From the Heart: Writing on Magic & Modern

This one isn’t going to have much analysis. You could call it an opinion piece, but really there isn’t an opinion I’m arguing here. Rather, this week is just one unfiltered voice, from one Magic player to another. Call that a disclaimer if you want, but today I’m going to be talking about some of the more ephemeral subjects that rarely get discussed. What it’s like to be a “writer.” How it feels to go through the ups and downs of Magic. What exactly I find enjoyable in this game. At the end, I’ll try to tie it all together with a discussion of my goals as a writer. And don’t worry—there’s a decklist in there for you all too.

If this article isn’t of interest to you, I hope there’s no hard feelings. Enjoy your Thursday, have a good Christmas weekend, and I’ll see you back next week for more usual content. If the tone, topic, and content of this article is of interest to you, let me know in the comments below. I started writing to get better at Magic, to get better at writing, and to get my name out there—but more than any of that I started writing to have meaningful conversations. Hopefully this is one of them.

Balancing Pressures

When I joined Modern Nexus last summer, I was at the peak of my Magic career, streaming regularly, qualified for Pro Tour Vancouver, and basically living and breathing Magic: The Gathering. Standard was my addicting grind, Modern my love of choice—the Summer of ’15 was a blur of Lightning Bolt, Thoughtseize, and Courser of Kruphix. Those times were a blast, but realistically unsustainable. Halfway through a demanding degree, I couldn’t sustain the full-time Magic life, and I saw my playing time gradually yet steadily decrease, replaced by textbooks and time clocks.

We’ve all experienced this, some of us multiple times over. Before my latest lapse, I sold out of my Magic collection three times. Once for bills, once to buy an engagement ring, and once to fix my car. I no longer have that car, or that ring, and I’m still paying for bills. In the six years I’ve been playing this game, I’ve gone from playing in tournaments daily, to playing in them monthly, and then to none at all. I haven’t owned a real paper Magic collection in at least two and half years now. This is the life cycle of your normal Magic competitor.

Perhaps it’s the closet psychologist in me showing through, but how is this aspect of our game rarely discussed? Week in and week out, dozens of MTG strategy sites hawk their wares from every corner, enticing star-struck passersby with their promises of fame of fortune. After each high-profile event, thousands upon thousands of words are spent upon one topic: the edge. We are all looking for that clue, that intangible thing that will elevate us to the stars, looking up to grasp our just-out-of-reach aspirations while right beside us our colleagues are falling away. Imagine a highway, with dozens of cars traveling at breakneck speed, in line with each other, pursuing separate destinations, but for the moment on a shared, collaborative path. One car’s tire blows out, and it pulls off the path while wordlessly, silently, the rest of the group carries on their way.

“You’re quitting?! You’ll be back!”

We’ve all said it, or heard it said. It’s innocent and friendly, but subconsciously a harbinger of a simple truth: we know the curse all too well. Dig through the murky depths of your Facebook friend list, populated by players met once-upon-a-time at FNMs of years past. How many are still playing?

Cultivating Content

As a writer, I bring with me a certain conglomeration of interests, opinions, strengths, and weaknesses. Regardless of topic, these characteristics seep into my writing, twisting and manipulating the inputs into a resulting output that is vastly different from what it would be otherwise. Those that don’t write may find it difficult to relate, but the reality is that every individual experiences this on some level—the filtering of incoming information through a lens unique to the recipient. The most basic example of this is the subconscious motivators of political opinion. If you slant conservative, an encountered anti-conservative opinion will be immediately met with confrontation, and vice versa.

For Magic, this could take the form of archetype bias. Red decks are bad, and at mercy of the shuffler; so losing is the result of bad luck, not the glaringly obvious fact that you are mulliganing too often (or not often enough). Divination isn’t a good Magic card, regardless of the context, and the sub-par control deck you’ve built around it is just anchoring your Magic potential.

If all of this leads anywhere, it’s this: question everything. Why is Jund winning? Why do I feel like control decks are better than aggro decks? Why do I feel like I should mulligan this hand? Why am I interested in Modern? Don’t just search for the answer, but rather why the answer (or what you think is the answer) has come to you in the way that it has. Uncovering your own bias can do more for not just your Magic skill, but for your entire life, than any 1500-word piece on sideboard cards of the week.

Why Am I Interested In Modern?

I love this format. Cards are interesting, we can do powerful things, strategies are focused, archetypes have a distinct character, deck selection brings with it a certain identity. Games are fast, decisions are complex, mana is efficient—a certain mystique exists in playing eternal formats. We are us, and they are them. I know why I play; do you? It might not seem important, but I’ve become convinced that understanding why is vastly more essential to growth—real, significant growth—than endless scouring in the dirt for morsels of information. How can you find the answer if you don’t know the question? 42.

Still, for all its strengths, Modern can be slow sometimes. We’ve gone through a period recently where not much has changed, and it can be difficult (for me at least) to find things of note to talk about. Pulling an entire article out of thin air is downright impossible, and we’re all intelligent adults here. I’ve stopped reading multiple sites because I could tell when some authors started phoning it in.

Whether you agree with my opinions or not, like my style or not, hopefully no person could ever claim that I don’t have heart. Most of the time that heart is in Modern, regardless if it’s looking ugly this month or not. But for all those times I love the richness of this format, there are others where I just die to a Blood Moon, or my opponent casts Melira, Sylvok Outcast, or I get an overdose of Lightning Storm one too many times. Still, I have to write about Modern each week, even on occasions when I haven’t had the time to play for a little while. Can I really speak to the manipulations of the format with any confidence in that scenario?

The Fourth Wall

Some readers have suggested that the quality of content on this site has deteriorated in the past few months. I would say that’s possible. I can’t speak to this without bringing along bias, as I am a writer, among colleagues, with an editor to report to and skin in the game—but I have an opinion as well.

I feel like most of the time negative comments are thrown out with the bath water, categorized as “hate” and ignored, when in reality they can be a precursor to something deeper. There’s a danger that comes from biting at every negative line that gets cast, and I’ve seen my fair share of negativity from streaming (most of the time while losing) on Twitch. Still, I love Nexus, and want to be part of something I feel is great, which is why I’m setting the table for a conversation. There is no right way or wrong way to write, in my opinion. Some write to present information, others write to detail accomplishments. I write to promote discussion. Even if the position I take is 100% incorrect, I do so in the hopes that I’m cultivating a discussion that’s valuable.

Every individual that comes to this site brings with them a certain set of expectations, specific things they’re looking to get from a Magic article. Thus what one player considers a valuable discussion, another might find tedious, or simply irrelevant.

Is number-heavy statistical analysis what you want Modern Nexus to be? Is there a place in that conversation for a writer who chooses hypotheticals and musings over percentages and tables? I love analyzing data, and I would hope that isn’t in question, given that around half my articles have been about metagame and event analysis. Still, I can’t do the same article week after week, and I don’t personally find primers and deck techs interesting. We all come to the table with varying levels of skill and experience, but I know my readers are intelligent, and they don’t need a 2000-word piece explaining Infect to decide if it’s the deck for them. I prefer to learn by picking up a deck myself, seeing how it operates, and experiencing a little discovery—I know many Nexites feel the same. If I’m to hold myself to the standards I set for myself, and those that my readers expect, then my goal is to bring to the table something unique, something thought-provoking, something of worth.

Goals

All I want is to write a weekly column that provides some fresh, exciting insight into Magic: The Gathering. Here in our corner of the internet, nothing we say or read or write will change the world. But if it’s interesting, if it’s different, if it’s something worth remembering, then I consider that a success, and we just might change ourselves. To do that, I need to find the middle ground between my crazy, wandering mind and your very real wants and desires. This weekly article series is nothing if nobody reads it.

There’s a spectrum with mailbag articles on one end and developed theory pieces on the other. I find myself much more interested in theory (read: tangential thoughts that tie precariously to Magic concepts) and I find that those types of articles are much rarer compared to what is normally found online. The reasons for this are clear: they are unapproachable, unrelatable, and generally just tough to read (especially on the go). But these articles are the ones that stick with me personally, the ones I go back and read years after the author first published them. Whatever I’m trying to say—and I don’t know what that is yet—I’d like to think that each week is another attempt at moving closer to that point. Maybe you can help me get there.

Weekly Update

So, in addition to whatever topic I write on each week, I’ll include a section (of varying length) on my weekly thoughts on Modern—what I’ve been playing, what’s working, what’s on the rise, what to watch out for. Sometimes I’ll have a lot to say, and this will be the whole article for the week. Other weeks (like this one) it’ll be small, and I’ll spend the rest of the article delving more into the theory end.

With that in mind, here’s what I’ve been playing of late:

Grixis Control, by Trevor Holmes

Creatures (11)
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Snapcaster Mage
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Vendilion Clique
Grim Lavamancer

Artifacts (1)
Engineered Explosives

Instants (14)
Terminate
Lightning Bolt
Kolaghan’s Command
Thought Scour
Slaughter Pact
Electrolyze

Planeswalkers (3)
Liliana of the Veil

Sorceries (9)
Serum Visions
Inquisition of Kozilek
Rise/Fall
Anger of the Gods

Lands (22)
Creeping Tar Pit
Darkslick Shores
Spirebluff Canal
Blackcleave Cliffs
Bloodstained Mire
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Blood Crypt
Watery Grave
Island
Mountain
Swamp
Sideboard (15)
Anger of the Gods
Collective Brutality
Fulminator Mage
Dispel
Engineered Explosives
Damnation
Izzet Staticaster
Surgical Extraction
Inquisition of Kozilek
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

After months away, I’m back to Grixis Control. No, it’s not because I’m uninterested in winning—I believe this deck is close to being good again, based largely on the strength of Surgical Extraction. Yeah, that sentence was a rollercoaster, and I don’t expect you to believe it. In this format, removal is good, discard is better, and as long as you can disrupt cheaply and turn the corner quickly you’re in good shape. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Liliana of the Veil are at their best right now. As with Ancestral Visions, if you can back them up, you don’t have to do much (or spend much) to win the game.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is in as more maindeck Dredge hate and game-one lifegain against the field, but I’m often cutting him in sideboard games. Vendilion Clique is killing a surprising amount of Death’s Shadow decks out of nowhere, and the triggered ability is better now than ever.

While there isn’t a true control deck at the top end to push us around, this archetype can capitalize on the polarized field we find ourselves in, for a little while at least. If this archetype starts to have widespread success (which I’ve given up hope will ever happen) things might start to level off a bit. But for now, play maindeck Anger of the Gods and Rise // Fall while you can still keep a straight face.

As always, thanks for reading.

Trevor Holmes

The_Architect on MTGO

Twitch.tv/Architect_Gaming

Twitter.com/7he4rchitect

Trevor started playing Magic in 2011. He plays primarily online and studies Architecture at UNCC. Recent paper Magic accomplishments include a 2015 Regional PTQ win qualifying for Pro Tour: Magic Origins and a Day Two performance at GP Charlotte. He also streams weekdays at twitch.tv/Architect_Gaming! Follow him at twitter.com/7he4rchitect and architectgaming.wordpress.com!

26 thoughts on “From the Heart: Writing on Magic & Modern

  1. Producing something new every week is tough, even for someone who loves to brew. Too often you can find yourself writing something that’s already been written many times before with little insight to add. Modern nexus was on track when it was the numbers site because nobody else was doing that – everything you would produce would be fresh. Once you go off into deck techs and stuff you’re now competing with other sites that do the same thing.

    There has been less and less math/stats type analysis on the site (as many note – no metagame update since sept) which was the site’s original niche. You can move away from that and instead be the site that provides only Modern content – but I’m not sure at 1 article per day you’ll actually be producing more modern content than CFB or SCG, and you certainly won’t have the credibility of their pro writers. If you go down the path of modern brews you’re probably going to be a worse version of mtg goldfish, or still be stuck competing with the same content from the big sites.

    You guys know your page hits and whatnot so you probably know if readership is up or down, but the site has definitely strayed from its original path of fact based statistical analysis of the modern format (for better or worse)

    1. Very well said, I completely agree with your whole comment, Darcy.

      One other thing to add is to note (anecdotally) that it seems modern content is on the rise across the board with other sites (presumably as modern seems to have supplanted standard as the most played format). That also makes it tougher for you guys to compete when only doing one article a day. I’d like to see the site go more back toward its statistical roots, I thought it was unique and pretty interesting (I’ve always liked stats).

      Anyway, thanks for the article Trevor.

      1. Thanks for the feedback guys, looking through the comments it looks like a desire for the metagame update to return is pretty common. Beyond that, I wonder what we can do as a site to continue to set ourselves apart from the crowd if it looks like other sites will begin to produce more Modern content. What would you like to see? Videos? More than one article a day? Obviously we need to make the small steps first, but it doesn’t hurt to begin to plan.

        Thanks again,
        Trevor

        1. Thoughts on other content:

          In the past I would have absolutely expected MN to talk about become immense and whether or not its crossing the threshold on ban criteria or not – or more generally the incidence of t3 kills in DS Zoo, Infect, and maybe “virtual t3” kills with dredge to provide some informed articles on banlist talk.

          Other number type analysis – what’s it worth to run seal of fire and tarfire to pump your goyf? odds of drawing/binning etc. In kiki chord I believe Jeff Hoogland commented that running emrakul is a real cost – how often would you expect to draw it? How often does binning it with nahiri cause any grief to your deck (i.e. eternal witness, maybe scooze).

          The work done on testing stoneforge mystic – that kind of testing could stand to be refined into something more precise and more manageable for the tester, but running banned cards through some kind of gauntlet is something nobody else is doing and players are super interested in I think. It sucks that it takes like months of testing to come out with one article on JTMS – surely there’s a better way where you spit out periodic articles on how the testing is going – maybe matchup by matchup and we can see the story unfold? That has to be more rewarding for the tester and less of a wait for the audience.

          And tournament reports are fine – especially for larger events. Making those worthwhile is just a matter of having skill as a writer to make them personable/insightful and I think most of the writers here have that talent.

          More Finance analysis of MM17 – if we assume Wizards designed the set at point X what cards would have been on the radar for reprinting? Or conversely what’s spiked since then that would not have been on the rader (but could still coincidentally be in)? How have the values been affected for cards reprinted in MM1/MM2 as of today – i.e. what should we expect from a LotV and Snapcaster reprint in terms of pricing?

          Just thoughts but those kind of things would make sense to me.

          1. Just wanted to swing by and second this. It’s not so much that the more recent articles aren’t good, it’s just that the site no longer delivers on its original premise. I read every article that’s published on this site, and they’re all fine their own right, but metagame analysis, analysis of potential bans and unbans, these are the things that distinguished Modern Nexus and now they’re nowhere to be found.

            Sure, there’s been a little talk of the banlist in a few articles recently, but only in the form of opinion. Opinions are interesting, and they can make for a good read, but at the end of the day, they don’t mean much of anything. What Sheridan used to do, analysing potential bans by several metrics, comparing them with official Wizards policy and previous bans, that’s what (I think) a lot of us complaining about the new content would like to see a return to.

            And of course, the elephant in the room, the metagame updates. The other thing to remember about these is that just punching the numbers into the spreadsheet and laying them out on the site is one thing, but the other interesting part of those articles was the fact based trend analysis that came with them, as well as predictions on where the metagame might go to next based on those trends. If you bring these things back, the things that Modern Nexus was built on, I think you’ll find a lot less complaining to be found when you post an opinion piece, a strange brew or a tournament report. Here’s hoping that MN can be as great as it once was. Cheers!

        2. Writing about magic would be good. like on mtggoldfish (not saying you have to be mtggoldfish) there is an article about a budget jeshai flying men build, with video decktech and a video league. it is a very practical article would be very useful for players new to modern. it is also entertaining for someone like me, who just wants to see something new in the format even if it’s budget. so that’s cool. then i come to modern nexus and it’s an article about “being a writer”. if i wanted to know what it was like to be a writer i would pick up the reader’s digest on my grandmother’s coffee table. i’m in to magic. also why still beating the grixis control horse? grixis delver is all the rage right now. basically what i am trying to say is that going forward you guys should try to focus on what works. dech techs, tournament analysis, videos when able, interviews if available, and not just why infect is the best deck in the format. like we get it infect is a good deck, but it takes up less than 9% of the meta. there are a plethora of viable strategies in modern, that’s why we all love it. i hope you don’t think i’m flaming you. honestly i would just like to see this site reach it’s full potential and these opinion pieces just aren’t cutting it.

          1. I have to disagree here. If All I wanted were safe articles I’d read channelfireball (which I do ….but still) Modern is the kind of format where any deck is just waiting to break out and become the next good thing. I love grixis delver since its my main deck but if Trevor wants to promote grixis control then great…gives me one more option of decks to play if it turns out to be good. Nothing wrong with Hypothesis especially backed with some facts and experience.

  2. Hey Trevor, thanks for the piece I enjoyed it as usual and had a question for you regarding grixis builds generally. Specifically, if the new Yahenni’s Expertise is going to make a splash there?

    It seems like it would be very well received in tasigur/zombie fish lists, (I recognize that these are often very different decks) After reviewing your particular build it does not appear to be something you’d want to be doing, but that card just seems tailor made for a grixis player (at least to a layperson like myself). Thoughts?

    1. Four mana is a lot of mana, especially for something that can’t kill a Tarmogoyf.

      That being said, getting a free Liliana of the Veil out of the deal to kill said Tarmogoyf, or even just casting a recently drawn Ancestral Vision sounds pretty cool. I could see it as a one-of in certain metagames, but this card is not great against a large percentage of the metagame.

      Then again, neither is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, so we could have something here. Nice suggestion!

  3. Thanks, Trevor! Nice to hear from you. Real life gets in the way, and though I do miss the weekly deck techs/runs through a MTGO tourney, I appreciate that you’re life is full of good things and hard work. Plus, since Modern isn’t a pro-tour format any more it doesn’t change quite as often so there’s less content to cover.

    To address one thing that I’ve felt about the “content getting worse over the last few months” I would say that there was one consistency that has seemingly ceased to be that bothers me the most: The meta game updates. A consistent update was what kept me coming back to modernnexus month after month. The content of the articles is still great, but there’s a perception of the website failing from the lack of consistent meta game updates anymore. I know Sheridan has moved on a bit, but these were an important feature of this site. Just my 1/50th of a credit.

    1. From what I’ve heard, the metagame updates should be back on track soon. That’s not my area, though, so I can’t speak much to that. As for the videos, I would like to get back to doing them, they did take up a ton of time however, and the site wasn’t really in a position to support them when we tried them initially. If there is a demand for them, we could definitely see them return, so if you want them let us know!

      Thanks,
      Trevor

      1. I have also heard this. Fear not, Nexites! Expect more developments in the next couple weeks.

        Also want to say that this kind of feedback is very helpful. Thanks to everyone for your comments and suggestions.

  4. Vindication! Finally who see’s the power of Rise/Fall in Grixis Control. Against the fast tempo decks you can throw snapcaster away as an ambush viper, bounce their queen and get snappy back. In the super grindy matches, Hymn to Tourach is super good. I run 2 in my main and 1 in the side to go along side the 3 Kolaghan’s Commands.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. Hearing your perspective on what playing Magic is all about for you was quite compelling. My story is very different, which actually makes reading about yours even more interesting.

    As for your list… I think Slaughter Pact might be better off being a Murderous Cut. I also think the Lavaman is a great piece of spice. I think the Rise // Fall and the 4th Inquisition of Kozilek should switch places. Apart from that, I recognize the midrangey direction you’re trying to go for, and I think that JVP is an elegant solution for getting advantage out of Ancestral Visions that show up too late to be cast. The threat count still feels a tad low (maybe a 2nd Clique?), but the basic shell looks solid.

    1. Thanks Roland,

      One of the strengths of this deck right now (I believe) is that we don’t really need dedicated threats to win a game of Magic. Similar to Ancestral Visions out of the Jeskai decks of old, just drawing three (plus a natural) to put us at five cards when both us and our opponent were nearly hellbent a second ago is often enough to garner the concession. A Liliana of the Veil at 5, killing everything while also ticking up and extra cards in hand is often enough to make the opponent just scoop em up.

      Thanks,
      Trevor

  6. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I can’t say I entirely agree with people on the site going downhill, You Jordan and David are still delivering the same kind of quality articles as before all with your own set of skills and interests. The lack of meta game update and analysis is pretty unfortunate and I do miss Sheridan articles but gaining Ryan Overturf and Jim Casale as weekly writers is pretty awesome I love both their columns. I guess having a monday article again would be nice or videos.

    1. We’ve definitely ‘lost’ some things, but we’ve gained some as well. If the lack of metagame updates is the primary reason for concern (as it looks like it is) I wouldn’t be surprised to see a renewed effort to bring them back regularly. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the content!

      Trevor

  7. Mastery in any field demands focus, so you will eventually have to choose between writing or play, or one, maybe both will suffer.

    It sound to me like you want to experiment with being “branded” by fame, but it’s really the other way around. You choose the behaviour, and become that brand, so if you want a brand, you have to decide what kind of behaviour YOU think is appropriate for that brand, and then you just do it.

  8. Sometimes reports from recent tournaments can be enough. Play a deck (tier or brew) and bring with it an anlaysis. It can be the same deck week after week, with various adjustments. We dont need absolutely unique new content every week.

    I come mostly for Jordan’s articles, and the ones that interest me the most are ones that come with decklists and ideas. Ideas I can then use on my own decks.

    Make new article categories. Break them down by type of decks, etc…

    That alone is good enough to make a lot of people come back every week.

    Get new writers who are also avid Modern players so they can add their two cents as well.

    You dont need a masterpiece article every day to run this site.

  9. Great article :). For me, the biggest indicator for the quality decrease, in addition to the infrequent metagame updates, was the shift away from an article a day every weekday. It makes sense that lives are not always easy to manage, but the shift also signaled a drop in the site’s professionalism, in one reader’s perspective. That said, I love the brewing work that the site does, but more could be done to keep that information true to the statistical core. How does brew x compare to tier 1 counterpart? What are the percentage shifts towards or away from known quantities, how does play and or archetype role shift as a result? Etc.

  10. Have you already written a piece about why people are so often quitting and then coming back to magic? I just got out of mtgo. While it’s a much better way to play a variety of modern decks – no need to hunt down a playset and reserve – I couldn’t stand putting much money in it and I can’t justify that much time online with two young kids. That being said it’s been a half year since I opened up my paper modern decks… So will I be back online?? Not unlikely. I’d love to read more on that topic.

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