Modern Masters is the greatest limited environment ever printed by Wizards of the Coast
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Modern Masters is the greatest limited environment ever printed by Wizards of the Coast. When I say this, I mean that it has more depth and replayability than the best of the best, edging out even triple Innistrad and triple M11. First I am going to talk about what makes the format so fantastic, and then I’m going to explain how and why Modern Masters should be a blueprint for the future of limited.
Synergy: Modern Masters is full of synergies. There are the obvious ones, like rebels being good with rebel searchers, affinity for artifacts being good with artifacts, and suspend being good with storm. There are less obvious ones like rebel searchers being good in giants because of Avian Changeling, Etherium Sculptor or affinity for artifacts being good in Storm decks because of cheap/free storm. Beyond these macro deck plans, there are also myriads of tiny synergies: Stinkweed Imp filling your graveyard to power up Death Denied, Test of Faith with modular, Pestermite with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, or any of hundreds of two card combinations. I think this last part can’t be emphasized enough: so many of the cards do neat little things with others of the cards. It’s like a paradise for the Johnny in all of us. This happens in every set, but if feels like it’s happening much, much more in this one.
The reason Modern Masters has so many card synergies is twofold: card versatility, and density of meaningful cards. When I talk about card versatility, let’s look at the common white trick Otherworldly Journey. In many sets there is a white instant that will save a creature from doom. This card plays that role, but it also plays several others. White, red, blue, and black all have creatures, mostly at uncommon, with enters the battlefield abilities. This card slot, which usually is just a “save my creature” now offers additional value when blinking any of those value creatures. Likewise, since a creature will come back with a +1/+1 counter, the card will also work quite well with modular creatures. Finally, the spell is an arcane instant, so it has synergy with Horobi’s Whisper, Glacial Ray, and Torrent of Stone. That’s a lot of work for a slot that is usually filled with a simple no-frills card! I would bet that if a web were drawn between all the cards that have synergies with each other, it would be denser in Modern Masters than any other set.
Not only are the cards interacting with each other more than usual, but there are more cards with meaningful roles to play in the limited environment. Historically every set has its Hunters’ Feasts, its Tome Scours, and its Blood Tithes – cards that are considered to be virtually unplayable in limited, but take up space in the set. Modern Masters gets around this both because it appears to have gotten a partial pass on the rule that each color must have a certain number of chaff cards, and also because traditionally poor cards have been enhanced to be far more useful. Hunters’ Feast becomes Sylvan Bounty, an important color fixer. Not only does this move the card into the playable range, but now games have more strategic depth because an effect type that is not usually played (life gain) is now a possibility. I definitely have a lot of fun stories about being blown out and blowing people out with an instant speed 8 point life swing! Only in MMA have I seriously considered playing that kind of effect. Likewise, Tome Scour becomes Dampen Thought, a feared archetype unto itself; and Blood Tithe becomes Syphon Life, a role-player I’ve seen used in dredge and faerie strategies. The proportion of playable cards is much higher, and since every playable card potentially has interactions with other cards, this exponentially increases the number of synergies possible in the set.
Archetypes: There are the obvious ten archetypes that are scripted for each color pairing (Affinity, Ramp, Storm, Giants, Faeries, Goblins, Arcane, Thallids, Rebels, and Dredge). However, every color has a multitude of decks that do not follow this script. For example, looking at Izzet colors I can think of Suspend-Storm, Tempo (Aethersnipe, Stingscourger, Pestermite, etc., plus burn), Affinity, Affinity-Storm, Counter-Burn, Domain (Traumatic Visions and/or FIery Fall centric), on top of average “good stuff” decks. Counting Arcane, that’s 9 good archetypes in just one color pairing. I don’t know that they’re all that rich, and I don’t know that they’re not, but if you extrapolate 10 color pairings that’s around 90 major strategies to structure a deck around. (I’ll assume Shard and Wedge strategies are super sets of their included colors strategies, and don’t open any new doors.)
By comparison, let’s look at a recent format with a lot of play to it: DGM – GTC – RTR (the full Return to Ravnica block.) Decks tend to be either defined by a guild or a pair of guilds with a shared color, with each shard or wedge being a superset of the archetypes of the two guilds it combines. Not all guilds play well with each other, but let’s ignore that for the moment. Let’s take an example of Simic/Dimir-Golgari. Major archetypes are “graveyard matters”, “evasion matters”, and “+1/+1 counters matter”. There are a total of 10 shards/wedges, so if they each have similar number of archetypes we’re looking at about 30 archetypes in the format. That’s about a third of the ballpark of Modern Masters.
The source of this huge difference is the number of synergies in the set. Two cards that work well together are a tactic, or move in the game. “I’ll suspend Search for Tomorrow turn 1, suspend Rift Bolt on turn 2, and cast Empty the Warrens on turn 3″ is a tactical plan. It sees interactions between a few cards, and seeks ways to maximize their value. A lot of tactics that work well together comprise a strategy: on overarching game plan for a deck. “I’ll draft lots of tokens and mass pump effects” or “I’m going to play inexpensive creatures to get my opponent’s life total down and use burn spells as reach” are both strategies (and effective ones at that). Because there are exponentially more tactics available in Modern Masters, they can be combined in a larger number of permutations to make even more strategies than are normally seen in a set.
Deep Drafting: In Modern Masters, there are so many playable cards that you can do things that are not normally possible in limited magic. Conventional wisdom is to take the most powerful card out of the first three picks, assess a color signal based on card quality in picks 4-5, and then move in on the colors that are open. In Modern Masters it is possible to delay considerably longer before choosing an archetype or color pairing to move in on. For example, I have abandoned my first draft plan as late as pick 20 (pack 2, pick 5) and still put together a pod winning deck. Having more time to read and make use of signals to identify where to position yourself makes drafting more interesting, challenging, and rewards skill more than normal.
Likewise, in Modern Masters picks can be used defensively: either to draft important sideboard cards or to take a card that would power up a deck too much. When you have 30+ playables at the end of the draft, a number of those picks were “wasted”, and could be doing more for your win percentage. Thus, taking niche cards like Ethersworn Canonist or Chalice of the Void to hate on Storm or Arcane can be a better pick than a playable card. I have also happily taken a Grinning Ignus or Tromp the Domains going around too late knowing they can be unbeatable in the right decks, and that I don’t need to a card in the pack for my deck as badly. (Not that I don’t run Tromp in pretty much every deck I can.) A player very deep in the format can get a sense for which archetypes are and are not being drafted, and as such gets even better at knowing which cards are worth cutting, and which cards can be passed (even if they are very powerful). This is a skill which gets used a little in team drafts, but seems far more pronounced in Modern Masters.
The final bit of depth to the draft, and perhaps the most exciting, is the ability to draft 1.5 decks. A player can wind up with so many playables, that they can extensively reposition their deck in the metagame. Playing a very slow controlling opponent? Chop down your curve, board in your 1 and 2 drops, and get in their face. Playing a midrange opponent? Go bigger than them, splash some blue, and board in those Petals of Insight. One of the most fun and skill testing elements of limited Magic play is good sideboarding. Regular drafts afford a few options, but Modern Masters often offers the ability to substantially transform.
Conclusion: Max McCall, Erik Lauer, Aaron Forsythe, Ryan Spain, and Shawn Main did an amazing thing when they made Modern Masters. Despite working with disparate mechanics from a variety of sets, they used inter- and intra- set synergies to stitch together what feels like an incredibly well assembled limited format. It feels like they got to flex their collective design muscles, and show us just what an amazing limited set can be made when there are few constraints on what kinds of cards can be included. William Jensen said he’d be happy playing this set for the rest of his life, Ben Stark said he’d be happy if every event for the rest of the year was MMA, and pretty much every limited enthusiast I’ve talked to seems to love the set.
There’s something to be learned here. Modern Masters has done something different from previous limited sets, and it’s worth analyzing and emulating in the future. Sure, boosters have many audiences they need to please, but to the extent that they are made to be used for limited, they must be able to move in a direction more like Modern Masters. Choosing card effects that create more interaction potential (like choosing blink over protection) creates a lot more potential plays and tactics in a set. This increase in tactics, coupled with a decrease in the number of “dead”, “unplayable”, “skill tester” cards increases the overall number of strategies in the format. These effects are exponential, every little bit counts, and every card that is playable creates more interactions and playable cards.
Give players more viable tactics, give players more viable strategies and I bet they will buy more packs, play more limited, have more fun while doing it, and there will be a deeper space in which competitive players might vie with each other.
I’d love it if there were a discussion in the comments about Modern Masters and the future of Limited. What’s your opinion?
In two weeks I’ll be back and talk about type 2. If you have requests, drop a letter in the mailbag (email@example.com) and I’ll do my best to get to it. Until then, happy gaming!