In last week's article, I considered a Death's Shadow Zoo variant that gave up some speed for Modern's most efficient interactive spells. The question at the heart of that project: what does a deck gain from leaning further towards interaction or linearity, in relation to the overall metagame?
Even obviously linear decks like Infect and Affinity run some amount of disruption in their decks (Dismember, Galvanic Blast, and Spellskite all spring to mind). As streamlined kill-machines, these decks want to pack the smallest amount of interaction possible so they can focus on their own proactive gameplans. But striking a perfect balance can prove difficult. This week, we'll explore how decks decide on a degree of interaction by examining Modern's metagame parameters.
What Are Metagame Parameters?
Just as the existence of Lightning Bolt largely determines benchmark creature playability, metagame parameters are the strategic limits imposed by a format's upper tier that determine deck playability. For example, durdly decks rarely survive in Modern, since they lose to Tron. Decks that skimp on removal don't get past Infect. Those relying too heavily on creature synergies struggle against Jund.
Combined, these limiting deckbuilding guidelines forge the blueprint for Modern's metagame parameters. While it's impossible to build a deck that beats everything (or at least one that will survive Wizards' diversity-minded banlist), keeping these parameters in mind helps deckbuilders tune and brew successfully.
Modern's metagame parameters force decks to be proactive, interactive, and consistent. Overwhelmingly proactive decks can afford to give up some interaction or consistency, and the same holds true for the other two qualifiers. But most Modern decks attempt to solder the three together. The rest of this article reviews these three primary components of successful Modern decks individually.
The aggro-aligned component, proactivity refers to a strategy's ability to pressure opponents. Linear aggro decks like Burn and Affinity exemplify proactivity in Modern.
Relation to Other Components
Highly proactive decks generally put interactivity on the chopping block before any other component, as they plan on winning before interactive opponents can stabilize the game. As such, trading resources with opponents plays right into the enemy's plan. Death's Shadow Zoo is a great example of a deck so proactive it hardly needs to play any disruption. Outside of a set of Thoughtseize and a pair of Lightning Bolts, the deck doesn't run any mainboard interaction. Why worry about disrupting turn-four combos when you're goldfishing turn-three victories?
The Price of Inaction
For not being proactive enough, Modern reserves nothing but punishment. The biggest feaster on the format's overly interactive decks is Tron. Decks that don't want to win until Turn 10 have a really hard time beating Karn Liberated after Karn Liberated.
Case study: Jeskai Control had trouble putting up numbers in Modern until Nahiri, the Harbinger was released. Nahiri interacts very well with Modern's many midrange decks, but she also plugs a crucial hole against Tron, allowing Jeskai to turn the corner on the fourth turn by ticking up its new planeswalker. Nahiri's ultimate allowed the deck to beat Tron as early as turn six without making an attack during the early game. This ability to suddenly turn the corner was also integral to Splinter Twin's success in the format. Twin's out-of-nothing wincon was two turns faster than Nahiri's, and yielded immense success.
Burn is another deck that punishes Modern players for not being proactive enough. All the Terminates and Thoughtseizes in the world won't save interactive players from a few Lava Spikes off the top of their opponents' decks. Strategies with reach have the option of transitioning to a burn-'em-out plan potent at defeating opponents who took too long to land a threat.
Red Deck Wins might best showcase this strategy, but Snapcaster Mage decks also wield it well. Against opponents who refuse to put bodies on the board, URx can drop Bolt-Snap-Bolt as early as turn three and start attacking with the blue Wizard. Against these decks, too, stabilizing the board won't always lead to a victory.
Infect and Affinity also boast pseudo-reach effects. Giving Infect too much time often results in the deck's animation of Inkmoth Nexus, followed up with a few pump spells and protection in Vines of Vastwood, Spell Pierce, and Apostle's Blessing, and a lethal swing. Even removal-stocked decks need to put the beats on Infect to prevent these scenarios from occurring. Besides running actual reach in Galvanic Blast, Affinity can topdeck Cranial Plating or Arcbound Ravager and fly over locked-down boards with a creatureland. Etched Champion's "protection from all colors" clause even lets Affinity break through beefy fliers.
When given enough time, these highly proactive decks will find a window to win against overly reactive opponents. They can have trouble executing this sort of plan against proactive opponents, though. With something like Wild Nacatl putting a clock on the linear decks, they have considerably less time to draw outs to interaction.
- Highly proactive decks: Tron, Infect, Burn, Affinity, Bant Eldrazi, Death's Shadow Zoo, Dredge
- Relatively proactive decks: Jund, Merfolk
- Minimally proactive decks: Jeskai Nahiri
Modern's Top 10 is overwhelmingly proactive, demonstrating the speed and linearity of the format. Since proactive decks often require opponents to be proactive to beat them, highly reactive strategies tend to perform poorly in such fields. For instance, Esper Control is a deck with lots of interaction and consistency, and even less proactivity than Jeskai Nahiri. I don't think it's a coincidence that it sees very little success in Modern, a format full of decks that punish players for not being proactive.
The control-aligned component, interaction refers to a strategy's ability to disrupt opponents. Even aggro decks sometimes choose to interact a little. The most successful of these decks is Jund. Between Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant, the BGx tyrant is proactive enough for most of Modern, committing threats to the board as of turn two. The reason this slower deck exists alongside blazing piles like Gruul Zoo is its excellent disruption---Jund interacts very efficiently as of turn one, using spells like Inquisition of Kozilek, Lightning Bolt, Abrupt Decay, and Liliana of the Veil to throw opponents off and open the way for two-for-ones aplenty.
Relation to Other Components
Highly interactive decks must give up either proactivity or consistency to function well. Jund sacrifices consistency, hoping to draw its bombs off the top and preserving the ability to play proactive games against linear opponents with its two-drop threats. Jeskai Nahiri turns the corner much later, but makes up for this loss of proactivity with added consistency from Serum Visions and other draw spells.
Since Modern is a turn-four format, many linear decks are built to win on turn four. Proactive decks that aim to win later than that need to start adding interaction. The longer after turn four they aim to win, the more disruption they'll need. And the more disruption they include, the less room they'll have for consistency pieces. This tension was palpable in my project from last week and forms the central dilemma for anyone brewing lategame proactive decks in Modern.
The Answer Problem
Reactive spells are more situational than proactive ones. Slamming Wild Nacatl will always be good for a Zoo deck. For Jeskai, though, Spell Snare is likely to be dead sometimes. Similarly, Remand might be great against Karn Liberated, but it's not so hot versus Signal Pest. Inquisition of Kozilek shines in the Burn matchup and embarrasses against RG Valakut.
Interacting well with a highly aggressive field means giving up some points against big mana. Jund isn't quite proactive enough to put a respectable clock on Tron, which walks all over the Tarmogoyf deck. Like Tron and Burn, Modern's linear combo decks (i.e. Ad Nauseam, Grishoalbrand) excel at going over non-blue interactive strategies like Jund. "Interactive," yeah, but not in the right way for this particular matchup. This problem of answers is the main issue with playing a highly interactive deck in Modern.
Notably, Delver decks perform admirably against Tron and against linear combo. Ryan Overturf solved the midrange problem of not being proactive enough for the Tron matchup by integrating Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration into his Grixis deck to impressive success. Given Delver's high proactivity, interactivity, and consistency, I expect we'll see more of the little guy in the near future should Modern remain so linear.
- Highly interactive decks: Jund, Jeskai Nahiri
- Relatively interactive decks: Merfolk, Bant Eldrazi
- Minimally interactive decks: Affinity, Infect, Burn, Dredge, Death’s Shadow Zoo, Tron
As decks goldfish kills later in the game, they usually move up in interaction. In terms of brewing parameters, a deck that definitely won't win until turn six, such as Temur Scapeshift, needs plenty of interaction to make it in Modern, explaining why that deck is loaded with removal and counterspells.
Proactivity and interactivity exist at opposite ends of an axis. Consistency, then, might prove a more contentious inclusion in this piece. The combo-aligned component, consistency refers to a strategy's ability to access the necessary parts of a deck when they're most needed. It means different things to different decks, and each archetype achieves it in a unique way. But ensuring a deck's consistency is often crucial to succeeding in Modern.
Paths to Consistency
Eldrazi decks used to get their dreaded consistency through redundancy by playing eight Sol lands (or more, if we count Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth). Post-Eye of Ugin ban, it gets it by cantripping with Ancient Stirrings, but also by splashing Noble Hierarch. Playing four mini-Dig Through Times isn't enough to ensure an early Thought-Knot Seer. The addition of mana dorks makes the deck's mana development far more consistent.
Modern decks lacking consistency in Modern are punished by interactive decks. Jund is the primary offender here, although Bolt-Snap-Bolt decks also pose a threat. Any less-than-competent strategy can be easily dismantled by Thoughtseize effects. The same goes for synergy-based creature decks that don't have much consistency.
Those that do include Merfolk with its ton of lords, Elves with a super-dork in Heritage Druid and access to Collected Company, and Company decks in general with dork redundancy in Wall of Roots, a grind game with Kitchen Finks, and various combo finishes. Those that don't include underrepresented archetypes like Allies, Slivers, and Kithkin. These fringe decks lack the consistency to make it in Modern compared with other synergy-based archetypes.
Relation to Other Components
Consistency through redundancy is the preferred method of achieving consistency, since we don't have to invest any time or cards; it just "happens." You know, like with Eye of Ugin. Except Modern's card pool doesn't have enough redundant pieces of staple spells for that plan to be viable for most decks. Not every strategy has access to eight Slippery Bogles and 10 Spider Umbras. The next best way to achieve consistency is to add digging spells.
In my mind, Serum Visions, Modern's premier consistency tool, is one of the three best cards in the format (behind Tarmogoyf and of course Lightning Bolt) despite being much worse than Ponder and Preordain. Ancient Stirrings has recently catapulted itself into banlist conversations for the huge consistency boost it grants Eldrazi and Tron.
While powerful, these cards tax players' tempo, or time. If you're spending your turn casting Serum Visions, you're not spending it impacting the board (or, being proactive). Ideally, Visions helps get to spells that interact (or proact) efficiently enough to make up for this initial tempo loss.
- Highly consistent decks: Burn, Jeskai Nahiri
- Relatively consistent decks: Jund, Infect, Bant Eldrazi, Merfolk, Tron
- Minimally consistent decks: Affinity, Dredge, Death’s Shadow Zoo
While very powerful, Affinity, Dredge, and Death's Shadow Zoo all struggle to recover after opponents deal with their initial assault (respectively via Ancient Grudge, Tormod's Crypt, or Path to Exile). They also mulligan aggressively because they lack consistency. All three of these decks provide great examples of strategies strong enough even with a lackluster hand to not have to lean heavily on consistency.
The Best Decks In Modern
While looking over my Metagame Context sections above, you may have noticed some decks
stay closer to the top of the lists than others. Jund is a highly interactive, relatively proactive, relatively consistent deck. Bant Eldrazi is a highly proactive, relatively interactive, relatively consistent deck. These two decks specialize in a component each (respectively, interaction and proactivity), but don’t do so at the cost of giving up too much of the other two. The ability to maintain all components while perfecting one makes them some of the best decks in the format.
Prospective deckbuilders must acknowledge Modern’s metagame parameters and adjust their strategies so they are either proactive, interactive, or consistent enough to tangle with the format’s top dogs. I have more to say on the subject, but we’ll leave that for another article. Until then, don’t forget your Lightning Bolts---no matter what component you’re playing for!