Unmuddle Modern with Pillar Thinking

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If the last time you sat down to a game of Modern was before the pandemic, you're in for a rude awakening. The format has been turned completely on its head. Luckily, we've got you covered—today's article applies pillar thinking to Modern, identifying five distinct macro-archetypes to carve out a holistic picture of the format.

Just Like a Pillar

Discussion of larger non-rotating formats (especially Vintage) sometimes circles back to the idea of pillars, reference points often represented by one or two key cards or interactions. By virtue of their power or ubiquity, format pillars guide and shape the way formats are experienced, contributing to notions of speed, health, brokenness, and so on. As the name suggests, no matter how diverse a format might be in terms of individual decks, only a few larger pillars hold up the structure; multiple decks then fall under each umbrella, such that each pillar claims a sizeable metagame share.

Historically, Modern's pillars have been relegated to color combinations and card interactions. Think back to 2015, when Modern's popularity was exploding; on the interactive side of things, UR Twin and BGx Rock were the pillars keeping things together, while linear aggro (Infect, Affinity, Burn, etc.) and combo (Amulet, Scapeshift, Grishoalbrand, etc.) made up the other two.

As will always be the case with sweeping simplifications, some decks were naturally caught in the middle, such as low-to-the-ground aggro-control decks like Zoo and Merfolk. But the idea of these three or four macro pillars nonetheless proved an extremely valuable way to approach the format from a strategic metagaming perspective, aiding analysts and grinders alike in their quest for top-tier Modern mastery.

Take Them Five

The same can be said today. Once the dust settled from Modern Horizons 2, five distinct pillars emerged, each hinging on one or two specific cards.

Not one of these cards existed during Modern's packed-LGS heyday. The earliest to the party was Lurrus of the Dream-Den, on May 15, 2020. A-Omnath, Locus of Creation and Expressive Iteration followed in subsequent expansions, with the Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer/A-Dragon's Rage Channeler package and Urza's Saga taking up the rear in Modern Horizons 2. In other words, they all moved into town once we were safely locked inside our homes—and now, each sits atop the Modern format in its own way, informing how players ignore or interact with each other while respectively clawing to victory.

On de Grind

Lurrus, Omnath, Iteration, and Saga all share an obvious strategic alignment: they provide the caster with value. For a time, Modern's best creatures were those that dodged Lightning Bolt and demanded clunky answers if they were to trade at parity; now, between Fatal Push, Prismatic Ending, and A-Unholy Heat, there's no shortage of efficient ways to dispatch of a Tarmogoyf.

Similarly, I once wrote a whole article decrying card advantage as a lost cause for many Modern players, then rode that philosophy to years of competitive success and a Classic win on the mull-to-four machine that was Colorless Eldrazi Stompy. These days, the best spells in the format are those that put pilots up on cards. The influx of efficient answers is precisely what has elevated card advantage's standing in Modern. When you're seeing answers as good as Ending and Heat, those draws become way more relevant to a game's outcome, and in a best-case scenario, your creatures play to that same goal.

For their part, Ragavan and Channeler are so appealing as Stage 1 creatures because despite sharing a casting cost and potential damage output with the likes of Goblin Guide, they reward players with card advantage over the course of a longer game. Ragavan connects and creates a Simian Spirit Guide; on a good day, he'll also dig up your opponent's Thoughtseize or Lightning Bolt. Many have likened scry 2.5 to draw a card; surveil is a good deal stronger, and those sleeving up Channeler have no problem setting off the Shaman multiple times per turn. Good-bye, big butts—in this day and age, blue-chip aggro threats aspire as much to Monastery Swiftspear (once the format's premier aggressive creature) as they do to Dark Confidant.

A Tale of Twos

Next, let's apply our pillar thinking to the metagame at large and see how these forces dictate what we play. Drawing from the power rankings of our December metagame update, we can see that each pillar is heavily represented at the top of the charts:

Deck NameTotal Points Total %
Tier 1
Hammer Time13715.41
4-Color Blink11312.71
Grixis Death's Shadow11012.37
UR Murktide788.77
Tier 2
UW Control485.40
Tier 3
Cascade Crashers394.39
Jund Saga303.37
Amulet Titan252.81
Rakdos Rock182.02

Indeed, after the first four decks, there's a significant drop-off in power rankings. To quote David, "There have been big gaps in the data before, but they've never been as big as this. 20 results separate the bottom of Tier 1 and all of Tier 2, a tier that just barely has any decks at all since UW Control and Cascade Crashers are right on the cutoff." What do the Tier 1 decks have that the others don't?

Well, all of them run not one, but two pillars. Hammer Time uses Saga as a tutor for its win condition while recurring everything with Lurrus. Blink runs the best cards in its colors as an excuse to abuse Omnath, among them Expressive Iteration. UR Murktide combines the awesome offensive power of Ragavan and Channeler with the velocity-forward card advantage engine of 4 Iterations. And Grixis Shadow does the same thing but trades in Murktide Regent for Lurrus of the Dream-Den, a third metagame pillar. Three pillars in one deck... to quote David again, "here's your headline: as the Tier 1 deck with the highest average points, Grixis Death's Shadow was the top deck of December 2021!" Coincidence?

Take a look at the lower-charting decks. UW Control, Cascade Crashers, Yawgmoth, Burn, and Amulet Titan all run zero pillars. No wonder they're outliers! But then there's Rakdos Rock and Jund Saga, both black-based rock decks combining the Lurrus and Ragavan pillars. Jund Saga even packs the enchantment land, also making for a total of three pillars... but not amounting to a Tier 1 bid. Why not?

With the pillars established, we can closely examine the compromises each deck is making to grasp, say, what Grixis Shadow offers over Jund Saga. For starters, they're both Lurrus-Ragavan decks. But Grixis surrenders the grinding plan of Urza's Saga to claim that of Expressive Iteration. Given its success over Jund, my takeaway from this development is that Iteration is the better grinding card in a low-curve deck, while Saga wins out given tangible synergy incentives, as in Hammer Time; alternately, Wrenn and Six bringing the land back may be a bit durdly for the current landscape, especially now that players have adapted to fighting huge constructs. Then, Goyf becomes Death's Shadow, a creature that more easily resists A-Unholy Heat and doesn't trade down on mana when it does get sniped—more of a no-brainer.

Speaking of no-brainers, Rakdos Rock is even easier to parse—this is just Grixis without Expressive Iteration! Not to mention Exterminate! over Drown in the Loch... no wonder it can't keep up with Shadow. What's the story, then, with UR Murktide? Here's a two-pillar deck that would adore Lurrus as a companion, but instead opts for Murktide Regent, the best closer in the format for fair decks (better mana is a nice pickup, too). Therein lies the difference between Grixis and UR, and the reason UR plays and feels like the more aggressive deck: its top-end tool of choice prioritizes damage, not card advantage.

Let's Have a Party

Thinking about the metagame in terms of pillars can help make sense of strategic tech choices, larger trends among successful decks, and even financial swings. But it also allows for top-down deckbuilding, wherein we attempt to jam as many pillar-defining cards together as we can and explore the possibilities.

Limitations: We can't run them all together because Lurrus's companion condition excludes Omnath. So it's one or the other, and I'm not about to try my hand at rebuilding the Omnath deck already devouring offshoots left and right. Running either Omnath or Iteration, both of which are quite color-intensive, pretty much eliminates Saga, a land that taps for colorless. Realistically, then, we can run up to three pillars in one pile, something Grixis Shadow and Jund Saga are already doing.

What are we left with? Off the top of my head, we could try a Prismatic Ending-backed Jeskai Tempo shell with Lurrus, Ragavan, and Iteration. Maybe a Naya Saga midrange list dropping the targeted discard to pull in some creature combo synergies or disruptive beaters like Esper Sentinel.

Let me know what you come up with! Modern may emerge from quarantine deeply altered, but so long as we strive to understand the format, she'll always be our oyster.

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