This article was not easy for me to write. Those of you who have followed my writings for some time may have noticed that I am optimistic to a fault. In Magic, and life, I am always looking for the silver lining. However, I am pessimistic about where Modern will be six months from now. I typically welcome change but when I look at where we are and what is coming, I am very concerned. I am not saying that Magic or Modern are doomed; far from it. I am saying that, apart from Eldrazi Winter, I have always loved the Modern format and when I look at the horizon I see that everything is about to change.
This issue is here and now. Arclight Phoenix decks have been the best performing archetype at every Grand Prix since the card was printed. Even at it’s first Grand Prix, it tied with the now banned KCI decks among the Top 32. The Phoenix archetype was immediately dominant and despite having months to do so, the format has been unable to adjust. To this many players ask rhetorically, “Do you remember Humans in 2018 and Shadow in 2017?”. While this whataboutism is cute, it is far from accurate. Neither of those decks ever saw this level of dominance during their tenure. They were great decks and they were dominant. But the data we see currently is actually more similar to Eldrazi Winter than it is to either of those decks. Thankfully things are not that bad but this past weekend and the one before it saw Phoenix decks do better than any other two archetypes combined. I do not expect the format to be able to adjust to something so powerful and the format seems to be in a bit of a jam. The best decks are Phoenix and Dredge. Despite both being Faithless Looting decks, their matchups spreads are quite different. Many players want to play one of the few decks, like Burn, that have good Phoenix matchups but are disincentivized to do so because of a bad Dredge matchup.
So how do we fix this and why is it relevant to the future? Unfortunately, the only fix I see is a Faithless Looting ban. I believe that there are only two reasons for a player to oppose such a ban currently. Either they own a Faithless Looting deck or they want to wait and see how the London Mulligan and Modern Horizons affect the format. Unfortunately, I think the latter opinion is one held by many at WotC. It was the basis for Luke’s recent B&R prediction as well. I understand this position but I do not appreciate the format becoming a lame duck while we wait. We have three Modern Grands Prix between now and the release of Modern Horizons. While we wait for a new set to come save us, Phoenix decks may continue to dominate and possibly drive players away. I still hold hope that something will change and we can crack the code on these decks; Whir Prison is where I would start. Failing this though, we will continue to see Phoenix decks soaring over the competition.
The London Mulligan
This is probably surprising and confusing for those who follow my work. I ran the numbers on the London Mulligan in order to prove that the sky was not falling. The finding was that the effects of the new mulligan were largely irrelevant unless a player is down to five cards. The sevens are obviously identical and the sixes are very near to one another. But as I pointed out in Part 3 and Frank Karsten demonstrated in his recent article, the difference between a Vancouver five and a London five is quite significant. Therefore, decks that can win with low card quantity and decks focused on card quality (specific cards) benefit the most. A concern that cannot be captured in my or Frank’s methodology is how these decks would be rebuilt with the new rules in mind. They effectively have greater card selection and are less punished for mulligans. So why would they not build a less consistent deck that contains more action? We can test how it affects decks built for the Vancouver rules but we cannot know how decks built for London rules will behave.
Did you not say that you advocate for it regardless of whether it results in bans though? Yes faithful reader, I did say that and I stand by it. The London rules give the skill of all players greater influence over their game outcomes. Sometimes you just lose either way and your skill as a player is irrelevant. London rules would reduce this occurrence and make the game better. I am concerned about it because it immediately follows the age of the Phoenix. We have had Phoenix dominate for three months and if it continues, players will have a sour taste in their mouth by the time the London rules are adopted. If the adoption of the London mulligan brings us to another unbalanced format, the playerbase will be ready to mutiny. We will go from our current lame duck format that is waiting for the London mulligan, to another lame duck format that will be waiting for Modern Horizons. By the time it shows up, we may be coming off of six full months of an unbalanced Modern format. Which does not bode well for the format and therefore the sales of Modern Horizons.
Interestingly, Luke predicted this one too. He is pretty good at that. He is like one of those kids that would tell you their dad works at WotC but he actually knows what he is talking about. Anyways, this is something that he and I had discussed for a number of years. We were very disappointed that the first Commander set was bringing Scavenging Ooze but it would not be Modern legal. There is no reason that Modern should only get cards via Standard when we have had multiple supplemental sets that are entirely focused on Modern. I have wanted new cards and/or non-Modern reprints inserted into these sets for some time; Shardless Agent please. As long as the MSRP, which no longer exists, was low enough and the Modern reprints were valuable enough it would be good for the format.
So why are you complaining about it? Well, dear reader, you can have too much of a good thing. Controversial Opinion: Apart from the dominance of Phoenix, I love the Modern format. The only time I disliked it was Eldrazi Winter and I think most of us can agree with that. I would love it even more if a handful of powerful cards could be added to it in a supplemental set each year. However, I am not pleased that a new set will be introducing nearly 250 powerful, new cards at once. Consider how much Guilds of Ravnica changed Modern with Arclight Phoenix and Creeping Chill. Now consider a set without the Standard power restriction that contains more than 200 cards. This will shake the format up more severely than it has been in its near eight-year history. I would not expect post-Horizons Modern to look much like the format that I know and love. What Modern needed from this set was a mix of new cards and badly needed reprints such as the enemy-colored fetchlands. A greater threat is that the set could be so powerful that almost every deck will need cards from it. If such a set comes every year or two, we are looking at our format being monetized similar to a rotating format. I enjoy change and the basic idea of the set quite a bit but the way they are going about it appears to be more of an upheaval.
I am sorry for coming off so negative in contrast to my typical content. I think it is important to be honest about my feelings about the future though. I fear that we are looking at three more months of an unbalanced format as we wait to open Pandora’s box. Once it is open, the format will never be the same and there is no going back. Regardless, I am still holding out hope. I hope that decks like Whir Prison force the Phoenix to take a landing. I hope that the London mulligan creates a balanced format without a ban. Most of all, I hope that Modern Horizons is awesome and updates the format without turning it on its head. What do you think the future holds for the Modern format? We would love to talk it over in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. We will be back tomorrow with the sweetest brews from this past weekends tournaments. Until then my friends.