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Recognizing Modern Decks by Turn 1 Lands


Modern is a unique format. It's fast, and while it's pretty rare that you are actually dead on Turn 2 or 3, even if the game ends up going 10 turns, most games are won or lost in the first three turns. In Standard, you can often get away with playing slower decks that fall behind in the early game but planning on making up this advantage with just a couple of power cards in the mi-d to late game, but this is hard to do in Modern, where the midgame is often Turn 3 and the late game is Turn 5 (unlike in Standard, where in some matchups, things are just starting to happen on Turn 3). 

Because the Modern format is so fast and compressed, each turn and each decision made on each turn takes on increasing importance. While the data is a bit old now, when we analyzed Standard and Modern back in 2015, we found that the typical Modern game was 1.2 turns shorter than the typical Standard game, and I wouldn't be surprised if this gap has widened in the last couple of years, with some very fast Modern decks like Storm replacing slower decks like Twin and Grixis Control near the top of the Modern metagame. This means that figuring out what your opponent is playing is extremely important, since the impact of each turn is magnified by the shorter overall length of games. If you can make a good guess of your opponent's deck based on what land they play on Turn 1, this gives you a leg up in planning out the next three turns, which again are where most Modern games are won or lost. 

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If you look at Modern decks, it isn't that uncommon to have multiple Turn 1 options. For example, there are decks that play Serum Visions, Fatal Push, and Thoughtseize (and this doesn't even consider the land decisions you have to make, ranging from playing a tapped creatureland, to playing a basic, to shocking yourself to leave up mana with a Watery Grave or Blood Crypt). While these decisions might seem small, remember: we're playing Modern, where the impact of every decision is amplified. While not quite to the same level as Legacy, it's still very possible to lose a game of Modern because you played the wrong land (or one-mana spell) on the first turn of the game. Being able to figure out what deck the opponent is playing (and thereby what cards are likely to be in the deck) is essential to making the right plays on the first turn (and first few turns) of the game, which is often the difference between winning and losing several turns later.

If you watch my gameplay videos or the live stream, you know I have a tendency to try to guess the opponent's deck based off the first land they play (combined with the rest of their Turn 1 plays, if they make any). Because of this, I've had a lot of requests to write about figuring out people's decks by their first land drop (or first turn), and that's what were going to do today! 

Warnings

Before getting to the lands themselves, a couple of warnings. First and most importantly, guessing decks by Turn 1 land drops is more art than science. Unlike Standard, where there are a handful of heavily played decks, in Modern, there are probably 30 "real" decks and a bunch more rogue decks on top of that. As such, when we try to guess an opponent's deck on Turn 1, we're basically trying to deduce the most likely deck the opponent could be playing. There's really no way of guessing a rogue deck, and it's hard to guess lower tier decks unless it has some unique Turn 1 plays. Because of this, the guess we make is malleable rather than firm, and as we get more information (as our opponent plays more cards), we keep updating the guess until we finally figure it out. 

Second, and just as important, knowing the opponent's deck is only valuable if you also know the cards that are likely to be in the deck and the game plan of the deck. The real value of figuring out an opponent's deck quickly is that most tier decks are similar, so once you figure out the opponent is playing Death's Shadow (for example), if you know what cards are commonly played with Death's Shadow, you know what you will need to play around and how best to attack your opponent's strategy.

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In the case of Death's Shadow specifically, one of the best examples of this is Stubborn Denial. For example, on Turn 1, the opponent plays a fetch land, fetches an untapped Blood Crypt, cycles Street Wraith, and then casts Thoughtseize. The opponent is almost certainly on Death's Shadow. You play a fetch land and pass, leaving up Fatal Push. On Turn 2, your opponent plays another fetch, shocks themselves down to 10 with a fetched Watery Grave, and plays a 3/3 Death's Shadow with Blood Crypt mana. While it might be tempting to immediately Fatal Push the Death's Shadow to use your mana efficiently, this leaves you open to the Force Spike mode of Stubborn Denial, so it might be better to untap, play a land, and then Fatal Push with mana to pay for Stubborn Denial (although even this plan isn't a guaranteed kill, since the opponent could have another Street Wraith to lose two more life and make Death's Shadow a 5/5, moving Stubborn Denial from a Force Spike to a Negate).

In the example above, when the opponent fetches an untapped  Blood Crypt and casts Thoughtseize, odds are in favor of the deck being Death's Shadow (although there are still other possibilities, like Jund or even some RB Graveyard deck like Goryo's Vengeance or Hollow One). Once the opponent cycles Street Wraith, we are close to 100% sure our opponent is playing Death's Shadow, since apart from Living End (which can't play Thoughtseize), no non-Death's Shadow decks in Modern have this start. This is the "how" of guessing an opponent's deck on Turn 1. On the other hand, if you aren't familiar enough with how Death's Shadow decks in Modern work, you might not realize that Stubborn Denial is a huge concern. Basically, this is a really long-winded example of why guessing decks is only as valuable as your knowledge of the decks in Modern allows it to be, so if you plan to start trying to figure out your opponent's decks on Turn 1, make sure to also spend some time studying the most popular decks in Modern so that the knowledge will have real value and help you win games, rather than just being a fun novelty. 

Easy Lands

Tron

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Let's start off with some of the easiest lands to guess. Let's say your opponent plays a Turn 1 Tron piece; can you guess which deck they are playing? That's right, it's Tron! Hooray! Seriously though, when an opponent plays a Tron land on Turn 1, the main thing to figure out if if they are playing Eldrazi Tron or traditional Tron. If the opponent simply plays a Tron land and passes, my assumption is that they are on Eldrazi Tron until they prove differently because traditional Tron actually has a ton of one-mana plays in Chromatic Sphere, Chromatic Star, and Expedition Map, while Eldrazi Tron only has Expedition Map and maybe a one-of Basilisk Collar

Temples

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Almost as easy as Tron is a Turn 1 Temple. Apart from random budget builds and maybe some really strange tier-three decks, the only deck that regularly plays Temples is Ad Nauseam. So, if the opponent starts on Temple of Enlightenment or Temple of Deceit, it's close to 100% they are looking to combo you off with Angel's Grace and Ad Nauseam. As for how this actually impacts your choices, if you are on the draw, you should probably hold onto your discard. If your opponent has Lotus Bloom, they will have already suspended it, and apart from a stray Pentad Prism, Ad Nauseam can't really do anything impactful on Turn 2, so it's often better to let your opponent cast some cantrips on Turn 2 to look for combo pieces and then play your Thoughtseizes and Inquisition of Kozilek on your Turn 2 to try taking the combo pieces they just drew into.

Cavern of Souls / Unclaimed Territory

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Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory are cheat cards when it comes to figuring out your opponent's deck because your opponent literally has to tell your what deck they are playing by naming a creature type. Typically, this will be either Merfolk or Humans, but Eldrazi Tron usually plays a couple of Cavern of Souls as well; plus, there are a ton of lesser-played tribes that could be using the five-color tribal lands as well. 

Inkmoth Nexus

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Technically, two decks play Inkmoth NexusAffinity and Infect—but it's actually super easy to identify which deck the opponent is on, because if the opponent is playing Affinity, the Inkmoth Nexus will almost certainly be followed by other cheap artifacts, which Infect doesn't play. If the opponent plays Inkmoth Nexus and passes, things are a bit harder because something has gone wrong for the opponent. They either have a horrible (and probably unkeepable) Affinity hand, or they have a bad Infect hand (and are planning on attacking with Inkmoth Nexus on Turn 2, or at least want to make this a possibility). Thankfully, this situation is pretty rare because most of the time, if the opponent's hand is that bad, they will have mulliganed it away because Affinity almost never goes "land, pass" on Turn 1, and Infect rarely wants to lead on Inkmoth Nexus (it usually wants colored mana for a one-drop or cantrip). 

Celestial Colonnade

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Our last easy land is Celestial Colonnade. If our opponent plays a Celestial Colonnade on Turn 1, they are almost assuredly on some sort of UWx Control deck, since these are the only decks that commonly play the creatureland. On the other hand, figuring out the exact build is pretty much impossible without more information. In these situations, I tend to assume it is the most popular UWx build at the moment (right now, Jeskai Control followed by straight UW Control) until our opponent plays some more cards and we can figure it out for sure. The good news is that UW and Jeskai are similar enough that even narrowing it down to one of those two decks still gives us a lot of information, since they share a lot of cards and have a similar game plan.

 

Medium Lands

Shock Lands

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Shock lands in general are fun because they show up in a lot of different decks, which makes guessing our opponent's deck based on something like a Turn 1 Stomping Ground a challenge. Here, we need to not just look at what land our opponent played but how they played it.

For example, let's say our opponent played a tapped Stomping Ground. There are several tier decks that play Stomping Ground (Burn, Titan Shift, Jund, Dredge, Ponza, and more), so what should we think about Turn 1 Stomping Ground tapped, pass the turn? Personally, I would be pretty confident that our opponent is playing Titan Shift because Titan Shift is by far the most likely Stomping Ground deck to not have a Turn 1 play, while it is much less likely that Burn, Dredge, or Ponza would do nothing on Turn 1. Meanwhile Jund is less likely to lead on a tapped Stomping Ground (since they typically want to lead on black mana and cast a discard spell on Turn 1, and if they are going to take a turn off for a tapped land, it's much more likely to be a creatureland like Raging Ravine). So, even though Stomping Ground is in a ton of decks, if it comes down tapped, it's likely to be Titan Shift (although this is certainly not a guarantee). 

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What if it comes down untapped? Then, our opponent is probably making another play, which allows us to figure out the deck. For example, if they play a Faithless Looting, it's likely Dredge (although we can get even more information from what our opponent discards—if it's a Griselbrand, it's probably a spicy reanimator brew; if it's a Vengevine, they are playing a Hollow One deck). Arbor Elf or Utopia Sprawl would signal Ponza, and a Lava Spike to the face or Goblin Guide / Monastery Swiftspear would mean Burn.

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Since all of the shock lands see a lot of play in the format, rather than giving them each their own heading, let's run down the list real quick, along with a short breakdown of what to think about then they come down on turn one.

  • Steam Vents: If Steam Vents comes into play tapped, the best Turn 1 guess is a control deck like Jeskai. If it comes into play untapped, the follow-up is important. If the Turn 1 play is Serum Visions, there are several possibilities (control, Storm, a Through the Breach deck, or even a Delver of Secrets deck). On the other hand, if the Turn 1 play is Sleight of Hand, it's almost certainly Storm, since none of the other decks play the cantrip.
  • Hallowed Fountain: If the opponent plays Hallowed Fountain tapped, it's typically UW or Jeskai Control. While other decks (like Humans and sometimes Dredge) play a copy of the land, they are unlikely to play it on Turn 1, since it's mostly to facilitate splash colors. The exception would be Hallowed Fountain untapped into Aether Vial, which would be a pretty clear sign of Humans, although a rogue deck like UW Taxes would also be a possibility.
  • Sacred Foundry: If Sacred Foundry is played tapped, it's almost always Jeskai Control. If it's played untapped and followed up by a burn spell or one-drop creature, it's typically Burn, although be warned: Mardu Pyromancer is somewhat popular in Modern at the moment, and its Turn 1 plays can look a lot like Burn.
  • Temple Garden: [Temple Garden]] is the shock land that is most likely to be played untapped, which means we usually have two pieces of information to work with on Turn 1 (unless our opponent has a bad hand and plays a tapped Temple Garden, in which case we are pretty much in the dark). Temple Garden into Noble Hierarch is one of the most common openings, and this would signal either Humans or a Collected Company deck, but there really isn't a way to know for sure until we see our opponent's next play. Temple Garden untapped into a hexproof creature means it's Bogles, and we might as well scoop up our cards because we didn't build our deck with Bogles in mind. As for tapped Temple Garden, it could mean Abzan midrange, but much like Jund, Abzan typically wants to lead on a black land to cast a discard spell on Turn 1.
  • Watery Grave: At this point, whenever I see a Watery Grave, I assume a Death's Shadow is likely to follow in the next turn or two. Out of the 78 Modern decks with Watery Grave in the MTGGoldfish database, 60 are Death's Shadow decks, so if you just always guess Death's Shadow, you'll be right more than 75% of the time.
  • Blood Crypt: Most commonly, Blood Crypt shows up in Death's Shadow decks, but it isn't as clear cut as with Watery Grave, since there are also several lower-tier decks that play the shock land, including various graveyard-based decks (Faithless Looting is a giveaway for Dredge, Hollow One, or Goryo's Vengeance, depending on what the opponent discards), while Jund is another possibility, although Jund isn't all that heavily played at the moment. If the opponent plays a Blood Crypt into Thoughtseize, it's probably best to assume Death's Shadow until proven wrong.
  • Overgrown Tomb: Overgrown Tomb is one of the less popular shock lands at the moment and also one of the hardest to make sense of. Overgrown Tomb untapped into a discard spell like Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek could mean Jund, Abzan, or a Death's Shadow deck, which means we are often waiting until Turn 2 to have a good guess at what our opponent is up to. On the other hand, Overgrown Tomb into Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch is almost always some sort of Collected Company deck. 

Eldrazi Temple

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There are basically two decks that play Eldrazi Temple: Eldrazi Tron and Eldrazi and Taxes. Narrowing down the build based on a Turn 1 Eldrazi Temple is actually a bit tricky. It's certainly Eldrazi and Taxes if the opponent follows up the Eldrazi Temple by playing an Aether Vial, since Eldrazi Tron doesn't play Aether Vial, but it's harder to guess if the opponent just plays Eldrazi Temple and passes. 

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If you dig into the lists, the best guess is Eldrazi Tron, but not by much. The reason for this guess is that Eldrazi and Taxes plays four Tidehollow Sculler in the main deck, which means it often wants to get different colors of mana on Turn 2, which Eldrazi Temple can't help produce. On the other hand, it could be that it is Eldrazi and Taxes but the opponent has a Thought-Knot Seer in hand and is hoping to draw another Eldrazi Temple (or, god forbid, already has one) for the Turn 2 Thought-Knot Seer. The other reason to lean toward Eldrazi and Taxes in this situation is because Eldrazi Tron is often hoping to luck into Turn 3 Tron, and you can't luck into Turn 3Tron if you play an Eldrazi Temple on Turn 1.

Hard Lands

Fetch Lands

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Fetch lands are some of the hardest lands to glean information from on Turn 1, in part because they are so heavily played and in part because they can search up so many different colors of mana (which is especially problematic since people occasionally play sub-optimal fetches as a way to make their decks a bit more budget friendly, which makes guessing even harder). As a general rule, if an opponent simply plays a fetch land and passes, it's not worth guessing because you'll probably be wrong. You can somewhat narrow down the possibilities with the help of the fetch lands' colors, but even this isn't that reliable, since people play off-color fetch lands pretty regularly. 

With this in mind, what we're actually looking for with fetches is the lands that they fetch up. Is our opponent searching out basic lands instead of shock lands? This could be a sign they are playing Blood Moon. Did they fetch an untapped shock for no apparent reason? They are probably trying to lose life for Death's Shadow. In theory, you can also get some information from the color combination of the fetches and shocks (for example, an Arid Mesa searching up a Blood Crypt makes you think Mardu), but this is complicated by the budget-fetch problem we talked about before. Mostly, though, fetches are just a vehicle to get shock lands, so the real analysis starts after we see the shock land that is fetched up, after which breaking down the information looks much like the shock land analysis we had a few minutes ago.

Fast Lands

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How much information we can get from a fast land varies in part by the specific land that's being played, although it's worth pointing out that the primary reason people play the fast lands in Modern is to have free untapped mana on Turns 1 and 2, which means fast lands are often followed by some sort of one-mana play to narrow down our options. Right now, six of the 10 fast lands see significant play in Modern, so let's take a minute to talk about what each of these lands tells us.

Other Top 50 Lands

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While there are simply too many lands and decks to break down every possibility in one article, MTGGoldfish keeps a handy list of the 50 most popular lands in the format, and there are a few that we haven't talked about yet. Here are some quick hitters on what to think about when you see any of these lands on Turn 1.

  • Ghost Quarter / Field of Ruin on Turn 1 doesn't really tell you much, other than the opponent likely having a bad (or at least risky) hand. I can't think of a single deck in Modern that actually wants either of these lands to be their Turn 1 play, which means the opponent potentially is land light. The other possibility is they are trying to hide information from you by playing a colorless land on Turn 1.
  • Horizon Canopy is another land that doesn't often come down on Turn 1 unless the opponent is light on lands, since paying a life each turn to add colored mana adds up quickly. It's also hard to glean much information from a Turn 1 Horizon Canopy (unless it's followed by another play) because a wide range of decks play it as a one-of for value. The most popular homes are Humans or Counters Company, but in theory, just about any GW deck can run a copy of Horizon Canopy
  • Spire of Industry means the opponent is playing either Lantern Control or Affinity. You should be able to tell by the end of the first turn based on the opponent's follow-up plays.
  • Darksteel Citadel and Blinkmoth Nexus are only played in Affinity, so if you see either come down on Turn 1, expect a flood of cheap artifact creatures to follow shortly thereafter.
  • Ancient Ziggurat is only played in Humans.
  • Glimmervoid can mean Affinity or Lantern Control. The follow-up artifact usually gives it away.
  • Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle doesn't come down on Turn 1 all that often, but when you see it, you should expect Primeval Titan and Scapeshift. While there are other older builds of Scapeshift as well, at this point, Titan Shift is by far the most popular of the Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks.
  • Wastes is almost exclusively played in Eldrazi Tron as a way to not lose to Blood Moon.
  • Shambling Vent is a difficult Turn 1 play to break down, since entering the battlefield tapped means the opponent is unlikely to have a follow up. The most popular home for the creatureland is Abzan, followed by Eldrazi & Taxes, although there are several lesser-played decks that take advantage of it as well, including Gideon decks and Smallpox builds.

Wrap-Up

As you can see, it's rare that the land the opponent plays on Turn 1 gives you perfect information about what deck they are playing. The good news is that it's also rare that it tells you nothing at all. The trick is to make the best guess you can based on the information you are given and then update that guess card by card until you are relatively certain you know what your opponent is playing. Then, it's all about using this information to your advantage. 

As we talked about in the intro, knowing what deck your opponent is playing is only helpful if you know what cards are in that deck, so here's what I do to learn a new format. I jump onto Magic Online and start playing matches. Over the first couple of turns, I challenge myself to use the information the opponent gives me to try to guess the deck they are playing, and once I feel pretty confident that I figured it out, I head over to the MTGGoldfish metagame page and try to find a similar list. You'd be amazed at how many of the people you run into in leagues are playing a card-for-card version of a known list, and even if they have made some changes, the changes are often small in number. 

While having a card-for-card list pulled up while you're playing against someone might sound like cheating, as far as I can tell, this is simply one of the disadvantages of playing a metagame deck card for card. Plus, while winning the match is great, the main goal isn't to win the match but to learn the ins and outs of Modern deck lists, so eventually when you see Turn 1 fetch land into shock land into cycle Street Wraith and Thoughtseize, not only will you know the archetype your opponent is playing (Death's Shadow) but you will also be able to name off nearly all of the cards that are in the most common build of the deck. 

In a format like Modern, building up this pool of knowledge about the format is essential to being successful. There are so many powerful decks that can either literally or essentially end the game over the first few turns that knowing your opponent's plan and how to stop it are the key to the format. Knowing that you need to untap and play a land before casting the Fatal Push on the Death's Shadow to play around Stubborn Denial often is the difference between winning or losing the game, and that game is often the difference between winning and losing the match, and that match is often the difference between making the Top 8 and ending up in 13th place. 

Especially in Modern, information is power, and the opponent gives away a ton of information every game, starting on Turn 1 with the land that they play. Our job is to do all that we can to take advantage of the information our opponents give us.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


More on MTGGoldfish ...

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