I definitely caused a shitstorm a while back with my post on the state of Modern. Since then Modern has continued to evolve.
The trend toward hyper-linear strategies – mostly aggro with elements of combo – has continued, but with one new deck: Cathartic Reunion Dredge, which is rapidly becoming the new bogeyman and is already drawing calls for a banning (as well as lots of people who regard the idea of another banning in Modern as utter heresy).
I’m not going to comment directly on the banning calls. A month away from actively playing Modern has left me unaware of nuances of the metagame and so I’m not qualified to judge format balance right now.
I would shed no tears for Cathartic Reunion if Chandra and Pia are taken out the back and shot, reuniting them with Kiran (sorry -too soon?) but this article is not arguing for that to happen.
I’m going to assert that Cathartic Reunion Dredge is a synergy based aggressive deck. Some would term it aggro-combo, others would call it outright combo.
But fundamentally I would argue it plays the same game as Bushwhacker Zoo – its goal is to deploy a critical mass of aggressive creatures extremely quickly, and to overrun the opponent before they can develop their own gameplan.
While Bushwhacker does this via Magic’s normal mechanisms for casting spells, Dredge uses other means. But its mechanism for winning is the same as other go-wide aggro strategies, and it has similar problems with a resolved Ghostly Prison, Anger of the Gods or Porphyry Nodes as Bushwhacker has. (Both decks can beat all of those cards; just pointing out that they interact with the strategies in the same way).
I draw the line between aggro and combo somewhere between Affinity (synergistic aggro) and Infect (creature-based combo). Readers are free to disagree with this division and draw the line elsewhere if you want – I hope the points made will still be useful if we disagree here.
There is an idea common among Magic players that certain strategies are more ‘oppressive’ than others. When these strategies have been good, Draw-Go, hard prison decks (including land destruction strategies) and combo decks – particularly those where the deck’s best hands win blisteringly fast – are often termed oppressive. I don’t agree with this.
Aggressive decks can be oppressive too. They are responsible for the second worst Standard of all time.
I’ve played competitive Magic for almost twenty years, and have encountered three truly oppressive formats.
The first and the worst was the Standard format utterly ruined by Tolarian Academy combo. This deck resulted in the banhammer getting a serious workout, and taught Wizards that fast artifact mana is inherently unfair.
The second to occur, and the third worst, isn’t all that relevant to this article as it was Mercadian Block Constructed with an old version of the Legend Rule.
The most recent truly oppressive format is the one we can learn from. Mirrodin-era Standard, with the Affinity monster.
The banhammer that had been working out during the Tolarian Academy era got a fresh workout with Mirrodin era Affinity.
Skullclamp was banned first, for obvious reasons.
But after players got sick of maindecking Oxidize, eight more cards – the six artifact lands, Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault, were all given a bullet in the biggest mass banning Standard has ever seen.
Cranial Plating was spared to add insult to injury – as the second best card in the Affinity shell, it was left a shadow of its former self, legal to play but basically unplayable.
The Affinity deck was a synergistic aggro deck with considerable reach. Builds varied, but the deck would vomit out a mass of threats as early as turn 1, then would either win turn 3 or 4 on the back of going all-in on one threat, or would play a more cautious game, chaining Thoughtcast or even going bigger with cards like Somber Hoverguard, before finishing the game out of nowhere with Shrapnel Blast.
Why was it oppressive?
Standard is a format that usually has fundamental turn of 5 or 6, with aggro decks often coming in at around 4.5. (The concept of the fundamental turn was first introduced in this excellent article from over 15 years ago).
Prior to Darksteel’s release, the two versions of Affinity were Broodstar affinity (a control deck that used Talismans and artifact lands to ramp into its namesake card) and Atog–Disciple of the Vault aggro. These had fundamental turns of 5.5 and 4.5 respectively which made them perfectly fair decks.
Then Darksteel and Fifth Dawn completed the decks, and suddenly the ultra-tuned Ravager Affinity monster had a fundamental turn of 3.25-3.5.
This meant that if you were not playing Affinity yourself, you had to dedicate multiple cards – Oxidize and the like – just to stay alive long enough to have a chance.
Playing those cards maindeck meant that your deck was worse against all of the non-Affinity decks in the metagame. And so the correct call was to play an Affinity list tuned to beat the mirror match.
During the period where Ravager Affinity Aggro dominated Standard, tournament attendance plummeted despite better than average FNM promos (even for the time).
Wizards eventually saw the need to act and terminated the Affinity deck with extreme prejudice. Where three bannings would have saved the format (Ravager, Disciple and Cranial Plating), they instead banned eight cards to make a statement that they were serious about turning Standard around.
Since then, there has never been a need to ban additional cards to make a statement like that. This should be a testament to how oppressive Affinity was.
Modern a month ago (when I last had the time to play it seriously) wasn’t as dominated by oppressive aggro as Mirrodin era Standard was. But it was the closest we have been since.
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