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What is Modern MTG? Understanding The Most Popular Competitive Format

Modern is often known as one of the most competitive and expensive Magic: The Gathering formats. However, this fails to capture the unique differences of this beloved way to play the game. A Constructed format, Modern offers players a wide-range of cards for deck-building—all the way back to 2003. This large card-pool means that only the best cards become staples. That being said, there is also a lot of room to tinker with a Modern deck that allows more customization than similar formats. 

In Modern, knowing one’s deck is essential. Whereas some formats hardly require a game to determine who will win (it’s the person with the best deck), Modern is less straightforward: a player who skillfully pilots their deck can beat a more competitive or expensive Modern deck. 

That being said, understanding the metagame is crucial to Modern—especially in 2022. Recent sets have changed the format significantly. We’ll take a look at the state of Modern and how that affects choosing or building a deck, as well as the following topics: 

How to Play: MTG Modern Format 

Modern can be played in-person and through Magic: The Gathering Online. It is not available on Magic Arena. Modern cards never rotate out of the format. Since Modern includes MTG cards all the way back to 2003, players are able to choose the most efficient type of card. 

A major aspect of Modern is playing the most efficient spell for a low mana cost. The reasons for this are twofold: 

  1. With such a wide range of cards to choose from, there’s no reason (aside from budget) to choose the higher mana value card that does the same thing as one that costs less mana. 
  2. Modern games are faster than newer formats. Originally, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) stated that it would evaluate bans with the idea that no deck should be able to win in three turns. But does it happen? Yes, yes it does. 

The majority of cards in a Modern deck cost three mana value or less—the exception being decks that utilize clever combos to play higher mana value cards.

The Difference Between Standard & Modern MTG + Rules

Let’s start with the similarities between the two formats, which also details the basic rules that Modern players need to be aware of:

  • Decks require a minimum of 60 cards, with an optional 15-card sideboard. There is no maximum deck size; however, the player must be able to shuffle the deck unassisted. 
  • The deck (including the sideboard) can have up to four of each card (by name). 
  • Players begin with 20 life total.

A big difference between Standard and Modern MTG formats is the lack of rotation in Modern. While Modern decks can be expensive, the lack of rotation means decks are playable for many years. The exception being when an important card is banned—or the meta changes too significantly. 

Otherwise, the investment a player puts into their Modern deck will provide them with years and years of playability. This is a wildly different approach than Standard, which rotates every year. 

Standard has a decidedly small pool of cards to draw from. This makes it much easier for WotC to balance power-levels in the game. The yearly rotation means continually investing money into maintaining a legal deck. Whereas all new cards affect the Standard format, few alter Modern.

Pioneer vs. Modern: The Basics

Both Modern and Pioneer are constructed formats that do not rotate. Regular sets introduced from Return to Ravnica forward are legal in Pioneer. This newer format, introduced in 2019, doesn’t include many of the cards that skew the power-level of Modern decks. 

Players note that the Pioneer format encourages more board interaction, which some players will prefer. With slightly slower games, Pioneer is considered a middle-ground format between Standard and Modern. 

The name “Modern” refers to the modern frame on Magic: The Gathering cards. This is often considered an easy reference for determining whether or not older cards are legal in Modern. 

Overall, the Modern format allows cards from Eighth Edition and Mirrodin forward—excluding supplementary sets (aside from Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2) and commander decks. However, “Timeshifted cards in Time Spiral (even never reprinted in the modern frame), cards from planeswalker decks and Buy-a-Box promos are considered legal in this format.”

Complete List of Modern MTG Sets & Banned Cards

Additionally, Modern players need to stay updated on what cards are banned in the format. Because of the nature of Modern, the ban list is healthy. Players often consider past ban list decisions when investing in a Modern deck. 

What is the “Metagame” in Modern? 

Modern players can often determine what kind of deck they’re playing against by turn four, if not sooner. More than a decade ago, ChannelFireball writer Jeff Cunningham wrote

The metagame, essentially, refers to what everyone else is playing. A game of Constructed Magic has (at least) two players. At least 120 cards are active. While you have full control of the selection of your own cards, your deck never exists in a vacuum. One half of a game of Magic is a constant, and the other is a variable that changes with every opponent. The consideration of this variable, in deckbuilding, is a consideration of the metagame.”

In 2022, the meta is more important in competitive Modern than ever before. This restricts the types of decks that people are inclined to build, should they wish to remain competitive. However, there is a large range of competitive decks in Modern. 

Recent releases have lent a level of uniformity within the format—even though Wizards of the Coast regularly bans cards that have become overly-powerful to refresh the format. 

The importance of considering the meta when building a Modern deck comes down to this: 

The meta describes the majority of decks a player will face. If that player’s deck is unable to compete with meta decks, it will struggle to succeed no matter how well-built or piloted it is. 

Note: The meta will be more or less relevant to your deck-building based on where you want to play Modern. For example: if you plan to predominantly play with a group of friends, the meta is the decks your group is playing with. However, if your goal is to play online or in a tournament, considering the broader meta is essential. 

The State of Modern in 2022

Even though cards do not rotate out, the Modern format still evolves—sometimes very quickly. Modern Horizons 2 (2021), for example, introduced a wealth of new cards to the format. Some players, however, argue that it also has homogenized aspects of the game. 

If a powerful and highly-efficient card is in a deck’s color, it’s likely to be included in that deck. Some players become frustrated when a powerful card dominates the game to such a degree that it’s nearly a requirement for being competitive.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den, a companion introduced with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths (2020), was dominating the meta in this way until being recently banned. While some players will miss the companion, the change is a net-positive for the meta: players will be encouraged to include a wider variety of cards, meaning less deck-building restriction. 

Even so, restricted deck-building has become fairly commonplace in the 2022 meta. Having to compete with relatively inexpensive yet punishing cards, like Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon’s Rage Channeler, forces decks to clear a high bar in order to be competitive. 

How to Choose or Build a Modern MTG Deck

It is common for Modern players to choose a deck, rather than build one from scratch. A player might be prepared to spend $1000 or $100 on a deck. Either way, they will need to decide what kind of deck to build or buy (as singles) and consider its place in the metagame. 

We’ll discuss the most general archetypes and discuss some of the specific deck-types within them. For example: aggro is a common archetype. ​​”Burn” and “Humans” are common deck-types (or themes) within that category. 

Furthermore, certain cards have become staples, which players include in nearly any Modern deck—so long as it fits their colors. For better or worse, this is a common aspect of the current metagame. 

Common Modern Archetypes + Decks

Some Modern decks ignore board interaction entirely in favor of a wacky game-winning combo. Other decks control what resources the opponent has access to and which spells they can play. Regardless of the strategy, each deck has a clear path to winning. There are four general Modern deck archetypes: aggro, combo, midrange and control. Each archetype name describes the strategy those types of decks utilize to win. 

Featured below are a few types of decks from each archetype. Reviewing these will allow you both better understand the various ways to play Modern—as well as help you to figure out what type of deck is best for you.

Note: Lurrus of the Dream-Den was banned on March 7, 2022. Many of the following decks include Lurrus as it was dominating the meta. This decision removes a card that became practically required to include; therefore, the meta will be greatly impacted by the change.

Take the Quiz: What Modern Deck Should I Play?

Aggro

These are aggressive decks focused on quickly dealing damage, ideally before the opponent can even set up their board. Each of the decks below takes this concept and expounds on it in a unique way. 

Hammer Time. “Hammer Time is one of the most powerful decks in Modern. It can kill on turn two, you can out grind midrange decks and it functions well in both long and short games. Anyone can pick up Hammer Time and get most of the potential out of it, but those who are patient and learn the ins and outs are greatly rewarded,” writes Eli Loveman in the ultimate deck guide for Hammer Time:

“The Plan A of the deck is the Hammer combo. The combo is the namesake card of the deck. You play a Colossus Hammer and use Sigarda’s Aid and Puresteel Paladin to circumvent the equip cost of the Hammer. Stoneforge Mystic and Urza’s Saga act as extra copies of the Hammer, which makes your deck very consistent and finding a Hammer.”

Red Prowess. “Modern Red Prowess is a synergy-driven aggro deck. Compared to Burn, it leans more heavily on its creatures; compared to midrange strategies, it focuses much more on damage output… To put it simply, this is one of my favorite Modern archetypes. Between speed, power and consistency, it really has everything. Your speed makes you strong against non-interactive decks, Lava Dart and other cheap burn spells make you strong against creature decks and your staying power makes you strong against grindy decks.” Check out Reid Duke’s Deep Dive Update of this deck to learn more. 

Burn. “Burn is a deck that has existed since Modern’s inception. While other archetypes have been in a constant state of evolution, Modern Burn has been in a somewhat stagnant state for the last few years. The formula of four Goblin Guide, four Monastery Swiftspear, four Eidolon of the Great Revel, 20 lands and 28 burn spells of choice has remained relatively unchanged for the last few years. That being said, there are tons of new options for Burn to consider from recent sets,” writes Evart Moughon in a recent Modern Burn Deck Update.

Combo

Combo decks utilize the interaction between two or more cards to create game-winning effects. With a focus on synergy, these decks generally require the player to assemble the necessary cards to complete a powerful win condition. 

Goblin Charbelcher. “This deck is completely based around the interaction between Zendikar double-faced cards and cards that care about lands. Goblin Charbelcher always kills the opponent, Recross the Paths lets you stack your entire deck, and the combination makes for a fast and efficient combo deck,” Luis Scott-Vargas writes

In essence, this deck is meant to: “Use red rituals to cast and activate Goblin Charbelcher, which is lethal thanks to none of the double-faced cards counting as lands while in deck. Alternately, cast Recross the Paths and stack your whole deck, setting up a couple different kills.”

Oops All Spells. “Simply put, the deck wants to get to four mana and resolve Undercity Informer or Balustrade Spy, which is usually good enough for a win. Not only does this mean that this is a one-card combo deck (a rarity in any format especially Modern), it’s a one-card combo deck with a lot of redundancy. This means that the deck is able to mulligan aggressively to a self mill creature and consistently cast it on turn three thanks to artifact acceleration. This makes Oops All Spells one of the fastest and most consistent decks in the format.”

Living End. “Since Shardless Agent was reprinted in Modern Horizons 2, Modern Living End skyrocketed to the top of the metagame and remained there. It’s a very powerful and unfair strategy that’s also able to interact plentiful with the opponent.” 

This deck was further updated by Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, “Colossal Skyturtle has replaced Brazen Borrower as two-mana interaction that you also get to reanimate with your Living End.” Read the full deck update by Andrea Mengucci to learn how to build this deck.

Indomitable Creativity. “One-card combos are a rarity in Magic, but there’s actually a few viable strategies in Modern that all revolve around resolving a single card to win the game. One of these cards is Indomitable Creativity

While at first glance it might look like resolving an Indomitable Creativity will just give you random creatures or artifacts from your deck, if built properly, you can ensure that it will always put those same powerful permanents into play when it resolves. 

If the artifacts or creatures you target with Creativity are tokens that you generate with cards like Dwarven Mine or Prismari Command, then if you only have one or two big creatures in your deck, you will always reveal those creatures.” Evart Moughon’s deck update covers all aspects of this deck that players need to consider when building around Creativity. 

Control

Control decks deny an opponent’s access to resources and their ability to make use of their spells. Whereas every other deck archetype is focused on winning, control decks outlast opponents by blocking their carefully considered strategies. 

Azorius Control. “Modern Azorius Control is a fan favorite – who can resist this combo that goes all the way back to Alpha? Counter or kill anything the opponent plays, and gain advantage using planeswalkers and card draw.” Jace, the Mind Sculptor and either Teferi, Time Raveler or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria are common inclusions. With the addition of Modern Horizons 2, Solitude has become a staple in competitive Azorius Control decks. Those who want to build this type of deck should read Luis Scott-Vargas most recent deck update.

Midrange

Midrange combines the elements of both aggro and control decks. This allows players to utilize the best of both worlds, dealing quick damage with little board interaction or employing control to rule the game.

Omnath Midrange. In his deck guide, Reid Duke writes: “All combos aside, Omnath, Locus of Creation is powerful enough that you can simply play it fair and square. With four colors of mana and an outrageously powerful four-drop, there’s no shortage of ways that you can round out your deck. 

“When I asked Gab about the archetype, he told me: “‘It’s a fun deck to play and you can tweak it in many different ways. You could even skip Valakut and just play it as a midrange deck. Or even just play Omnath tap out with tons of removal because the Modern metagame is very creature-based right now.’”

“There’s also the important question of whether or not to use Yorion, Sky Nomad as a companion.” For which there is also a deck guide by Evart Moughon available here. 

Jund Sagavan. Jund, in general, is often named as a good starting place for new Modern players, although it’s worth noting that some of the cards are quite expensive. This black/red/green deck focuses on removing an opponent’s resources and out-lasting with cheap threats. Jund Sagavan, specifically, is “relatively new to the Modern format…” wrote Reid Duke in this deep dive deck update

“The core of the deck is Modern’s very best cheap threats (Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Tarmogoyf) paired with the very best cheap disruption and removal (Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt and Unholy Heat). Top that off with Wrenn and Six and Urza’s Saga, which offer tons of staying power and card advantage, plus Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion.”

Grixis Shadow. Grixis Shadow is “on the shortlist for best deck in the format, and combines speed, disruption and card advantage in a brutally efficient package… The reason this deck is so good is that it can attack from any angle it needs to,” Luis Scott-Vargas summarized,

“The red one-drops let it play a fast game, the discard and Drowns let it stop anything the opponent does and Expressive Iteration plus Kroxa and Lurrus means that it can also crush the opponent with card advantage. It’s hard to fade all those angles of attack, and the deck is adept at switching from one to another as needed.”

Staple Modern Cards

Since the Modern format doesn’t rotate, only the best cards are included in competitive decks. Occasionally, new sets will include powerful cards that surpass those previously included. If a single card becomes too powerful overall, it’s likely to be banned. In the sweet spot is the healthy, well-balanced format WotC strives to create. Of course, no one deck can include every staple. Here are a handful of cards that appear in many decks within the meta right now:

Modern, especially, is a format wherein it’s wise to use Proxies. This allows the player to test an expensive deck with friends before spending a dime on singles. 

Where to Play Modern MTG

There are a number of ways to play Modern—other than with friends or your local playgroup. Whether the desire is to play casually or competitively, the following platforms provide the arena:

Local Game Store. Tried and true, the best way to play outside a group of friends is at your local game store. If the store doesn’t currently offer Modern, you might ask if they would consider adding the format to Friday Night Magic. 

Magic: The Gathering Online. The original way to play Magic online is still a fantastic way to go, especially for the formats Magic Arena doesn’t offer. Magic Online is also generally preferred by seasoned players, as it nearly mimics the paper format one-to-one.

SpellTable. Part of WotC, SpellTable is an all-in-one solution for playing paper Magic remotely. It has a lot of impressive features and promises to make remote play easy. 

Tournaments. Sanctioned tournaments (for the Modern format) are hosted by a WPN member store, an independent organizer (such as ChannelFireball), and on Magic Online.

Somewhere Between Standard & Legacy…

Borrowing elements of both Standard and Legacy, Modern was designed to be the middle-format. It has become its own beast, with a loyal following of highly-competitive players. Modern is a unique blend with some of the most powerful cards WotC has ever printed alongside splashy new additions. 

Perhaps not the ideal format for beginners, Modern is a fun puzzle for Magic players that want to venture out of their tried and true format. It’s vastly different than Commander with a similar feeling of great possibility. 

Modern is generally more expensive to buy-into than other formats, but that speaks to the power level of the format. Master builders have crafted budget decks that compete with the best of them. In Modern, it’s as much about the pilot as the deck they play.

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