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Format Evolutions: Modern Pro Tours


As you know, tomorrow kicks off Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch in Atlanta, where five hundred of the best Magic players in the world will gather for Modern, a format recently shaken up by the banning of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom. One of the unique aspects of Modern is that it is still a young format. Birthed in 2011, there have only been four Pro Tours featuring Modern. 

Unlike Standard, it's possible to look back at every single Modern Pro Tour. Not only will we explore the history of the format, but we'll see what direction it may be heading. In the past I've written deck evolution articles exploring the history of a specific archetype. Today we are going to examine the evolution of Modern as a format, as told by the Top Eights of the four Modern Pro Tours.

Remember to check out the coverage starting tomorrow morning, when the next chapter in the evolution of Modern will be written!

Pro Tour Philadelphia, 2011

Back in September 2011, Modern was as new as new can be. While the community had been talking about a Extended replacement for a while, it wasn't until August 2011 that Wizards announced Pro Tour Philadelphia would feature the new Modern format. We started with a skeleton banned list based on cards that were very good in Standard during their heyday, rather than careful playtesting. No one really knew what would happen in Philadelphia — anything and everything was possible. According to Frank Karsten, the pros quickly identified Zoo and Twelve Post as the decks to beat, which led to a Top Eight full of combo decks designed to kill as early as possible. The most innovative of these was a Mono-Blue Infect list designed and piloted by Sam Black.

The basic idea of the deck was surprisingly simple. You get an infect creature with evasion (either Blighted Agent or Inkmoth Nexus) on the battlefield, you attack with said infect creature, then you use the alternate casting cost on Blazing Shoal to exile Dragonstorm or Progenitus to deal 10 infect damage and win the game. The combo was made easier by the fact that Ponder and Preordain were legal in the format at the time, which helped find the combo pieces. Speaking of decks designed to abuse Ponder and Preordain, UR Storm was a big player in the format, putting two players into the Top 8. 

Maybe calling this deck Storm is a slight mischaracterization. It doesn't play any cards with the storm mechanic, but in many ways it plays similarly. Basically, you get a Pyromancer Ascension on the battlefield, then cast a ton of now-banned cantrips until you eventually kill your opponent with Lightning Bolts and Noxious Revival. For me, the best part of this deck was the sideboard. If you've ever played against Storm, you'll know that the first thing you do when you sideboard is remove pretty much all of your spot removal. You don't really want to draw Path to Exile if your opponent isn't playing any creatures. Prost realized this behavior and put the Splinter Twin combo into his sideboard. So while his opponent was taking out all the removal spells, Prost was bringing in the creature-based infinite combo. 

The other interesting deck in the Top Eight of Pro Tour Philadelphia was Breach Post, played by Jesse Hampton. The combo of Cloudpost, Glimmerpost, and Vesuva was basically the original (and more powerful) version of Tron in Modern. Unlike Tron, however, Breach Post was a creature-based ramp strategy. Actually, Plan A was just casting Through the Breach to put a hasty Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play on turn three, while going big and playing Eye of Ugin and lands that tap for a more than one mana was Plan B. 

The rest of the decks are fairly well known. There were two different Splinter Twin players, including Samuele Estratti, who ended up taking home the grand prize. There was an Affinity player, and Josh-Utter Leyton playing a Channel Fireball build of Zoo known as Counter-Cat Zoo. The most interesting part of the event was the impact it had on Modern going forward, an impact that is still felt to this day. 

In the aftermath of Pro Tour Philadelphia, nearly every Top 8 deck had at least one of its cards banned. Of course Ponder and Preordain got the axe, and pretty much everyone playing Blue was playing these cards in Philadelphia. Storm decks also lost Rite of Flame, Zoo lost Wild Nacatl, and every Green creature deck lost Green Sun's Zenith. Cloudpost got banned, Blazing Shoal got banned, and then finally, just this past month, Splinter Twin met its demise. 

Come to think of it, the only deck from the Top Eight of Pro Tour Philadelphia that would still be legal today was an early version of Modern Affinity stocked with staples such as Atog, Fling, and Frogmite

Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, 2012

* Video taken from Grand Prix San Diego, but displays the moment that ended up being the final nail in the coffin of the Eggs deck.

With Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch coming up tomorrow, everyone is talking about how the bannings of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom signal a massive change in the format. It's important to remember that by the time Pro Tour Return to Ravnica came around, almost all of the Top Eight decks from the last Modern Pro Tour had been hit by the ban hammer. As a result, we end up with a Top 8 that looks surprisingly normal by our current standards. 

For one thing, Fall 2012 was the absolute pinnacle of Jund in Modern. Deathrite Shaman had just been printed and Bloodbraid Elf was still in the format. While cards like Geralf's Messenger might look out of place in retrospect, this incarnation was the best Jund ever was in Modern, and likely ever will be. As a result, the deck put not one, not two, but three players in the Top Eight. We also saw the emergence of a real (i.e. not Atog and Frogmite) version of Affinity, which looked like current builds of the deck. There was the rise of UWR Control in the hands of Eduardo Sajgalik, along with the first draft of Scapeshift combo thanks to the unbanning of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. However, if there is one thing you can say about Modern players, it's that they will keep finding ways to break the format and kill opponents in degenerate ways.

After Sam Black wrecked most of the Pro Tour Philadelphia field by killing people in one shot with Blazing Shoal Infect, Wizards decided that something had to be done. They banned Blazing Shoal. Infect players, instead of being discouraged, shrugged, added Green to the deck, and started targeting Inkmoth Nexus and Blighted Agent with Giant Growths. Of course this iteration wasn't as efficient. Sometimes you actually had to attack twice or use more than one pump spell. Still, Green-Blue Infect still offered a way of killing opponents quickly and consistently. But of course, the deck of the tournament was Eggs, as played by Stanaslav Cifka. Eggs may be the most depressing deck to see across the table because it puts you in a position where you know you can't win, but takes another 45 minutes to actually kill you.

If you've never had the joy of playing with or against Eggs, go watch the video where Kibler hits the Magic Online F6 button (pass priority) in real life. It explains pretty much everything you need to know about the deck. That said, I'll try to explain it to you in the simplest terms possible. You know how a Storm deck has to cast 20 spells in a turn to Grapeshot you to death? Imagine Storm had to cast 100 spells to kill you, and most of them came with some sort of triggered ability. That's Eggs. The problem with Eggs isn't that it's too good. It's actually very fragile if you are playing graveyard hate or cards like Rule of Law or Eidolon of Rhetoric. The problem with Eggs is that it looks awful on camera. It simply isn't good viewing. I know this from experience. I featured a version of Eggs on Budget Magic, which ended up being the least-viewed Budget Magic of all time. Rather than being banned for power level concerns, Eggs ended up being banned for the sake of people watching (and playing in) events.

So what were the lasting impacts of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica? In the years since, Jund has been nerfed twice, first with the banning of Bloodbraid Elf (which many people now consider a mistake) and then with the banning of Deathrite Shaman, the real problem . As I mentioned, Second Sunrise was banned from the Eggs deck and even though Storm didn't make the Top 8 (Jon Finkel was unsurprisingly the top finisher with the archetype with a Top 32), Wizards figured they might as well ban Seething Song as well, because when in doubt, ban something from Storm.

Pro Tour Born of the Gods, 2014

Pro Tour Born of the Gods is by far the "fairest" Modern Pro Tour we've ever seen. There was only one "broken" combo deck in the Top 8, Fennel's Storm, which just goes to show that no matter how many cards you ban, Storm players are still going to try to win by casting a bunch of spell in the same turn. Otherwise, we see a real, honest to god, control deck not only perform well, but actually win the tournament in the hands of Shaun McLaren.

While the deck itself isn't all that much to look at, basically amounting to a ton of counters, removal, Snapcaster Mage and Celestial Colonnade, simply the fact that a true control deck performed well at a Modern Pro Tour is a really big deal. It shows that, at least for a brief moment in time, it was possible to build an "answer" deck that really answered enough of the format to see success. Now of course, this is probably because the other tier decks were pretty well set in stone, with Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin clearly being the two most important decks to fight against, but still, there was a time where Cryptic Command and Mana Leak were real cards in Modern. Of course, the most important and long-lasting impact of Pro Tour Born of the Gods wasn't control decks in Modern, instead it was that the tournament that signaled the beginning of the end for two pillars of the format. 

According to the official announcement, it was dominance at the Grand Prix level that brought the ban hammer down on Birthing Pod, but Jacob Wilson's runner-up finish at Pro Tour Born of the Gods actually kicked off the Year of Pod. While it is possible that the deck still would have gotten banned without a Pro Tour Top 8, as we've seen over the course of this article there is a strong correlation between a deck having a Pro Tour Top 8 and a key cards from that deck getting banned. If you look back over the timeline of modern bannings, you'll see that with the exception of Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, which were emergency banned (more or less), every single card banned in Modern since the format's inception had a Pro Tour Top 8 in the calendar year preceding its banning. Meanwhile, the performance of Patrick Dickmann took a little longer to take up roots, but was no less effective at causing a banning.

If you read over the official reasoning for why Splinter Twin got banned, you'll see that it isn't so much that the card, or even the combo, is just too good for Modern, rather it's because it reduces the diversity of the format. Now, you know my feelings on the banning, but I will say that the fact that Dickmann showed that, at least at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, the best Tarmogoyf deck was also a Splinter Twin deck does back up Wizards' point of view. Before Tarmo-Twin was the talk of the tournament, the Splinter Twin combo was mostly confined to UR builds, or occasionally janky Jeskai decks, but this changed after Pro Tour Born of the Gods. People started playing Tarmo-Twin as the aggro build of Twin and Grixis Twin as the control build of Twin, alongside the more traditional UR build. So at least to some extent, Wizards' reasoning is true: Splinter Twin can go into a lot of deck. But it's possible they are thinking backwards. Instead of Splinter Twin hijacking Temur or Jeskai, maybe it's the other way around. Perhaps Temur and Jeskai are unplayable unless they have access to Splinter Twin to get some free wins in a very unfair Modern format. 

Pro Tour Fate Reforged

Pro Tour Fate Reforged might be my least favorite of all the Modern Pro Tours, just because it ended up being so predictable (a featured a truly depressing amount of Burn decks on camera). Apart from the emergence of Amulet Bloom, which was cool for about six months and then oppressive, the Top Eight was all Twin, Abzan and Burn. Regardless, let's start by talking about the recently deceased Amulet of Vigor combo deck.

For me, the birth and death of Amulet Bloom illuminates one really important thing about Modern: there are still broken combos out there, and sooner or later players are going to find them. All of the pieces of the Amulet Bloom deck had been legal in Modern since before Pro Tour Return to Ravnica back in 2012 (with the last key piece being Slayers' Stronghold, which was printed in Avacyn Restored), but it took three years and three Pro Tours for people to really figure it out. This isn't to say that the deck didn't exist until Cohen's Top 8 performance, actually, there is a deck tech from Pro Tour Born of the Gods showcasing it in the hands of Mathias Hunt, but it took until last February for the deck to have a true breakout performance. 

Did Amulet Bloom deserve a banning? Without a doubt. Does banning Amulet Bloom fix Modern? By no means. If there is one thing I hope comes across in this article, it's that Modern players are going to keep figuring out ways to break the format. Remember, Modern doesn't have the safety valves we see in Legacy. There's no Force of Will, Flusterstorm, Wasteland or Daze, so people can keep coming up with Bloom after Bloom, Storm after Storm, combo after combo with no repercussions. We keep banning the symptoms rather than treating the underlying problem, and until we focus on giving players the tool they need to fight combo decks in general, things will likely continue down this road for the near future. There is another Amulet Bloom out there, I have no doubt; It's just a matter of someone figuring it out. 

The rest of the Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 was filled with Burn, Abzan and Twin. Actually, every deck except for Cohen's Amulet Bloom was Burn, Abzan or Twin, which (at least for me) doesn't lead to must-see TV, which further reinforces the idea that a Modern shakeup is needed for the sake of the viewing audience. Even though I don't agree with the reason why Twin was banned, if it saves me from having to watch Burn mirrors all weekend, I'll be thrilled by the decision. 

TLDR: Quick Hitters

  • Modern, with few exceptions, has always been a degenerate format. From its birth at Pro Tour Philadelphia until last years Pro Tour Fate Reforged, people have been figuring out ways to kill people on turn two or turn three. This is what Modern is, and until we get better, generic answers to combo, we'll just have to come to grips with it. 
  • Interestingly, most of this is Sam Black's fault. He bears a lot of responsibility for popularizing both Infect and Amulet Bloom.
  • Every single banning in Modern, with the exception of the emergency banning of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time, has impacted a deck that Top 8'd a Pro Tour in the year before the banning. As such, I'd keep a close eye on what decks make the Top 8 at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. They will be the odds-on favorites for having something banned at this time next year.
  • Also, with the exception of UWR Control (which ended up being borderline unplayable anyway), every deck that has won a Modern Pro Tour has gotten something banned. So if we are keeping an eye on the decks in the Top 8, this should be doubly true of the deck that wins the tournament. 
  • Finally, keep an eye on decks that do something absurd on camera, followed by everyone complaining on social media. Wizards isn't going to have their Pro Tours ruined by people F6'ing through Eggs, and they don't want 40,000 viewers to view Modern as a turn-two format thanks to Amulet Bloom winning through Remand. These are the types of distinctive events that bump a deck to the Top of the B&R watch list and eventually lead to bannings. 
  • Affinity must be the luckiest deck in Modern. It has percentages mirroring other banned decks, it has made the Top 8 of three of the four Modern Pro Tours to date, and it can do some pretty degenerate things. All it's missing is a Pro Tour win. As such, it's somewhat surprising it hasn't seen a banning already. Plus, one of the big complaints from a lot of pros is that there simply are not enough sideboard slots to go around in Modern, and a hypothetical banning of Affinity in Modern would free up a lot of slots currently dedicated to Stony SilenceShatterstorm and the like. 
  • Let's wrap up with a few bold predictions. Grishoalbrand is the deck mostly likely to do something absurd on camera and force itself into exile, followed by Infect. Affinity is my odds-on favorite for the next tier one deck to meet the ban hammer, whether or not it wins the Pro Tour. Actually, putting all this together makes it sound like banning Inkmoth Nexus would kill two decks with one stone. Infect would be horrible, and Affinity would be weakened slightly. If I had to right now pick one card that will get banned next winter, it would be Inkmoth Nexus. Eldrazi will generally be a flop and people will feel silly about calling for a preemptive Eye of Ugin banning (although it will show up and may even put someone in the Top Eight). Storm will be one of the surprise breakout decks at the Pro Tour, although it probably won't win the tournament, which is a good thing for Wizards because they are running out of Storm cards to ban. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What are your predictions for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch? What is at the top of your B&R watch list? Is Wizards simply forcing Modern to be a rotating format by its management of the banned list? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive.


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