Looking Back at Modern

Posted in The Week That Was on November 16, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

With the conclusion of Grand Prix Chicago and the win by young Jacob Wilson over Josh Utter-Leyton, we came to the end of a flurry of Modern events over the past several months. The finals was a nearly card-for-card mirror match of Jund decks that were splashing Lingering Souls. Jund has been a baseline deck for the format going all the way back to November of last year, when Reid Duke won the Magic Online Championships over Florian Pils with Bloodbraid Elves cascading into a certain three-mana Planeswalker.

Reid Duke, Magic Online 2011 Champion

"Back then, Wild Nacatl was legal and Zoo was the default 'best-deck' if you were interested in playing creatures," said Duke, who finished 11th this past weekend with a very similar build of Jund. "However, Liliana of the Veil had just been printed, and I was excited to play with her in a format where single creatures like Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary could dominate a game. Jund is also strong in creature mirrors—Punishing Fire helped too—and I played it as a metagame call, expecting to face Zoo."

With so many cards having been introduced over the past year, cards being banned and unbanned, and new strategies getting discovered, Duke explained that the knobs and dials of the Jund deck allow for a player to make adjustments to the field.

"When Birthing Pod is popular you can play Grim Lavamancer and Maelstrom Pulse. When Geist of Saint Traft decks are popular you can play Liliana and Jund Charm," Duke explained.

Grim Lavamancer
Jund Charm

You can even make adjustments to the deck to account for its own popularity. "CFB [Channel Fireball] adjusted the deck to include Lingering Souls, which is among the best cards in the Jund mirror (which is all about one-for-one trades). Despite the strength of Lingering Souls, I wouldn't take the same approach because it's only a marginal upgrade over Kitchen Finks or whatever other card you would have in its place. After all, this is Modern, and any card seeing play is extremely, extremely good already. Since you're only replacing one good card with another, I feel that the smoother mana base of the three-color version tips the scales in favor of traditional Jund."

Lingering Souls
Kitchen Finks

While Jund has been all the rage of late, it was not the dominant deck over the summer when everyone was seemingly playing with Delver of Secrets in the Modern format. If you look at the Top 8 decklists from Grand Prix Columbus you find just one Jund deck and four decks sporting full play sets of the Innistrad double-faced card (although it was the Robots deck that emerged on top of that scrum). Lucas Siow made it to the finals of that tournament playing RUG Delver, and by the time the World Magic Cup rolled around it seemed like everyone was playing either that or RWU Delver decks.

Siow explained that the format felt pretty wide open heading into Grand Prix Columbus.

"There had been a PTQ season and a GP but people still hadn't digested the most recent bans—Rite of Flame, Green Sun's Zenith, Ponder, etc. There were a ton of combo decks and all the fair decks were aggressive—Affinity, Delver, Zoo—Jund wasn't very popular. When attacking a wide-open format, aggression plus disruption is always a good combo. Counterspells in particular are almost always good against any combo deck. By making sure all my cards were good on my own, I was also able to avoid being hated out by any particular sideboard cards. Whereas a more linear deck—say the UWR Delver—can't play as many roles."

Rite of Flame
Green Sun's Zenith

Delver of Secrets became public enemy number one after the Grand Prix, and armed with sideboard hate, it was able to keep the Robots at bay during its brief dominance. I remember seeing Delver of Secretss everywhere at the World Magic Cup, but the winning white-blue Modern list helped bring an end to that, along with the aforementioned Jund reemergence.

"Jund and blue-white are both bad matchups for RUG Delver," explained Siow. "They go bigger and are better able to grind out the mid- to long game. A turn-one Delver of Secrets will almost never go all the way, even with the counters, because of all the removal the decks play. And Jund got even better with the printing of Deathrite Shaman, a card that make it impossible for us to race while neutering our Snapcaster Mages."

The story of Modern could be very different if not for a pair of 3–3 drafts keeping Pro Tour Hall of Famer Jon Finkel out of the Top 8 of the last two Modern Pro Tours. Heading into Pro Tour Philadelphia, Finkel had not played with sixty-card decks in several years and was looking for ways to close the experience gap.

"The first legal set in Modern, Mirrodin, was also the first set that I had never interacted with in Constructed. I wasn't around for Affinity and Skullclamp and pretty much anything since," said Finkel. "Going into Philly, I knew I would be playing against people who had a lot of experience with these cards and decks—since many of them would be very similar to past Standard decks—and there would definitely be matchups where I had no idea what my opponent would be doing. Storm appealed to me because I could do my own thing and not have to worry too much about what lines my opponents were taking. It was a solitaire deck."

Finkel went 8–1 with the Storm deck. His team was split into two versions of the deck, with all the players who opted for three copies of Pyromancer Ascension over one copy faring the best. With his draft record at 3–3, he was not able to play for Top 8 in the last round and drew instead with teammate Tom Martell. More than a year and three Goblin Electromancers later, he went 8–2 with the deck at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica , stymied once again by a .500 Draft performance.

Pyromancer Ascension
Goblin Electromancer

"I do think Storm is a good deck in Modern and one people should be paying attention to," advocated Finkel. "It is very metagame-dependent, though. If there is a lot of aggro control and sideboard hate it can run into issues—the current universe of 25% Jund is much better for it. It is also one of the most difficult decks to play optimally. There are so many little choices you have to make. Never before have I played a deck so much for so long and still been regularly unsure about my choices/realize I had done something suboptimally."

Having played the deck for more than a year now, Finkel finds the key card in the deck to be Pyromancer Ascension and is skeptical of versions of the deck seeking to move away from the card.

"I see that someone did okay at the GP replacing Ascension with Epic Experiment ,which just seems awful," said Finkel. "I tried to make Epic Experiment good in my testing but it just wasn't; it's very easy to experiment for six or seven and still lose. People who haven't played the deck extensively don't realize that Ascension is the best card. If you turn it on you're a favorite to just draw your entire library."

Epic Experiment

With two Grand Prix in the books since the breakout performance of Second Breakfast in the hands of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica Champion Stanislav Cifka there has been nary a sighting of the deck near the top tables.

"The most popular graveyard hate at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica was Grafdigger's Cage, which does nothing against Second Breakfast," said Cifka of his win in Seattle. "Also, Jund decks didn't have any answer to Leyline of Sanctity after board and didn't have any way to disrupt the combo with Leyline on the board. Decks didn't have enough graveyard hate in general.

Grafdigger's Cage
Leyline of Sanctity

"It's still a playable deck now, but at the moment people really want to be ready for the deck," said Cifka of the uptick in sideboarded graveyard hate making it more difficult for the deck to have the same success. "After a few months people will cut some cards against the deck and it could be good again."

Probably the most impactful deck to come out of the Pro Tour in Seattle was the 9th-place Infect deck played—and explained in great detail—by Ari Lax. For the past two weekends of Grand Prix, the deck has been as ubiquitous as Jund and Robots.

"In a format as open as Modern, it's a lot easier to approach a lot of the diversity by ignoring what they are doing than trying to tune a perfect list to handle everything," said Lax of the surge in popularity for the deck since the Pro Tour. "Infect is the fastest deck in the format and has a lot of ways to ignore interaction—Blighted Agent for blockers, Vines of Vastwood for removal. It also helps that the deck is relatively easy to play compared to other combo options. Counting to ten is much easier than counting mana and storm or maximizing your odds on Second Sunrise loops."

Blighted Agent
Vines of Vastwood

While preparing for the Pro Tour, Lax was looking for an explosive deck that was going to be good against what he correctly expected to the most popular deck in the field.

"Infect was the most powerful deck I found and it also happened to be reasonably well positioned against Jund as well," said Lax of his decision to attack the Pro Tour with the lowly Plague Stinger. "It also was able to punish your opponent for poor plays, which was especially relevant as I expected few people to have properly tested against Infect."

Since the Pro Tour, Thoughtseize has migrated to the main deck of Lax's Infect builds since he was siding it in for almost every matchup, but the rising number of Spirit tokens in play has made it tougher for the deck to succeed.

Lax said,"I might play Infect again, but would have to seriously work on the deck to beat the increased presence of Lingering Souls. The other deck I would consider is Brian Kibler's green-white Little Kid deck that he Top 16ed Grand Prix Chicago with. Not only is it able to play Lingering Souls, it is fairly strong against the card."

An Interview With Erik Lauer

In addition to talking to some of the players who have shaped Modern over the past year, I spoke to R&D's Erik Lauer about Jund, recent unbannings, and what the future holds for the format.

Erik Lauer

BDM: Looking back at events from Grand Prix Columbus onto the World Magic Cup and Magic Players Championships, the Pro Tour, and then two Grand Prix, what has R&D learned about Modern?

Lauer: We have learned that there are a lot of viable decks! Shouta Yasooka's innovative deck nearly ran the tables at the Magic Players Championship. We saw combo decks such as Storm and Eggs, but then often some of them lose to Infect. We heard permission was not viable, and then saw white-blue Angel decks win. So far, there has been a lot of Jund, and we would like to see what comes next.

BDM: Is Jund a deck that R&D worries about? Is it the type of deck that would ever see a card banned?

Lauer: The DCI has two major goals for the Modern banned list: (1) not having top-tier decks that frequently win by turn three and (2) maintaining a diverse format. Any strong deck has the potential to make the format less diverse. We are watching to see how the format develops, but the format is more important than any particular deck. If Jund is too strong, a card might be banned.

BDM: Were you at all surprised by the relative non-impact of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle being unbanned? Are there any other cards we could see liberated in the format?

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Lauer: We knew Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is powerful, but thought it was a reasonable card to unban. Lee Shi Tian made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica with it, which is great. When we unban a card, we tend to wait to give the format time to develop before unbanning another card.

BDM: Are there any powerful cards that you have been surprised by their lack of impact? Cards like Æther Vial and Past in Flames seem so broken on paper but have not really made a huge impact.

Aether Vial
Past in Flames

Lauer: I really like seeing powerful cards that haven't show up en masse yet. It means there is the potential for someone to be the one who breaks them!

BDM: What does the future of Modern look like from an R&D perspective?

Lauer: Modern is a non-rotating format and can be played up to the highest levels of competition. Already it tends to show the most diverse Top 8s among Constructed Grand Prix, and we hope it continues to provide a wide number of competitive decks. Starting next year, stores will be able to choose it as an FNM format.

BDM: How much do you design for Modern when you are building a new set?

Lauer: Modern is a format created by players, not developers. So we tend to be hands off, although we try to avoid adding turn-three kills. With Legacy, we sometimes design "answer cards" such as Abrupt Decay being an answer to Counterbalance. When appropriate, we might do that with Modern. But we haven't had to yet.

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