A Modern Criticism

Authour’s Note: The Majority of this article was written pre-nationals, and has since been slightly revised to include recent developments from mtgo, etc.

Hello everyone, and welcome to my first text article in quite some time. Over the past few weeks I’ve been preparing hard for Canadian Nationals which take place the weekend of August 20 in addition to my full-time summer job so I haven’t been able to write all the articles I’d have liked. I write on the way from Fairmont Hot Springs in British Columbia to the Calgary airport where I leave for the national championships in Toronto, after a week of family vacation (aka me testing on Magic Online in every spare waking moment). Anyway, now that I have a 3 hour drive, I finally got down to writing an article.

Recently, Wizards of the Coast announced he next step in their development of the modern format, a nonrotating format which starts at Mirrodin/8th Edition. This format was debuted at the Magic Online Community Cup where notable members of the Magic community took on Wizards staff in a series of nontraditional formats. When I first heard about this format, I was ecstatic. This format seemed like a great new thing: a format with the nonrotating nature of legacy, and the power level and accessibility of old extended. Most importantly, this format would be unhindered by the reserve list, and older cards which became expensive could be reprinted. The initial ban list seemed reasonable, eliminating the Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage and Sword of the Meek/Thopter Foundry combos in addition to several other overly powerful effects. I was very excited to have a format where I could play my older, more powerful cards, as we are unable to get 8 people for a legacy tournament at my local game shop because very few people can afford the cards. Like most people, I enjoy playing with powerful cards. I was thrilled at the concept of playing Dark Confidant, Bitterblossom, Stoneforge Mystic, Cryptic Command, Mulldrifter and many more.

Fast forward to this past week. Wizards announces that the extended portions of the upcoming Pro Tour Philadelphia and the team portion of Worlds will be changed to Modern, and they announce a new banlist for the format. What Wizards banned were in essence the most powerful combo and control cards that I was excited to play with. Now there are two methodologies I think may have been behind this banlist, in addition to what has already been said on the mothership. First, they may have wanted to make a completely new and open format, where deckbuilding genius would be rewarded in an environment without powerful “must play” cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic or Bitterblossom. However, while this is a reasonable goal for a format, allowing both Tarmogoyf and the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows interaction is orthogonal to that goal. Tarmogoyf, of course, being among the top 3 2 drops of all time (the others being Dark Confidant and Stoneforge Mystic), playable in almost every non-combo deck. It’s the best aggressive 2 drop any aggro deck could hope for, while at the same time being the most cost effective finisher a control deck could want. With the giant combo banning spree, I think we’ll see Goyfs in a significant number of top 8 decklists. Punishing Fire is also one of the most effective methods of dealing with creatures, as well as providing a nice mana sink for the late game. Decks in a format where the combo is legal are forced to either play mostly bigger creatures like Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl, play very few creatures, or play dedicated hate for that combo, possibly in the mainboard when it won’t even be effective a nontrivial amount of the time. Without those bannings, as well, I would say that this format is not one which is wide open.

The second paradigm I feel the new banlist may have been developed under was the “Ban everything until aggro is the best deck” paradigm. There are no aggro cards on this banlist, unless you count Stoneforge Mystic, but as we learnt from pre-banning Standard, Stoneforge is more at home in a control deck than in an aggressive one. Maybe it’s because control cards are traditionally more powerful than aggro cards, or that it’s harder to design fair control cards, but If control players like myself don’t get to play with some of our powerful cards, I don’t see why aggro decks should get the best aggressive creature ever printed, even called a mistake by Wizards. While I think that Wizards should ban as few cards as possible and let the format sort itself out, numerous pros including Patrick Chapin have said that it is better to err on the side of too many bans instead of too few. If this were the case, I’d also ban both Tarmogoyf and Punishing Fire. I think that the Grove of the Burnwillows cycle could be a perfectly reasonable in an expert expansion as reverse pain-lands, so getting rid of Fire would be preferable. However, if this combo is in the format, I see no problem with Bitterblossom being unbanned. Look at last year’s Pro Tour Amsterdam – the main reason nobody played faeries was because it got absolutely crushed by Punishing Fire. Without Riptide Laboratory or a similar effect that a faeries deck would play to fight the easily-splashable Fire-Grove combo, I think Bitterblossom would be fine in this format. In addition, the Cloudpost deck has been tearing up the Magic Online meta, usually in mono blue, mono green or blue-green variations. This deck is also absurdly powerful, easily casting Primeval Titan into various eldrazi quite quickly depending on its draw. At this moment, Vesuva or Cloudpost could be a potential ban candidate, depending on whether wizards would want to neuter the deck or kill it completely. If Wizards were indeed trying to promote an aggressive format; it wool appear that they missed ‘post, which is believable coming from the same people who didn’t realize that Spliter Twin/Deceiver Exarch was a combo for standard.

These are just a few of my personal quips with the banlist and the methodology behind it. However, I believe that for the most part, the banlist is surprisingly spot-on. Cards like Glimpse of Nature, the core of affinity, the dredge deck, and even Stoneforge Mystic are extremely powerful and could easily dominate the format, and can lead to games of magic which can lead to one person not being able to play Magic. I’m not a fan of banning cards because they are unfun. (Un)fun is in the eye of the beholder, and if I’m playing current Caw-Blade against a pre-con, neither of us are going to have fun. Is that anyone’s fault? No, the decks simply aren’t built with the same goal in mind. However, when you have the highest levels of decks competing against each other and you still have games that are significantly unfun, then we have a problem and a banning is usually in order. A great example of this is in one of my favourite formats: Pauper. Flash back to a couple months ago, before Jace and Stoneforge were banned in Standard. In Pauper, just like Standard, there was a dominating deck: Esper/Frantic/Twiddle Storm. The deck used a combination of the “free” spells from Urza block such as Cloud of Faeries, Snap, and Frantic Search. Normally, these cards untap lands equal to their casting costs, but this deck bent that to it’s advantage in two ways. First, using Nightscape Familiar and Sunscape Familiar makes your blue spells cost less mana, so your paying less mana to untap the same number of lands. Second, using the Ravnica bouncelands as a part of your manabase (Dimir Aquaduct, Azorious Chancery, etc.) lets you net more mana when you untap those lands. Used in conjunction, the “free” spells are no longer free, and they actually give you mana, acting as rituals in addition to bouncing a permanent, giving you a 1/1 flier, or letting you filter cards. All that extra mana can be funnelled into draw spells like Mulldrifter and Deep Analysis, which let yo draw more “free spells”. Eventually you cast a giant Temporal Fissure and bounce all of your opponent’s permanents in addition to a Mnemonic Wall to do that every turn and beat them down with incidental creatures. This deck was extremely hard to disrupt, and was quite clearly the best deck in pauper. The only reasons that stopped every single pauper player from playing this deck were that it cost over 50 tickets to put together because of its power, and that the deck was boring as hell to pilot, as well as play against. I will state on the record that if it were cheaper, Esper Storm in pauper would have been more dominating than Caw Blade was pre-ban. That’s how good this deck was, but it was mostly only good because of the fact that there was no way to fight it. If we had a Rule of Law or something at common, the deck would have been fine, but due to the fact that such complex cards aren’t printed at common, Esper Storm had a stranglehold on the pauper metagame. So many matches would be you sitting there trying to attack or accrue card advantage, while your opponent pretty much masturbated for 10 minutes each game while they comboed off. To exacerbate the matter, the deck had a low, but nonzero chance of fizzling, so you couldn’t concede like you can to a giant Grapeshot. Even worse, if you have a counterspell or removal spell that you need to time perfectly mid-combo to give yourself the best shot at stopping them, so you couldn’t even f6. You were not playing magic. Then, on the eve that Jace and Stoneforge were banned, my face lit up with glee as I saw on the Magic Online group that Frantic Search had been banned. This was exactly what I want from a ban – the overwhelming power of a deck to be crippled, but for the deck to still have a place in a newer, more diverse metagame. Esper Storm still frequently appears in the top pauper decks, but to a much less extent, and we have a meta where everything from storm variants to all-out infect or burn aggro to a fog deck are viable and capable of taking down a tournament. I think to a great extent, the modern banlist accomplishes this task, and commend wizards on getting most of the banlist right.

My final criticism of Modern lies in the format’s place in Magic and how Wizards has chosen to implement it. Being that the format is nonrotating, the format that it immediately appears to be in contention with is Legacy, which is currently at the peak of its popularity thanks to the SCG opens. So my immediate question is this: Why should I play Modern instead of Legacy? When I sit down and think about it, there’s really no reason. There are no modern FNMs (yet), no modern PTQs (yet), and I’m not on the pro tour (yet). In order to justify me sinking a ton of money into it, there needs to be some incentive for me to play the format at a high level. Comparing Modern and legacy, I don’t find there to be enough of a positive difference between the two to justify the extra investment.

It’s no secret Legacy is expensive. With format staples like Wasteland, Force of Will, and the dual lands easily exceeding the $50 range and sometimes breaking $100, the format is undoubtedly expensive to play. I started playing Magic in Planar Chaos, and I didn’t play competitive standard for several years. I simply couldn’t fathom spending that much on a hobby. However, I got a part time job while in high school, went to FNM every week, got in with a good crowd of players who gave me a solid foundation in the game. When I had become proficient at Standard, I looked to extended, and then Legacy, and I picked a deck and gradually started picking up the pieces. I had played Merfolk in both standard and extended, it seemed only natural to get into legacy. For over a year I picked up a Force of Will here, some Wastelands there, and gradually built up the deck to the point where I have a fully functional deck. Now with Modern, the prices are lower, but not by a huge margin. We’re seeing shocklands at $35 a pop, Bobs at the same, Goyfs at $80, and the list goes on. With Modern, I need to buy into a whole new deck complete with an expensive land base and format staples. Unlike when Jace was $100 in standard, I can’t just go draft Ravnica Block or triple Future Sight at FNM. The whole reason that people wanted a new, nonrotating format was that it would circumvent the issues created by the reserve list and powerful and expensive cards could be reprinted. However, if Wizards doesn’t do that – we’re going to have the same problem as Legacy, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Without shockland reprints, I really can’t justify buying a full set of 40 shocklands for a format I’ll play only a few times a year.

For players that have not bought into legacy or vintage, at least in part, then I can see why modern would be a fantastic starting off point as a player wishes to play older formats. But for players who have sunk some sizeable amount of cash into a legacy deck or 2, there is no real allure to the format. Why pay a bunch of extra money so that I don’t get to play with the cards I love? Unless the format has something to offer me more than legacy, I really won’t be looking to pick up all the staples any time soon, because it’s terrible value. For standard, one could easily justify acquiring jaces pre-ban because you would easily win more than your $400 with them back from standard tournaments. For older formats, that’s not true, as there are not any frequent local legacy or modern tournaments. I bought into legacy because I wanted something to play, and acquired the deck because I knew I could sell it for a reasonable portion of what I paid for it if I ever got bored (Turns out the deck quadrupled in price since I bought the pieces). With Modern, I can’t see shocklands going any higher unless Wizards puts a gargantuan amount of emphasis on the format with no support behind it. However, there is the possibility that Wizards does reprint Goyf, Bob, shocklands, etc. in which case I would lose a ton of value off a $1000 set of shocklands, a $400 set of goyfs, etc. Sad as I am to say it, this is one situation where the reserve list is good for someone like myself. If they’re not going to reprint staples to lower the cost of entry to a format, why wouldn’t I buy the ones that are backed by a guarantee to no be reprinted, and therefore most likely retain value?

However, my main gripe with the reserve list is that there is not enough reasonable supply of older staples to allow more than a few people in an area to play the format. The people that play legacy are those that are dedicated to the game and have extra money to spend on higher value singles, or they are those who have been playing the game for long periods of time. With modern, I don’t see how the target audience changes, except by lowering each of these barriers. Instead of a dual land costing you $60-$120, they now cost $20-$40. Instead of powerful lands coming from Revised, they come from Ravnica. While there are still reasonable supplies of shocklands right now (and even then I don’t think there are enough to make up for all the growth that Magic has seen through these past few years), as time goes on I can see the same problems occurring with Modern as Legacy. Yes there will be a few players but the format won’t be accessible enough to have a weekly tournament for it.

When I buy cards, I buy them for a certain purpose and format(s). I also like playing with powerful cards, as they make the game more fun for me. If I had the card base and the crew, I’d love to play some high-level vintage, but alas I have neither. I’ve discussed the banlist above, but I want to play with cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. If I can’t play the cards I paid nontrivial sums of money for from recent expansions in standard or modern, I’ll play older formats like Legacy. I’ve talked about the banlist a great deal, but a great deal of the allure of modern was lost on me when I found out that almost all of the cards in the format I was excited about had been banned. Whereas Legacy is often touted as being a format where almost anything is possible (at least it was until the printing of Mental Misstep, but that’s a topic for people more qualified than I am), Modern seems to be pretty contained at the moment, with the biggest decks being Zoo and post variants. From a logical standpoint – there is nor reason why I would want to play modern instead of Legacy – fewer decks means similar games and I think that one of the most important things about a nonrotating format is the diversity of decks such as what legacy had before the printing of Mental Misstep.

In short, these are the reasons I don’t think that modern in it’s current incarnation will succeed:
1) High price of entry, most notable $30-$40 dual lands, $80 Tarmogoyfs, & $40 Bobs. These are staples which people will have to buy many copies of to be able to build competitive decks. While I don’t mind having a couple high priced/high power cards, I do mind having those in addition to land bases which can be hundreds of dollars.
2) Fewer deck choices. With the current ban list, only a select few decks seem to be able to compete when compared to legacy.
3) Little support. While this could change in the future, as of now it’s not worth investing time and money into the format without being able to regain value from tournaments.
4) The format isn’t fun. I’ve played several games with mono green post and I’ve been skipping some Magic Online games while my friend plays Zoo and the format isn’t enjoyable. Decks are currently very un-interactive (e.g. Zoo tries o just beat you down quickly, post tries to cast something huge, etc) and there doesn’t seem to be a consistent control deck as of yet.

These are just my first thoughts on Modern as it exists now. However, it is still a new format, and I hope that with data from the upcoming Pro Tour and Magic Online events, that wizards can make the right choices regarding the format and how they want to proceed with it. I’m sure I could love modern, but just not this modern.

As always, feel free to post in the comments below, or you can contact me via email at zak-AT-power9pro.com, via twitter at www.twitter.com/zturchan. Also, I stream magic online matches of a variety of formats every Monday at 5pm Mountain (7pm Eastern, 4pm Pacific) at www.twitch.tv/zturchan.

Cheers,

Zak

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