Master Modern

You walk down the hall, and out of the corner of your eye you notice a black cat scurry up a flight of stairs. Thirty seconds later you see the same black cat scamper up the stairs again.

Common sense might dictate that it’s the same cat wandering around, but if you’ve seen the Matrix, you know that cat is the herald of a swarm of Agents who are momentarily about to drop some sick Kung Fu on you and your pals.

Déjà vu. The feeling of already having experienced the present.

In the past 2 weeks I’ve experienced déjà vu in the form of a conversation that I’ve had with at least a dozen different individuals regarding Modern. It’s crazy because they ask me the same questions and I give them the same advice and observations about the format.

It is also significant that this line of discourse isn’t limited to just “Dear Brian” messages on social media from readers but extends to players who have played on multiple Pro Tours over the years. Not a slight against reader questions—I love talking to you all and answering them, so keep them coming. My point is that the particular line of questioning has become so commonplace in the past few weeks that I can often anticipate exactly how the conversation will play out from start to finish.

If such a question is so common, I figure that it’s one that I might as well cover here. The question is:

How Do I Get Good at Modern?

A question that only becomes more relevant as we move into the Modern PPTQ season.

One thing that a lot of players are noticing about Modern is that it is very difficult to win matches at a high percentage. It is hard to push beyond the quagmire of a 50-60% win rate. Not only is this trend true at the GP or PPTQ level, but has been creeping up even at the local game store level as well.

The question that I have been continuously asked to explain is “How does one get better at Modern?” People have observed that I’ve had sustained success playing the format (I’ve cashed 5 out of 6 GPs and Opens in a row with strong finishes) and want to know the secret to my success. Pardon the humble brag, but the point is that I am an example of an individual who has been consistently winning at a high clip, and these are my observations about how to raise that win %.

Modern Myths

We like to construct narratives to make sense of things that we don’t understand. You can look all throughout history for examples of strange narratives that explain something that the scientific method hasn’t reached a level of explaining, yet.

One convenient narrative about Modern is that “Modern is a high variance format and not a skill format.”

Such a narrative would certainly explain why a good player would win at a lower clip than at other formats like Standard or Limited because “if there were less luck, I would win more.”

Another convenient narrative is that “Modern is a matchup-dependent format.”

In order to have success at a Modern tournament, players need to get favorable pairings. Another example of how Modern is a “luck-based format” rather than “skill-based.”

When people don’t win they tend to make the format itself the scapegoat for their shortcomings. The pieces are certainly in play to construct the narrative: Variance is real and matchups matter are certainly true statements.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

“Modern is high variance and lower skill.”

Magic is high variance and high skill—always. I would say that Modern is “high variance and even higher skill.” I come at Magic from the perspective of a Vintage player. Before I ever played on a Pro Tour, or even gave much consideration to any other format, I was a Vintage expert and played that format religiously.

The thing about Vintage is that it is very different from other formats in the sense that there is lots of fast mana and broken stuff going on. Moxen drastically change the dynamic of how games play out. Don’t even get me started on Black Lotus

The thing is that once you get used to a format where these cards that break the rules are part of the landscape, you adjust to the flow of the games. Both players have access to the same pool of cards to build from, and in order to be successful, you have to accept and embrace that the format is different from other formats and go with the flow.

The speed of the games is much faster in Modern than other formats because the majority of the cards cost 1 and 2 mana. The games are condensed such that the first 3 turns matter much more than they do in Standard or Sealed, because the early plays matter much more. In Standard, the cards that matter (Gideon, Elder Deep-Fiend, Gearkhulks) hit the board on 4 and 5.

The best Modern decks are the ones that can utilize the early turns best because that is part of the nature of the format.

“Matchups are all that matters.”

The reason matchups matter so much is that the games are condensed more than slower formats. Players have fewer turns in order to interact or deploy. Some decks are also pretty poor at interacting with certain types of strategies.

“I always lose to deck X with deck Y.”

Is a pretty common conversation nugget.

“So, how do you sideboard and why?”
“I bring in these cards.”
“Does that work?”
“Then why don’t you try something different instead of repeating the same mistakes?”

Win More Modern

I’m not done with the matchups argument, but I need to change gears for a minute, because answering the argument is part of explaining how to proactively improve.

Here is my ultimate advice on how to win more at Modern.

  1. Select a deck that already exists and is a proven winner.
  2. Play it like crazy until you know it inside and out.
  3. Adjust your 75 on a week-to-week basis based on your observations.

The biggest mistake that I see players make in Modern is that they want to “brew” too much.

Most Modern brews are ice cold.

There are roughly 25 great Modern decks already that are proven winners, and there is no reason to try to constantly reinvent the wheel. I’m positive that whatever your play style or preference there is something out there to suit you already. Start with something that exists, and turn it into something that is your own.

The most important thing in Modern isn’t actually playing “the right deck,” but having a strong mastery of the deck you are playing in any given tournament.

One trend I’ve noticed among players who were asking me “how to get better at Modern” is that they are not locked into any specific deck. They jump around looking for the perfect deck to bite them in the butt. I would hypothesize the reason they win at a lower clip across the board is that they are playing against more opponents (GP, Open, LGS, PPTQ, etc.) who have a greater mastery of their own deck.

Think about the people who religiously play Modern on a Tuesday night at the LGS. They play the same deck week in and week out. These players may not be “Magic famous” or grinding the GP and Open circuits but I promise you: they know their deck pretty darn well.

The reason your win percentage is lower is because the competition is stiffer—the opposition has a much higher degree of proficiency with their deck. The way to counteract this and win more is to adopt the same strategy and raise your level of mastery with your weapon of choice.

My advice is to pick the deck you most want to play and could see yourself playing for a long time, and learn it inside and out.

There is a big difference between thinking you can play a deck well and actually being able to play it well. The biggest difference is that when the hard decisions come up you’ll be able to make better choices. Keepable hands? Should you go all in? When you have experience, you’ll be more comfortable making the high-risk, high-reward-type plays.

Automatic plays are easy. Winning when you have what you need is easy. Knowing your deck inside and out is where you earn those extra percentage points.

For me, the deck that I chose to hitch my wagon to was Abzan Company. It isn’t even a deck that most people consider to be tier 1 anymore. It certainly isn’t a trendy deck at the moment. I watched Ari Lax playing a version of the deck at PT Atlanta and thought to myself “that deck is great and I wish I was playing it.”

8 months later and I’ve really put my heart and soul into learning the deck and continuing to evolve my list:

Abzan Company

Brian DeMars

When you’ve been on a list for a really long time you start feeling really comfortable mixing things up and making changes.

The biggest change that I’ve made was to cut the Archangel of Thune package and instead start Tracking. The card takes away some of my ability to combo, but it opens up other options for me to grind card advantage against people.

Here is what I am talking about: The Archangels were good. But I think that the Tracker package is slightly better in significant ways. Without tons and tons of games under my belt, how would I have the experience to recognize which package is ultimately better against a wide field of decks?

The experience gives me the know-how to constantly turn my established archetype “Abzan Company” into an area where I can brew different strategies, angles, and sideboard plans. When I discuss CoCo with somebody and they ask me, “how come you don’t have card X in the sideboard?” I can almost always respond by saying that I have considered it but it is competing with another card and here are five reasons why. I know my list that deeply.

Lastly, let me return to the idea that random matchups make Modern a bad format.

Abzan Company’s worst matchup (and I’ve heard this confirmed from lots of sources) is G/R Tron. Infinite life doesn’t matter and they have a million sweepers. I’m 8-1 against G/R Tron in GPs and Opens (my loss being the first time I played against it).

I immediately realized how miserable the matchup was and worked very hard to have a plan that works against it.

I developed a plan that works for me. I realized it was a matchup that wasn’t going to go away and instead of having a halfway plan that only works every now and then I put together something that actually works consistently from the board.

Modern is a great format and it rewards great play but it also requires a high degree of commitment to excel. It rewards format experience and most of all it rewards a high degree of proficiency with your deck.

My advice, the same advice I’ve given a dozen times in the past two weeks, is that rather than looking for a magical mystery deck to elevate your game, that you’ve got to put in the games to master a deck.

Modern is a rewarding, high-skill format. Pick a known commodity and make it your own.


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