Three Rules for Modern Success
There is always a way to gain an edge. That has kind of been a silent motto of mine for the past few years. I'm not talking about edges in the traditional sense of the word. I'm not saying you should try to angle shoot your opponent or rules lawyer your way into a win. That's not how I like to play.
The edges I refer to are in deck choice and card choice within those decks. A common complaint about Modern is that you can't metagame properly and that there is a lot of variance both within game and in what matchups you face. Where others see flaws and frustration, I see ways to gain an advantage. Modern, like any other format, has general rules that govern what kinds of decks and strategies consistently put up good performances. There are guidelines that exist for how you should go about picking a deck and how that deck should be built and played. Matches are constantly lost by failing to understand these rules. No matter how much variance there is and no matter how much you have to play the matchup lottery, you will still win way more matches by picking good decks, building them correctly and playing them correctly. There are many players who consistently have good win percentages in Modern. Luck is a poor explanation for this phenomenon.
A lot of players that dislike Modern are also the same kinds of players who blankly look at the format as a jumbled unordered mess of random decks and don't have a great grasp of what makes a deck good in Modern. They make poor deck selections, fail with those decks and never come to understand why they are failing. I was that player once. I sometimes still am that player. It took innumerable hours of relentlessly grinding the format for me to start to understand a little bit of how the format works and why I was failing so much before. Modern may be high variance, but it still follows a pattern. Others have come to these conclusions way faster than I ever did, but I'm just glad I eventually did.
#1: Don't Play Fair
You could also call this section the “Please, for your own sake, don't ever play a midrange deck unless you truly hate yourself.”
Modern is just way too broad of a format to justify trying to play some midrange strategy that hopes to answer whatever your opponent is doing. When I say broad, I don't just mean that there are a lot of different decks, I mean that there is a huge range in terms of the types of strategies that exist and they attack from wildly different areas. When you play a deck like Jund, you have to deal with decks that require immediate creature removal, decks that easily grind through creature removal, decks without creatures at all, decks that go over the top of you, decks that go under you, decks that ignore you, decks that use the graveyard, decks that use the stack, decks that lock you out of the game, decks that cheat monsters into play, decks that kill you with lands, decks that cheat on mana and play 10-mana cards, etc. It's just not possible to build your deck to answer all of these problems, game one or after sideboard. If instead, you play a proactive deck of your own, you at least give yourself the chance to ignore what your opponent is doing some percentage of the time if what you're doing is more powerful, more resilient, faster or invalidates their strategy.
Trying to play a fair, reactive deck in Modern simply doesn't work in the long run. There is just too much to ever answer. If you're addicted to playing a midrange deck, at least play something like Death's Shadow that can play a one-mana 10/10. Death's Shadow is even a deck I would say is borderline too fair, but it at least has many unfair elements, and can end the game fast enough to go toe-to-toe with some of the unfair decks.
Even decks like White-Blue Control, surprisingly a quite good deck choice in Modern right now, have started to pick up in success recently, thanks to unfair elements. Search for Azcanta is dirty. The fact that Search for Azcanta has single-handedly reinvigorated an entire archetype in Legacy speaks to how powerful and unfair it can be. Spreading Seas and Field of Ruin do not play fair against a lot of decks in the format. Cryptic Command is a universal answer to essentially every single problem you would face. These decks are loaded up with answers, but their answers are widely applicable and they also put a lot of pressure on the opponent to end the game quickly before cards like Search for Azcanta create too much advantage or cards like Spreading Seas and Field of Ruin constrict their options too much. It is no surprise to me that Search for Azcanta has been a catalyst for a resurgence in control, because Search for Azcanta doesn't play nice.
Choosing not to play fair even extends beyond just not playing midrange decks. There are a lot of decks like Merfolk, Bant Eldrazi, non-combo Collected Company decks, Eldrazi and Taxes, and so forth that have unfair elements but really toe the line when it comes to whether they do enough unfair things to compete with the rest of the format. These decks are playable options, yes, but they are ultimately just trying to win with a pile of creatures, and that might be a bit too vanilla for consistent Modern success.
I'm even thinking about changing my mana base in Lantern Control because I've been breaking my own rule. I'm playing (Inventor's) Fair, when I should be playing Inventor's Unfair, instead, once they finally get around to printing it. Ball's in your court, WotC.
#2: Choose Power over Versatility
Even beyond simply choosing a deck that doesn't play fair, Modern rewards card choices within that deck that also don't play fair.
Oftentimes, people play low-impact cards in their sideboard or even main deck because they have some value against a wide swath of decks and that versatility is highly valued. Versatility is extremely valuable, and a great skill in Modern is finding cards that accomplish the same goal as another card while having more widespread application. The problem comes when you sacrifice too much power for versatility.
Whenever possible, play the most powerful cards. I apply this to both Modern and Legacy, but it especially rings true in Modern. If my deck can support Blood Moon, I am going to play Blood Moon. If my deck can support Rest in Peace, I will be playing Rest in Peace. If Leyline of Sanctity makes sense for my strategy, it will be in my sideboard. My white decks are going to have Stony Silence or Kataki, War's Wage or both. You can bet your bottom dollar that my red-green deck is going to be fueled by the centuries of hatred Ancient Grudge has generated. I love cards like Night of Souls' Betrayal or Izzet Staticaster or Dispel. These are cards that can swing a game. Sometimes these kinds of cards are clunky and it may seem appealing to play a card like Relic of Progenitus over Rest in Peace, for example, because it is more versatile, has wider application, maybe has less anti-synergy with your own deck, but I think that is very often incorrect.
Your opponents will be playing decks with powerful cards. Don't try to weasel your way around their powerful cards by trying to get in where you can with your sideboard full of 6/10s. Sure, you may win some games where you get to upgrade your removal spell to a slightly better removal spell, but there are going to be so many more games where you lose because your cards just aren't impactful enough. Instead, play 8/10s or 10/10s in your sideboard, even if they come in slightly less often. Play your own haymakers and make them sweat whether you have it or not. Make them just lose if they aren't ready for it.
Too often, I think people metagame themselves away from playing the best cards or into choosing bad decks. I see arguments like “I don't think X is that good in the metagame right now, I'd rather play Y, which is less powerful but better against the expected metagame.” The problem with these lines of thoughts is that metagaming just does not work very well in Modern. There are well over 20 viable decks in the format, and even if you somehow reason that a strategy is going to be “heavily played” at an upcoming event, that reasoning is never more than educated guesswork and “heavily played” might mean at most 10% of the metagame, which is a drop in the bucket. You might never play against that deck.
Instead, just play the best cards, even if you don't think they are well-positioned. I might say “I don't think Affinity or Lantern Control is going to be very popular at this event,” but that doesn't mean I'm going to take Stony Silence out of my sideboard to metagame against some other deck. Heavens no. What if I'm wrong? I thought Affinity was poorly positioned going into GP Vegas last summer and it put three copies into the Top 8. The night before the event I was thinking of skimping on Ceremonious Rejection, thinking Affinity and Eldrazi Tron wouldn't see much play. I overslept the next morning and didn't have time to change my decklist, and I'm glad of it, because I would have made my deck worse trying to hedge my bets instead of just sticking to the tried and true hateful cards of the format.
I think heavily invested players fall victim to this more than anything else. Those players want to get that extra edge. They want to be one step ahead. They want to be on the next level of metagaming. The problem is, they are looking for edges in the wrong place. You cannot gain many edges from metagaming unless you get pretty lucky. The edges come instead from playing the most powerful decks with unfair elements, and by playing the most powerful cards in your deck instead of trying to win with the weaker options that give you more play. I don't want more play, I want to restrict my opponent's play. That's how you win in Modern.
Check out this deck that won the last Open. This is a fair deck, and its sideboard is full of versatile cards. This, on the surface, looks like the antithesis of what I'm saying here, but I don't actually think that this is true at all. Search for Azcanta is not a fair card. That card creates enough advantage to bury almost every deck in the format. It snowballs quickly out of control. This deck would almost certainly not have won the event without Search for Azcanta existing. Search for Azcanta is only a fair card if you also consider Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top fair. Azcanta creates the same kind of snowball card advantage as CB/Top did.
Even the sideboard, while versatile, does not sacrifice power for its versatility. Runed Halo is the perfect example of a powerful sideboard card. It completely nullifies cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle for two mana that you can pay upfront. It also Thwarts a lot of combo decks and can even be valuable against fair decks with low threat counts, like Death's Shadow. This is the kind of card that you slam into play and your opponent thinks to themselves “I didn't plan for that, and I'm just dead now.” Another example where the sideboard embraces power is more Dispels than Negates. Negate is a more versatile card, it can come in for way more matchups, but Dispel is way more powerful in the matchups where you actually care about it. It doesn't surprise me that this deck won. It is very well-built.
#3: Invest Time into Decks That Play to Your Strengths
There are a lot of articles out there that tell you to broaden your range as a player. Learn how to play strategies you're not typically known for playing to be a stronger, more well-rounded player. I've written that advice myself. It is good advice. Playing decks you aren't comfortable with will help you both understand how to fight those kinds of decks in the future and teach you skills you wouldn't learn elsewhere.
Unfortunately, right now, I'm telling you to completely ignore that advice if your goal is to be a more successful Modern player. Modern gameplay success heavily relies on an intimate knowledge of your own deck, how to pilot it optimally and how to sideboard against each and every deck. There are a lot of viable options of what deck you can play, so the easiest route to Modern success is to pick one of those powerful decks that suits your skills and preferred playstyle and then master that deck.
I would not recommend choosing a deck as your Modern deck unless you feel confident you will enjoy it and have the skills needed to master it, because I think there is a huge amount of value in sticking with the same deck over and over again to become a master of the archetype.
It is not a surprise to me that many professionals hate Modern, because I think this is another area where highly invested players are more likely to fail. Highly invested players like to swap decks week after week to try to get ahead of the field. That doesn't give those players enough time to master a deck, which is very important to Modern success. I watch great players play Modern all the time with decks that they don't intimately know. They make mistakes in sideboarding, mistakes in identifying the opponent's strategy and mistakes in identifying their own role in the matchup. I have done this myself, numerous times, and failed many times by playing decks I didn't know in events. These players are skilled enough to be able to move from deck to deck in other formats and play them at a high level, not realizing that it is far more difficult to do this in Modern than basically any other format.
It's easy to pick up a deck, fail with it and then say “This deck sucks. Every deck in Modern sucks. I can't win with anything. This format is too high-variance for me.” That is a natural reaction for players who are used to winning in other formats with their raw talents. Thankfully, I am used to losing in every format I play, so I managed to eventually get over this. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a deck, struggled a lot with it, and then kept grinding away with it only to find myself win more and more and more with it as I realize how poorly I had been piloting the deck originally.
Even beyond just putting in the high amount of necessary practice to master a deck I think it is also important to pick a deck that fits your skillset as a Magic player. For example, I have put a ton of time into Grixis Death's Shadow. I put enough time into that deck to where I should have been a master of the archetype, but I simply was not. I am just not great at playing that kind of deck. I've done way better with Lantern Control, a deck I more intuitively understand, even if Lantern Control is a worse deck than Grixis Death's Shadow. The power level of decks is so close in Modern that it's better to play a deck that fits your style even if there are arguably better decks out there. That's not usually the case in other formats.
If you look at historically great Modern players, they nearly all have one thing in common: they are known for playing a specific archetype. To me, this is no coincidence. Modern rewards that kind of dedication in ways that a format like Standard rarely has.
- Brian Braun-Duin