Careful Study: Determining the Fairness of Modern Decks

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Fair and unfair can prove contentious terms when it comes to deck discussion, perhaps especially in Modern. This week, I’d like to expand upon some of the ways to categorize and define decks that I initially touched upon in my articles on how to tune a deck’s mainboard flex spots and sideboard to an open meta. In these articles, I differentiated between proactive and interactive decks for the purposes of determining what strategies should be employed by the decks that fell within these categories. However, after discussing these categories in some more detail, it occurred to me that the terms I used in these articles are somewhat clumsy, leading me to think on Magic terminology generally.

This article will define the terms fair and unfair in the context of Magic gameplay, and introduce a comparison scale using some of the more common decks in Modern as references. I will also touch upon the utility of categorizing decks in this manner.

Pondering Purpose

I believe that this type of assessment has two major plusses on its ledger. The first is that improving one’s theoretical understanding of the game is a way to improve at the game itself. A glance at the ranks of professional Magic players will show this is true – many among them (notably the likes of Frank Karsten and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa) understand Magic at a high level, and that aids them in their play.

Second, one of the best ways to attack a given metagame is to figure out whether the decks in it share a common thread, and play cards (or sometimes an entire deck) dedicated to a strategy that they can’t handle. Take an expected field full of midrange and control decks that care about accruing card advantage. The natural counter to that sort of deck is to go over the top and play cards that are individually too powerful for midrange to handle, such as with a big-mana deck like Gx Tron. Making these sorts of calls can make the difference between showing up at an event or placing at an event.

A practical example in which tuning your deck to be more fair or unfair can be to one's benefit is when preparing a deck like Eldrazi Tron for an event. As will be discussed later on in the article, this deck is composed of a mix of fair and unfair elements. In general, it behooves Eldrazi Tron to zig when the metagame is zagging; this means leaning harder on its unfair plan when fair decks are ascendant, and doing the opposite when unfair decks are the order of the day. These sorts of decisions can make a real difference in how useful a deck's pilot finds their flex spots to be in any given tournament.

Defining Fair and Unfair

Now that we’ve gotten our purpose defined, what categories can we use to characterize decks? Fortunately, we don’t need to lay the groundwork from scratch – many terms used to describe how a deck operates are already part of the Magic players’ lexicon. For the purposes of this article, I'll be focusing on diametrically opposed terms fair and unfair. Many perspectives have been written on this topic; however, for the purposes of this article, we will use the following definitions:

Fair – A fair deck looks to operate under the base rules of Magic. These decks generally pay full price for their spells, look to win by reducing their opponent’s life total to zero, draw one card per turn, play one land per turn, and feature lands that produce one mana.

Unfair – An unfair deck circumvents these rules. Whether it be by cheating on mana, cards, or by winning in unconventional ways, unfair decks try to do things the game typically does not allow a player to do. It's readily apparent from this definition that unfair decks tend to have characteristics that many players associate with combo decks, but this relationship does not go both ways. While it is true that virtually every combo deck contains unfair elements, not every deck that contains those elements is a combo deck.

Justice for All: A Fair to Unfair Scale

Now that we know what we’re looking for, let's dive into the fair-unfair axis. we’ll set a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a completely unfair strategy, and 10 is a completely fair one. One thing that becomes apparent when looking at Modern’s current top decks is that very few decks truly sit at either extreme; most contain fair and unfair elements. To aid us in our categorization, we will establish ranges in which certain decks can be grouped, as summarized by the following table.

Score on Scale Category Description
1-3 Unfair deck Mostly composed of unfair elements
4-5 Mostly unfair deck Contains some unfair elements, but has fair “backup plan”
6-7 Mostly fair deck Mostly fair elements, but has some unfair elements specifically intended to generate advantage
8-10 Fair deck Mostly or totally composed of fair elements

Scale Extremes

Now that our scale and ranges have been defined, we can move on to the next step, which is to define our extremes. In my opinion, the foremost example of a fair deck in this format is currently Jeskai Tempo. Here’s an example of what that deck looks like from the most recent SCG Open:

This deck generally doesn’t cheat on mana, cards, or other resources (the only semi-offender is Logic Knot, which has delve, but 2 mana is more or less the going rate for countermagic in Modern anyway). It also has no ways to win other than by reducing its opponent’s life total to 0. I give this deck a 10 on the fairness scale.

Next, let’s look at a 1. A variety of decks sprang to mind, but the one I felt best represented the playstyle was Ad Nauseam. Here’s a list that made a Top8 at a recent RPTQ:

This deck, in direct contrast to Jeskai, breaks fundamental rules of Magic left and right. It cheats on mana, cards, and other resources in order to fuel a variety of combo finishes. It has cards that outright change the circumstances in which the player loses the game, as well as multiple ways of winning the game other than reducing its opponent to 0 life.

Sorting Popular Decks

With the ends of our scale defined, we can start looking at some decklists. We’ll begin with some of the decks that have been the most popular of late, starting with Eldrazi Tron. This list is Sam Pardee's take on the archetype, courtesy of an MTGO league.

Here’s the breakdown on how this Eldrazi Tron list falls on our scale.

Unfair Elements: Changes the rules of the game (Chalice of the Void); cheats on mana (Eldrazi Temple/Urza lands)

Score: 5

Sam's deck relies heavily on Eldrazi Tron's fairer aspects, indicating that he anticipated decks would attack his unfair elements. Omitting Karn in favor of cheaper Eldrazi creatures and running Mind Stone help him play in the face of land destruction.

Next, let’s take a look at the hottest new deck on the scene in 5c Humans.

Here’s how Humans stacks up, according to our scale.

Unfair Elements: Aether Vial (cheats on mana), Dark Confidant (cheats on cards)

Score: 8

Next, let’s look at one of the pillars of the format in Affinity. This list found its way to place at the aforementioned Open:

Affinity’s rating according to our scale is the following:

Unfair Elements: Cheats on mana (Mox Opal/Springleaf Drum); wins regardless of life total (Blinkmoth Nexus); employs a combo finish (Cranial Plating/Arcbound Ravager)

Score: 5

On to one of the format’s premier interactive decks, Grixis Shadow.

Here’s how I believe Grixis Shadow stacks up according to our scale:

Unfair Elements: Cheats on mana (Gurmag Angler/Tasigur, the Golden Fang/Death's Shadow); contains a combo finish (Temur Battle Rage)

Score: 6

Last but not least, let’s take a look at the hottest combo deck in the format: Gifts Storm. This deck took down the SCG Invitational at Roanoke:

Needless to say, a dedicated combo deck like Storm is going to trend heavily towards the unfair side of things. Here’s the way I see it:

Unfair Elements: Cheats on mana (Madcap Experiment, Baral/Electromancer/rituals); employs a combo finish (storm cards); cheats on cards (Past in Flames); Platinum Emperion (changes the rules of the game)

Score: 2

Fade to Black

That’s all I have for you this time around. I expect there to be some dissent regarding some of my numerical values, and perhaps some of the criteria used to decide what constitutes a fair or an unfair deck. If so, please leave any comments below – I'd be happy to discuss rationale on this topic, and to discuss the fairness or unfairness of other decks.

11 thoughts on “Careful Study: Determining the Fairness of Modern Decks

  1. I am ok with how you breakdown what “unfair” means – cheating on mana or cards, winning in an unusual way, etc; but when it comes time to quantify decks the exercise looks completely and utterly subjective. Nothing here “proves” shadow is a 6 or storm is a 2 – they’re just numbers you picked more or less out of thin air. Reason being theres no quantification – how unfair is chalice vs tasigur? How combo is tbr vs grapeshot?

    So its got the guise of scientific method but really its just “authors assessment of how unfair some modern decks are”.

    1. Hey Darcy,

      The points about quantification are pretty solid, and perhaps something I should have discussed in the article. My general rule of thumb when formulating these ratings was to start every deck at 10 (since fair is the default state) and tick the deck down the scale based on the presence of unfair elements. In general, any individual card that I considered unfair ticked the deck down the scale 1 point, except in the case of combo finishes, which ticked the decks down 2 points. Hope that helps,

  2. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot recently. First off, I love the exercise of putting decks on a spectrum of “fairness” rather than into two broad camps. This definitely captures the nuances of the decks. Otherwise, you run into issues – Eldrazi Tron is more midrange than GB Tron, but is still at its heart a ramp deck. Trying to shove both of them into the “unfair” umbrella loses information about the difference.

    Now, I have to strongly disagree when you mention cheating on cards as a hallmark of an unfair strategy. I would argue that gaining card advantage is one of the defining points of a fair deck. Take a card like Divination. Under your definitions, including Divination in a control or midrange deck would push it towards the unfair spectrum. But incremental advantage like that is essential to fair Magic, or at the minimum, to fair reactive decks. They get ahead by drawing a card off of Dark Confidant, by flashing a spell back with Snapcaster Mage, by creating multiple tokens with Lingering Souls. Card advantage in this sense IS fair Magic.

    On the other hand, drawing twenty cards from an Ad Nauseam is certainly unfair. The difference is in the mana – fair card advantage doesn’t cheat on mana. If I were making the definitions, the only distinction I would make between fair and unfair is the mana system. There is certainly a bit of a grey area with decks that try to win in unusual ways (mostly Mill or Bogles) but I would be more likely to group them closer to the fair end of the spectrum if they aren’t cheating on mana. Mill would be an aggro deck (albeit a strange one) while Bogles comes closer to the middle – in with decks like Infect. Of course, I’m one of those people who views Burn as 100% aggro, 0% combo.

    The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the idea of cheating on mana by playing an efficient creature. Calling out Tasigur, Gurmag Angler, and Death’s Shadow as being unfair elements forces the question: What about Tarmogoyf? Is a hyperefficient creature with no abilities fundamentally breaking the mana system? My inclination would be to say no, but again it might come down to the numbers involved. A 2-mana 4/5 seems perfectly fair, if strong, while a two-mana Marit Lage would feel much closer to the unfair side of things.

    All said, I’m not really sure. It’s worth thinking about in depth, though.

    1. Agree – dark confidant and tasigur as “unfair” look kind of strange. Ive always thought of unfair being more a question of how “stoppable” the decks plan is with conventional answers. Lantern control, mill, taking turns, scapeshift, dredge to a large extent, have a huge leg up by winning without being vulnerable to creature removal.

      Of course then you have draw-go control that also blanks creature removal but is still super-fair, so its not that simple. But I do think youll find the hallmark of an unfair strategy or deck is its ability to win without multiple attack steps and/or low vulnerability to creature removal.

      That handles how unfair a deck like elves is – on one hand it is vulnerable to removal but on the other it can 1-shot you with an ezuri. E-tron actually looks fair since its creatures die to removal and it needs a bunch of attack steps to win. Gx tron is weird because it would also technically be fair – wurmcoil and ulamog die to removal and need multiple attacks – its everything else about the deck that makes it unfair.

      So yeah some things slip through that definition, maybe thats where you have the second indicator about cheating on mana (or something more generic about velocity). To catch tron – you just dont want to incidentally call birds of paradise or mind stone unfair.

    2. Hi Cory,

      You’ve hit upon two of the thornier aspects of defining fair vs. unfair. I definitely had some debate about where to draw the line on “cheating on cards” becoming fair vs. unfair. If you go too far in one direction, you end up labeling cards like Snapcaster Mage and Lingering Souls as unfair, which I think we can all agree is incorrect. However, I do think a card like Dark Confidant (which essentially gets you a redraw every turn) is an unfair source of card advantage; the reason being that once the Confidant is down, you have changed the base state of the game – you’re drawing 2 cards instead of 1 every turn, which is a change to the fundamental rules of Magic. Eventually, I decided that Past in Flames counted as unfair because it allowed you to use an entire zone’s worth of cards, and Ad Nauseam draws you the entire deck. Essentially, when evaluating a card draw effect, I asked myself “how may cards can this effect draw/give you access to?”. If the answer was “undefined”, I considered it an unfair element.

      On the point of Gurmag/Tasigur/Shadow cheating on mana, the first two I feel are pretty straightforward; the printed costs are 6-7, but they let you pay for them in ways that are not part of the fundamental rules of the game. Size of the creature aside, the fact that you can pay for the printed mana cost in an unconventional way make them unfair card in my eyes. Shadow is trickier – I ended up settling on it being unfair because while it doesn’t change the rules of the game, it changes the incentive system of the game. That might seem like a bit of a nitpick, but I believe it’s enough of a distinction that I feel comfortable labeling it as an unfair element.

      I hope that this helps explain my reasoning better. I’m fully willing to admit that this topic as I have currently defined has some judgment calls as part of it, so I’m happy to discuss it further. Thanks for reading,

      P.S.: I agree – Burn to me is just aggro, not combo. Just because burn spells aren’t as easy to interact with as creatures doesn’t mean it’s a combo deck.

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply. I’ve been wanting to talk this out with somebody for a while, but my only contact with Magic recently is teaching someone to play. It’s hard to talk about abstract theory when you’re trying to figure out how a sorcery ended up on the battlefield.

        I see your point on the delve creatures. I’ll concede you a Zombie Fish and Banana Man. I’m interested to hear your perspective on some other types of cards, though.

        First off, what’s your perspective on other cost-affecting mechanics? I’m particularly interested in categorizing cards like Silvergill Adept, where the cost isn’t necessarily being reduced, but is different for different decks.

        Also, Planeswalkers. They would seem to fall under the Dark Confidant umbrella of repeatable value, but is their drawback of being the target of attacks enough to push them into more fair territory?

        It’s always fascinating to see other perspectives on something you’ve thought way too much about.

        1. Silvergill is a tough one for me. I kind of think it’s in the same vein as something like Logic Knot, where the mechanic it’s using is technically cheating on mana, but the difference in rate is not enough to truly consider it an unfair card. I could go either way, but I’m going to say fair.

          I also think planeswalkers are fair, for the most part. I can see how repeatable value engines (and especially the planeswalker ultimates that change the rules of the game) could potentially be considered unfair, but the base concept of the planeswalker seems fair. There may be some individual planeswalkers out there that could be considered unfair, but I think that those are exceptions rather than the rule. I haven’t really considered the case of planeswalkers in a huge amount of depth, though, so I’m certainly open to debate on the topic.

  3. Interesting idea. Needs more nuance!
    You are dealing with broad strokes and chunking down from 10 to 1 like chopping wood with an axe. As a way to score things in a glance, that’s great. Ideal, even. Is there some merit to taking a more detailed approach and adding a decimal point for finer considerations?

    Some things you didn’t mention, although I’m sure you considered them:
    – mana-to-effect cost ratio for things. Simply put there’s an average ‘value’ attributed to different effects. Drawing a card, giving lifelink, destroying a creature, destroying a land, looting, being instant instead of sorcery, etc etc. Some cards break parity here and are better than an average ‘rate’. Would you agree that decks can cheat on more variables than just land or cards, and in fact a deck overloading on brutally above-the-curve effects is in some way trending towards having an unfair element. Not saying it makes something an “unfair deck” but we’re talking about a spectrum and I’m suggesting we add more granular measures of what this means.

    – 2-for-1s. Are 2 (or more)-for-1s always strictly fair? Electrolyze, lingering souls, liliana of the veil, collected company, etc. At what point does value become a part of the fairness consideration. This could get quite nuanced. I’d say serum visions is a reasonable benchmark for what we’d constitute “fair” and ancestral vision tends towards the unfair end of the spectrum.

    – Birthing pod, jace vryn’s prodigy the rack, academy ruins, sea gate wreckage, horizon canopy, raging ravine, nykthos shrine to nyx… lands (and a few spells) such as these require an exchange of resource or a specific precondition for some greater effect and notably are *repeatable*. How fair are manlands? This is an interesting question because they allow otherwise fair decks to employ less fair strategies. Repeat incremental advantage cards are numerous in this game but they don’t tend to be mentioned much when the fairness conversation pops up. The utility lands debate relating to fairness is tricky and maybe worthwhile to have. How much varied choice and utility is a card allowed to have before it starts trending towards the unfair end of the scale?

    – cryptic command; is cryptic command ultimately a fair card, or does its versatility make it a less fair card (albeit an expensive one). Pushing this further; there are other expensive cards which through their versatility can border on being unfair.

    – Contextually fair: searing blaze is, as many players will tell you, really rather good against creature decks. The context within which it’s used is also hugely important (it would be a mediocre card to put in a control deck, but the combination of shortening the clock while removing blockers/threats/combo pieces is brutal when utilised in the burn deck). Likewise also out of the burn deck we have Eidolon of the great revel. Fair? Tough question. In the right context/deck it’s brutal.

    Delving (hah) deeper I think you’ll come to see that most “unfair” elements in a deck are contextual. There’s really a lot to be said about this topic so thanks for kicking things off with a starting point.

    1. Hi Ben,

      I agree that more nuance could possibly be injected into the analysis. My goal here was to introduce my basic ideas and present a broad-strokes categorization system. We can certainly delve (heh) deeper. 🙂

      The “rate” argument was a tricky one to address for me. I decided to not address it in the context of this piece, but that was more because I wanted to strictly differentiate between “fair vs. unfair” and “underpowered vs. overpowered”, and I feel like a discussion on how much a given effect should cost bleeds over too much into the latter topic. Definitely something that should be addressed, but I think the most appropriate place would be a standalone piece.

      I agree with Serum Visions being fair vs. Ancestral Vision (and most suspend cards) being unfair. Ancestral gives you a means to circumvent casting it for its printed mana cost. I think Cryptic Command is fair, Searing Blaze is fair, Eidolon is unfair (changes the rules of the game), and manlands are fair. I’d also consider 2-for-1s like Electrolyze and Kolaghan’s Command to be fair – in fact, most fair decks require them to function.

      Birthing Pod I’d consider unfair for the same reason I do Dark Confidant – it’s a repeatable card advantage engine, and can also enable combo wins. JVP gets the fair label from me, though the line as compared to Snapcaster Mage (which is a very powerful fair card) is a little blurrier. Most ramp effects like Nykthos get the unfair label from me – if it cheats on mana, I’m probably considering it to be unfair.

      Let me know what you think of my assessments, and thanks for reading,

        1. Hi Steven,

          Most Tooth and Nail decks I’ve seen probably fall in the 3-4 range. Plan A is to cheat on mana and to try and cheat in powerful creatures, so it’s an unfair deck first and foremost, but we can’t ignore the fact that it does have a bit of a fair backup plan with midrange creature beats in the event the combo is disrupted. I’d say that the more dedicated ramp decks are probably a 3, whereas the Nykthos Devotion ones (which can sometimes close out games with random Garruks/E-Wits/Wistful Selkies) are a 4.

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