Feature: Answering the Modern Format

Posted in Feature on September 4, 2011

By Frank Karsten

Answering the Modern Format

by Frank Karsten

The Modern card pool is huge and the amount of viable decks is staggering. How does one approach such a brand new, completely open, diverse format, and how does one answer the various pillars of the format? If you're interested in learning about playtesting approaches for this Pro Tour and a detailed overview of powerful and surprising answers to the top decks seen here in Philadelphia, then read on!

By now, the three pillars of the Modern format are well-known. First, we have the twelvepost deck packing the fastest mana engine available. Second, we have aggro decks in Zoo and Affinity. Third, we have the combo decks which come in various forms: Splinter Twin, Pyromancer decks, Infect combo, and many others. Just a few weeks ago, however, this fact was unknown and a fair amount of playtesting was needed to figure out the format. The question was how to do this playtesting methodologically. My own approach, in a group consisting of both Dutch and Belgian players, consisted of the following steps:

Step 1: Identify the strongest, most obvious aggro deck in the format. This easily turned out to be Zoo.
Step 2: Find one or more decks that actually beat Zoo. The most obvious Zoo-slaying deck in the format turned out to be twelvepost in our testing, and this conclusion was confirmed by the early Magic Online results.
Step 3: Find a deck that beats both Zoo and twelvepost.

I tried to answer Step 3 with a combo deck as did fellow Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel who described pretty much the same playtest process and logic in coming to his own deck choice. We both wanted to play a proactive deck with broken synergies. As the Pro Tour was the debut of the Modern format we didn't want to be control players dealing with threats. In such an uncertain metagame, it's too easy to arrive at the tournament with the wrong answers.

Now the format is a bit more defined. Dedicated metagamers and deckbuilders may already be wondering how they might beat twelvepost, aggro, and combo. To crack this question, I have sifted through many decklists to see which answer cards players have brought to Philadelphia.

Are you interested in sideboard cards? Or looking for inspiration for a control deck with the perfect tools to answer the format? Let's see what options are available!

Beating Twelvepost

The most obvious way to attack twelvepost is to destroy their Cloudposts. Indeed, twelvepost mirror matches are often decided by a flurry of Reap and Sow, Plow Under, and Beast Within. Blue decks have access to Spreading Seas and Annex, while Living End decks rely on Fulminator Mage. Zoo decks have access to Molten Rain, and they can also use Knight of the Reliquary to fetch Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge.

But destroying a single Cloudpost often doesn't do the job, especially considering that Primeval Titan can just search for more. Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon provide heavier ammo; they completely deny the mana bonus of Cloudpost. Sowing Salt is another nice answer that takes out all Cloudposts for the remainder of the game. Still not good enough? Boom/Bust and Thoughts of Ruin will completely set a twelvepost player back to zero lands. Finally, Hokori, Dust Drinker has been showing up in decks with Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling.

A different yet popular route to beat Cloudpost is to steal their Emrakul, the Aeons Torn with Bribery.

Another way to go about answering twelvepost is answering their Primeval Titan. You could just counter or kill it with cards like Flashfreeze or Bant Charm but more elegant solutions are Aven Mindcensor and Shadow of Doubt, often effectively countering Green Sun's Zenith and/or substantially weakening Primeval Titan's triggers.

Beating Zoo

Zoo is a deck that has been around for years, and the two main ways to beat it are still the same as years ago: get rid of their creatures and gain life!

For answering creatures there is a plethora of options and the best ones are the cheapest ones. Deathmark in particular is very cost-effective removal. You could also try to take out multiple Wild Nacatls at the same time with Firespout, Engineered Explosives, or Ratchet Bomb. Finally, Threads of Disloyalty remains an excellent way to deal with opposing Tarmogoyfs.

As for gaining life, Kitchen Finks, Obstinate Baloth, and Timely Reinforcements are all splendid.

Beating Affinity

It will not come as a surprise that a deck built around artifacts is weak against cards that destroy artifacts. There's a lot of one-shot artifact destruction available but the spells that have the most impact on the game are Shattering Spree, Hurkyl's Recall, Ancient Grudge, and Creeping Corrosion, all of which have seen play here in Philadelphia. Of course, cards like Qasali Pridemage, Nature's Claim, Annul, and Bant Charm are also perfectly acceptable, although they won't win the game on their own.

Apart from one-shot artifact destruction, there are also various permanent annoyances available. Kataki, War's Wage is an old favorite but Grim Lavamancer can also cause nightmares for Affinity players, picking off their creatures one-by-one.

I spotted Night of Souls' Betrayal in the sideboard of several decks. Although its main use may lie in beating combo decks, the enchantment might be surprisingly good against the Affinity menace. Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus? Useless. Memnite and Vault Skirge? Dead. Play an Arcbound Ravager? Sorry, it hits the graveyard before you have the chance to grow it.

Night of Souls' Betrayal

Beating Combo Decks

Cards like Thoughtseize, Meddling Mage, Cranial Extraction, Vendilion Clique, and Spell Pierce are all fine general purpose tools in the fight against combo decks in general. I also want to feature some interesting, more specific cards against the most popular combo decks in the format.

Beating Splinter Twin

So, your opponent aims to play Deceiver Exarch on turn 3 and Splinter Twin on turn 4. How do you deal with that?

The first things that may come to mind are the zero-mana or one-mana instant answers: Nature's Claim, Annul, Dismember, Snapback, and Path to Exile. The problem with this line of attack is Dispel. Your opponent just has to wait a little longer until he or she can cast Splinter Twin with Dispel mana up, and then beat your disruption.

To get around Dispel you have uncounterable instant answers: Combust and Sudden Death. Though perfectly acceptable, these cards require a lot of mana and it's quite a drag to continually keep three or four mana up in anticipation of a possible combo finish, even more so because Deceiver Exarch can tap your lands.

The next step is to go for permanents, thereby sidestepping Dispel (preferably permanents that don't require you to keep up a lot of mana). Gaddock Teeg, Spellskite, and Seal of Primordium are perfect for this, and Qasali Pridemage will also work well. Still, there is a problem: although these cards all work well against Splinter Twin they don't provide an answer for Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.


Many Splinter Twin lists have been playing several copies of the red legend for consistency purposes which means that clogging the board with Seal of Primordiums may leave you without an answer when your opponent plays Kiki-Jiki instead. Permanent answers to Splinter Twinand Kiki-Jiki include Torpor Orb, Damping Matrix, Night of Souls' Betrayal, Burning-Tree Shaman, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. The fact that the latter two are creatures is relevant for Chord of Calling and Birthing Pod.

Interestingly, once the metagame switches to Torpor Orbs, the Splinter Twin players will cut their Dispels for Echoing Truth and the same answer-for-your-answer cycle may start all over again.

But the most exciting and surprising answer to Deceiver Exarch that I've seen is...Arena. No, not Phyrexian Arena – the actual land. Knight of the Reliquary will typically be a 4/4 or bigger once it has searched for Arena, after which it will bravely shout "Deceiver Exarch? Let's fight!"


Beating Pyromancer Decks

I want to lump both Pyromancer Ascension and Pyromancer's Swath combo decks in this category. There's a lot of overlap between the Pyromancer Ascension and Pyromancer's Swath strategies: both aim to play Ponder, Rite of Flame, Manamorphose, etc. to ramp up to a big turn and usually finish off with Grapeshot.

The first line of attack against these decks is to ensure that not too many spells are played in a single turn. For that purpose, many sideboards here in Philadelphia have been filled with Ethersworn Canonist, Rule of Law, Trinisphere, Thorn of Amethyst, and Lodestone Golem.

Ethersworn Canonist Trinisphere

Alternatively, you could also simply counter some rituals (Flashfreeze, Bant Charm, and Chalice of the Void come to mind).

Another avenue is to directly try to shut down their Grapeshots. Leyline of Sanctity is probably the best one, and I have witnessed an actual turn-zero kill at the Pro Tour. The Grapeshot player didn't board in an answer to enchantments and simply packed it up and moved to the next game after his opponent resolved the card prior to the first turn. But other options to stop Grapeshot are also available. Trickbind can stifle Grapeshot's storm trigger while Silence in response to Pyromancer's Swath can also work well. The award for the answer with the best surprise effect goes to Mindbreak Trap.

You could also answer the namesake enchantments directly. Think Annul, Nature's Claim, Qasali Pridemage, and Seal of Primordium. Engineered Explosives or Ratchet Bomb may also work – they're a bit slow, but usually in time to shoot down Pyromancer Ascension.

Beating Infect Combo

Blazing Shoal turning Inkmoth Nexus into a 10+ power infect creature is a powerful yet vulnerable combination. There are two main ways to beat it: kill their infect creature or stop their Blazing Shoal.

First, let's try to kill their infect creatures. Dismember and Path to Exile are first-rate creature removal, and even Lightning Bolt and Punishing Fire will suffice against the fragile infectors. Snapback doesn't actually destroy the creature, but it's usually just as good as a removal spell when played in response to a Blazing Shoal. Opponents, however, will be ready to reply to these creature removal spells with Pact of Negation.

To get around Pact of Negation, one may consider Grim Lavamancer or Arena. Knight of the Reliquary in particular is rejoicing at the opportunity to fight a puny 1/1 infect creature. Unfortunately, these creatures are too easily answered by Slaughter Pact – a card often included by the Blazing Shoal decks.

How about Seal of Fire and Ghost Quarter, then? These should work very well as neither Pact can stop them. However, some Infect combo decks are running Spellskite to protect their creatures, so Seal of Fire won't always work.

So is there some way to answer their combo that they can't stop? Surely there is! Remember Time Spiral's split second mechanic? Wipe Away and Sudden Death will come to the rescue. In fact, I saw several decklists where Echoing Truth was crossed out and replaced by Wipe Away...perhaps a last minute change with the Infect decks in mind?

If you think you will have enough time to hit four mana, Night of Souls' Betrayal will be the perfect answer. Once it's on the battlefield you'll never be harassed by Inkmoth Nexus.

Finally, if you aim to stop Blazing Shoal then Spellskite, Dispel, Gaddock Teeg, and Flashfreeze are all excellent candidates.


There are answers aplenty to the top Modern decks. The question is: which one do you want to play in your sideboards? The key is to look for overlap: you want cards that are good against multiple archetypes. As a perfect example of a deck with "overlap" answers you can look at Brian Kibler's CounterCat deck sporting such cards as Flashfreeze, Bant Charm, and Qasali Pridemage.

I am sure that there is also some "answer to the format" deck out there. For the brewers among you, let me suggest a black-blue shell with all the maindeckable overlapping answer cards. Shadow of Doubt is an excellent, underplayed, maindeckable answer to twelvepost's Green Sun's Zenith that can also Stifle fetch-lands against other decks. In addition, such a black-blue "answer" deck may have Snapback, Night of Souls' Betrayal, and Spellskite against the Splinter Twin and Infect combo decks – all cards that are quite solid against Zoo and Affinity as well. Engineered Explosives is good against Zoo and Pyromancer decks. And in the sideboard we get stuff like Annul and Flashfreeze. To win the game with such a deck, possibly some Cloudposts and Emrakul, the Aeons Torns might work.

The format remains a deckbuilder's paradise, and it contains all the answers to pretty much every deck you might want to beat.

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