Food for Thought: Grand Prix Prague & the Evolution of Modern

October 26, 2017

Pierre Dagen

Works as a buisness consultant in the field of public health.

Likes: Magic, Contemporary Arts, Electro Music, Travelling in the Middle East, Tennis, Kick Boxing, Drinking, Poker, Series.

In magic, played in 4 PT, got three GP top 16 and 1 top8
2nd Pro Tour Dublin 2013

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Hi guys,
For this article, I would like to discuss where modern is at and where it might go, not only in terms of strategy but also in terms of sheer enjoyment. See, I like playing Modern a lot, and I feel like it is a very well balanced, diverse format. Still, one must admit that it did not evolve as much as it should have this past year and I read a lot of high-profile players stating their concerns about how Pro Tour: Born of the Gods was not going to be as exciting as Pro Tour: Theros due to the lack of room for innovation in Modern. Let’s try to tell truth from the tale.

I-What happened in Prague?

I think GP Prague is a great illustration of where Modern is at right now. The top 8 was made of:
• Patriot midrange, i.e a blue-white-red deck that keeps the opponent’s plans in check via burn spells and countermagic while bashing his face with Geist of Saint-Traft, all the while making a little bit of value with cantrips like Electrolyze and Snapcaster Mage
• 4 jund-ish decks that try to attack their opponent’s resources via discard and removal while grinding as much value as possible, courtesy of Scavenging Ooze, Liliana of the Veil or Dark Confidant. Interestingly, most of those decks are moving away from red to gain access to white for Lingering Souls, another testament to the power of value in Modern.
• Tempo twin, the very deck that went all the way in Antwerp and that has become the standard version since then. Even though the deck has the potential to combo out via the namesake combo, it is designed to play out very much like the aforementioned Patriot Midrange deck via Grim Lavamancer and his friends and is definitely not your traditional all-in combo deck.
• U/R Delver, probably the newest deck in that top 8, which is the much more aggressive version of Patriot Midrange, relying much more on tempo and cheap threats like Young Pyromancer
• RG Tron. Now, this one is actually the closest thing to a combo deck that you can see here. All it does is assemble the Tron + expensive threats like Karn liberated and starts playing a totally unfair game until you die.

As for myself, I was playing this list of Kiki-pod that took me to a 13th place finish (12-3):


3 Arid Mesa
1 Breeding Pool
1 Clifftop Retreat
1 Forest
2 Gavony Township
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
1 Hallowed Fountain
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Plains
1 Rugged Prairie
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden


4 Birds of Paradise
1 Cunning Sparkmage
2 Deceiver Exarch
1 Fauna Shaman
1 Glen Elendra Archmage
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
3 Kitchen Finks
1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
1 Murderous Redcap
4 Noble Hierarch
1 Phantasmal Image
1 Qasali Pridemage
3 Restoration Angel
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Spellskite
2 Voice of Resurgence
1 Wall of Roots
1 Zealous Conscripts


4 Birthing Pod
2 Domri Rade


1 Avalanche Riders
1 Aven Mindcensor
1 Fiery Justice
1 Harmonic Sliver
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
2 Negate
1 Obstinate Baloth
3 Path to Exile
1 Sigarda, Host of Herons
1 Tarmogoyf
1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
1 Voice of Resurgence


Yes, I know, I can combo. I even did it a few times. But you know what I really liked about the deck? How good it was at not comboing. Playing Voice of resurgence, Kitchen Finks, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Birthing Pod means that you stand at the top of the food chain in terms of value. The sideboard plan in every fair match-up (and I count Tempo Twin as a fair match-up) was to side out some pieces of the combo (like one Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and one Deceiver Exarch) to go even further down value alley. Even though the sideboard was lacking (that Sigarda, Host of heron was really underwhelming against giant Scavenging Oozes and my list felt super soft to scapeshift), the deck worked great and compensated for my lack of experience during day 2. I even managed to win a match against my True-name Nemesis, Jeremy Dezani, who still made yet another top 8 – he is more machine than human at this point.

II-Modern today

Why am I telling you those things? Well, because I think that Modern has finally shown its true colors. Looking at the top 8, you might be under the impression that there are a bunch of different decks. You would be right, but thinking in terms of strategies, they are almost identical.
Except for RG Tron, all the top 8 decks in Prague rely on the same principles: very cheap spells, a few powerful threats, some permission, and a LOT of value. In other words, it is Midrange at its best. And that is the most important takeaway from GP Prague: Modern is the most midrange format of all, by a wide margin. Even the traditional combo decks have evolved towards a much more midrange version, as evidenced by Dickmann’s Tempo Twin or by the recent appearance of Blade Splicer in some Kiki-Pod decklists.
Right now, the top 4 decks in Modern are Junk/Jund, Red/Blue tempo builds (which is quite a large spectrum, from U/R Delver to Patriot Midrange), Tempo Twin and the Pod decks (Melira and Kiki fall into the same category in that regard). I am well aware that Affinity also appears in massive number, but it had a miserable showing in Prague.
So, we have a format where success comes in midrange. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Actually, I think the midrange VS midrange match-ups are the most entertaining and skill-testing, and I had an absolute blast playing against multiple Junk and Patriot decks in Prague. If you are willing to play a midrange deck, you will enjoy Modern a lot.
But what if you do not? What if you want to do something else? Well, do not get me wrong: there are plenty of non-midrange decks available. Let me just list the most important ones:
• Affinity
• R/G Tron
• Burn
• Scapeshift
• Living End
• Boggles
• Infect
You can go even further down crazy lane with things like Instant Reanimator (Goryo’s Vengeance + Griselbrand), Hive Mind, Through the Breach (along with Emrakul) or even Dredgevine (even though now might be the absolute worst time to try it).
All those decks have the potential to win games, and most of them proved it with a few good finishes in recent memory. But just like the top 4 decks, they all have one thing in common: they are gimmicky decks. I mean that they have a very linear strategy, trying to do their own very special things. This is not necessarily a weakness, because that thing is immensely powerful and because lots of people enjoy playing these kind of decks. But it has three consequences:
• All those “gimmick” decks are very much like combo decks, in the sense that they will crush you if you do not stop them but are not very likely to do anything remotely good if you do.
• They are one-trick poneys, meaning that they will usually fall apart if faced with a dedicated sideboard. Scapeshift is an exception to this rule, and by far the most resilient of those decks.
• Unlike the midrange ones, those decks tend to have a lot of one-sided match-up between them (Infect is a 90% favorite against R/G Tron, Boggles is very unlikely to ever win a game against Living End, and so on). Once again, it does not necessarily make them bad decks, since the great match-ups compensate for the terrible ones, but it creates a negative feeling that your tournament comes down to a Russian roulette game during the pairings: there is not much you can do if you are paired against the wrong opponent, no matter how well you play.
As a result, those decks will perform following the metagame cycles. More importantly, even though one of them will almost always shine in a given event (it was R/G Tron in Prague, Living End in Antwerp…) those “gimmick decks” as a whole perform way worse than the midrange decks.
In conclusion, Modern features a lot of exciting decks, which is a great thing. Nevertheless, it suffers from three major issues:
• You can only choose between two kinds of strategies: either a midrange/value decks, or a gimmicky/combo decks. Trying a traditional aggro or control approach has proven to be a weaker option.
• The play experience is absolutely great when you opt for a midrange deck, but it can easily become frustrating if you go for anything else – you become way too match-up dependant.
• Modern does not evolve as much as it should: the current strategies all existed a few years ago, and they are so powerful that it is very hard for a new card to effectively shift things.

III- Modern tomorrow

I think all of those problems need solving, and I am pretty sure Wizards will do something in the next update of the modern banlist. Still, everyone should remember that Modern is a very good, deep format and does not need a huge shift. Actually, I think all three issues I mentioned are dependant and can be solved rather easily, without any need for drastic measures.
Basically, the whole issue lies in the absence of a traditional aggro deck and a traditional combo deck. This is responsible for:
• Some players being unable to play an archetype that fits their style if they still want to fight on par with the rest of the field
• A lot of players (every non-midrange player, actually) having to resort to cheesy, gimmicky decks. Not that I think those decks should not be, they are part of an entertaining format and Wizards has done a great job of keeping them balanced since the combo feast that was PT: Philadelphia (I remember the coverage of Vincent Lemoine’s top 8 win-and-in, that went like “on the play, Vincent tapped his two lands for a signet during his second turn. Then, he died”). But the fact that they are so numerous due to lack of other options makes it much more likely that you will spend all day playing one-sided match-ups, a very real play experience flaw you do not usually face when playing midrange
• Modern being kind of stranded right now: since the midrange decks do not need any kind of plan against pure aggro or pure control, they can devote their main decks to the “mirror” and have everything in their sideboard to stifle any attempt at an original strategy. For example, take a look at Jeremy Dezani’s sideboard in the top 8 of GP: Prague

3 Aven Mindcensor
2 Kataki, War’s Wage
1 Seal of Primordium
2 Spellskite
2 Stony Silence
1 Thoughtseize
2 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Torpor Orb


Now this is absolutely insane. Fourteen of those sideboards cards are dedicated to combo decks, with only one of them targeting Control builds and literally nothing against aggro decks. With so much room for specific hate, it is too easy for midrange decks to adapt to any novelty. But what if Jeremy needed to run 3 Thrun, the Last Troll, 4 Path to Exile and a bunch of Kitchen Finks

You get my point: bringing traditional aggro and control back in the mix would be sufficient to solve about every problem about Modern as it is, making it as attractive to non-midrange players as it is to me. So, how do we do that?

IV- Bans and unbans

First of all, I do not think any card deserves a ban right now. I mean, what are the reason for banning a card in the first place?
• It is just too strong to play anything else: It is pretty clear that there is no far and away “best deck” (even though I would strongly recommend that you play Birthing Pod if you like winning…), and so I do not think any card crushes the format right now
• It has become too much of a staple, you absolutely have to play it if you play that color: Here, both Deathrite Shaman and Dark Confidant are close to the line. Still, Deathrite Shaman is getting weaker now that Scavenging Ooze is everywhere, and Dark Confidant is not played in a deck like Melira Pod that could easily cast him
• It ruins the fun of the game (something like Sensei’s Divining Top making the games take ages): The game is really fun to play right now, so…
• It makes some other strategies unplayable: To completely forbid a strategy, a card needs to be played very heavily. Here, the only relevant case is the Deathrite Shaman / Scavenging Ooze duo preying heavily on graveyard-based strategy. That is the second appearance of Deathrite Shaman in that list, and it tends to tell me that if you really wanted to ban a card, he should be the one. But in my opinion, this is just about keeping the game fair: graveyard strategies still show up every now and then (we have seen Instant Reanimator and Living End in the feature tables this week-end, and Snapcaster Mage still sees a decent amount of play), they are just not too broken.
So, how about unbanning a few cards? Here is the current banlist, sorted by categories:

Cards that have proven way too powerful in the past:

Ancient Den
Blazing Shoal
Glimpse of Nature
Dread Return
Golgari Grave-Troll
Great Furnace
Stoneforge Mystic
Rite of Flame
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales
Vault of Whispers
Chrome Mox
Dark Depths
Seething Song


Note: even though I do not necessarily agree with the presence of Chrome Mox, Ponder, Dark Depth or Seething Song here, I do think that is how Wizards see them and that they will remain banned forever

Cards that forbid too many strategies:

Mental Misstep
Umezawa’s Jitte
Punishing Fire


Note: Mental Misstep and Punishing Fire are self-explanatory. Regarding Umezawa’s Jitte, the main issue is that every creature mirror would be become a “who draws Jitte first?” contest.

Cards that made the game less fun to play:

Sensei’s Divining Top
Second Sunrise


Note: None of those cards is that broken, but they tend to make every single round go to time, resulting in major delays for the players.

Other cards:

Ancestral Vision
Bloodbraid Elf
Green Sun’s Zenith
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sword of the Meek
Wild Nacatl


Now, let us discuss how those other cards (the only ones that I can imagine being unbanned in the foreseeable future) would serve my idea of giving aggro and control a chance in Modern.
Ancestral Vision: Definitely a good tool for control, even though it does not work well with Snapcaster Mage. The card is powerful but has literally never been too powerful, even in standard. The potential for abuse exists due to the cascade spells, but honestly, I do not see how that deck could be any good when Living End is only decent. A good option to make control playable, even though I am not entirely sure it would help all that much.
Bitterblossom: Even though that could help an aggro deck rise, it obviously serves Faeries very well and would make for an even more midrange metagame. Also, given how everyone plays only cheap spells, the combination of Bitterblossom + Spellstutter Sprite is very close to abuse. Finally, Faeries is the kind of deck that makes a lot of other strategies unplayable. Definitely not the way to go.
Bloodbraid Elf: Not much to say here. The card is not even that broken, but giving another tool to a deck that is already tier 1 seems pointless.
Green Sun’s Zenith: Definitely a card I love, but I do not see how it helps either traditional aggro or traditional control: giving a new tool to midrange and combo decks is not what we should be looking for.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: Yeah, I said it. Unbanning Jace is at least worth considering: the four mana cost is a huge liability in Modern, and Jace by itself is not even as powerful as the less expensive Birthing Pod. Historically, Jace the Mind Sculptor has not been dominant in the former extended format, and the Faeries list back then usually did not even bother playing it. Still, Jace poses two threats: first, there is a very real risk for abuse, mostly due to the presence of miracles from Avacyn Restored, which is especially true in a midrange metagame. Second, card availability would probably become a major issue if the card was actually good (which it would obviously be, do not get me wrong), which should be enough to restrain Wizard from giving it a try.
Sword of the Meek: This one is a bit tricky, but I think it is a good option. I know I said I want to make control better, so why unban a key piece of Sword of the Meek + Thopter Foundry combo? Well, it is simple: because that combo also requires a bunch of lands and a bunch of turns to really win the game. As such, I see it much more like a way for control to win the long games. And in my humble opinion, this is exactly what control is lacking right now: the cheap threats that midrange players have are so good that there is absolutely no reason to design a game plan aiming at casting some game-ending threats like Cruel Ultimatum. In other words, the reward for controlling the early game correctly while developing your mana is just too small, and you should resort to playing those exact same cheap threats that you try to control – just like Patriot Midrange does. After all, Baneslayer Angel is not that much better than Scavenging Ooze… so, why bother? Giving control decks access to such a powerful engine would change things, and I think it would likely create a legitimate control deck. And for those of you worrying about that combo being overpowered, remember that Abprupt Decay, Thoughtseize and Scavenging Ooze all handle it with ease – not to mention that it flat out loses to every other “real combo” in the format.

Wild Nacatl: I have found that most players do not even understand why Wild Nacatl is banned in the first place. The reason here was that it had become a staple for aggro: if you wanted to play aggro, you had to play Wild Nacatl. While I can see how that would be an issue in a different configuration, the fact that there are no real aggro decks available right now (Affinity is more of a combo deck, and it would remain a perfectly playable deck with Wild Nacatl around anyway) makes that reasoning quite vain. Zoo has been an interesting, perfectly balanced deck of most old formats for a long time and I do not see players complaining if Wizards gave it one more ride.
So, all in all, I think unbanning both Sword of the Meek and Wild Nacatl, possibly but not necessarily along with Ancestral Vision, would be more than enough to give modern a new start and make PT: Born of the Gods as fun as everyone expects it to be. If that does not happen, I will just keep midranging the hell out of my opponents and I advise you to do the same – that is, unless a new powerhouse card comes in and turns things around. What do you think?

Until next time,

Pierre Dagen

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