The “Best Deck” in Modern

I see players agonize a lot about what deck they’re supposed to be playing in Modern. I get asked questions pertaining to what’s good in Modern at the moment, though when it comes to the deck registration sheet, the biggest mistake you can make is not being familiar with the strategy you’re bringing to the tournament. Perhaps Death’s Shadow or Infect will have better percentages against a given set of pairings, but if the only deck you know is Jeskai Control audibling could be disastrous. Ultimately, experience is going to matter more than proper metagaming.

painters-servant-shm-cropped

Several years ago I used to play a lot of Legacy. I knew Temur Delver inside and out, and I was a good judge of what quality technical play in Legacy looked like. Back then, Legacy was referred to as wide open, but for the most part a good pilot with a Brainstorm deck was a solid bet against an unknown opponent. BrainstormPeople would tell me time and again after I smashed them how good their deck was against mine, and unless they were jamming a fistful of basic Plains and Aether Vial, they were always wrong. I was intimately familiar with my deck and role in any given matchup, and these players were used to preying on inexperienced Brainstorm pilots, and/or had plans that worked in theory but couldn’t actually stand up to Force of Will and Daze.

This is more or less my experience with the Modern format, but with the Brainstorm decks replaced with any coherent Modern strategy. Modern rarely has a best deck, but if you show up to a tournament knowing your position in every matchup while playing a functional deck you’ll be just fine. In an abstract sense, Eli Kassis’s Retreat to Coralhelm combo deck looks confused and kind of clunky relative to other Modern decks, but he puts up results likely because he understands his role in a given matchup far better than the average opponent.

The major similarity that’s really pronounced between Legacy and Modern is that, for the most part, your average opponent is just playing the deck they have access to. Whether it’s because of monetary restrictions, or idiots like me who insist on jamming one-mana 1/1s in every tournament, the majority of your opponents aren’t making serious metagame adaptations to their deck. Leyline of SanctityYou’ll play against Burn people, Affinity people, Merfolk people, RW Prison people… Just a swath of decks that may or may not be best positioned going into the weekend—but that’s what these people came to jam with. The more heavily you metagame, the more this behavior will punish you. You can shave your Leyline of Sanctity from your sideboard because Burn isn’t in a great position on a given week, but don’t complain too much when you lose to it. Or 8-Rack. Realistically, you just want to prepare for the most possible things and make concessions that are generally consistent.

I heard a high-profile player say this week that he was very lost in Modern as of now. Do you know what you’re supposed to be doing in Modern right now? The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Playing an abstractly good 75 that we are familiar with and hoping to get lucky.

Metagaming Too Hard

A very telling example of the danger of over-metagaming in Modern comes from Eldrazi Winter. Many players identified that Painter’s Servant did a great job of hosing Eldrazi, though the problem was that the card was otherwise unplayable. There realistically wasn’t a deck that wanted it. My friend and fellow Minnesotan Eric Hawkins sleeved the card up for the SCG Louisville Open with a spicy brew:

Abzan Company, by Eric Hawkins (81st, SCG Louisville Open, 2/20/2016)

Creatures (28)
Painter’s Servant
Birds of Paradise
Blood Artist
Kitchen Finks
Viscera Seer
Voice of Resurgence
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Teysa, Orzhov Scion

Instants (6)
Chord of Calling
Collected Company

Sorceries (4)
Lingering Souls

Lands (22)
Forest
Plains
Swamp
Gavony Township
Godless Shrine
Horizon Canopy
Marsh Flats
Overgrown Tomb
Temple Garden
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Wooded Bastion
Sideboard (15)
Spellskite
Big Game Hunter
Burrenton Forge-Tender
Eternal Witness
Fiend Hunter
Fulminator Mage
Orzhov Pontiff
Qasali Pridemage
Reclamation Sage
Reveillark
Scavenging Ooze
Path to Exile
Kataki, War’s Wage
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Eric felt that his Eldrazi matchup was very positive, which I believe to be true. What he learned that weekend, however, was what happens when you don’t get paired against the dominant deck every round: you miss Day 2. Some players on this deck faced the bracket they were looking for, though even when the format has a noteworthy boogeyman there is still significant diversity. The mistake Eric made was that his metagame choice involved playing cards that aren’t implicitly powerful. collected companyTeysa and Painter’s Servant just don’t cut it in Modern, and the format is too powerful to water your deck down to try to carve out a metagame position.

Along these lines, when you’re trying to prepare for a Modern event, it’s a huge mistake to put too much stock in last week’s results. If you comb over results from this year’s events, you’ll come across the Milwaukee Open in late April. This event saw three Abzan Company decks in the Top 8 with one of them winning the whole thing. There was concern then that we might have had a new boogeyman on our hands. A mere two weeks later in Indianapolis we saw a Day 2 breakdown that didn’t feature a single copy of the deck. Decks overperform from time to time for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s simply the fact that the best players decided to sleeve up the deck that week, and sometimes it’s just variance. There was a stretch where Temur Delver was just a better deck than Jeskai Delver in Legacy but Jeskai was putting up better results. This was partly because Stoneforge Mystic afforded more free wins than Stifle, but partly because better players were piloting that deck on average. Knowing what happened matters significantly less than knowing why it happened.

Expertise vs. Breadth

Modern has enough viable options that there should be at least one deck that fits your playstyle. For most players, this is their primary deck. Some players branch out by choosing to play what they believe to be well positioned, but when it comes to picking up additional Modern decks, what I recommend is actually immersing yourself in the format from the perspective of that deck. It’s not just about beating Jund and Bant Eldrazi. You need to have a plan for Bogles, Lantern Control, Tron, and everything in between. Slippery BogleModern is so wide that any testing done with a specific event in mind will likely not be enough on its own to prepare you for that event. Modern rewards depth of knowledge far more than it rewards breadth. I would be much more confident in the tournament performance of a player who knew one or two decks inside out than that of a player who could pilot five or more decks competently.

I have a friend who pilots Affinity very well. A big tell for a Modern player being great at their deck is that they have a clear plan for sideboard hate and bad matchups. There are some things you can’t do anything about though, and my friend will talk at length about how Ancient Grudge and Stony Silence aren’t wholly beatable. His weakness is that while he can identify weekends when Affinity isn’t a great choice, he doesn’t have a second deck that he can play at nearly the same level.

Something that I noticed when speaking to him is that he talks about the decks he’s trying to learn very differently than how he talks about Affinity. When I mention a tough matchup or sideboard hoser for Affinity he can speak at length about how to face the problem, though when he tries to pick up a different deck he will often have negative thoughts on the deck very early on. I will certainly grant that some Modern decks are more playable than others, though the difference in speech patterns suggests that he cares more about winning with Affinity than figuring out how to solve the problems with other decks. Ancient GrudgeI do think that emotional investment is important for competitive success, so if he’s not feeling these decks it makes sense to put them down. But I think he’s largely just looking to stumble across a perfect deck that allows him to be optimistically dismissive of the deck’s potential problems.

I strongly believe that if you show up to a Modern tournament with a written sideboard guide you’ll need to frequently reference during the event, you have low odds of succeeding. Modern rewards fundamental knowledge and experience. Sideboard guides can be helpful for studying and for obscure matchups, though if you show up with a sideboard full of Kor Firewalkers and you aren’t even sure where you want them, you’re going to be in serious trouble.

Play What You Know

It wasn’t long ago that when people asked me what they should play in a particular Modern event that I would suggest Infect due to its resilience, high power level, and high degree of play. As of late, I’ve been answering the question by asking what they’re most familiar with. Right now I think Dredge and Bant Eldrazi are asking new questions you’ll need answers to that you didn’t before. The most successful players will find these answers by adapting a deck they were already familiar with, not showing up cold to shoot an angle.

Modern rewards experience. Modern demonstrates nuance. If you show me two players, one with a backpack full of statistics and breakdowns of recent results, and one packing Noble Hierarchs with noticeable wear from riffle shuffling, I’m picking the latter to do better in the event every time.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter

18 thoughts on “The “Best Deck” in Modern

  1. Uh…

    “Perhaps Death’s Shadow or Infect will have better percentages against a given set of pairings, but if the only deck you know is Jeskai Control audibling could be disastrous.”

    So, back when I first played Magic, to “audible” (as a verb) was not an existing expression. Then I took a hiatus, and now that I’ve come back, I see this term every now and then. The context in most of my encounters with the term suggest that it refers to the act of making an audible vocalization in response to a game event (such as saying “Yes!” when you topdeck what you needed or sighing loudly when you draw your fifth land in a row). I was comfortable with that understanding and it seemed to work whenever I encountered that term, until I got to the above-referenced sentence from this article. What am I missing?

    On a completely different note, you’re in Minnesota? Me too! 😀

    1. I believe that the meaning in this context comes from football. It means to change your mind at the last minute. “To audible to a different play”.

  2. This article was extremely helpful. I play UB Titan Control (sigh) and thanks to this article, I realized I need to spend more time coming up with a good sideboard and a solid strategy. Maybe, maybe someday, when I’m good enough, when I’ve grinded enough, when the deck and I are finally one, I will win a match.
    Thanks for the great article!

  3. Despite not liking the deck i (also) thought Infect is the best modern deck (assuming same time investments). Have you thought about or do you have any idea while it seemed to be very good in the last GPs but only Owen Turtenwald played it at worlds and not a single list was in the last MOCS Top32 with 9 swiss rounds? More precisely: Do you think in other decks the “ceiling” is higher so very good players should not play it against other very good players?

    1. I think that Infect is actually a deck that rewards familiarity more than many, and when it comes to pro players and Modern I don’t believe that many of them are invested in the format enough to be masters of their deck beyond just being very good at Magic. I think that for many pros they are just trying to play the best deck and playing it from the perspective of being good at Magic, in no small part because they have to invest a lot of time into keeping up with Standard and Limited.

  4. Hey Ryan.

    You are bringing very unique content to modernnexus and extremely down to earth statements and opinions. When speaking of a math teacher who lectures and teaches theory vs the one who actually gives insight and makes it concrete, i see you as the latter one. Great job and keep it up.

    Has the fulminator trial in the SB worked out for you in grixis delver? Any love for spreading seas in the SB ?

    Sorry for the offtopic post.

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that.

      I have been quite busy as of late, so I don’t have a ton of experience with the Fulminators yet. Spreading Seas would be better against Tron, though the major reason I landed on Fulminator is so I can board out both Delvers and Terminates against Jeskai and be happy with what I’m bringing in, and Spreading Seas just isn’t effective there.

  5. Thanks for this piece Ryan. I appreciate your acknowledgment of the risks of Modern’s broad deck playability and how that can influence and affect results in the format. This seems to be a topic other authors are addressing of late as well.

    Question for you about mastering a deck. How literal are you being? For example, you’ve made your Modern success piloting Grixis Delver. Would you still consider yourself comparably proficient in UR, or Temur? Or what about the different flavors of Abzan, as another example? With a few exceptions of decks with very large cores (Affinity, Infect) where does knowing your deck and experimenting with new cards and builds that support an equivalent strategy diverge?

    This obviously isn’t a question that can be answered in percentages, but I’m curious how strictly one adheres to a set of cards, or even a tertiary color, when trying to evaluate how well you know a deck.

    1. I think that there are many examples of similar looking decks in Modern that have significantly different play patterns. I could play the more tempo drive builds of Delver decks, though if I saw somebody playing one of those builds or Grixis well I would not assume that skill translated to the other builds. Grixis enables you to let more spells resolve and be more reactive, while Temur and Izzet force you to play a far more proactive role.

      Similarly, I don’t expect Jund or Abzan players to necessarily be able to pilot the other deck as well. The play patterns for Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt are very different. Sometimes even just being a couple cards off can significantly alter play patterns, minimally when it comes to specific matchups. I think that even if you’re only making minimal changes before an event with a deck that you’re proficient with, it would be wise to play a lot of games with the new configuration.

  6. Thank you for this article, which is a great follow-up to the last one you guys shared.

    This is a sentiment that continues to be echoed throughout the Modern community and one that I’ve advocated for some time. Hence my Facebook Modern UWx community – https://www.facebook.com/groups/MTGModernUWx/ – and why I stick to UW Midrange as my main deck. It’s my bread and butter.

    As I once mentioned in an article I wrote about UW in Modern, there are those who prefer to play the flavor of the week/month, which is typically the ‘best’ deck, in order to increase their probability of winning, or at least making Top 8. The proof is in performance, but the pilot, and adapting to the meta, absolutely matters. It is as important, if not more important than the deck we choose to play.

    There are several pros, Patrick Dickmann, Shaun McLaren, Jeff Hoogland, Wafo Tapa, Craig Wescoe, etc., who stick to 1 or 2 decks and master them. They experience these decks through the motions, such as shifting metas, and continue tailoring and adapting their decks to the field. There’s an inherent and invaluable advantage of mastering your deck, knowing the ins and outs of your 75, understanding the format, and being able to show up at a tournament – while knowing the angles of opposing decks – and successfully perform through experience, skillful play, and being ahead of the curve. In a wide open field, it’s just best to play what you know, but the deck has to be reasonable (i.e. competitive).

  7. Thanks for the article. I agree with all points. Personally, I am an affinity player. I have top 8 quite a few events with affinity. Indeed having a plan is very important to be able to quickly sideboard and be flexible with various match up. Often I will rehearse on what to board in and out against various match up. I will also think about how my opponent will adjust their play based on my hate card. Even when piloting some tier 3 decks, I can also explain my sideboard choice to another player about my game plan against different match up. I guess it takes a lot of hard work understand different deck and how to adjust your positioning and game plan accordingly.

  8. I’m so tired of this rhetoric. “Play what you know.” can only get you so far, if you have a crap deck, you have a crap deck no matter how well you think you run it. BW Tokens, just for example, hasnt made a significant finish in a major tournament in forever, even if you’ve been playing the deck for 3 years, I would switch to something else for whatever tournament you plan to play for this weekend. You can only gain experience with a deck by playing it, so go ahead and switch to what you think you is top tier right now, let me give you a hint, its Affinity, Burn, Dredge, BG(x), Infect, and Bant Eldrazi.

    Modern isnt Legacy. None of these decks are all THAT difficult to play. Is there a little wiggle room? Sure, but nothing that ripping through 10 Leagues online wont fix.

    Play the best deck, then you’ll have experience with the best deck and you can play it some more. Make the switch out of your heaping pile and play the best deck.

    Play the best deck and stop listening to people who tell you that you compete with your Tezzerator deck just because you’ve played it forever.

    1. You’re mistaken if you think Ryan is telling you to play with a non-tiered deck over Tier 1. His claim is that there isn’t an absolute “best deck,” not that no decks are better than others.

        1. FYI, I’m the editor of this site. If I recall correctly, I’m the one who actually named that section. But in any case, it’s a rhetorical statement. It isn’t tantamount to saying, “Playing the exact deck you know best is correlated with the highest chance of winning.” I think his argument is pretty clearly stated, assuming you’re not willfully ignoring it.

    2. You are clearly unfamiliar with my work if you think I would ever suggest playing a questionable deck. The article suggests putting time into the learning the deck you intend to play, not to play something bad just because you know it. Your comment suggests that you have missed the point by a very large margin.

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