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Collecting For The Long Term: Modern Format Staples

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

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The Modern format is one of the most interesting and accessible of the non-rotating formats. There are a diversity of decks, with something to suit any playstyle, and it does not require a sizeable investment in high-dollar reserve list cards to enter the format, meaning the cost of entry is lower compared to formats like Legacy and Vintage. You can learn more about diving into the format in the article Buying Into Modern.

For those that are already into Modern, and looking to dig a little deeper into the format beyond their first deck or two, the following is a guide to Modern format staples. Note that this list is not just high dollar cards like Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, though cards like that do appear on the list. Instead, this will serve as a starting point for players looking to diversify their Modern collection with the long-term intent of having more decks in their arsenal or being able to construct whatever list they want as the metagame shifts.

Breaking Down Modern

The Modern format has over 15,000 cards in it as of the printing of Adventures In The Forgotten Realms. Any list culled from a format this expansive is going to be largely subjective, but the goal here is to use this as a starting point, or frame of reference for newer or lapsed players looking to get deeper into the format and increase the tools at their disposal.

The list is separated by color, with colorless/artifacts sharing a category, non-basic lands, and multi-colored cards rounding out the list. Only a few of the most staple multi-colored cards will be listed, and not each of the ten color pairs will be represented. If there's interest, a full guide to multi-color Modern staples could be a future article by itself.

To make this list, I started by looking at MTGTop8's list of the top cards played in Modern. I then organized top picks in each color, and broke them down into three categories, with one card of each color representing a given category. The categories provide context for understanding why cards are staples in the Modern format, and what other considerations you may have to take into account when planning to use them in future decks. They're broken down as follows:

Evergreen

Evergreen cards are cards that are played in nearly every deck which supports their color(s). These are the most staple of the cards on this list, as they see play in the widest variety of decks. An example of an evergreen card is Thoughtseize


Deck Lynchpin

A deck lynchpin is one of the key cards around which an entire archetype functions, so much so, that it's usually the namesake upon which the deck is named. An example of a deck lynchpin is Death's Shadow.


Powerful Uncommon

These are uncommon cards that are powerful enough to see play in Modern constructed. An example of a powerful uncommon would be Fatal Push.


White

White has historically been the most underpowered color in Modern, with Thalia, Guardian of Traben, and Path to Exile being two of the few exceptions. Modern Horizons breathed new life into the color, introducing powerful new options like Giver of Runes, and Ranger-Captain of Eos to the format. Modern Horizons 2 has continued that trend, bringing more powerful cards to bolster the color in relation to its peers.

Evergreen - Solitude

I must admit to being quite torn on this pick. Originally I had Esper Sentinel in this slot because I feel it has great long-term potential as the format progresses, but there's really no ignoring a free Swords to Plowshares that occasionally comes with a 3/2 Lifelinking body attached. Whether you're Evoking this card or paying full value for the body attached, Solitude is a powerhouse card in Modern and the most-played of the Elemental Incarnation cycle from Modern Horizons 2.


Deck Lynchpin - Puresteel Paladin

As one of the key pieces making the Hammertime deck work, Puresteel Paladin is a defining example of a deck lynchpin. If attacking with Voltroned-up creatures appeals to you, then this card and the Hammertime deck should both be on your radar for smashing into the red zone in Modern.


Powerful Uncomon - Prismatic Ending

Path to Exile occupied the top uncommon spot for white in Modern since the establishment of the format. The recent printing of Prismatic Ending though has knocked Path from its throne and supplanted it as the pinnacle of white removal. Prismatic Ending's versatility against a variety of permanents, and not having the drawback of ramping the opponent, makes it the removal of choice for any white deck capable of producing multiple colors.


Blue

Blue has always hovered near the top of the power order of colors in Modern, thanks to cards like Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. The addition of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and recent Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 cards like Murktide Regeant have continued to push blue towards the top of the list.

Evergreen - Brazen Borrower

This pick could have gone to one of several cards, including Snapcaster Mage, which is one of the tentpoles of the format. Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft is a versatile roleplayer though, showing up in decks more and more frequently, both as a maindeck catch-all, and as an answer out of the sideboard that also doubles as a clock on the opponent's life total. The two are neck and neck on the list of most played cards currently, but it feels like Borrower is rising in popularity while Snapcaster is falling by the wayside.


Deck Lynchpin - Archmage's Charm

Archmage's Charm is fast approaching evergreen status, appearing in Izzet aggro lists, control, and other archetypes. It's as a three- or four-of in control lists where Archmage's Charm particularly shines. A cheaper but equally versatile alternative to Cryptic Command, Archmage's Charms' ability to counter, provide card advantage, or deal with an opponent's cheap threats or utility creatures make this one of the key cards in any control list.


Powerful Uncommon - Counterspell

It doesn't get more elegant than two mana to counter a target spell. The OG of countermagic, it would be almost silly to not give Counterspell the powerful uncommon designation for blue on this list. The card is so good that it could almost be seen as a more important lynchpin in control archetypes than Archmage's Charm. It is so above and beyond any other blue uncommon in the format that it felt more appropriate to make it the undisputed choice for this category.


Black

Black has long been the dominant color in Modern on the back of a combination of cheap disruption, threats, and removal. In explaining the category breakdowns I came up with, it was no coincidence that I chose all black cards. There are just that many to choose from. While Thoughtseize, Death's Shadow, and Fatal Push may be the defining cards of their respective categories, there are plenty of black cards trying to give them a run for their money in Modern.

Evergreen - Grief

Though the least popular of the Elemental Incarnations, Grief Tyrant is a potent piece of free disruption reminiscent of Unmask from Mercadian Masques, with the option of having a {3B} body attached. Great in a combo deck looking to disrupt the opponent before going off, or an aggro deck looking to have a top-end creature that can also provide disruption, the inherent card disadvantage of evoking Grief is usually negated by just winning the game.


Deck Lynchpin - Living End

When we talk about cards that come to define the deck they are played in, Living End is certainly one of the cards under discussion. The ability to cascade into this for free with Violent Outburst is the primary method of winning with this deck, after filling the graveyard with cycling creatures and others that were discarded for value. If you're looking for a fun and explosive combo deck, Living End is certainly one of the more exciting ones you can play.


Powerful Uncommon - Inquisition of Kozilek

Inquisition of Kozilek is currently the most played black card in Modern, and for good reason. It trades the life-loss drawback of Thoughtseize for only being able to hit non-land cards of mana value three or less. This is often a trade-up in Modern, a format where the average mana values of cards are low, to begin with. While currently the top dog, the utility of Inquisition ebbs and flows as the metagame shifts, and its value can be very deck dependant. There are also a number of black uncommons competing for the top uncommon slot including Fatal Push and Dismemeber. While all three are cards players should have on their radar, Inquisition is likely to be the most played option in the near future.


Red

As the color of aggression and direct damage, the power of red in Modern tends to rise and fall with how viable aggressive decks are in the format. Currently, aggressive decks are at the top of the heap, and perhaps the best they've ever been in Modern, thanks to all three of the cards on our list.

Evergreen - Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

The current poster-card of expensive tier-one mythics, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer's power level is almost of a higher tier than any other red one-drop we've ever had in Magic.


Deck Lynchpin - Eidolon of the Great Revel

While it doesn't get the kind of credit its cohorts Goblin Guide and Monastery Swiftspear get for the success of Burn/Red Deck Wins, Eidolon of the Great Revel is responsible for a good number of wins in its own right. The ability of the card to single-handedly shut the door on the opponent's chances of coming back into the game after Guide and Swiftspear have done their work in the red zone can't be understated. It's the kind of card that makes opponents groan at whatever stage of the game it is played, even if they immediately answer it after it hits the battlefield.


Powerful Uncommon - Dragon's Rage Channeler

Perhaps the most talked-about card in Modern Horizons 2 after Ragavan, Dragon's Rage Channeler is an aggressive one-drop threat that also provides value in the form of card selection whenever you cast a non-creature spell.


Green

Green is perhaps the most difficult color to assess because the power and utility of so many of its cards are extremely deck-dependent. Added to this is the difficulties in choosing a powerful uncommon to list when there are five common cards more played and arguably more powerful than the top-played green uncommon. Altogether, this makes green the most subjective of all the colors we've explored so far.

Evergreen - Noble/Ignoble Hierarch

Ramp and color fixing have long been green's specialties, and Noble Hierarch has been the go-to creature for that role in Modern for quite some time. For those looking for non-Bant colors, Hierarch's new cousin Ignoble Hierarch is a Jund-color producing creature that is virtually identical to its otherwise nobler cousin. I'm still waiting for someone to brew up a five-color deck using both of these cards, but with the power of many of the other archetypes in the format, the days of Domain Zoo, and decks of a similar nature might be in the past.



Deck Lynchpin - Primeval Titan

A key component in any land-centric strategy, Primeval Titan is most well-known at the moment for being a key player in the big mana Amulet Titan combo decks. Being a 6/6 Trampling monster can sometimes be good enough to close out games on its own, but where Prime Time really gets scary is in its ability to fetch lands out of its controller's deck when it enters the battlefield or attacks. Combined with its friend Dryad of the Ilysian Grove and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, every land it fetches can quickly turn into a lightning bolt to the opponent's dome.


Powerful Uncommon - Sylvan Scrying

As I mentioned in the introduction to green cards, Sylvan Scrying is the top played green uncommon in Modern, largely only due to mono-green Tron lists. While tutoring for any land for two mana is certainly powerful, it's difficult to want to give Sylvan Scrying any mention when it sees so little play compared to the fantastic list of green commons Utopia Sprawl, Ancient Stirrings, Arbor Elf, Mutagenic Growth, and Explorer's Scope, which all see considerable more play. Originally a common, Ancient Stirrings was printed at uncommon in a Masters set, so the argument could be made for it to take the top slot, but I'll leave that for the reader to decide.




Multi-Colored

Multi-colored cards vary in power and ability widely depending on their mana costs, and the colors involved. If you're interested in a deep dive into all ten color pairs, and the three, four, and five color possibilities in Modern, let me know via email or on Twitter. Without delving into each of the color pairs, here are three multi-color cards to have on your radar.

Evergreen - Kolaghan's Command

It's hard to match the power of Kolaghan's Command in terms of sheer versatility. The card is very good at what it does, and it has so many possible options! Of particular note is this being one of the few, if not the only instant-speed discard spells in the format. It's a great way to shut the door on an opponent when you're both in topdecking mode, and with another mode to choose, it has plenty of added value as well.


Deck Lynchpin - Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

The epicenter of any -based control deck, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a card advantage engine doubling as a soft win condition if it can go ultimate. Though usually only a two-of in the decks in which it appears, it's an almost mandatory inclusion in those decks in terms of its sheer power and ability to take over a game if protected.


Powerful Uncommon - Expressive Iteration

A recent addition to Modern, Expressive Iteration is a Standard-legal card so powerful that it's making waves in every format in which it's legal. It's so good at card selection, and virtual card advantage, that I would not be surprised if it ends up being banned in an eternal format before its time in Standard is up.


Colorless/Artifacts

When thinking about colorless cards in Modern, the first things that usually come to mind are powerful but narrow sideboard cards like Pithing Needle, or deck-specific haymakers like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. I explored sideboard cards in depth in my article on Understanding Metagames.

Evergreen - Walking Ballista

A win condition and a piece of removal rolled into one, Walking Ballista is a powerful tool in every deck looking to play a lot of artifacts or take advantage of +1/+1 counter synergies. Regardless of which direction your deck goes, Walking Ballista is sure to be one of the more potent cards in your list.


Deck Lynchpin - Karn Liberated

The centerpiece of many of the Urzatron decks, Karn Liberated is usually the card the Tron player is racing to cast immediately upon assembling the Tron trifecta of Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower. The seven mana planeswalker absolutely dominates a game when it resolves, making assembling the Tron pieces the hardest obstacle Urzatron decks need to overcome on their path to victory. If this sounds like something you're interested in, Karn Liberated should be one of the first big pieces you acquire on the way to pummeling your opponents with overpowered colorless cards.


Powerful Uncommon - Mishra's Bauble

A free cantrip that also powers up Delerium, Mishra's Bauble is an auto-include in any deck that is looking to fill its graveyard and quickly churn through the cards in its library. Plenty of the top decks in Modern right now are taking advantage of this free cantrip. It's a necessary piece of these decks, so if you're going to be playing Dragon's Rage Channeler or anything similar I would pick these up when you can. It's another card to be mindful of though, as I would not be surprised that if Wizards decides to nerf any of these tier-one decks that Mishra's Bauble will be in their sights for a potential ban.


Non-basic Lands

I wrote an entire article about non-basic lands in the article Investing In Your Mana Base. Pretty much everything I said there applies here, with fetch lands and shock lands being the primary acquisitions on which anyone looking to get deeper into Modern should set their sights. The ability to quickly craft a mana base for any deck you desire cannot be understated, and there is little chance of either fetch or shock lands ever being obsolete in Modern.

Honorable Mentions

What did you think of this guide to staple Modern cards? What cards would you have changed on this list? What else would you have added? Would you like to read a deep-dive into multi-colored cards, covering all ten color pairs? Leave a comment or shoot me a message via email or Twitter.

Paul Comeau

Paul first started playing Magic in 1994 when he cracked open his first Revised packs. He got interested in Magic Finance in 2000 after being swindled on a trade. As a budget-minded competitive player, he's always looking to improve his knowledge of the metagame and the market to stay competitive and to share that knowledge with those around him so we can all make better decisions. An avid Limited player, his favorite Cube card is Shahrazad. A freelance content creator by day, he is currently writing a book on the ‘90s TCG boom. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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