, I could punish them by having it or drawing it later on.  

Modern is not for the faint of heart.  The cards are powerful and the margin for error is low because of the fact that the games can end as quickly as turn 4.  Despite that, Modern is a wonderful format that encourages tight play and knowledge of each matchup.  Once you understand how Modern works and what everybody else is trying to do you're better able to play every matchup and realize that even though games can end on turn 4, Modern isn't necessarily a turn 4 format.  It's also incredibly diverse!  After all, where else can you see a deck like Lantern Control and Amulet Bloom exist in the same format and both be viable tier 1 decks?

Bonus Magic Origins Draft!