Reacting in Modern

Posted in Event Coverage on February 21, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

As we learned from Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Modern is fast and relentless. Not to pigeon-hole players, but seeing Andrew Cuneo sleeving up Glistener Elf should alone be enough to prove that. There are tons of archetypes that are playable, and a zillion different ways to be proactive and aggressive. Many say that reactive strategies in Modern are for suckers, but are they right?

A lot of pros have travelled to Memphis this weekend because they don’t have enough mooring in the treacherous Modern waters. Pros generally like reactive strategies, and those are harder to come by in Modern. But plenty in Vancouver have bunkered down to weather the storm. And the ships they’re captaining range from the proactive to the very reactive indeed.

The first sailor I found was No. 11 Reid Duke. He’s wayward this weekend, as the rest of his Peach Garden Oath crew, No. 1 Owen Turtenwald, and No. 7 William Jensen, are attending Grand Prix Memphis. Duke said of his travels from New York state to Vancouver (which is much farther than to Memphis, in case you weren’t sure), “I like playing Modern a lot. I have a good deck and I have fun playing it.” He flashed his trademark easy smile.

But he understood pros looking elsewhere to claim trophies. “It’s hard to get a very big edge at any given tournament,” he said. “There’s a lot of picking and choosing which decks you want to beat.” This comes down to the gamut of proactive strategies that attack from various angles. The top three aggressive performers at the Pro Tour were Affinity, Burn, and Infect. It can be hard to beat all three of them. Two is easy, but you’ll be giving up the third.

But it’s not just those three decks. “There’s even more than that,” Duke said. “All the combo decks, like Splinter Twin, Amulet Bloom, Scapeshift, Red-Green Tron, and even Living End and Storm. I mean those last two haven’t been showing up in the last few months, but they are very good decks.”

Despite these rocky shores, Duke is on quite a reactive strategy. Playing a Black-Green attrition deck, Duke hopes to grind his opponents to a pulp. Using powerful reactive and controlling cards like Thoughtseize are important to stopping opponents’ gameplans.

Duke said he could’ve played a faster deck, but “you take a risk either way. If you play Affinity, you can get paired against the people who decided to beat Affinity.” When you’re as linear as any of the previous deck archetypes, you run the risk of hitting strong hate cards from the sideboard. Stony Silence, Leyline of Sanctity, and Feed the Clan are real cards. So when you go reactive, you have the luxury of making those hate cards less effective.

Though reactive decks fight an uphill battle, Duke felt strongly that “the tools are there to accomplish any goals.” Reactive decks can beat any deck in Modern if the right build is found. The trouble with such non-linear decks, is finding “the right build.” And the “rightness” can shift from week to week, unlike in some other formats.

“The Modern metagame is more like a pendulum, than something approaching an equilibrium.” Unlike Standard, Duke said, which “moves slowly towards a final point,” when people have figured out a few true top-tier strategies. Modern constantly shifts back and forth. Decks that were not right can become right again with subtle changes in maindecks and sideboards from month to month. But building a strong reactive strategy still starts with a few key cards.

When I asked Pro Tour Return to Ravnica Top 8 finisher David Ochoa and ChannelFireball streamer, three-time Grand Prix winner, and all-around mensch Paul Cheon about a reactive card like Thoughtseize, Cheon knew exactly where I was going. “Actually, we were just talking about that at dinner last night,” he said. “Thoughtseize is the reactive spell of Modern.” And your build can flow from that important start. “The card you usually want to be pairing with Thoughtseize is Tarmogoyf,” Cheon said.

The fact that Thoughtseize is the reactive lynchpin is a shift from most other metagames. Blue spells, often counterspells, are often the go-to reactive spells. But as Cheon said bluntly, “Blue is just not very good for control strategies.”

Ochoa added, “There’re so many extreme decks in the format . . . so you should try to make your opponents’ spells not matter.” “[Counterspells] are just not good in Modern.” Ochoa said, “The linear decks are just so fast, you are putting your life in your hands with counterspells.”

Modern is a minefield. There are so many ways to go blow yourself up, proactive strategies are a much easier way to hedge your bets. However, you still run the risk of hitting a prepared opponent. But, in the end, the biggest thing that matters is that Modern is undeniably fun. All three of these pros trotted out their passports this weekend for that exact reason.

Though it throws a lot of curveballs, and can be hard to “figure out,” as Paul Cheon said, “Modern is a format where you say, ‘Hey, let’s both play our sweet decks and let’s see what happens.”

This weekend we’ll find out exactly what happens. Even if it’s just pendulum swing on a grandfather clock, it’s the coolest-looking clock to watch.

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