Modern is currently the greatest Constructed format in Magic! It has several competitive decks to choose from for every play style, whether you prefer to Go Big, Go Wide, Go Fast, Go Long, or Go Combo. And want to know the best part about Modern? Despite such rich diversity, the entire format centrally revolves around creatures – exactly as Magic was intended from the beginning!
Today I will share with you the five pillars of Modern, including which decks in the format fit under which pillar. I will also discuss how the creatures, lands, and spells work together to support the theme of each individual strategy.
Whether you're new to Modern or an experienced veteran of the format, the goal for today is to show you what I see when I look at Modern and to convey to you my excitement for the format! If you're not already a fan of Modern, hopefully by the end of this article you will be!
The Five Pillars of Modern
Nearly every deck in Modern revolves around creatures and most decks fall into one of five categories:
1. Go Big! (Urza Tron, Amulet Bloom, Infect, Bogles, Breach Reanimator)
2. Go Wide! (Merfolk, Elves, Soul Sisters, B/W Tokens, Storm (SB))
3. Go Fast! (Affinity, Burn, Delver, Zoo, Hate Bears)
4. Go Long! (Abzan, Jund, Jeskai, Grixis, Dredgevine)
5. Go Combo! (Twin, CoCo Chord, Scapeshift, Living End, Ad Nauseam)
Let's talk about each of these five pillars or categories individually.
Pillar #1: Go Big!
Urza Tron aims to go big, bigger, and biggest!
It starts out with Wurmcoil Engine, then Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and finally Emrakul, the Aeons Torn! Creatures in Magic don't get any bigger than Emrakul.
It uses Urza's Tower, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Mine to generate large amounts of amount to cast its monsters. It also uses Eye of Ugin to search them out. In order to assemble all three components of "Urza Tron" it uses Expedition Map, Ancient Stirrings, and Sylvan Scrying.
In addition to its creatures, it also casts giant planeswalkers (Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Karn Liberated), each of which is able to control the board effectively. It also runs Pyroclasm and Oblivion Stone as additional control elements to buy time to set up for its Eldrazi.
Amulet Bloom aims to go big by resolving Primeval Titan as soon as possible and the rest of the deck revolves around the Primeval Titan.
Its primary mode of acceleration is using Amulet of Vigor and Simic Growth Chamber in conjunction with Summer Bloom or Azusa, Lost but Seeking to generate six mana in one turn for the Titan. It uses Summoner's Pact to find the Titan and Ancient Stirrings to find the Amulet or the land.
Once Primeval Titan resolves, it searches out Boros Garrison and Slayers' Stronghold. Amulet of Vigor untaps the Boros Garrison, which activates the Stronghold, which allows the Titan to attack for eight and get a second trigger. The second trigger then finds a Simic Growth Chamber and Tolaria West, bouncing the Tolaria West to hand to be transmuted the following turn if needed to find Summoner's Pact to find another Titan. The next titan attack finds Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion to grant double strike to the Primeval Titan to finish off the opponent.
The deck's Backup Plan is to cast Hive Mind and one of its three pacts to win the game.
It can also cast Primeval Titan as early as the first turn with Simian Spirit Guide!
Infect aims to go big by casting pump spells on creatures with infect. It only takes ten poison damage to kill an opponent, so all the infect creatures essentially hit twice as hard as normal creatures!
Inkmoth Nexus, Glistener Elf, and Blighted Agent are the threats. Spellskite Redirects removal spells away from the infect threats while Noble Hierarch grants exalted to the infect attacker.
Pump spells include: Vines of Vastwood, Mutagenic Growth, Might of Old Krosa, Groundswell, Pendelhaven, and Become Immense. Wild Defiance can also aid in making the infect creatures bigger.
Apostle's Blessing and Vines of Vastwood protect the infect creature from removal spells whenever Spellskite is not around to do so. Gitaxian Probe makes sure the coast is clear.
Bogles aims to go big by piling a bunch of auras onto a Hexproof creature and attacking for a ton of damage, often gaining life in the process.
Its primary threats are Gladecover Scout and Slippery Bogle though, when neither is available, it will instead turn to Kor Spiritdancer or fetch up a Dryad Arbor.
Once a creature is found, it casts some combination of Rancor, Ethereal Armor, Daybreak Coronet, Hyena Umbra, Spider Umbra, Unflinching Courage, and Spirit Mantle on its threat, attacking the opponent with the giant monster it has constructed.
It uses Path to Exile to clear out any blockers or tramples over them with Rancor and Unflinching Courage, or the creature is made unblockable via Spirit Mantle.
Breach Reanimator aims to go big in one of two ways: by putting a huge creature onto the battlefield from its hand via Through the Breach or by reanimating it from the graveyard via Goryo's Vengeance.
The go-to creature of choice in either case is Griselbrand, which draws its controller 14 cards, likely finding a Nourishing Shoal, which pitches Worldspine Wurm or Borborygmos Enraged to gain life to draw more cards off Griselbrand. Eventually a few Simian Spirit Guides are pitched to cast Manamorphose and Goryo's Vengeance (or Desperate Ritual and Through the Breach) to put Borborygmos Enraged onto the battlefield and hurl a handful of lands at the opponent for the win.
If no Griselbrand is in sight, the Backup Plan is cheating Worldspine Wurm onto the battlefield via Through the Breach in order to attack for 15 and leave behind a trio of 5/5 trampling Wurms to finish off the opponent the following turn.
Those are the five decks that Go Big. Now let's talk about the decks that Go Wide.
Pillar #2: Go Wide!
Merfolk aims to go wide by playing out a bunch of merfolk creatures, including several tribal "lords" that pump all the other merfolk creatures.
It starts out with Cursecatcher, Silvergill Adept, and Harbinger of Tides. It then plays its lords (Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident, and Merrow Reejerey). Finally it tops things off with Master of Waves, which doubles the army's size by producing a bunch of Elemental Tokens.
It uses AEther Vial in order to play out multiple creatures per turn or to be able to cast a creature and a spell in the same turn. Spreading Seas turns an opposing land into an Island which not only hinders the opponent's colored mana development but also makes all the merfolk unblockable if Lord of Atlantis or Master of the Pearl Trident is on the battlefield. The deck also makes great use of Mutavault since it counts as a Merfolk.
Vapor Snag and Dismember take care of any especially problematic creatures.
Elves aims to go wide by filling the board with little pointy-eared creatures and then turning them into large pointy-eared monsters via Elvish Archdruid and Ezuri, Renegade Leader.
Heritage Druid, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Mystic, Elvish Visionary, Nettle Sentinel, and Dwynen's Elite provide the small bodies that produce mana to cast Collected Company and Chord of Calling, which find more creatures. Eventually Ezuri, Renegade Leader Overruns the team, and the opponent.
While Merfolk aims to incrementally grow the tribe, Elves aims to grow them all at once at the end.
Soul Sisters (aka "Martyr Life") aims to go wide by playing out cheap creatures that gain a bunch of life. The life points buy the deck time while also creating a few giant monsters. Serra Ascendant becomes a 6/6 flying lifelinker and Ajani's Pridemate keeps growing bigger and bigger until he's the biggest cat in town!
Ranger of Eos can find more soul sisters, a martyr and a Serra Ascendant, or just two Serra Ascendants if 30 life has already been reached. Spectral Procession can also add more power to the board while triggering the soul sisters. Squadron Hawk can do likewise while also filling the hand with more hawks to gain more life off Martyr of Sands. Then Honor of the Pure can pump the team wide while Ajani's Pridemate and Serra Ascendant grow tall.
Path to Exile is the deck's only real form of disruption other than Ghost Quarter.
B/W Tokens aims to go wide by casting spells that put tokens onto the battlefield.
The deck steals a page out of Soul Sisters' book by playing Auriok Champion to keep the life total high enough to pay for Thoughtseize and Godless Shrine.
It uses Bitterblossom (and sometimes Raise the Alarm) to get the token-generation started early. It then goes into spirit-mode with Lingering Souls and Spectral Procession (and sometimes Timely Reinforcements). Finally it tops things off with Sorin, Solemn Visitor to make Vampires if need be. More often the case is that Sorin pumps the team while granting lifelink. Intangible Virtue and Zealous Persecution also pump the team.
Windbrisk Heights is a way to find an anthem, another token maker, or a disruptive spell at minimal cost. It also uses Path to Exile, Murderous Cut, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Thoughtseize to disrupt the opponent (and sometimes Zealous Persecution).
Storm (post-board) aims to go wide by using Goblin Electromancer to cast a bunch of spells in a single turn and then casts Empty the Warrens, triggering storm, to put lots of Goblin Tokens onto the battlefield. Most maindeck configurations rely instead on Grapeshot and would thus better be characterized as Combo, utilizing the mana generating ability of Goblin Electromancer to "go off."
Storm casts Gitaxian Probe, Thought Scour, Sleight of Hand, Serum Visions, and Desperate Ravings to find key spells while filling up the graveyard for Past in Flames and Pyromancer Ascension. It then casts Desperate Ritual, Pyretic Ritual, Manamorphose, and Past in Flames to flash back all its cards draw spells and rituals in order to play a giant Empty the Warrens (and/or Grapeshot).
Storm is one of the few decks in the format that relies minimally on creatures, though Goblin Electromancer plays a prominent role in its game plan and the Go Wide plan of Empty the Warrens often plays prominently in its post-board games.
Those are the five primary decks that Go Wide, so now let's talk about the decks that Go Fast!
Pillar #3: Go Fast!
Affinity aims to go fast by dumping a bunch of artifacts onto the board quickly and overwhelming the opponent with speed.
Memnite, Ornithopter, Vault Skirge, and Signal Pest turn on Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum while providing an army of robots ready to attack. Signal Pest, Steel Overseer, and Cranial Plating pump the robot army in a way similar to the way some of the "go wide" decks operate. Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager can also do a decent impression of a "go big" deck. Etched Champion is the way around blockers and removal and is the prime creature for holding the Cranial Plating.
Some versions run Galvanic Blast while others run Thoughtcast. Every other card in the deck is an artifact or a land. Speaking of lands, Affinity has a pair of creature lands: Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus. Inkmoth Nexus can do a fine Infect impression of one-shot-killing the opponent either by holding a Cranial Plating or by Arcbound Ravager going "all-in" on old Inky.
While it can sometimes resemble a Go Wide or a Go Big strategy, Affinity is at heart a Go Fast strategy.
Burn aims to go fast by playing out cheap aggressive creatures backed by cheap spells that deal direct damage to the opponent.
Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear, Wild Nacatl, Grim Lavamancer, and Eidolon of the Great Revel begin the beats early while Atarka's Command, Boros Charm, Lava Spike, Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt, and Searing Blaze clear blockers out of the way and/or light up the opponent's face.
Burn really only has one speed. That one speed is pedal to the metal FAST!
Delver aims to go fast by playing and flipping a Delver of Secrets and then either creating an army of Elemental Tokens with Young Pyromancer or quickly delving a Tasigur, the Golden Fang onto the battlefield (or sometimes Gurmag Angler). Snapcaster Mage also plays prominently in the deck's game plan by flashing back the spells previously used to fill the graveyard.
Gitaxian Probe sees what the opponent is up to; then the Counterspells allow the deck to play aggro control by countering key opposing spells. Lightning Bolt, Terminate, and Kolaghan's Command Remove smaller creature that got underneath the counters while Slaughter Pact Removes the bigger ones.
Zoo can take on a few slightly different forms. It can closely resemble Burn but with Experiment One, Kird Ape, and sometimes Flinthoof Boar. Or it can go bigger with Siege Rhino and sometimes Geist of Saint Traft. Or it can be Naya Collected Company.
Naya Collected Company starts out fast with Noble Hierarch or Wild Nacatl into Qasali Pridemage, Scavenging Ooze, or Tarmogoyf. It then plays out Knight of the Reliquary or Loxodon Smiter before topping out with Collected Company.
Collected Company makes the deck more resilient to removal but the lack of burn relative to the "smaller" zoo and burn decks leave it more reliant on finishing the opponent off with combat damage.
It also uses Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, and Dromoka's Command to clear out blockers.
G/W Hate Bears goes fast by playing out a series of disruptive creatures that slow the game down for the opponent while simultaneously generating tempo.
AEther Vial and Noble Hierarch accelerate the deck. Leonin Arbiter (cat) and Aven Mindcensor (bird) pressure opposing fetch lands while turning Ghost Quarter into Strip Mine. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Tectonic Edge likewise restrict the opponent's mana. Loxodon Smiter, Brimaz, King of Oreskos, and Wilt-Leaf Liege attack together for a ton of damage while the opponent struggles to work around the disruptive elements of the deck.
Path to Exile's drawback can be negated by cat or bird, Scavenging Ooze can eat the opponent's graveyard, Voice of Resurgence can force the opponent to play on their own turn, Qasali Pridemage can eat opposing artifacts or enchantments, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence can neuter the opponent's creatures. Horizon Canopy keeps the pressure coming and Stirring Wildwood can also join the party.
You can go big, go wide, or go fast, but you can also go long!
Pillar #4: Go Long!
Abzan aims to go long by trading resources with the opponent and then pulling ahead in the midgame through card advantage.
Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, and all the removal spells trade one-for-one with just about any card the opponent draws. Then Kitchen Finks, Lingering Souls, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang generate card advantage while Scavenging Ooze, Tarmogoyf, and Siege Rhino dominate the ground.
Jund is very similar to Abzan except it runs Dark Confidant instead of Lingering Souls, Lightning Bolt instead of Path to Exile, and Terminate and Kolaghan's Command instead of Siege Rhino. It also has Raging Ravine instead of Stirring Wildwood.
The game plan is nearly identical though: go long by trading one-for-one and then allow your card advantage to take over the game later.
Jeskai Midrange aims to go long by countering opposing spells, burning opposing threats, and then using Snapcaster Mage and Restoration Angel to generate cards advantage to win the long game. It can also turn the corner with Giest of Saint Traft and burn the opponent out if needed. Some variants play Supreme Verdict and try to go even longer.
Grixis Control aims to go long by killing everything the opponent plays, having them discard their hand, and then uses Snapcaster Mage, flipped Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, or Kolaghan's Command to pull away in the long game.
Winning is more of an afterthought with this "go long" creature control deck.
Dredgevine aims to go long by filling up its graveyard with creatures and then putting those creatures from the graveyard onto the battlefield.
Satyr Wayfinder, Lotleth Troll, Grisly Salvage, and Golgari Grave-Troll fill up the graveyard in a hurry. Then Bloodghast, Gravecrawler, and Vengevine come back. Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang also utilize cards in graveyard by delving them away.
The final pillar of Modern is to go combo!
Pillar #5: Go Combo!
Splinter Twin aims to go combo by making infinity faeries!
The combo is to put Splinter Twin on Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite in order to generate infinite copies and attack for lethal. The rest of the deck is devoted toward assembling and protecting that combo.
Twin has sufficient control elements to play out similar to a "go long" deck in various matchups. It's not usually under strict time constraints to find its combo, though ultimately assembling and executing the combo is the goal.
Abzan Collected Company aims to go combo by assembling at least one component from each of the following three groups:
Group 1: Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit or Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Group 2: Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap
Group 3: Viscera Seer
By doing so it will gain infinite life (or deal infinite damage with Redcap) while also scrying through the entire library to find any card it wants.
It has four Chord of Calling and four Collected Company to help find each of the pieces, along with Spellskite to protect the components and a few situational chord targets such as Fiend Hunter and Qasali Pridemage.
It also runs Eternal Witness to rebuy Chord of Calling or Collected Company to continue digging, which allows the deck to sometimes be able to outlast the "go long" decks.
Scapeshift aims to go combo by getting seven to eight lands onto the battlefield and casting Scapeshift, finding Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and six to seven Mountains to deal lethal damage to the opponent in a single turn.
Creatures play the least prominent role in this deck compared to any other Modern deck, though Sakura-Tribe Elder typifies exactly the type of thing the deck is trying to do – to put lands onto the battlefield as quickly as possible.
Living End aims to go combo by cycling creatures into the graveyard to find a cascade spell, which casts Living End immediately and for free, wiping out any opposing creatures from the battlefield while bringing to life all the creatures that had been cycled into the graveyard.
Fulminator Mage also plays an important role in the deck by killing off opposing lands and then coming back from the dead alongside all the cycled creatures via Living End.
Ad Nauseam aims to go combo by casting either Phyrexian Unlife or Angel's Grace followed by Ad Nauseam to draw the entire library and then win with either Lightning Storm or Laboratory Maniac.
Simian Spirit Guide plays a prominent role in casting Ad Nauseam a turn early and Laboratory Maniac is one of the two win conditions of the deck, but this deck is second only to Scapeshift in its minimal reliance on creatures.
Still, 23 of the top 25 strategies in Modern prominently featuring creatures in a variety of ways is enough to deem the format creature-centered, especially since every single deck in the format runs some number of creatures, including the few combo decks that only use the creatures as minor role-players.
Now that we've gone over all five of the pillars…
Which of the Five Pillar of Modern fits your play style?
Do you prefer to go big by using Urza Tron to summon giant Eldrazi? Or casting Primeval Titan during Summer time? Or poisoning the opponent with a pumped up infect creature? Or assembling a giant hexproof trampler covered in auras? Or reanimating Griselbrands from the graveyard and forcing Worldspine Wurms Through the Breach?
Or would you rather go wide with a sea of merfolk lords, Overrun the opponent with elves, gain a bunch of life from Soul Sisters, generate an army of spirits with B/W Tokens, or storm the field with an endless supply of Goblins via U/R Storm's transformative sideboard plan?
Or are you the type that thrives on speed? Do you have an affinity for robots? Do you like setting your opponent ablaze with burn spells? Or is attacking with Insectile Aberrations your thing? Or might I interest you in some