Modern as a format has some issues. But in the last year they have become a lot worse.
From Wizards of the Coast’s perspective, Modern’s primary reason for existing is to provide Standard players the illusion (and historically the reality) that the expensive cards they are buying for Standard will have some future use.
This isn’t really true any more. Since print runs dramatically increased a few years back, the only truly expensive card to have its value propped up by Modern demand has been Voice of Resurgence. Powerhouses and format staples like Thoughtseize and Wooded Foothills are too common to hold serious value.
However, the illusion is there that Modern will ensure that a Standard collection doesn’t become worthless after rotation. This player confidence matters a lot for Wizards’ business model.
Modern is starting to fall apart. Recent design trends have seen proactive threats get better and better, while defensive answers become weaker. Additionally, several decks that attempt to overload on one strategy (Infect and pump spells; red hyper-aggro with burn; Zoo hyper-aggro with Death’s Shadow; the metalcraft artifact aggro deck that is colloquially known as Affinity despite playing no ‘Affinity for Artifacts’ cards) have reached a critical mass where the fundamental turn of the format is now about 3.75.
There’s also a fair number of decks that are one or two card printings away from becoming extremely good. While all-in mill (with Archive Trap, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Hedron Crab and Mind Funeral) is at best a casual deck to take to FNM right now, I firmly believe that one more high-quality mill spell being printed will push it into the upper echelons of competitive play. I was saying the same thing about Dredge a year ago.
Compare Modern to Legacy.
Modern’s best interactive cards against an unknown field are Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile – one mana answers that eliminate opposing threats at tempo gain. Lightning Bolt does so at card parity, Path to Exile at card disadvantage in the early game, and virtual card parity in the lategame (when the land is irrelevant).
These two cards are better at protecting a winning position than they are at pulling you back into a game where you are behind. There are few feelings worse than a burn player saying “Bolt your only blocker. Swing with Guide and Swiftspear. I cast Atarka’s Command choosing Lava Spike and the team buff, any responses?”
On the flip side, Legacy has a number of interactive cards that are mostly mediocre when you are winning, but are outstanding when you are behind.
Force of Will. Misdirection. Pyroblast. Flusterstorm. Swords to Plowshares. Or the criminally underplayed Pyrokinesis and Abolish.
For zero or one mana, all of these cards can turn around a gamestate where you are losing badly, and get you back into the game.
These cards are also the reason that Goblin Charbelcher is not a big force in the format despite being the deck with the highest percentage of turn 1 and 2 kills using Legacy-legal cards.
Some say that the answer to Modern’s woes is better card selection. Adding Preordain and/or Ponder back into the legal cardpool (or even more dramatically, adding strong tutors like Enlightened Tutor to the cardpool) would indeed allow players to play smaller numbers of narrow hate cards to beat the hyper-focused decks.
But here the cure is worse than the disease. Better tutoring – whether from card selection cantrips or from actual tutors – would significantly strengthen combo. And combo has a lot of powerful offensive interaction available to it – cards like Pact of Negation – that become far stronger when they can be reliably found when needed. Adding Legacy-level card filtering (or even going halfway) would create new monsters worse than the current Burn/Affinity/Suicide Zoo/Infect format.
And that’s not even touching on Force of Will, or its little brothers Daze and Mental Misstep.
Yes, FoW is the glue that holds Legacy together, but in Modern it would be much more at home in Affinity countering Hurkyl’s Recall, or in Storm protecting a Pyromancer’s Ascension. Mental Misstep and Daze would love to protect a Death’s Shadow from Path to Exile, or to protect a Blighted Agent from a Lightning Bolt.
What Modern needs, more than anything else, is strong zero and one mana defensive interaction, that is maindeckable, useful against a variety of decks, and far weaker at defending a winning position but strong when you are behind.
Some cards like this already exist, but they are not good enough. Condemn and Oust don’t get there. Porphyry Nodes, while extremely strong, is not enough on its own. Sunscour often goes 3-for-3 at a tempo gain, but requires too much of a commitment to white cards and is often uncastable.
The heroes Modern needs are reprints of two fringe-playable Legacy cards.
Pyrokinesis and Abolish.
Abolish encourages playing less fetchlands, answers every hard lock piece in Modern (Ensnaring Bridge, Worship, Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void), buys a turn against Affinity, and most importantly does so even when you are locked out of casting spells.
Pyrokinesis is everything Sunscour wishes it could be, and is fast enough to kick Affinity, burn, infect and maybe even Death’s Shadow Zoo.
Those cards would provide the tools Modern control needs to have a chance against aggro and aggro/combo decks. This then allows control to keep combo in check.
These cards are safe to print into Standard – Abolish would do nothing, and Pyrokinesis would be a good card but unlikely to seriously influence the format, just like Dispel and Negate have been.
Both were originally printed as cycles, but that doesn’t matter. Cards can be reprinted out of the context of their cycles – for precedents, see Leyline of the Void, or the most recent reprint of Liliana Vess.
I’ve wanted these cards in Modern for some time, but with the current state of the format it is more urgent than it has been before.
Wizards have five options of what to do with the Modern format, and I do not like the first four of them.
Restore the turn 4 rule with a wide swathe of bannings (starting with Death’s Shadow; Glistener Elf; one of Cranial Plating or Mox Opal; and one of Atarka’s Command or Monastery Swiftspear or Goblin Guide). I think most players would find this unpalatable for obvious reasons. Hell, I’m one of the players most sympathetic to using bannings to improve formats and I would find this unpalatable.
This option would probably kill off player confidence in Modern, which is a bad thing for Wizards’ bottom line.
Acknowledge that Modern is now a turn 3.5-3.75 format, and unban accordingly. Unban cards that are bad or not oppressive in such a format (Umezawa’s Jitte; Splinter Twin; Ponder; Preordain; Stoneforge Mystic; JtMS; BBE; Seething Song; maybe even Sensei’s Stalling Top) and just let the format rip.
This might work – but it would make it harder for new cards (such as Nahiri) to break into the format. This makes it harder for Wizards to grow the format, and risks it losing its appeal to Standard players who see some of their collection rotating.
Retaining players who lose some of their collection to rotation is critical to Wizards, and so I don’t see this working for them. Additionally I’m not sure that a faster Modern would be fun – the existing menaces going away doesn’t necessarily result in a healthy format either.
Let Modern go the way of Legacy (little to no Wizards support) and introduce a new format, perhaps with cards from Innistrad and up, or RTR and up, or even M15 and up. I’ll call this hypothetical format POMO (for POstMOdern).
POMO might be a good format, and in the longer term it could serve the same role Wizards want Modern to serve. But the short-term lack of confidence from the enfranchised Modern playerbase would likely hurt Wizards badly.
I do not endorse this option. But if it is to happen, there will be warning signs – Wizards intentionally fucking up the Modern format via printing cards that warp the format, and/or via shock bannings that undermine confidence in the format. Wizards did something similar when they killed off Extended – they changed the format legality rules creating a horrible format, then announced a while later “Players don’t like Extended, we are killing it”.
Let Modern go as-is, with minimal or no changes. Let players abandon it.
Again, I cannot support this option. Modern is in a bad state right now, but another year of the status quo will probably wreck it.
Intentionally print cards into Standard that will address Modern’s weaknesses; and/or change the rules about supplementary sets and print such cards there.
This is the solution, IMO.
I pointed out Abolish and Pyrokinesis as Standard-safe cards that would have a huge positive impact on Modern.
There are other possibilities too. At the safer end, Pulverize and Cave-In. At the riskier, Misdirection, Flusterstorm or Submerge. All of those provide powerful defensive interaction at 0 to 1 mana.
Modern is not dead like Extended was. It may not even be dying, and dying isn’t a quick process anyway.
But Modern is seriously sick. It’s time to fix it.
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