With another Modern Grand Prix in the books, you can expect a week of various articles detailing the Top 8 or the tournament breakdown and looking at some of the sweet lists that emerged. With that area well covered, I think now is a good time to shift our attention away from the metagame and instead focus on Modern as a format.
You see, while Modern has a lot of interesting things about it, it seems that most people still tend to prefer not to play it. Obviously there are some hardcore Modern lovers and specialists that keep the metagame afloat between Grand Prix and Pro Tours, but most players avoid the format other than testing for these bigger events, or the bigger events themselves.
Extended had some of the same problems in that it was less loved than Standard, but Extended did have the benefit of molting its skin every three years or so and becoming essentially a brand new format. This kept things fresh, although it did make Extended a bit of a grind to maintain as you always had to be buying new cards and selling old cards that were about to rotate and lose a lot of value.
Modern seemed like a great solution to the issues that Extended was having. Have a nonrotating format that gave cards a second life outside of Standard but that could be regulated easier than Legacy or Vintage. Modern, as a concept, is easier to understand than Extended ever was. Modern card frames are legal (for the most part), meaning 8th Edition forward. Extended was a mess of seven years and strange rotations that acted as a big barrier to entry.
For a while, Modern captured everything people loved about Extended while tying up some of those loose ends. The format was fresh and exciting and I will go on record as saying Pro Tour Philly, the first ever Modern Pro Tour, was one of my favorites ever played. Deck diversity was a real thing but everyone was doing something powerful and cool and I loved that.
Yet, as time has passed, Modern has fallen far away from what I loved about that tournament.
Tournaments continued on for quite a while with the format still taking shape. Big time bans and unbans helped to keep things fresh while plenty of unexplored territory was still being uncovered. The format felt really solid. Over time though, there became less big name bannings and unbannings as the power level of the format settled down and most of the "new" decks had been explored. While new set releases occasionally had cards that helped a new deck along, the majority of the format remained the same.
The Grand Prix in Pittsburgh showed us that new decks, or old decks thought to be extinct, can still be discovered in the format, but doing so is rare and the success rates are questionable. Spending a ton of time trying to figure out if Hulk Combo might be viable is awesome when the conclusion is yes, but imagine instead that you spent that time learning one of the tried and true staples of the format. The yield on your time is just going to be so much higher so much more often taking this second course of action and, therefore, that's what people tend to do.
As we discussed earlier, one of the things that Modern looked to clean up about Extended was to set clear and simple boundaries for the format. All cards printed since 8th Edition and therefore with the modern card frame, would be legal in Modern. There were a few exceptions to this, mostly including promotional cards such as judge foils, but the rule held true for 99% of cards. Then WotC started printing additional products like crazy.
The structure of set releases in recent years has shifted quite a bit. In addition to four major set releases a year, we can expect a large a Commander set each year along with many smaller sets, such as From the Vault or some kind of Duel Deck release. Most of these products are released with the modern card frame even though many of the cards found within them are not actually legal for Modern. This has made the "simple" structure of Modern not so simple anymore. If you are trying to explain to a new player what cards are legal in Modern, you need to say something along the lines of, "every set printed for Standard since 8th edition," which is just a confusing bit of mumbo jumbo.
So now, Modern has lost the simplicity and ease of entry that it once had and it lacks the "fresh" feeling that Extended would offer us every time it rotated. Modern, a format made to combine the best elements of Extended and Standard now seemed to be borrowing some of the worst elements of each.
I think that Modern is in a great space if some pruning were to be had. In theory, Modern offers players a format where every card can always be reprinted, so while prices for some cards might be high, they will never reach that of Vintage and Legacy, where some cards have dwindling numbers able to be played. In addition, the idea that things with a modern card frame can be played is a very clean and easy rule to introduce to players so long as that isn't actually a lie.
There is an additional burden on Modern and that is that it must be balanced by cards that are legal in Standard at one point in their lifespan. This is generally done in a few loud ways:
1) Very specific hate pieces are printed that have low impact on Standard but large impacts on specific archetypes. Examples include Stony Silence, Leyline of the Void, and Ethersworn Canonist.
2) Cards see print that synergize with specific Modern cards that will not be around during its Standard life cycle. Tarmogoyf is a good example of a single card getting better in a Modern environment, but another example is Melira and persist creatures, which were just not a synergy ever able to be played in Standard. Melira had a very low impact on Standard but has been a part of the best deck in Modern.
3) Powerful new keyword or theme that is best taken advantage of via a larger card pool. This is rare, but stuff like dredge occasionally comes along that just has a huge power spike in older formats.
Outside of those three avenues, most cards printed only make it into Modern on absurd rate, which does happen, but is hardly something to be counted on. You can make a pretty safe bet that in five years, Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile will still be the most played removal in the format, for example. This is because printing something better than Bolt or Path would warp Standard in unhealthy ways. The same is true for a card better than Tarmogoyf, or Vendilion Clique, or Wurmcoil Engine. None of these cards are at risk of a banning either, so the format sort of sits around with these powerhouses sitting as kings of the hill with little risk of that changing.
Problems are generally not without solutions though! There is a pretty clean way to clean up multiple of these areas at once while also giving Modern a more distinct identity all its own.
First, let me be a little forward here. I love Vintage and I like Legacy. They are both cool formats that keep history relevant and generate some awesome stories. That said, neither one is a reasonable format to maintain with the growing Magic population. Acquiring cards ranges from expensive to impossible already and trying to push either of those formats to all Magic players would require reprints that we can be all but certain to never see. WotC has correctly limited their support of these formats to just a couple of championships and Grand Prix because giving any more support would put pressure on the larger Magic population to play these formats which is difficult to impossible.
One of the coolest changes to eternal formats in recent years was the change to allow cards in Commander to be played in these Eternal formats. While 95% of cards in these sets aren't even considered, the small number that are have had giant impacts on the format and have really brought a fresh look to things. Cards like Flusterstorm are used to fight the insanely powerful spells of the format while cards like True-Name Nemesis have created entirely new archetypes and revived olds ones such as Merfolk.
I personally find this to be awesome. Cards are being funneled into a format that can otherwise grow a bit stale and yet these cards never have to pass the "Standard Test." Make no mistake about it, True-Name Nemesis would be awful to play against in Standard (even more awful, I suppose!), but thanks to it being in Commander, that liability is entirely avoided.
Bringing it Together
So why was this treatment avoided for Modern? If you think about, having Commander sets be legal in Modern is almost the perfect solution. You get to maintain the rule that cards with the modern frame are Modern legal in a much cleaner way and you get to shake up the format once a year with a small subset of cards in a product that you actively wish to promote. Commander becomes a set that tournament players are just as interested in as Commander players.
Commander 2015 was only 56 cards, which is obviously not a hard set number and could be increased if needed. Keep in mind that those cards were not designed with Modern in mind at all and yet here are the cards that would possibly see Modern play:
Scourge of Nel Toth
Magus of the Wheel
Daxos the Returned
Ezuri, Claw of Progress
Kalemne, Disciple of Iroas
Karlov of the Ghost Council
Meren of Clan Nel Toth
Mizzix of the Izmagnus
Without even trying, 30% of the cards in Commander 2015 would at least be considered in Modern and while there are a couple of potential concerns, like Mizzix, I don't think any of these cards would necessarily ruin the format. Again, these were not designed with Modern in mind and also, for anything that was too powerful, the banned list still exist. I would much rather have Commander 2015 available with two banned cards than to just have all of Commander 2015 banned.
Can you imagine playing Soul Sisters with Karlov of the Ghost Council or some cool Dredge deck with Scourge of Nel Toth? Both of these ideas just sound sweet and yet neither one is likely strong enough to make the Leap all the way to Legacy. so these really cool cards are left to only see play in Commander (and I honestly can't imagine either card being an all-star there either).
Balancing Commander sets so that they fit into Modern without overpowering it is certainly an added task on the shoulders of the FFL (or Future Future League) and WotC, but it doesn't seem too difficult, considering the size and frequency of Commander sets. Meanwhile, the impact and shift up they would have on the metagame once a year would definitely be felt. Now Modern players no longer need to wait for the next banning/unbanning, or random broken card for the format to be shaken up. We gain the freshness of old Extended while cleaning up any of the baggage that came with a rotating format.
A Step Further
I think that the cleanest implementation for this rule would be if all of the non-promo products with a modern card frame were legal in Modern. This would include all Duel Decks and variants like archenemy, but would not include judge foils, premium deck series, or From the Vault products as those tend to be more for collection purposes.
This would include all of the Duel Decks products and Commander products that have been released with modern card frames, so a large addition to the banned list would be needed initially, but I think that might be a fine one-time price to pay to line up the legality of the format with all modern card frames.
Otherwise, this new system would begin now and only look forward, but I would still prefer if all future Duel Decks and similar products were considered for Modern legality. I think this is an overall messier solution, but it does eliminate the initial sweep and restructuring of the format, although to be honest, that restructuring might be a breath of fresh air to kick things off with.
Implications and Applications
Modern would constantly be updated traditionally through Standard set releases, but this new formatting would provide a once-a-year release that would be the equivalent of a Standard rotation. While the format would not completely be turned on its head in quite the same way, there would still be a nice exploratory period and then a few fresh months of new decks or new takes on old decks.
Ideally, the Pro Tour following the Commander release (or whatever special release is slated for that year) would be the Modern Pro Tour so that players could witness the pros take on the new cards and see the results of the format shakeup. This not only keeps Modern exciting and in the public eye, but it also explicitly showcases a major WotC product in the Commander sets and I think that is pretty cool. (Limited for Modern Pro Tours would still be the last Standard released block).
I assume that some number of Commander cards would need to be immediately banned for Modern and that is just something we need to be ok with, but again, I would rather one out of every 100 cards be unable to be played with than for 100 out of 100 as it currently stands.
Format solutions could be printed that make little to no sense in Standard, or that eclipse the power level we are comfortable with having in Standard and I think that is where the most important aspect of this lies. New cards designed with Modern in mind means WotC gets to shape Modern to their liking a little more while giving Modern more of its own unique identity. Strong Standard decks of the past will still pop up, but it would be extra nice to see some Modern-only creations come about as a result of this change.
Being able to subtly or drastically alter the format through only a small number of cards is an extremely potent tool to have at their disposal and yet it is not being used for such. As long as the Modern playing population embraces a few changes and understands that a higher ban rate may come about as a result of this, I think Modern would love to be reinvigorated in this way.
I have seen arguments on how to modify Legacy and therefore make it more playable for the masses. Some of these include things like banning all reserve list cards, but honestly, Modern is already bred to be that format. It is a nonrotating format with no reserve list cards. It has the strength of the fetch land/shock land mana base at its disposal and some of the most powerful creatures and spells around.
There are some notable Legacy staples that are missing from Modern like Show and Tell, but that is a card that could easily be reprinted in Commander or some other set if they desired to see it in Modern (I think it's probably best if this one in particular doesn't make it into Modern, but the point stands).
In general, I think that with a small chaos period while all of these changes settle, this could be the solution to keeping Modern viable while making it fresh again and making the Commander release that much cooler. Even if this is not the path, something needs to be done so I hope the powers that be are paying attention. Until next week, thanks for reading!