Secrets to Becoming a Modern Master

Posted in Reconstructed on June 18, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Modern is my favorite Constructed format right now.

I've always had a penchant for Modern. (Which makes sense, considering I was one of the driving forces behind creating another non-rotating format.) And after having my ear to the ground on the format since its conception, seeing every deck that has come in and out, and poring through hundreds upon hundreds of decklists for my Modern challenges, the format continues to surprise and delight me.

Two years after the format was established, I'm still seeing brand-new decklists and original ideas using cards that were available when the format began. That is incredible!

For Modern Week, I want to go through some core deck-building principles of Modern. A lot of people learn about deck building in relation to Standard and, while probably the most useful and practical ways to practice building decks, there are some key differences you have to keep in mind when working on Modern decks. These five tips can help guide your Modern deck building at home, at tournaments, or even when submit to my Modern challenges in the future.

Ready? Let's go!

Principle #1: Be Proactive!

Take a look over the Top 8 decklists from the recent Grand Prix Portland. Notice anything? Scroll a little further and take a look at the 9th–16th-place decklists.

But that's not all. Keep looking. Check out the results from Grand Prix San Diego. Can you see it now?

Between those twenty-four top-finishing decklists, twenty-three of them were decks with a proactive game plan. (The one lone ranger was Sammy Tukeman's Red-White-Blue Control deck—and even then, he was using Ajani Vengeant as his main route to try and hit game-ending mass in short order.)

A proactive deck is a deck that is actively taking steps to fight its opponent and try to win the game. Unlike a control deck, which will often look like it's losing until it starts winning, a proactive deck plans to keep the reins in its hand all along. Sammy's deck aside, even some of the more controlling decks eschewed a long game plan for something like Geist of Saint Traft or Lightning Angel.

Geist of Saint Traft
Lightning Angel

Modern is a format with a lot going on. It contains many of the most powerful cards printed in the past ten years. Anything and everything could be out there. If you give your opponent time to assemble it, you might just lose—no matter how much you can try and control the game.

It's near impossible to prepare to fight through potentially anything out of ten years' worth of Magic cards. You could face decks that attempt to win with Birthing Pod and others that will try and seal the win with Scapeshift. Some decks will try to attrition you out like Jund while others will aim for a turn-three or four win like Storm or Splinter Twin. Even the more fringe rogue decks provide yet another angle you're being attacked from, whether it's Craig Wescoe's White-Black tokens deck or even some deck featuring Bridge from Below shenanigans .

The easiest way to prepare for all of these different things? Have a proactive strategy of your own! If you can just be faster and more resilient than whatever proactive plan your opponent brought to the table, you'll have the edge.

Does this mean there's no space for a control deck in Modern? Not at all! As Sammy evidenced with his red-white-blue powerhouse that he took all the way to the finals, there's still room to innovate. I think it's only a matter of time until somebody breaks the optimal Modern control deck wide open. These aren't hard and fast rules. These are just signs you have to think about while deck building—and I see signs as suggestions more than actual orders. (You know, like "dry clean only.")

When you're building a Modern deck, one of the key questions to ask yourself when you're done is, "What does this deck do to be proactive?" If the answer is "very little," then you may need to consider why you went down this path.

Principle #2: Be Powerful!

There are a lot of very enticing, fun decks to build in Modern. Using cross-block synergies to their maximum advantage and finding cool combinations between cards separated by years makes for a fun puzzle hunt, trying to piece together something truly unique.

However, it's crucial to not lose sight of a fundamental Modern truth: the decks in this format are powerful!

Some of the combo decks can consistently kill you on turn four. The "slower" combo decks like Scapeshift will generously give you a couple extra turns to live, ending the game with Remand backup in case you have any kind of shenanigans.


The beatdown decks aren't much more forgiving. Tailored to play at Modern's fast speed, they are full of ways to maximize their damage output. Some versions, like Patrick Sullivan's Zoo deck, feature cards like Might of Alara to really try and end the game out of nowhere. Affinity's Cranial Platings can lead to huge swings, dropping you from a pretty safe life total to Galvanic Blast range.

The midrange decks play a little more fair—but remember, this is a format where the definition of "fair" is Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant. These decks are crammed full with some of the best cards you can play, featuring Lightning Bolts, and Thoughtseizes, and Planeswalkers—oh my!

Whenever I finish building a Modern deck, I always ask myself, "Is this powerful?" If I'm just being different for the sake of being different—if I'm trading in my Dark Confidants for Tallowisps just to feel like Princess Bubblegum every time I cast an Innistrad Spirit—then I need to reconsider my goals. If I'm just trying to have fun, that's great, but if I'm trying to win over and over again, you have to question why your new midrange deck is better than playing an established one.

Dark Confidant

Sometimes there will be a good answer as to why you should deviate—it's just important to make sure there is one other than "being different." Keep your deck's power level on par with the power level of the format.

Principle #3: Be Prepared!

"Be safe. And if you can't be safe, at least be prepared."

The mother of my first girlfriend told me that once when we were about to go drive out in a storm, and it always stuck with me. (Although, in retrospect, that's kind of an unsettling quote to get from your girlfriend's mom.) I've found it's good to ask yourself, to drag out if you're ever walking into a dangerous situation, "Are you at least prepared in the event of an unfavorable result?"

In Modern, you definitely need to be prepared.

You are going to have bad matchups. There are going to be a lot of cards thrown about from all over the past ten years. There are even some slam dunk hate cards targeted specifically for your deck that people can probably use against you. What's crucial is that you have some tools you can use to fight them off in case you run into them.

Go to back to all those decklists. Look at the sideboards. Notice a trend? Unlike many Standard decks, where you'll see consistent numbers across them—or even something like 4, 4, 3, 2, 2—in Modern people turn to a lot more one-ofs and two-ofs. And it's not just that decks like Birthing Pod have more of a luxury to run singletons.

Why? Diversity!

For an example, I'll use Joe Demestrio's runner-up Scapeshift deck from Grand Prix Portland. Take a look at the sideboard. It's entirely made up of one-ofs and two-ofs. Well... sort of.

The cards all serve many functions. Izzet Charm is protection for your combo or a removal spell to go along with your Dismembers. Combust is awesome against Splinter Twin, but Dismember is also pretty good. Sowing Salt is a hate card that can work well against Tron and Scapeshift alike. These cards have many buckets to fill.

Izzet Charm

Unlike in Standard, where often a few sideboard cards will rule the roost, in Modern it's a bit of a different story. It might be tempting to just write down four Grafdigger's Cage and call it a day—but there is likely a better solution. Diversity can be the key to post-sideboarded victory.

Principle #4: Be Resilient!

Modern may feature a lot of powerhouse cards, but there is also something else at work: a class of countermeasure cards that help to keep the environment in check.

While you can expect to face down everything from turn-three Knight of the Reliquaries to turn-three kills, Modern also has access to some of the best removal and discard ever printed. Turn-one Thoughtseize is something you can expect to see a lot, and both Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt are staple removal spells. These cards tear apart narrow-minded game plans.

Knight of the Reliquary
Path to Exile

While there are a lot of great synergies out there in the format that you can build around, it's important to ask yourself what happens when that key synergy suddenly vanishes. What happens if your key card gets Thoughtseized away?

Some of the most successful combo decks in the format have answered that question in the form of redundancy. Storm has so many pieces that it can still win after losing one, and Splinter Twin has plenty of redundancy in both Splinter Twin and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker alongside Pestermite, Deceiver Exarch, and even potentially Village Bell-Ringer if you're feeling particularly ambitious. Even then, those decks are still pretty hampered by a Thoughtseize.

Birthing Pod, on the other hand, has gone the opposite direction: Birthing Pod is a shortcut to assemble the combo, but the deck is a serviceable midrange deck without it. You can always just attack with Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence if you need to—and that can be effective if your opponent is spending so many cards ensuring your combo doesn't get online. Plus, you can always just draw your combo.

Kitchen Finks
Voice of Resurgence

Even in beatdown decks this is true. If you built a mono-black deck to maximize the power of, say, Phyrexian Obliterator, is it even worth taking the huge hit of being mono-black in this format if plenty of spells will remove your Obliterator with ease? Probably not.

When you do go narrow and focused on one thing, you have to make sure it's really good. The Blistercoil Weird-Paradise Mantle combo deck took that risk—but it could kill on turn two, and even then it wasn't enough to break into top-tier Modern competitiveness.

When building a Modern deck, try to figure out how your deck will function if your most fundamental card is dealt with. Is what you have left still a stable core? Hopefully, the answer is yes.

Principle #5: Be... Landy?

Wizards has printed a lot of awesome lands in the past ten years. Between Ravnica dual lands, fetch lands, the Scars of Mirrodin fast lands, the core set and Innistrad buddy lands, filter lands, and many more, mana bases in Modern can run as smooth as a whistle.

However, there's a lot more you can do with your mana.

If you're playing green and/or white, have you considered Horizon Canopy to cycle away to draw you more cards when necessary? Maybe all of this nonbasic-land madness is something you want to put an end to, so Tectonic Edge seems to fit the bill. Would Mutavault or Treetop Village be a good fit for your deck? Speaking of man lands, there are even the outstanding Worldwake man lands, which both provide bodies and fix your colors to boot!

Horizon Canopy
Treetop Village

This may come as no surprise coming from Gavin "Seriously, Play More Lands" Verhey, but when you have so many options to choose from you want to make sure you choose well. Often, if you look at my Modern mana bases, I'll have a couple odd-looking-ofs one or two-ofs—and that's no coincidence. I want to maximize my mana base's ability to help me over the course of many games.

On that note, there are so many great lands in the format that it's easy to fit one more into your deck and make it a land with a spell-like effect. For example, having a twenty-fifth land that's a Horizon Canopy or man land gives you that little extra mana boost, letting you keep more hands, and then cycling away or attacking in the late game.

Principle #M14: Be Fantastic!

That does it for this week's look at Modern. In just two weeks from now, I'll be showing off a Magic 2014 preview card—and mine is quite the doozy. I'm extremely excited to have the opportunity to show it off. Submit me your decks for the challenge, and maybe you'll get to be the first person to have this card put in his or her deck!

Format: Standard
Restrictions: Your deck must contain green. (Other colors are okay as well.)
Deadline:, June 24, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by clicking on "respond via email" below. Please submit decklists using the following template. (You do not need to adhere to the specific numbers below, but it's just how a general decklist should look when laid out.)


20 Land
20 Land
4 Creature
4 Creature
4 Other Spell
4 Other Spell
4 Planeswalker

Hopefully these Modern tips help guide your deck building as the format continues to grow and expand, whether you're a veteran or looking to get into Modern for the first time.

And speaking of Modern, Grand Prix Las Vegas—the Modern Masters Limited Grand Prix—is this weekend!

I first got an inkling of how huge this event was going to be earlier this year. I was visiting the sleepy town of Nottingham in the UK this past January, and Rich Hagon took me to his local game store for FNM. Somehow or another the subject of GP Vegas came up—and multiple players chimed in saying they were flying to the States for it!

As I write this, the event's preregistrations have already eclipsed the largest Grand Prix of all time. It's well poised to hit more than 3,000 players... and I'll be amid the swirling masses of people there this weekend! Feel free to find me and say hi—it's always great to talk with you all in person.

If you won't be there this weekend (I'm not sure how many Magic players won't be, at this rate!) I'd still love to hear from you. Feel free to post in the forums or send me a tweet and I'll be sure to take a look.

Have fun with Modern, Modern Masters, and deck building—wherever your passions may sit. Talk to you soon!


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