Predicting Modern: A Cautionary Tale
Modern can be an expensive format, especially if you want to maintain a large collection and play a lot of different decks. Keeping costs manageable means buying cards at the right time and being patient. While waiting for reprints or rotation of expensive cards is relatively straightforward, trying to acquire cheap cards before they become expensive is much more difficult. Most of the time you just have to get lucky - like buying $7 Blood Moons for your Skred Red deck before it blows up as a $50 format staple. If my experience is any indicator, when you try to anticipate what’s going to breakout next in Modern you’re probably going to be wrong.
It all began with Battle for Zendikar and the Ally tribe. I had played a few matches online against Ally decks and knew that they were surprisingly decent, and got a nice push with Collected Company. When it became evident that a new batch of Allies would be released I acquired playsets of all the relevant allies (3 cmc or less - This. Is. Modern) as well as Scout’s Warning. This was a fairly low risk buy-in as the total cost was around $30, and the upside potential was massive if new cards could close the gap with decks like Merfolk.
As it turns out nothing in Battle for Zendikar or Oath of the Gatewatch solved the deficiencies of Allies. While Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a lot of value for four mana it plays awkwardly with Collected Company and doesn’t help the bad combo match-ups. Ally Encampment is an easy addition to the deck, but rarely has a meaningful impact on games. Other potential additions like Expedition Envoy and Reckless Bushwhacker proved too low impact in too many situations and the deck fell back to tier three obscurity.
While I got it wrong, there actually was a correct call with these sets. If you had speculated on the Eldrazi and picked up some $2 Eldrazi Temples and $5 Eye of Ugins you would have probably enjoyed Eldrazi Winter. Unfortunately while the Allies may have won the actual battle for Zendikar, they were trounced by the Eldrazi in Modern.
I probably should have learned my lesson after the Ally debacle, but instead I found myself trying again with Shadows Over Innistrad. A trip back to the land of gothic horror meant new tools for the tribes of Innistrad: Werewolves, Humans, Vampires, Spirits and Zombies - none of which had a competitive Modern deck to speak of. My specific targets were Drogskol Captain for spirits and then three zombies with Modern pedigree: Gravecrawler, Geralf’s Messenger, and Lotleth Troll.
The Spirit deck panned out extremely well. The addition of Rattlechains, Mausoleum Wanderer, Spell Queller and Selfless Spirit vaulted the deck from tier 3 Tallowisp-driven obscurity to a (probably) tier two blue/white tempo deck with some very relevant tribal advantages. Unfortunately my wild investment in a playset of fifty cent Drogskol Captains did not exactly position me to play this new deck. It requires sixteen Standard-legal (and Standard-playable) rares which command a pretty hefty premium for a Modern player. Those cards will be far cheaper once they rotate, and I opted to wait for the price of these cards to drop.
Zombies faired a lot worse than spirits. Despite some promising support in Cryptbreaker, Relentless Dead, and Diregraf Colossus everything Zombie was overshadowed by what Prized Amalgam did for Modern Dredge. If you're going to rely on your graveyard for synergy you might as well play the deck that regularly puts 10 power on the board on turn two off of nothing more than a turn one Faithless Looting.
While Zombies did not break out in Modern (yet), I am still pretty happy with the Zombie cards I picked up. Gravecrawler had recently been reprinted in a Duel Deck so its price was depressed, Geralf’s Messenger has all the markings of a legitimate Modern card and just needs a deck, and Lotleth Troll was a bulk rare that could be a key madness/graveyard enabler at any time. Also unlike Allies most magic sets include Zombies so the missing piece for Modern zombies could be just around the corner.
With two whiffs under my belt I opted not to actually buy in for Kaladesh, but there were two cards that I thought had Modern potential that could be realized with support in the new set. Many players thought this would be the time for Steamflogger Boss to finally provide Contraption value, but sadly Servo tokens are not Contraptions and Artificers are not Riggers. A much smaller group of players (possibly just me) also thought Kaladesh might have a tribal Wizard theme. This was a long shot, but I reasoned that Docent of Perfection could be a plant for a Standard Wizards deck with more tribal wizard cards appearing in Kaladesh. You may not realize it, but a lot of strong Modern cards are incidentally Wizards: Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, Dark Confidant, Grim Lavamancer, Aven Mindcensor, and Qasali Pridemage for example. The only playable tribal support in the format is Voidmage Prodigy, but if Kaladesh had provided the kind of Wizards support that Spirits saw from Shadows Over Innistrad block we could have been looking at a new archetype breaking into the format.
As we now know, Wizards aren't much of a force on Kaladesh - its the Dwarves, Artificers and Aetherborn running the show. I would nonetheless keep an eye on each new set that comes out - Wizard tribal could appear anywhere, and with the right cheap tribal cards it could fuel a new Modern deck.
Before we knew that our next stop in planeswalking was Amonkhet, I had speculated we could be headed back to Kamigawa. Why? Anyone with a love of bad cards dreams of another wave of spiritcraft so there's that - but also I figured Tamiyo played a significant role in Innistrad and hails from the land-of-a-thousand-legends so we could see Wizards put her back on her homeworld. Also, the Spirit tribal cards of Innistrad could have blended with a new breed of Kamigawa spiritcraft when the two blocks shared time together in Standard. It's now clear that this is not the case, so there was no need to buy up Long-Forgotten Goheis.
If I was to make a wild prediction of what might be Modern relevant in Amonkhet I'd say we could see some variation of Proliferate return. Either literally Proliferate or some reverse version where you remove counters. This would interact with both Fabricate and Energy from Kaladesh, and if we could remove counters from players it would give Modern a way to remove poison from Infect. The real tip off here? Midnight Oil uses silly "hour" counters that only a Proliferate type mechanic could seamlessly interact with.
Until next time, here’s to keeping those low probability Modern speculations to under $20!