Is Modern Really a Turn-4 Format?

I’ve been playing a lot of Modern lately. I played an astronomical amount to test for GP Dallas. Then I played a lot more to test for the SCG Invitational a few weeks ago. Then I played even more Modern afterward, because why not?

I’ve really enjoyed the format lately, and as I’ve stated in prior articles, I think it’s in a really good place.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of loose thoughts running through my head regarding the format, so I wanted to just kind of dump them all into an article. There isn’t really necessarily any theme behind these thoughts, except they all reflect how I approach and view the format.

Turn-4 Format

One of the defining discussion points of Modern is the idea that it is a turn-4 format, and therefore decks that break that mold, such as Death’s Shadow Zoo, Infect, or Dredge are against the spirit of the format. To be clear, Dredge doesn’t usually kill on turn 3, but it presents an unbeatable board by turn 3, which is effectively the same thing in most cases.

The idea that Modern is a turn-4 format came directly from Wizards of the Coast. They stated it in their vision for Modern many eons ago. Since then, things have changed. Lots of sets have been printed, cards have been banned and unbanned, and the format has drastically shifted. It’s clear from how they have handled the Banned and Restricted list that they no longer really believe that Modern is a turn-4 format, and you know what? That’s okay! Modern doesn’t have to be a turn-4 format.

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to discuss Modern with players who stubbornly cling to the notion that Modern is a turn-4 format because of an outdated comment made many years ago that hasn’t been updated or supported since. Modern is no longer a turn-4 format. We should stop evaluating Modern based on an antiquated notion that no longer reflects reality. If WotC still believed Modern was supposed to be a turn-4 format, they would have made that clear to us. Based on everything they have and haven’t said, and based on how they’ve handled the Banned and Restricted list over the past 4 years, it is simply no longer viable to use this as an argument.

It’s OK to want Modern to be a turn-4 format. It’s just no longer acceptable to say that cards have to go because they break this “rule.”

If It’s Hateable It’s Fine

Whenever a deck starts to do really well, it is inevitable that the clamoring for a ban will follow. Recently, we saw this with Dredge. Dredge got a new tool in Cathartic Reunion and suddenly dissidents were coming out of the woodwork to say that it needed to be banned. Is Dredge a good deck? It definitely is. Is Dredge good enough to warrant a ban? Right now, I don’t think it’s even close to that. I don’t even think Dredge is the best deck in Modern based on performance. That title likely goes to Infect.

I think there is a pretty easy way to determine whether or not a deck needs to be banned. If the deck is able to be hated successfully, then it does not need to be banned. For example, Affinity has survived in this format for its entirety. Affinity is a really powerful deck that wins a lot of game 1s, but cards like Stony Silence, Ancient Grudge, and Shatterstorm are enough to hold it in check. The hate cards are effective at shutting it down. The hate exists, and the hate wins. Affinity is fine.

Compare that with something like Amulet Bloom. Cards like Blood Moon existed, but they weren’t even close to being enough to beat the deck. Blood Moon was also a narrow card that only a small subset of decks could actually play. There was also no guarantee that Blood Moon would be enough—cards like Seal of Primordium or just simply combo-killing on turn 2 were enough to successfully thwart a Blood Moon.

Dredge, much like Affinity, will fold to sufficient hate. Originally, people thought the hate wasn’t good enough, because they were playing ineffective cards like Grafdigger’s Cage. Once people swapped to cards like Ravenous Trap, Dredge got significantly worse and became eminently beatable. Dredge also loses to itself a fair amount, and is beatable in game 1 by a number of decks like Infect, Death Shadow Zoo, Lantern Control, Burn, and Eldrazi in a straight-up fight. Ultimately, Dredge is a hateable deck, and it is fine.

The Number-of-Bad-Matchups Test

Recently, I got swindled—err, convinced—into playing Death’s Shadow Zoo at the SCG Invitational on the advice of one Bradley J. Nelson. I tested the deck extensively on Magic Online and was consistently putting up 4-1 and 5-0 results with it. I felt good going into the tournament, but I ended up going 3-5 with the deck, effectively ruining my 7-1 finish with G/B Delirium in Standard.

Brad was telling me that I got a lot of really bad matchups, and that’s why I failed with the deck. All 5 of my losses were to bad matchups: Grixis Delver, Jund (twice), Bant Eldrazi, and Soul Sisters. That’s all well and good, but it raises the question: “Just how many bad matchups are there?” That’s more bad matchups in just 8 rounds than I can name in entirety for a deck like Dredge. I could have also gotten paired up against and lost to Burn, Abzan, and Sun and Moon, to name a few other bad matchups that I dodged.

Every deck has bad matchups in Modern that you have to avoid, but there comes a point where a deck has so many bad matchups that it is no longer about dodging your bad matchups and it starts to become about dodging registering that deck.

Ever since that moment, I have been evaluating Modern decks on the Number-of-Bad-Matchups metric. If you take a look at Dredge, it has only a few legitimately bad matchups—like Death’s Shadow Zoo or Breach-Titan. I’m sure there are a few decks I’m missing in this list—Modern is a very broad format after all—but most everything else is a good matchup that can become a bad matchup depending on how much hate they dedicated to you.

A lot of pros recently have been bad-mouthing Bant Eldrazi. They claim that Bant Eldrazi is a clunky deck that mulligans a lot and has a lot of underpowered hands. Those claims are true, but Bant Eldrazi is also a deck that mulligans well and also has a lot of very powerful hands that can’t really be beaten. Bant Eldrazi also performs admirably in the Number-of-Bad-Matchups test. So yes, perhaps decks like Death’s Shadow Zoo are abstractly better decks than a real clunker like Bant Eldrazi, but if they have a much higher density of bad matchups, which is truly the better deck? My money’s on Bant Eldrazi, and I think that money is backed up by players like Ben Friedman, who continually do well with versions of Bant Eldrazi and updated sideboards to fight the decks you care about fighting.

Bant Eldrazi

This is Ben’s most recent list. I don’t agree with all of Ben’s choices. That Sea Gate Wreckage is a bit of a loose goose, for example, and I would like to see a few Spellskites in the 75, but minus a few unnecessary gripes from my end, Ben did a good job identifying the format and building a list to beat it.

Bant Eldrazi is not a broken deck. It’s not an abstractly unfair or overly powerful deck. But it is a deck that is good right now because it attacks the Modern format well. It dominates midrange and control strategies, and cards like Eldrazi Displacer, Thought-Knot Seer, and Drowner of Hope are great at shutting down degenerate all-in strategies. So maybe the deck is clunky, underpowered, and mulligans a lot, but that doesn’t make it bad, and if the Number-of-Bad-Matchups Test has any validity, it’s actually extremely well-positioned right now.

If I were playing a Modern tournament in the next few weeks, I’d either play Bant Eldrazi, Dredge, or Lantern Control. All three are wildly different decks with different play styles and that utilize differing skill sets. All three are decks that I enjoy playing. And that’s part of the reason why I think Modern is good right now. There’s something viable for everyone. Even control mages have Grixis, which is putting up solid results on Magic Online and in paper.

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