Magic: The Gathering’s Modern format is one of the most beloved ways to play the game. Its pool of over 11,000 cards offers players a huge variety of powerful strategies to pilot to success. Some players use it to dominate others. Some use it to tinker. Talk to top pros and you’ll hear about a range of tactics.
There are more than a dozen ways to play Magic, but Modern is arguably the game’s most popular competitive format: large paper tournaments frequently sell out, and there are websites, podcasts, and a 28,000-member subreddit devoted to Modern play. Modern is unique in its position at the edge of old and new: as a non-rotating format, cards that are legal in Modern will stay legal forever (barring entry to the ban list), so players can invest long-term in cards that they like and perfect playing their favored strategy. On the other hand, the format’s cutoff point is the 2003 expansion 8th Edition, meaning that the most broken cards from Magic’s early days are not permitted, and the latest cards from each new expansion have the chance to make a splash or even enable entirely new strategies.
Above all, Modern is valued for the variety of experiences it makes available to Magic players. Some players’ greatest ambition is to win, and they seek to refine card choices and master play patterns of the best-performing deck in the current metagame. Others love to create brand new decks with strategies that their opponents cannot predict and try and leverage the surprise factor of their homebrews. Some have a singular “pet deck” that they bring to each tournament, a deck that is tied to their identity as a player.
I spoke with three pro Magic players on their Modern decks and habits, and found a diversity of relationships between the wizards and their spells.
The de facto “best deck” in Modern today is Death’s Shadow, boasting an 11% share of the metagame. There are many ways to win a game of Magic, but the most common and “fairest” method is to knock the opponent from 20 life points down to zero, and the most common way to do that is by summoning and attacking with creatures. Death’s Shadow decks play this basic strategy more efficiently than any other deck in the format. The deck accomplishes this goal by turning effects that are traditionally drawbacks— loss of life, cards in the graveyard— into advantages. Having a low life total makes the card’s namesake threat Death’s Shadow ever stronger, and having a stacked graveyard makes the creatures Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang easier to cast. Attacking with an oversized creature and disrupting the opponent’s strategy with discard and counterspells is a speedy route to victory.
Emma Handy has piloted Death’s Shadow’s to strong tournament finishes, and has written articles on the finer aspects of the deck’s strategy. Handy told Compete that the reason for the deck’s dominance is its efficiency: “Almost every card in your deck costs one or two mana, and as a result you end up being able to do more than your opponent each turn and put them behind. You want to develop a threat and interact with what they’re doing on the same turn. They’re choosing to do one thing, and you’re doing both things. Eventually, you end up ahead on board [i.e. you have more and stronger creatures in play], and they’re losing the game.” This efficiency is enabled by the deck’s use of life as a resource, a strategy that no other deck employs: “The deck uses life to make cards more powerful, and uses life as a way to play more powerful cards. The other spells that do that kind of thing aren’t legal.” Because Death’s Shadow is a known and established deck, piloting it in a tournament comes with the risk of being paired against the same deck in a mirror match. Handy loves the high level of skill required in matches like these: “A mirror match on the best deck in the format and both of you have a mirror breaker, being able to posture yourself against that— that’s the stuff that’s magic to me. Not ‘Magic’ the game, ‘magic’ the adjective.”
For players like Zac Elsik, the magic of Magic is not found in perfecting lines of play with the best deck, but in bringing unknown decks from the fringes of Modern to tournament success. Elsik is a “brewer,” and finds the most joy in mixing overlooked, individually weak cards into a cocktail of unexpected synergy. “I tend to lean on the cards that other people don’t play with,” he told me. “That’s not because I only want to play with bad cards, but because this game is very deep, and there’s a lot of cool synergies that are hidden away.” Brewing is not the way to go for players focused solely on winning, as many brews are destined to fail. According to Elsik, “The probability of finding a [new] deck that’s good enough to handle whatever the metagame is and to handle variance, it’s pretty low.” However, bringing an unknown quantity to a tournament has its advantages too: “When I end up playing a card, and I have to play it upside down because my opponents always read it—this person has not seen this card. They’re not going to be able to see the full strategy. Coming into an event where your opponents are unaware of your game plan gives you a huge edge—how are they going to plan to stop it, if they don’t know what they’re trying to stop?”
The deck that best exemplifies Elsik’s brewing success is Lantern Control. Elsik discovered a chunky, unrefined deck list on Magic discussion boards online, and worked to streamline it to competitive viability, accomplishing this goal with a pair of top tournament finishes in 2015. Lantern Control’s strategy is unique among Magic decks in that it attempts to stack the opponent’s deck with powerless cards. The deck relies on its namesake card Lantern of Insight to view the topmost card of the opponent’s deck. Before the opponent can draw a new card on their turn, the Lantern pilot has the opportunity to use artifacts like Codex Shredder to “mill” their library, or place the top card into the graveyard and replace it with the card directly underneath. In this way, the Lantern pilot can guarantee that the card that the opponent will actually draw is one that cannot win the game or break the Lantern lock.
Although the deck takes a long time to win the game (usually by milling out their opponent’s entire deck, an unusual but legal win condition), it can very quickly set up a board state where it cannot lose. As Elsik explained, “If two people sit down for a game of Magic, and you can guarantee within the first four or five turns that your opponent cannot win the game for the rest of the game, then you’ve won.” Part of Magic’s appeal is its hidden information and the randomness inherent to drawing cards from a shuffled deck. Elsik enjoys playing Lantern because it nullifies this aspect of the game: “You turn Magic into a game of chess. All the pieces are known and all of the information are known. You can piece together, what are all of my opponent’s moves and options now?”
Elsik’s 2015 victory at Grand Prix Oklahoma City brought Lantern Control to the forefront of Modern, and the deck that was once an unknown brew has evolved into a staple of the format. The deck took down a field of 900 players at Grand Prix Brisbane earlier this year. Elsik, however, is no longer interested in piloting Lantern at tournaments, and instead prefers to devote his energy to creating and refining new strategies out of unknown, bulk-rate cards: “Now that I’ve put the deck on the map, I have a whole community of people enjoying the deck and playing it. What I want to do instead is find more decks and more potential.” Given Modern’s deep card pool, Elsik is optimistic about his chances: “I believe there are at least 20 or 30 decks out there that the majority of people don’t know about, that can win a Grand Prix.”
Whereas Handy is a competitive player who likes to perfect playing the best deck du jour and Elsik is a brewer who champions fringe strategies, Thien Nguyen is a lifelong specialist in his deck of choice. Nguyen began his Modern career as a brewer, and worked to refine a popular list that used the combination of the cards Scapeshift and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle to win the game on the spot. The deck tries to “combo off” by dealing a huge amount of damage to the opponent all at once. When a player casts Scapeshift, they can sacrifice any number of their lands and replace them with new ones chosen from his deck. Once they have seven or more lands in play, a Scapeshift can exchange them for a combination of Valakuts and Mountains to trigger 18 or 36 damage directly to the opponent, and thus win the game with just a single card. Nguyen took out some of the interactive cards in the list that he had seen online, and replaced them with cards that went all-in on accelerating the combo. His most notable inclusion was the multipurpose threat Primeval Titan, responsible for the new build’s name of Titan Shift.
Nguyen took Titan Shift to a Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Pittsburgh in November 2015, and he’s been winning with the deck ever since. At the beginning, Nguyen felt he benefited from the brewer’s advantages favored by Elsik: “There’s a non-zero edge you gain from playing a card that your opponent has no familiarity playing against...I don’t think the wheels were turning enough that my opponent would know what I was trying to do.”
After Nguyen achieved an impressive 8-2 record at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch in 2016, playing at the highest competitive level, Titan Shift became a much more commonly known entity. Unlike Elsik, Nguyen intends to stick with the strategy he pioneered: “I just love the deck. As long as it’s legal in Modern I can’t see myself switching to any other deck.” Nguyen explained that part of the joy of playing the same deck for years is learning its intricacies inside and out. “People don’t take unorthodox lines [of play] enough...I’ve won the game by attacking 15 times with a Sakura-Tribe Elder. I’ll still have 2 Scapeshifts and 2 Primeval Titans in hand, but I don’t need to play them.”
For Magic players looking to get into Modern, a world of opportunities awaits. In addition to the strategies outlined above, players can find success by flinging lightning at their opponent’s face; summoning an army of tiny robots, or merfolk, or elves; playing necromancer and reanimating the dead; or try out one of the other 30 established decks in the format.
Players can also buck all convention and brew up a new list. Elsik told me, “There are some people who would just rather try and win, as opposed to winning with style.”
Whether your goal is to exercise your creativity in deck building, get in more reps with a beloved strategy, or simply take home a trophy ASAP, Modern has room for your style of choice.
Rafael Abrahams is a graduate student studying history in Chicago, and a competitive Magic enthusiast specializing in Modern. You can follow him on Twitter @shloopu.