Ranking the Decks of Modern From Easiest to Most Difficult to Play

Last week, I wrote an article about deck difficulty, and then analyzed the most common Standard decks to figure out which ones were in theory easy enough that people could just pick them up without practice, which ones required a little bit of practice or experience with either that particular deck or their concepts, and which ones required a lot of practice. Today I’m going to use the same concepts to talk about Modern decks.

I’m going to delve straight into the decks, but for more general concepts you can refer to the article last week. The grading follows the same system. I asked a group of professional players and the competitive community as a whole to grade each deck based on how much practice/experience they felt was needed to take the deck to a tournament and perform adequately with it.

#18: Burn

Community Rating: 1.69
Pro Rating: 1.31
My Rating: 2

Burn is probably the poster deck for “this deck is brainless,” and I think that’s a bit of an unfair classification (as you can see from my rating of 2). I have to admit that I used to think of Burn as the simplest deck of all time, but after playing more with it I can appreciate the difficulty involved in a lot of the decisions.

Burn has this “easy” reputation because in a lot of the games, it is very straightforward—you just throw your cards at them and hope they get to 0 life before you do. In some other games, however, it’s tricky to find optimal lines with the deck. The hard games with Burn are quite difficult—they include a lot of different decisions that range from what (and when) to fetch, to what to cast main phase, to whether you should Bolt them or their creature, or whether it’s optimal to assume a more controlling role or to just hope you topdeck two burn spells in three turns. The only reason Burn gets a “2” from me is because these games are rare—the one where you just Bolt them over and over until they die are far more common. If you just adopt that approach all the time, it’ll be enough to win the vast majority of the time, but I think the community as a whole and my fellow pros are both underestimating a bit what complexities can be found in the Burn deck.

#17: Tron

Community Rating: 1.83
Pro Rating: 1.75
My Rating: 1

Tron, on the other hand, is a deck that I consider extremely easy to play. Your game plan is basically the same regardless of what is happening, and there are never any surprises—you want to get Tron and play an expensive spell, and that’s it. There are some very narrow exceptions (such as, for example, the Tron versus Lantern matchup, which you really have to play to understand fully) but in general, I think the hardest things about Tron are mulliganing and sideboarding, both of which you can “outsource” a lot more (i.e., you can just read a sideboard guide and take that to the tournament).

#16: Scapeshift

Community Rating: 2.09
Pro Rating: 1.16
My Rating: 1

In my opinion, Scapeshift is the easiest deck to play in Modern. It’s the exact same as Tron in the sense that you have to assemble the same game plan all the time, with the difference being that your payoff is always the same. With Tron you sometimes have choices like what to select with Ancient Stirrings, or which payoff card to play—is it better to play Karn this turn or to use Oblivion Stone? With Scapeshift it’s always “get to a bunch of lands” and then play a Scapeshift if it’s lethal or a Primeval Titan if it’s not.

#15: Hollow One

Community Rating: 2.5
Pro Rating: 2.45
My Rating: 2

Hollow One is also a relatively easy deck to play. When talking to Siggy and Sam about it in the podcast, Siggy said he thought Hollow One was deceptively hard because the openings were non-intuitive (for example, if you have a Hollow One, do you cast a turn-1 Burning Inquiry or a turn-1 Flameblade Adept? What if you have two? Do I cycle Street Wraith now hoping for a certain card or do I try to make it easier for my future Hollow One?), and while I agree that some situations can be a bit overwhelming, they’re mostly the kind where you decide on one and then maintain throughout the tournament. For example, if you think about it and decide that playing Flameblade Adept is better, you should go and play turn 1 Flameblade Adept every time you’re faced with this decision—nothing about it is changing.

#14: Humans

Community Rating: 2.61
Pro Rating: 2.8
My Rating: 3

Humans is an interesting deck to evaluate because it’s not intrinsically complex but it requires both some knowledge about itself and about the format. There are some tricks you can do with the Humans deck that may not be intuitive to you if you’ve never played the deck (e.g., playing a Thalia’s Lieutenant, stacking the ability, and Vialing in a second Thalia’s Lieutenant). It’s important to know what people are playing so you know if it’s safe to go all-in or if you should hold back, which creatures to copy with Phantasmal Image and of course Meddling Mage, a card that demands knowledge of the format all by itself. Overall, I’d say that you don’t need to be a genius to play Humans, but you need to have some experience with Humans and good knowledge of the format. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle in all but the easiest of your games.

#13: Spirits

Community Rating: 2.69
Pro Rating: 2.8
My Rating: 2.5

Contrary to what the community believes, I believe Spirits is an easier deck to play than Humans. I think Spirits reminds people thematically of Faeries, which was a very hard deck to play, but in practice most games are more like Merfolk than anything else—just play your lords and overrun them. I do think the complexity is different than in Humans—Humans is about knowing Humans and knowing Modern, and Spirits is more about knowing Magic. So if you’re a very experienced player who doesn’t have much experience with the deck and the format, Spirits is going to be easier for you, whereas if you’re a beginner who wants to focus on one deck to do well at one tournament, then I’d recommend Humans. Overall, though, I’d still recommend Spirits over Humans to someone who is entirely new.

#12: U/R Phoenix

Community Rating: 2.82
Pro Rating: 3
My Rating: 3

U/R Phoenix is still a relatively new deck (and in fact I have never played it), so I could be way off in my evaluation here. At first glance, it seems like a slightly simpler version of the Standard deck because you shift plans less often and it’s usually more clear which direction you have to take, aggressive or defensive. The cantrips are also better, so the pressure to get every single little thing right is diminished, but it’s still a deck with a lot of choices and many different ways you can play a given turn, so I wouldn’t give it less than a 3.

I do think that the type of experience required to play U/R Phoenix is mostly generic experience, though, so if you’re already an experienced player, I think you can just pick it up and perform well with it even if you aren’t experienced with this particular archetype.

#11: Jund/Abzan

Community Rating: 2.92
Pro Rating: 2.35
My Rating: 2.5

A lot of games with Jund and Abzan aren’t complex, but the ones that are complex are very punishing. These are decks with mechanisms of incremental advantage, so there isn’t a powerful card or strategy that will bail you out if you do something wrong.

The complexity in this type of deck is mostly threat and role assessment. When you cast a card like Thoughtseize, you have to understand how the entire game is going to play out so that you know the best way to get an advantage. You have a lot of removal, but it’s not infinite—you can’t just remove everything you see like a Jeskai deck can. Knowing when to play the control role and when to play the aggro role is not exactly easy with Jund-type decks.

The reason I only give this a 2.5 instead of a 3 is because I think that, for the most part, you do not need to know all these things to do well with the deck, though you will definitely lose some games because you chose the wrong role and you won’t even notice it if you aren’t paying attention.

#10: Affinity

Community Rating: 2.98
Pro Rating: 3.15
My Rating: 4.5

Affinity is a deck that’s easy to play but extremely hard to play well. It often masquerades as an easy deck because you don’t need to play well to win a lot of the time (Cranial Plating goes a long way), but a lot of the games are extremely complicated. Arcbound Ravager is not an easy card to play with, and requires both a lot of math that you have to be able to do and also a good sense of how safe it is to commit. Many abilities from the Affinity deck cost 1 or 0 mana, so there are a variety of potential plays every turn.

This is the second biggest gap between the community rating and my rating of all the decks surveyed. I would be extremely uncomfortable picking up Affinity now myself to play in a tournament in two days, for example, and I really would not recommend Affinity to someone unless they were both experienced with Magic and experienced with Affinity. You can still win if you don’t have a lot of mileage with it, but you’ll win considerably less.

#9: Dredge

Community Rating: 3.27
Pro Rating: 2.7
My Rating: 2.5

Dredge has one big barrier to entry—the “whoa what is this grabbing a card from my graveyard instead of drawing” thing. We’re used to drawing cards, and having cards in play and in hand matter the most, and with Dredge it’s all about the graveyard, so it can be quite non-intuitive for someone regardless of how experienced they are with Magic as a whole (and in fact it can possibly be harder if you’re more experienced since then you’re really used to the conventional way).

Once you get past that barrier, though, I think the deck is remarkably simple—all your plays are sort of scripted. You want to put dredgers in the graveyard, then dredge as much as you can every turn, give or take, and everything else just happens. You do have to remember all your triggers, though.

Overall, I think all of Dredge’s complexity is because of dredge itself, so it doesn’t matter how good a player you are or how much you know the format. All that matters is how much you’ve played Dredge.

I would not be comfortable telling someone who has never played Dredge to play it in a tournament, since I think they’d miss all their triggers, but I’d be OK with telling someone who has played Dredge for two days to play it, because I think you only need to “know” a small amount of things, and once you know them you do the same thing every time.

#8: Jeskai

Community Rating: 3.33
Pro Rating: 2.5
My Rating: 2.5

Control decks have a reputation of being hard to play, but I don’t think Jeskai really fits the bill here—your motto is “kill everything they play” and, if you succeed, you’ll eventually win the game with Teferi, Search for Azcanta, or a big creature of some sort. Everything happens at instant speed, so you always know what you’re reacting to.

Jeskai also has fairly polarized matchups, to a point where you will often win or lose regardless of how you play. For example, it’s very hard to lose to Humans with Jeskai, as you just have to point removal at everything, but you’re also not going to beat Tron no matter how well you play, so it’s really a deck where play skill is secondary to matchups.

Most of the complexity with Jeskai is in control mirrors, which are actually pretty hard. This doesn’t require a lot of specific Jeskai knowledge but does require “control” knowledge—if you’re an inexperienced control and Jeskai player, then you’re probably a big dog to a very experienced control player in the mirror, as the games are long and there’s not a lot of variance.

With that said, control decks aren’t that popular in Modern—we have a small percentage of Jeskai and a small percentage of U/W, and that’s basically it. So if you are a player that’s trying to learn control, then this is a good deck and format to pick up.

#7: U/W

Community Rating: 3.35
Pro Rating: 2.45
My Rating: 2.5

U/W and Jeskai are very similar in both play style and complexity. There are two main differences that I see:

With U/W, your matchups are less polarized. Humans isn’t an “auto-win” anymore, and Tron is not an “auto-loss” (though it depends on your particular build). In this regard, how you play matters more than it does in Jeskai, which makes it a harder deck.

With U/W, your games are always flawless victories. You have to control the game until it’s obvious that you can’t lose, and that’s how you win—there’s no “sneaking a win through” with U/W. With Jeskai, you at least have the possibility of combining Snapcaster attacks + Celestial Colonnade + two surprise burn spells to steal a win in a game that appeared lost. In this regard, you have to pay attention to more things with Jeskai (“can I get a win here?”), which makes U/W easier.

Overall, I’d say that both decks are about the same level of complexity. If you’re a more seasoned hardcore control player, then you’ll find U/W a bit easier, whereas if you’ve played decks that turned the tables out of nowhere before, then you will find Jeskai slightly easier. When all is said and done, though, I think if you can play one then you do not need much to be able to play the other, so they’re pretty interchangeable.

#6: Hardened Scales

Community Rating: 3.37
Pro Rating: 4
My Rating: 5

This is the biggest gap between the community rating and my own. Everything I said about Affinity also applies to Hardened Scales, but Hardened Scales is actually harder because the math is even more complicated, since each counter can become two or three counters each time it moves. To play Hardened Scales well, you have to find kill lines that are precise and very complicated, and you have to be thinking “can I kill them now?” at all times, because sometimes it’s very surprising when you can.

To give you an idea, when we played the team GP, Matt Nass was on Hardened Scales. Matt Nass has played countless hours with the deck, so he is about as experienced with it and with that style of deck as you can be. He still only finished six matches the entire tournament because you have to think a lot about every decision regardless of how well you know the deck.

Basically, I would not recommend Hardened Scales for a tournament unless you have experience with the deck and are very math savvy.

#5: Storm

Community Rating: 3.6
Pro Rating:
My Rating: 3

Storm doesn’t have a pro rating because I added it to the survey later on, after I got the answers from the pros. This will be true for a couple more decks as well.

If you aren’t familiar with Storm, then it will seem incredibly complicated because it’s doing all these things. But, in reality, ever since Past in Flames got printed, Storm became almost a deterministic combo, and when you go off you go off by miles with no chance of getting it wrong. Of course, there is some risk assessment in “do I try to go off now when I have three draws to draw a Ritual or do I wait for next turn?” but the deck really is not as complicated as it seems, at least in its Modern version (the Legacy one is much more complicated).

To play Storm, you need to play games with it—I would never show up to a tournament with a Storm deck without having put some matches in—but once you have an understanding of how the deck works, the common Gifts piles, and what you have to do to win overall, then it doesn’t change much from match to match. So make sure you practice for a while, but you don’t need a ton of practice.

#4: Grixis Death’s Shadow

Community Rating: 3.63
Pro Rating: 3.15
My Rating: 4

Grixis Death’s Shadow has all the threat/role assessment complications of a Jund deck, except you have to manage your life total very carefully on top of everything else. It’s unlike any other deck in Magic in that you actively want to take damage, but not too much, and that balance can get quite tough if you’re playing against an aggressive deck that can punish you for paying too much life. Even playing Death’s Shadow against a deck like Jeskai is hard because if you fall too low, they can Bolt you to death.

Since this is so unique to this deck (both the life paying mechanic and the fact that you really want one thing, and then all of a sudden you don’t want it at all, as opposed to just “the more the merrier”), I would never recommend someone to show up with Death’s Shadow to a tournament without a lot of games with it under their belt.

#3: Lantern

Community Rating: 4.4
Pro Rating:
My Rating: 5

Lantern requires both a lot of Lantern knowledge and a lot of format knowledge. To play the deck well, you must know how to execute its game plan, but you also must know every card that everyone plays that can beat you, since you play cards like Pithing Needle. Should I let them keep this Lightning Bolt? Well, that depends on how problematic the next card can be, and if you don’t know how decks operate and what people play, then you won’t know what you can or cannot allow them to have.

On top of that, Lantern is a deck that is mechanically hard to play, which is a difficulty that I don’t think we’ve encountered before in either the Standard or the Modern list (with perhaps the exception of Dredge). You have to do a lot of small things and you have to do them quickly, otherwise you run out of time to finish the match. If you aren’t used to, for example, flipping the top card of your deck every time it changes, then you might accumulate a lot of warnings, and if you aren’t aggressive about telling them to flip the top card of their deck you might accumulate a lot of draws.

Because of this, Lantern is a deck that is harder to play in person than on Magic Online, since things don’t happen automatically. If you’re used to playing the deck online, I’d still make sure that you get some real life reps before you take it to a tournament.

#2: Amulet

Community Rating: 4.47
Pro Rating: 4.75
My Rating: 5

Amulet is a much harder deck to play than Storm because the combo is different than what we’re used to, and because it requires more decisions once you start it. Playing a bunch of Rituals and cantrips has been a constant throughout Magic, so if you’ve been playing for a while you’ve probably already encountered it, but bouncing and replaying your lands is something new, so it’s an extra thing that you have to learn.

With Amulet, the “core” of your combo is always the same (get a Titan in play, give it haste, attack, give it double-strike), but the fact that you can stop at any time to get a Tolaria West for either Pact adds a big level of complexity. You always have to decide if you want to try to go for the kill or if you want to try to go for an extra Titan or Pact of Negation as insurance, and this will change from game to game. It’s not something you can just memorize.

Amulet combines both of the highest levels of complexity—it’s intrinsically complex, and it requires constant change based on what the game looks like. For this reason, I would never play a tournament with it without a lot of practice.

#1: KCI

Community Rating: 4.59
Pro Rating: 4.55
My Rating: 5

Finally, we have KCI—the deck the community considered the hardest in Modern, with almost 72% of 5s. Personally, I think both Lantern and Amulet require more preparation than KCI, but KCI is still undoubtedly a complicated deck.

There are three main things that make KCI difficult to me:

  1. It requires some obscure knowledge of the rules so you can identify the loops. This is the easiest part, because it’s a barrier that you only have to cross once. If you memorize the loops, then that’s it—you’ll use the same ones every time.
  2. Playing against sideboard cards is very hard. This is a deck that can beat cards like Extirpate or Surgical Extraction, but it usually comes with a cost. This means you always need to identify when it’s worth playing around them, and how to best do that. I think if we look at how someone with a year of KCI experience combos and how someone with a week of KCI experience combos, they’ll both combo in relatively the same way, but if you look at how they play against a deck with Surgical Extraction, the difference will be massive.
  3. It’s also a deck that’s mechanically intensive. There are a lot of triggers, card drawing, recursion, keeping track of mana of different colors, and this is all stuff that is pretty overwhelming if you aren’t experienced with the deck. Like Lantern, even if you play the deck online, you should still make sure that you practice real games with it before you take it to a tournament.

So here’s the final ranking for Modern, based on the community ratings:

#18: Burn – 1.69
#17: Tron – 1.83
#16: Scapeshift – 2.09
#15: Hollow One – 2.5
#14 – Humans 2.61
#13: Spirits – 2.69
#12: UR Phoenix – 2.82
#11: Jund/Abzan – 2.92
#10: Affinity – 2.98
#9: Dredge – 3.27
#8: Jeskai – 3.33
#7: U/W – 3.35
#6: Hardened Scales – 3.37
#5: Storm – 3.6
#4: Grixis Death’s Shadow – 3.63
#3: Lantern – 4.4
#2: Amulet – 4.47
#1: KCI – 4.59

We can notice some trends here. The first is that the community as a whole seems to place less  weight on switching game states than I do. I think one of the hardest things for any deck is a plan that changes—if you need to evaluate what is happening in each particular game to then decide your strategy, then that’s a big level of complexity that is added. In general, I tend to think that decks like Tron and Scapeshift are easy because you do the same thing every time, whereas decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow are hard because they require constant reassessment. I think Amulet is harder than KCI because it requires more reassessment than KCI does.

For the same reason, I think decks like Affinity and Hardened Scales are very hard, and decks like Storm not so much. Once you’ve learned Storm’s “thing” and how it generally works, you apply the same concepts every time, whereas for Affinity and Hardened Scales you have to think things through whenever the decision shows up. Storm is like applying a formula to solve an equation, and Hardened Scales is like having to derive the formula every time.

As a general whole, I feel that Modern is a harder format than Standard. This is in part because a lot of the Modern decks are unique and present challenges that no other deck does (Dredge, KCI, Death’s Shadow) and in part because they’re more complex. The control and midrange decks in Standard often follow the curve of their hand, whereas in Modern everything costs 1 or 2, so you have many possible plays at all times.

To sum it up, I’d split decks like this:

  • Burn, Tron and Scapeshift are decks that require almost no practice or experience. Burn is hard to play perfectly but playing perfectly is not necessary to win.
  • Hollow One and Dredge aren’t hard, but require some practice so that you don’t miss some of the mechanics.
  • Spirits and U/R Phoenix are somewhat complicated, but require no particular knowledge of the format or of the deck itself, so if you’re a good player you can pick them up.
  • Humans, Jund, and Abzan require a little more knowledge about the format. Jund and Abzan have a higher ceiling, but you can do fine with them even if you aren’t playing them to their maximum potential.
  • Jeskai and U/W aren’t super complicated to play, and you’ll be able to play them if you’re familiar with control as a whole. If you want to start playing control decks, they’re a good entry point as well.
  • Storm is a deck that is deceptively not complicated as long as you practice some with it. It’s a good entry point for combo decks.
  • Grixis Death’s Shadow is a deck that doesn’t require a lot of format knowledge but is different than other decks because you treat life in a unique way. Even if you’re an experienced player, you need some reps with it before playing it in a tournament.
  • Hardened Scales and Affinity are very hard decks. They look easy because sometimes you poison people out of the game on turn 3 with Inkmoth Nexus, but they are very intricate, and I recommend you play a lot with them before you take them to a tournament.
  • Amulet, KCI, and Lantern are very complicated decks that each have their particularities. I’d recommend that you not only play them a lot before the tournament, but also that you play them in a real life setting as opposed to only playing them on Magic Online, because they can be overwhelming even for experienced players.

See you next week with the Legacy list!

3 thoughts on “Ranking the Decks of Modern From Easiest to Most Difficult to Play”

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  3. Pingback: The most challenging decks in Modern – MTG Corner

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