t's been about two and a half years since the announcement of the Modern format. Over that time, Modern has grown from an idea to the second-most-popular sanctioned Constructed format we offer, behind Standard. We have held three Pro Tours (one of which you can tune in to watch this weekend), and fifteen Grand Prix. It has become an FNM format, we released a supplemental booster release to help support the format, and it's even getting an Event Deck this May. The format is growing at a tremendous rate, and it would be hard to be more proud of it.
A Background in Modern
The primary way we keep Standard new and exciting is by releasing new sets and rotating the format once a year. While this does a great job of allowing new cards the opportunity to shine, it does so at the cost of removing cards from the format that people enjoy playing with. While we do reprint a few of people's favorites from the past in the core set every year, there is a limit to how much we are willing to reprint. This means that a lot of good cards rotate out every year.
One of the goals of Modern is to provide players a place to use their cards and decks after they rotate out of Standard. Much to that point, Innistrad block staples like Snapcaster Mage, Geist of Saint Traft, Liliana of the Veil, Huntmaster of the Fells, Cavern of Souls, and Restoration Angel may not be legal in Standard, but they are all active in Modern. Next year, when Return to Ravnica block rotates out of Standard, I expect there will be people who want to keep playing with their shocklands, Supreme Verdicts, Sphinx's Revelations, Burning-Tree Emissarys, Domri Rades, and Abrupt Decays (among others). Having a place for those cards to see play is important to us.
We don't expect someone to take a Standard deck and play it in a Modern event with no changes, but there should be some kind of clear upgrade path to take a Standard deck and make it a Modern deck. It doesn't need to be a top-tier deck, but it needs to at least have ways to be competitive in the format. As an example, the current Mono-Black deck in Standard could find use in cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir, Geralf's Messenger, Phyrexian Obliterator, or Demigod of Revenge. Or you could take a more controlling direction with Damnation and rely on Underworld Connections for card advantage.
Cross-Cross-Cross-Cross Block Synergy
As developers, we like to balance Standard in such a way that we have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen. We don't plot out exactly how strong each deck in the format will be, but we do try position how the block mechanics will work, and how much support each gets by using cross-block synergy. We seed cards in one year to be better the next, as well as cards to help balance out the previous year.
I think the most exciting part of Modern for me is that we don't attempt to control the format at that level—and that means that the kind of decks the format produces are just much more unpredictable. When we print a card like Ethereal Armor in Standard, we do it to give the enchantment deck the next year a boost, but we aren't putting a lot of thought of what it might do with a card or strategy that we printed six years ago.
Some of the ban list management has been done to keep the format at a level where new strategies are able to emerge as sets are released. While it is good to have some stability in terms of top decks, we need them to not prevent new decks from emerging over time. Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor are just so strong that they overpower other interesting synergies that would otherwise come to light. As the most recent unbanning of Bitterblossom and Wild Nacatl shows, we are willing to take a look at previous decision and revise them, but we want to make sure that we proceed in such a way that we do what is best for the format as a whole, not just for a few cards.
It has taken some time, but as Modern has evolved as a format, we have seen more and more of these kinds of quirky and different strategies emerge. Looking through the recent Magic Online event decklists, I pulled a few decks that highlight some of the fun and diversity that is coming out of Modern today.
Modern – 4–0, Magic Online Daily #6737349
Above is a deck that goes headlong into the "burn you out" strategy, but uses mill instead of damage spells. Mill strategies are something that we have seen now and again in Standard, but we tend to not ever have quite enough of a critical mass for it there. When we printed Visions of Beyond, we expected it to support the self-mill strategies of Innistrad, not to work with cards like Mind Funeral and Glimpse the Unthinkable to play in such an aggressive deck.
Modern – 3–1, Magic Online Daily #6737373
We are naturally very careful with Time Walk effects in Standard, generally keeping it to no more than one at any given time. This deck shows what you can do when you put a decade's worth of these effects into the same deck, combined with enough ways to try and use another one each turn.
Modern – 3–1, Magic Online Daily #6737349
It's hard to not get excited about someone using Ninja of the Deep Hours. While we have moved to blue having more aggressive strategies in Standard (as the Master of Waves deck is evident), this deck uses a much longer time frame of these cards to create something that is unexpected. Combined with cheap tempo counterspells like Remand and the often-free Disrupting Shoal, this deck operates in a much different way than we tend to see Standard decks.
Modern – 3–1, Magic Online Daily #6710726
Perhaps the most exciting deck for today is the Amulet of Vigor deck. Amulet had some effects internally in our FFL (at least until we changed what the Scars of Mirrodin dual lands to not be broken with it), but it never had much of an impact on real-life Standard. Combine it with Ravnica's bouncelands, as well as cards that allow you to play extra lands, and a very interesting deck emerges. Not willing to limit itself to just that combo, though, it also has the strategy of ramping up to casting Hive Mind—then using one of Future Sight's Pacts to force opponents to pay costs they can't, and therefore losing the game.
I don't know that any of these decks will win Pro Tour Born of the Gods, but I am incredibly happy they exist. It has taken some time, but Modern is evolving into a format with a good amount of diversity both in the types of cards played, as well as the types of decks seeing play.
I look forward to seeing what comes out of this Pro Tour, as well the coming year, as Modern continues to grow and evolve.
Until next time,
Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.