How Modern is getting more interactive
After a long road of bans and unbans, Modern seems to have finally arrived at its destination as a diverse format. Long gone are the format pillars of Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod. They've been replaced with decisively less powerful upstarts like Humans and Hollow One. This weaker top tier means that there are far more lower tier decks that can still compete. This is where Modern's identity lies - in many viable strategies, and the promise that if you master the one you like you can find success.
Of course, a diverse format has its own risks. When many strategies are viable you must have many different answers. There is the risk that players decide to forego playing answers altogether. That would turn a diverse format into a linear, non-interactive one. There's also the risk that players just give up on some matchups rather than try to find serviceable answers, turning a diverse format into a "matchup lottery" where avoiding bad matchups becomes more important than skill.
Based on a series of recent card printings, I believe Wizards of the Coast is aware of these risks and working on ways to mitigate them. Three relatively recent cards illustrate the kind of tools Modern needs to be both diverse and skill intensive. Let's look at them, starting with Kolaghan's Command:
An overpriced Shock, Shatter, Raise Dead, Funeral Charm hybrid - it took players a while to appreciate the card as more than the sum of its parts. The really important thing with Kolaghan's Command are the words "destroy target artifact". These make it maindeckable artifact hate that stays great even when artifacts are nowhere to be found. This means we play it not to specifically target Cranial Plating and Ensnaring Bridge, but because it can incidentally solve those cards when needed.
It's also important that Kolaghan's Command extended maindeck artifact removal to colours that didn't already have access to it. For example, Maelstrom Pulse, Abrupt Decay, Detention Sphere, and Qasali Pridemage. Modern doesn't just need this for artifacts, but for other unusual card types and strategies as well. Versatile, maindeckable answers in colours or decks that currently don't have access to it.
The next card that illustrates what a good interactive Modern spell should be is Collective Brutality.
Not unlike Kolaghan’s Command, here we have a cheap modal spell. In this case it’s not that the card solves unusual permanents like artifacts. It's that it interacts with both spell based and creature based decks and is thus rarely a dead draw.
Brutality can be extremely mana efficient on turn two. Particularly so against a deck like Burn where all three modes are relevant and buying time is crucial. Once again we see the extension of a relevant but niche effect - in this case playable, efficient lifegain - moving into a colour that did not previously have it. Lightning Helix, Scavenging Ooze, and Kitchen Finks were available, but Collective Brutality makes the effect available to an entirely different set of decks by virtue of being a black card.
It does not hurt that it’s also a way for black decks to break through a Worship lock, an otherwise tough to interact with enchantment.
And the third example of what Modern answers should look like comes from Field of Ruin:
Modern decks had access to Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge, but these cards notably set you back a land when used. Both were also woefully inefficient at disrupting turn three Tron. Field of Ruin is a game changer because it doesn't actually cost you a land drop and can often be activated in time to prevent a quick Karn Liberated. This makes the cost of running Field of Ruin in your deck a lot closer to the cost of running cards it wants to target like Raging Ravine or Gavony Township.
Wizards effectively recognized that Modern needed fairly costed effects to neutralize powerful non-basics, but not necessarily mana denial. Just a small nudge in the effect of Ghost Quarter and we see a much greater number of decks that can run the card, and run it in greater numbers.
These three cards are examples of how efficient and versatile Modern answers need to be in a diverse format. It seems that Wizards is experimenting with these concepts by looking at other recent attempts to improve how Modern players interact with non-basic lands:
Blood Sun is supposed to be a Blood Moon that draws a card instead of occasionally locking your opponent out of casting spells. Technically, it what Modern players want. But there are few decks that can afford to play Blood Sun but not Blood Moon. When the chips are down, free wins from Blood Moon are more valuable than a free card off Blood Sun. In the unlikely event Blood Moon was banned from the format, Blood Sun would likely see more play.
Alpine Moon is another take on a "fixed Blood Moon". For two less mana we still get to lock out Urza's Tower and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but we give up the free wins from locking an opponent out of casting spells. This at least makes things interesting. Especially since tempo decks in particular may be happier surgically crippling decks like Tron and Scapeshift for one mana rather than paying the full three mana for a Blood Moon on the hope of squeezing out wins versus other strategies.
Where Wizards seems to have missed the mark on both Blood Sun and Alpine Moon is in broadening the decks that can play the existing effect of Blood Moon. If these two cards had been Green for example, they would have been far more likely to impact the Modern metagame by greatly increasing the number of decks that can interact profitably with non-basic lands. There are even flavour wins here as Green supports the "natural" (basic) and punishes unnatural (nonbasic). It also often provides rainbow mana through enchantments (e.g. Nylea's Presence, Prismatic Omen).
Finally, Damping Sphere goes after the Tron lands explicitly rather than non-basics in general. At two mana it comes down before Tron, and as a colourless card any deck can play it. The effect isn't versatile enough to be played maindeck, and may still be too little for sideboards. Fortunately it has an anti-Storm effect stapled to it so that Modern players can play an answer to both Tron and Storm with the same sideboard slot.
I do find it interesting that Amulet of Safekeeping has the same concept of two disparate effects stapled onto one two mana artifact. Notably, in this case though both effects are good against a single modern deck - Storm - as the abilities answer both Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens respectively. Plus Amulet can be used against Burn, targeted discard, and other token strategies. And yet it hasn't really seen any play in Modern. My guess is that since there are far fewer cards that are effective against Tron, its just better to play Damping Sphere as your interaction with both Tron and Storm, than to play Amulet which does nothing versus Tron.
Which brings us up to the new set Guilds of Ravnica. Particularly, three cards that look to me like the next wave of versatile, efficient Modern answers:
Assassin's Trophy is on a completely different level than what I would have expected from the above trend. There isn't really any subtlety here, the card is just absurdly versatile and efficient. A two mana effect to break up Tron is welcome. But doing everything else as well in colours that already have Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse seems like a mistake. This would have been a lot more interesting as an Orzhov card (i.e. a Modern version of Vindicate), or by missing one or two other permanent types (e.g. "non-artifact permanent").
On a personal note, it's disappointing that a card that will likely define the format has such a strange name. A trophy sounds like an Artifact more than an instant, and it's not obvious how one would assassinate a non-creature permanent. Flavour-wise something with this name probably should have looked more like That Which Was Taken, and this effect given some other name (Path to Decay!)
Knight of Autumn is what I'm expecting to see more of for Modern. It's a versatile modal spell that hits two problematic permanent types, stabilizes life totals versus aggro, and has a "fail state" of four power for three mana which puts Reclamation Sage and Lone Missionary to shame. This isn't a card you automatically play four of or go out of your way to splash for. However, it is going to free up sideboard slots and improve game one results for decks using things like Chord of Calling, Collected Company, and Restoration Angel .
The last card I want to mention from Guilds of Ravnica is Unmoored Ego. This take on Slaughter Games and Lost Legacy is remarkable in that it allows you to name land cards. That means you can take out Urza's Tower or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle proactively for three mana, as well as the usual role of hitting critical combo pieces like Ad Nauseam or Krark-Clan Ironworks. I don't think we'll see this in the maindeck. Plus, the effect still requires black mana. But, like Field of Ruin, it's greatly improving the scope and efficiency of an existing effect to the point where we will likely see it played far more often than its predecessors.
In summary, I feel like Wizards has some good examples of what versatile and efficient interaction needs to look like in Modern and is trying to work these examples into new card design. A healthy Modern has room for cards like Karn Liberated, Worship, Ensnaring Bridge, Slippery Bogle, and Grapeshot to succeed. But it also provides reasonably effective ways for the average deck to interact with these unusual cards should they wish to do so.
Until next time, here's hoping for a powerful, flexible, efficient, and interactive Simic card in the next set!