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The Modern Dilemma


As I watched the utter domination of Eldrazi at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, I found myself asking, "What would I tell a new player about getting into competitive Modern?" The reason this thought popped into my head were the Eldrazi themselves. Could I, in good conscience, tell someone to spend $900 on the deck, knowing full well that a banning at some point in the next year is a possibility, if not probable? Is it fair to tell them to buy a deck that might be good against Eldrazi knowing that its best matchup may be on the chopping block? Or should I tell them to buy some tier three deck that couldn't possibly compete with Eldrazi? As you can see, there as several possible answers, but none of them feel great. 

Then I thought, "Maybe this is just a temporary Eldrazi problem." The solution is to tell people to wait a few months before doing anything. But something else kept nagging at the back of my mind. It's not like the Splinter Twin banning was a new idea, rather it is the norm in Modern. Several people have pointed out that every deck to win a Modern Pro Tour, with the exception of Jeskai (UWR) Control, has gotten a key piece banned within a year. Jeskai Control basically banned itself by being horrible in the evolved metagame. As a result Modern is a format constantly in flux. 

Then I realized that maybe I'm looking at Modern wrong. When I hear "non-rotating," a term used to describe Modern, along with Legacy and Vintage, I think "safe." You can save up your money, buy an expensive deck, and have it be playable for many years. For me, these traits define a non-rotating format. But maybe Modern is non-rotating in name only, and instead of being like Legacy and Vintage, we should look at it like a strange Standard format where tiered decks cost between $1000 and $2000 dollars, but have a shelf life of two years. 

Today we are going to explore the Modern metagame over the past few years, specifically looking at the lifespan of top tier decks in hopes of answering the question, "What do you tell a new player about getting into competitive Modern?" 

January 2013

Modern, January 2013
Deck Percent of Meta, January 2013 Percent of Meta, Today
GBx (splash white) 22.26 8.54
Pod 12.86 banned
UW(r) Control 9.59 1.07
UR Twin 7.29 banned
Storm 5.76 1.19
Totals 57.76 10.8

January 2013, three years ago, is the earliest metagame sweep I could find in the way back machine, so it will serve as a starting point for our look at Modern. Of the top five decks of the day, only one is still thriving today (GBx). Even in this case, GBx's percentage of the metagame has decreased significantly. Meanwhile, two of the decks have been banned from the format (Pod and Twin), while UW(r) Control and UR Storm barely make a dent in the current meta. 

If you had bought a tier one deck back in 2013, you'd have a 20% chance that it would still be good today. You'd have a 40% chance that your deck would have been banned outright. To summarize, if you had bought a tier one Modern deck in January 2013, you'd have to get extremely lucky to still  have a tier one deck today. 

February 2014

Modern, February 2014
Deck Percent of Meta, January 2013 Percent of Meta, February 2014 Percent of Meta, Today
Pod 12.86 11.11 banned
Affinity 3.84 9.96 11.39
UWR Control 9.59 8.05 1.07
Twin 7.29 6.90 banned
GBx 22.26 5.75 8.54
Tron n/a 5.70 4.27
Storm 5.76 n/a  
Totals 57.76 46.66 25.27

The story of 2014 is similar to the year before. GBx came back down to earth due to the banning of Deathrite Shaman, but Jund is still a tier one deck. Affinity makes a huge jump. After not even making our 2013 list it shoots up to the second most played deck in the format behind Pod. Tron also enters the fray, jumping from tier three to over five percent of the meta. 

UWR Control is interesting. While we already talked about how it isn't a deck anymore, UWR was deck in 2014. If you had invested in 2013 you would have an entire year with a tier one deck. However, all five of the decks we talked about in 2013 are less playable in 2014, dropping from 58% of the meta to 41% of the meta. Your cards would be less playable a year later, although not significantly so. 

Anyway, assuming you bought into one of the six tier one Modern decks in February 2014, you'd have a 33% chance that your deck is more playable today than it was back then (if you picked GBx or Affinity). You'd have a 17% chance your deck is about the same (Tron), a 17% percent chance your deck still exists but is bad (UWR Control), and a 33% chance your deck is banned outright. That means if you picked a random tier one deck two years ago, you'd have a 50/50 chance that it would still be a tier one deck today.

January 2015

Modern, January 2015
Deck Percent of Meta, January 2013 Percent of Meta, February 2014 Percent Meta, January 2015 Percent of Meta, Today
Pod 12.86 11.11 16.5 banned
Delver n/a n/a 14.13 banned
Affinity 3.84 9.96 4.74 11.39
Jeskai Ascendancy n/a n/a 4.38 banned
Bogles n/a n/a 4.01 1.38
Merfolk n/a 3.28 4.38 4.03
UWR Control 9.59 8.05 n/a 1.07
Twin 7.29 6.90 6.2 banned
GBx 22.26 5.75 4.91 8.54
Tron n/a 5.70 n/a 4.27
Storm 5.76 n/a n/a 1.19

Right now you might be wondering what this data means. First off I should clarify that "n/a" either means the deck did not exist at all, or in such a small percentage that it didn't fall among the top 12 most played decks in the format. Second, take a peak at this chart which shows the metagame percentages of all the decks we've been discussing over the past three years. Hopefully it will clear some things up and provide a fairly stunning visualization of the modern dilemma. 

Just in case it isn't clear looking at the chart, 9 of the 11 tier one decks dropped all the way off the chart, either because of bannings or due to shifts in the metagame. The only decks to remain somewhat consistent through the entire period are GBx (despite a banning) and Affinity (which has thus far avoided bannings). Otherwise, in just three years, almost every tier one deck has been both near the top of the format and completely unplayable. 

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Now, you might be wondering, where's the delimma? Decks come and go, what's the problem? The problem is we are talking about Modern, a non-rotating format. A format where the average deck price has been consistently increasing. A format where, buying one of the top six decks in the format would cost you between $876 and over $2000. The point of a non-rotating format is that you'll be able to use your cards forever with some amount of safety. If you bought a tier one Legacy deck two years ago, you would have picked between Death and Taxes, Stoneblade, Shardless Bug, Miracles, and Delver. If you look at those decks today, three are still at the top of the metagame, while Death and Taxes and Stoneblade still post tournament results. Even better, none of these decks are banned. All the decks are still playable, and more than half are still very good. 

In Modern, over 80% of top tier decks either ended up banned or unplayable during our three year window. You can't simply save up your money, punk down $1000-$2000 on a tier one deck of your choice, and play competitive Magic forever. That's just not how Modern works.

Come to think of it, Modern looks a lot like a rotating format. The average competitive lifespan of a Modern deck is around two years, which just so happens to be the traditional lifespan of a Standard deck, before the rotation schedule changed to 18 months. Sure, you could get lucky and pick Jund or Affinity and beat the odds, but chances are you are going to spend your hard earned money on UWR Control, Delver, Pod, or Twin. 

Rotation works in Standard for two reasons. First, we know it's coming, so we can prepare. If you get caught holding Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged cards in April, you have no one to blame but yourself. Second, even at current inflated prices, Standard decks are cheaper than Modern decks, ranging from $324 to $740 for the top six decks in the format. A Standard deck only costs one-third of buying a Modern deck. Spending $500 on 18 months of entertainment is justifiable for quite a few people; spending $2000 for two years of entertainment is not.

Rotation doesn't work for Modern because it is typically enforced by bannings. Predicting bans is in the best case guesswork. In the worst case it's like playing the lottery. As such, we can't prepare for Modern rotation like we can in Standard. Just ask the player who bought into Pod last December and Twin this December, or players that bought decks that were good against Pod or Twin. More importantly, rotation doesn't work in Modern because the decks are so expensive. If you are going to spend $1500 on a deck, you want to know you are going to be able to play that deck for years, like Miracles, Shardless Bug, or Delver in Legacy. Unfortunately, that isn't how Modern works. To buy a tier deck, you need to spend Legacy-like money, but do so knowing your deck has a Standard-esque lifespan.

What's the Answer?

Let's bring things back around to the question that started it all, "What would I tell a new player about getting into competitive Modern?" I'm not sure there is a good answer. You can try to pick a less-expensive tier two deck and hope it breaks out, but your odds are slim. Chance are you'll wind up with a tier three deck that isn't very competitive over the long haul. You can pick a tier one deck, but your odds aren't much better that it will have a lifespan of longer than two years and your initial investment is much higher. If things don't work out your bank account takes a bigger hit. As such, I can't give you one deck you should buy, but I do have three options for you.

1. Don't Play Competitive Modern

I'm not going to tell you to stay away from Modern all together, because the format can be super fun. The card pool is large enough that there is a ton of room for brewing, and it is possible to build a pet deck that can perform well, maybe not "win a Grand Prix" well, but certainly "win my FNM" well. Maybe the solution is to use Standard to get your competitive juices flowing, and play Modern for fun with brews or budget decks. You might not win all that much, but at least you aren't going to lose a house payment because of a unforeseeable banning or shift in the meta. 

2. Build the Best Tier Three Deck You Can Afford, and Practice Like Crazy

The benefit of building a lower tier deck is two-fold. First, you don't really have to worry about it getting banned — unless you pick Storm. Wizards tends to ban Storm cards willy-nilly. Second, how much worse can it get, it's already tier three. We see examples all the time of players who can perform well at tournaments with odd-looking decks simply because they are really good at piloting them, and opponents don't know how to play against them. One pet example is UW Emeria. The deck is clearly in the lower tiers of Modern by any measure, but it is powerful. If you are willing to put in hours and hours of practice and learn the deck inside and out, it is good enough to reward you with a Top 8 at a SCG Tour event. I'm sure this statement is true of many other decks as well. If you are willing to outwork your opposition, you can overcome the price difference between decks and play a deck that is, more or less, ban and meta-shift proof. 

3. If You Decide to Invest in Modern, Buy Cards, Not Decks

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Assuming you insist on playing Modern competitively, the smartest way to go about it is by buying cards that you can use in many different decks. Start with the manabase. Owning 40 fetch lands and 40 shock lands is a significant investment, but regardless of what the future of Modern looks like, these cards will always retain their value. I'd start by picking up the Khans of Tarkir fetches at rotation. You can get by without the allied fetch lands without losing too many percentage points until you eventually trade/buy into the Zendikar fetches to upgrade. Plus, the Zendikar fetches will likely be reprinted before the Khans fetches. The shock lands are still near their low from their reprinting in Return to Ravnica, but sooner or later they will take off as supply continues to dry up. 

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After getting the mana, start looking for cards that fit in multiple decks, especially sideboard cards. Sooner or later you are going to need Stony Silence, Relic of Progenitus, and the like. You'll probably end up using them in many different decks. As far as main deck cards, avoid the new hotness (i.e. Eldrazi) and pick up Spellskite, Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, Serum Vision, Dismember, Birds of ParadiseNoble Hierarch, or Thoughtseize.

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Take advantage of reprintings. While you might not have needed Remand or Spellskite when Modern Masters 2015 released, think ahead and buy at lows. Even if you don't ever build a deck that uses the cards, you should be able to trade them for cards that you do need to complete your deck. Just like building a house, the best way to play Modern over the long haul is to build slowly from the ground up. Pick one deck, or even a budget version of a deck, work on building the foundation of your Modern collection, and before long you'll be amazed by how easy it is to put together most of the tier one decks, even future tier one decks that no one has heard of yet. 

Conclusion

From the perspective of the average player's bank account, Modern is a bad place to be. It combines the most expensive aspects of Standard (rotations), with the most expensive aspect of Legacy (high-cost). It's a format that is really difficult to recommend to new players without a lot of disposable income. If you don't have the money up front, you are better off playing Standard and being aware of rotation. If you do have the money up front, you are better off taking advantage of the safety of Legacy. Right now, Modern is in a strange place, too expensive for new players, and too risky for veterans who know how the financial aspect of the game works. 

Hopefully, Modern's state will change in the future. More, smarter reprints could drive the cost of the initial investment down to the point where "rotation" wouldn't hurt so much. Or Wizards could take a more hands-off approach to managing the format and make it truly non-rotating, which would make spending a significant amount of cash to buy a tier deck less risky. Either one would work, but something needs to be done before Modern becomes inaccessible or unappealing to the average player.

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think about the current state of Modern? Is it worth buying a tier one deck? What deck would you tell a new-to-Modern player to buy? Is there even a right answer? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, options, and suggestions in the comments. You can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 


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