Feature: A Modern Primer

Posted in Feature on September 2, 2011

By David Sutcliffe

Pro Tour Philadelphia is upon us, and a bright new dawn awaits as the Modern format is given its first real shakedown by the best players in the world. A new format can often be confusing, especially for people who are just tuning in and haven't spent the last two weeks hothousing the best decks and strategies. We'll start you off with a primer on just what Modern means, and what sort of decks and cards you can expect to be reading about over this Magic Weekend.

What Is Modern, Anyway?

Modern contains all cards released in core sets from Eighth Edition forward and expansion sets from Mirrodin forward. The format doesn't rotate, and new sets become legal in Modern on release.

Eighth Edition saw the debut of the "modern" card frame, and that card frame has been used on every expansion since, from our original visit to Mirrodin right through to our return for Scars of Mirrodin, Magic 2012, and the impending trip to the dark lands of Innistrad. That makes the card frame a pretty good rule of thumb, but it's not perfect, so be sure to check Gatherer if you're wondering if a card is Modern-legal.

The added wrinkle to the Modern format here at Pro Tour Philadelphia is the banned list of twenty-one cards. In a format with as many different cards available as there are in Modern the risk of a few combinations dominating the field was very real. In many ways Modern is like a Greatest Hits of Magic format, that allows people to play pretty much any of their favourite decks from the past eight years. In among those Magic greats were a few decks that nobody really wanted to see come back to haunt us, and the banned list aimed to slay a few of the more obvious problem decks before they could become issues.

To read more about the banned list, and why cards were chosen for the list, check out Tom LaPille's article about it.

So, now that you know what the Modern format is... what do you want to play?

I Want to Play Aggro

If your idea of fun is tearing across the table as quickly as possible, taking chunks out of your opponents with creatures or frying them to crisp with direct damage, before finally celebrating over their bruised and battered corpse... then Modern may be just your sort of format. Although it's possible to play a Jund or Bant deck, inspired by cards from the Shards of Alara block like Bloodbraid Elf or Knight of the Reliquary, the aggro world has really split into two popular camps: Zoo and Affinity.

Zoo has been around for the longest time, and the version that you'll see in Modern will probably be very familiar to those who have seen the deck in the past. The deck list reads like something from The Blues Brothers, with Jake and Elwood getting the band back together. Wild Nacatl? Check. Kird Ape? Check. Grim Lavamancer? Check. Tarmogoyf? Check. Dark Confidant? Check. Lightning Helix? Check.

Dark Confidant
Lightning Helix

These are all cards that should be familiar to both Extended and Legacy players, and Modern Zoo doesn't have too many added wrinkles. Every card in the deck is cheap, efficient, and aggressive, and it makes Zoo one of the essential building blocks of the Modern format. Zoo is always going to be there to put a consistent clock on the opponent and keep the other decks "honest," because the punishment for being a little bit too slow, or too clever, or too tricksy, is having a Tarmogoyf knocking on the front door—and it doesn't take "Hold on a minute, I'm just in the shower" as an answer.

Sample Zoo Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Affinity is a name that can cause night tremors in many older players who were around for the deck's glory years, when Mirrodin block was first printed. The artifact lands like Seat of the Synod sent the affinity for artifacts mechanic over the edge, and horrendous things resulted. The monster that Mirrodin created was a deck that spat out a hand full of artifact creatures in the first two turns and powered up beatings through either Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating, which both threatened to convert all those artifacts into extra damage. In Modern all but one of those artifact lands are part of the banned list (Darksteel Citadel being the odd one in), but the remainder of the deck is pretty much intact, and Affinity remains a serious contender, albeit on a more even playing field with its contemporaries.

The interesting thing about Modern Affinity deck is that there has been a real divergence in their strategy and there are now several distinct flavors. A white-based variant uses Tempered Steel from Scars of Mirrodin to convert all the little Memnites, Signal Pests, and Frogmites into serious threats, while a red-based version sees all those little guys as food for the ever-hungry Atog, before being entirely willing to then Fling the morbidly obese Atog across the table for a killer strike.

Arcbound Ravager
Inkmoth Nexus

Potentially a surprise MVP in the Affinity decks could be the Inkmoth Nexus. This humble land can become a serious threat when it is handed either a Cranial Plating or the +1/+1 counters from an Arcbound Ravager, with its infect keyword meaning that Affinity can now quite happily kill you twice as fast with poison counters should you somehow survive the assault on your life total.

Sample Fling Affinity (Flingfinity?) Deck

Download Arena Decklist

I Want to Play Combo

You want to play combo? Come on in, friend, do we have a format for YOU!

Combo comes in as many colors as the rainbow, and as many different styles as you can think of. A lot of the bannings in Modern were aimed at killing some of the fastest and most consistent combo decks in the field. But like fighting a hydra, killing one combo head only seems to spawn two more and for every "turn-three kill" combo deck that was lost, two "turn four kill" combo decks took their place... and they all have turn-three kills in their locker, should the draw go well.

We could sit here all day and discuss the various merits of Splinter Twin, Pyromancer Ascension, Living End, Elves, and Twelvepost, but we don't have all that time. In the meantime, here's a guide to a few of the most common ones.

Twelvepost is the new way of counting to fifteen. You want to count to fifteen because when you can count to fifteen using your mana pool, you get to play Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and then you almost certainly win. Twelvepost gets to count to fifteen through the application of, well, twelve "posts"—the posts in this case being the Loci Glimmerpost and Cloudpost, with the help of "Vesuvapost" to round out the dirty dozen. Assembling your posts in one place means you can then tap your Cloudposts for four or five mana apiece and then counting to 15 is a matter of seconds. Cards like Explore and Primeval Titan help you to gather your Loci together, and the latest buzz in the Philadelphia Convention Center has been the move to playing Amulet of Vigor and Scapeshift to search out your perfect Post combination.


It seems as though a lot of the development and movement is around Twelvepost, and we've seen that duel played out at the dealer stands with cards waxing and waning in popularity. The Scapeshift combination made the deck stronger, but players responded to that by buying up Bribery in order to steal Emrakul from the opposing deck, and then the Twelvepost players hit back by picking up Brooding Saurian to reclaim their stolen Eldrazi, and Through the Breach to try and sneak their big hit in even earlier.

The perfect build of Twelvepost remains to be seen, but it's a deck that is right at the top of everyone's list to either play or ensure they beat.

Sample Twelvepost Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Splinter Twin is a deck that Standard players will recognize, and it's here in Modern and in pretty fine shape. Splinter Twin is one of the slower combo decks available, but it packs plenty of countermagic to ensure that it survives into the later turns to win and can disrupt other combo decks along the way. Pact of Negation and Disrupting Shoal are both great "free" counterspells that protect the deck.

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Deceiver Exarch

The biggest gain the deck makes in Modern is that it can have backup cards for both its key combo pieces. Deceiver Exarch has a twin in the form of Pestermite, and Splinter Twin can be replaced with the dreaded Akki goblin Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. With either Kiki-Jiki or Splinter Twin, the deck can tap a creature to create a copy of another creature, and the creature that you copy (Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch) can then untap the creature that made the copy, then fireworks ensue. You create a zillion hasty copies of Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch, and the opponent is finished.

A hidden strength of Splinter Twin in Modern is the sideboard, which can pack Blood Moon to disrupt a lot of the decks that rely on nonbasic lands (like Twelvepost). But in a world of faster combo decks, is Splinter Twin up to the task?

Sample Splinter Twin Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Both those combo decks have a familiar ring to them, as Splinter Twin and Emrakul have been winning Standard events for a while now. The next combo deck is something that you probably won't have seen in Standard for a while: Pyromancer Ascension.

Pyromancer's Swath
Empty the Warrens

The blue-red combo decks were the talk of Thursday, and they come in a few very similar flavors: Pyromancer Ascension, Pyromancer's Swath and Empty the Warrens, or a combination of any of those decks. At the heart they're all very similar: use cheap blue scrying and card-drawing effects to find your red cards, cast lots of red cards... profit. With Pyromancer Ascension you can double the effect of all your spells, while with Pyromancer's Swath and cards like Grapeshot you can storm your way to massive damage very quickly. Draw cards, generate mana, draw more cards, generate more mana... bury your opponent in damage.

Sample Pyromancer Ascension Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Those three combo decks just scratch the surface of what combo decks can do in Modern, despite the bannings, and with rumors of an infect deck that can kill on the second turn thanks to the humble Glistener Elf and Burning Shoal, I think we're going to have our work cut out in the deck techs to bring you up to speed on the many ways of putting Card A and Card B together in ways that were never intended!

I Want to Play Control

You do? I think you'd better take a seat. I don't want to give you this news while you're standing up.

Control may not exist—at least, not the way you think of it.

The threats of the aggro and combo decks are so huge, so quick, and so varied, that it just seems like nobody has found a control deck that can answer them all. Sure, you could counter a few spells, but they will get you anyway, and the blue-red combo decks can pack up to eight "free" counterspells to protect their combo with. It's a big ask. Sitting at the top of the anti-control pile is Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, which can't be countered and threatens to tear decks to shred. Sure, you could Mana Leak their Scapeshift, but eventually they will find some other way to count to fifteen, and then you'll have Emrakul squatting on your front lawn anyway.

In Magic Online tournaments we've seen the odd deck crop up—a No-Stick deck won, an Enduring Ideal deck won, and there have been a few sightings of Mystical Teachings posting good results—but nothing is consistent, and no deck has been appearing time and time again. Talking to the Pro players yesterday, they didn't seem to think any differently and if a solid control deck exists then we haven't found out about it. Yet.

Inquisition of Kozilek

But if you want to redefine control to mean a deck that will play early disruption and then win, then you could be in luck. Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize provide early hand disruption, and that buys you the time to crash in and end the game before the Twelvepost deck can find a second Scapeshift. Jund and Doran, the Siege Tower decks exist in this bracket, and what you might think of as "midrange" decks are probably the closest we've got to control in Modern. The key is that you can't afford to wait until turn nine to kill your opponent, because they will have found a way out by then and will have killed you anyway. You have to disrupt, and then strike, with massive damage from cards like Doran the Siege Tower, Bloodbraid Elf, and Blightning.

Sample Jund Deck

Download Arena Decklist

And for the old-school permission players, if you want to play a real control deck, check out Mystical Teachings.

Sample Mystical Teachings Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Hopefully this primer has given you some idea of what to expect, but as the action unfolds we will be seeking out the best decks, new techs, and secret tricks as we discover what the best players in the world have done with this exciting new format. Was a combo deck missed? Has the control question been cracked? Will Zoo be simply too consistent over ten rounds? The questions are known; it's the answers we're looking for.

Modern: It's a whole new world, and it's starting right now.

Latest Feature Articles


September 20, 2022

(Almost) Everything to Know About Unfinity Boosters! by, Mike Turian and Adam Styborski

Welcome to the lights and excitement of Unfinity! Magic's latest Un- set release is packed with attractions (and Attractions) to delight players—from the fresh-faced thrill seekers ready ...

Learn More


September 20, 2022

Unfinity Mechanics by, Matt Tabak

Welcome to Myra the Magnificent's Intergalactic Astrotorium of Fun! It's the galaxy's most awesome entertainment complex. For just a few credits, or whatever currency your planet uses, th...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All