All Is Glass: Modern’s Fragility

The line between genius and madness is indistinct. The line between epiphany and world-class tilting-off is blurry. I’m in something of a fugue, and uncertain of where I stand anymore. While I am personally certain of the veracity of my forthcoming statement describing the Modern metagame, my ability to perceive normal reality is compromised. I’ll have to let you be the judge of my conclusion’s validity. Though my overly complicated yet erudite vocabulary appears unaffected—nay—enhanced. Exceptional.

Allow me to explain how it came to this. I am grinding Modern Grand Prix Trials, trying either to find the last 150 planeswalker points I need or to win byes outright for Grand Prix Las Vegas. The demise of SCG IQ’s in the western states and my early PPTQ win means that I will be short two GP byes for the first time in years. Curse you, good fortune! And the end of Star City’s secondary market monopoly! Thus, I have sought out as many opportunities as are logistically practicable to correct this problem. And failed.

Getting to the Top 8 is not a problem. Closing the deal has been another matter. All this frustration has not been for naught, however. I have noticed a trend in the decks that I am losing to, one that may apply to the metagame overall. Robustness has fallen by the wayside. I have seen the traditional deckbuilding constraints of this format disregarded and pilots rewarded for their blatant disrespect for established wisdom. It has gotten to the point that I am a fraction of a degree of tilt away from maindecking a playset of Surgical Extraction in UW Control. Surgical Extraction!

What Does It Mean to be Robust?

I’m certain that the topic of robustness in Magic has been covered before. It may even have been by me. I’m not going to look (if it was, indulge me with a link). Not everyone, to their shame, has read my entire back catalogue of exquisitely insightful articles. If you haven’t, then pay attention—this section is crucial to understanding my delirious epiphany. They who write the dictionary define robust as strongly formed or constructed, among other things that don’t apply to inanimate objects. In Magic, robust describes decks that are not easily disrupted. A robust deck has many cards that do similar things, so that if one is removed, another easily takes its place. On the other hand, fragile decks depend on certain specialized cards that are irreplaceable. If those are lost, the deck falls apart.

Consider Merfolk and Ad Nauseam. The former is built to take advantage of tribal synergy while the later exploits the interaction between Angel’s Grace and Ad Nauseam to claim victory. Merfolk is a very robust deck because, while many of its cards are specialized, they are still creatures that can attack for damage. In an attrition fight, each card is effectively a copy of every other card. The removal of one card from the deck does not greatly impair Merfolk. I have been Surgically Extracted several times playing the deck and won for this very reason.

Compare this to Ad Naus. Failure to resolve the namesake card is a failure to win. Such is the nature of linear combo: live by the exploit, die by the failure to execute the exploit. Slaughter Games on Ad Nauseam utterly cripples the deck, virtually winning the game by itself. Therefore, Merfolk is a robust deck, while Ad Naus is fragile. With these definitions out of the way, let me get to the point.

Modern’s Defining Characteristic

Traditionally, Modern was known for robust deck construction. Lacking the card selection of Legacy, players had no choice. In Legacy, players can Ponder and Brainstorm to find the cards they need. Serum Visions is a poor replacement. Jund’s targeted discard and Liliana of the Veil make it even worse. When you expect to have your hand shredded before you can meaningfully play, lost cards must be easily replaceable.

Like Jund, Infect also reinforced the importance of robust deckbuilding in Modern. If players did not meaningfully interact with Infect before turn three, they would certainly lose. Oftentimes, it took multiple interactions to not die. Therefore, Modern decks could not rely on a single playset of cards, and necessarily diversified their answers. (Or killed faster, but those decks are irrelevant to this discussion.) The point is that for most of the format’s history, Modern decks were case studies in robust construction. But no more.

Consider our data on the March metagame. Now look to MTGGoldfish and MTGTop8. I see Death’s Shadow Jund, Dredge, Storm, and Ad Nauseam. Eldrazi Tron is dethroning traditional Tron. Burn, Abzan, and Bant Eldrazi remain, but they are declining relative to the top decks. I also see the walls of reality crumbling and breaking as I delve further than Man was ever meant to, but that’s likely unrelated. Overall, decks that I consider fragile are eating at the metagame stock of robust decks.

To be clear, I do consider Eldrazi Tron the more fragile deck. True, it has even more unfair land redundancy, and can theoretically accelerate through disruption, but its gameplan is comparatively unfocused. The preponderance of cantrips ensures that Gx Tron actually sees threats beyond the initial hand and that the lands will flow. Eldrazi Tron is always at the mercy of the top of its deck. Similarly, every threat from Gx is potentially backbreaking; the same cannot be said of Matter Reshaper or even of Thought-Knot Seer. Blood Moon is also more effective against Eldrazi Tron, which require colorless mana to function, than against Tron.

Regardless, more and more fragile decks are doing well in Modern now than they have in the past. After observing the phenomenon for weeks, I have an idea why.

The Shadow’s Deviation

The demise of Infect is undoubtedly a significant factor. It is no longer so punishing to miss on certain effects in your opening hand. Decks can then allow themselves to be less robust in exchange for card flexibility and explosive power. You don’t need as much early creature removal, so you can afford to focus more on advancing your own gameplan. This is the advantage of a more fragile deck—in place of redundancy, you can live in Christmasland. There is now less punishment for being fragile. Decks that were weak to Infect, or simply worse at being linear than Infect, like Storm, are returning to prominence. (Additional printings are also a factor in Storm’s resurrection.)

Normally, one would expect Jund to police these fragile decks and reward the robust ones, but this doesn’t appear to be happening. The traditional “fun police” deck has nearly vanished. Its cousin Abzan remains, but not to the same degree as traditional Jund. Instead, Jund has been replaced, subsumed even, by Death’s Shadow. The unusual creature has proven to be remarkably powerful. Enough to bend decks around its constraints. As a result, we are seeing decks reveling in nihilistic disregard for their lifetotal and playing functionally fewer than 60 cards. Burn has risen again to contain the new menace, but Shadow still sits atop the format. And grappling with why is pushing my sanity to the brink. The deck should not work as well as it clearly does!

Death’s Shadow wields many of Jund’s tools. In fact, it plays more of those key disruptive cards than Jund did. In many ways, it is grindier than midrange Jund. I would argue that DSJ is simply Jund pushed to the extreme. However, by radicalizing itself, it has deeply changed. It wears the skin of Jund, it shares its mannerisms and values of Jund, but something is off. Despite appearances, DSJ is not a robust deck. It is one of the most fragile decks in the format. And Modern is following its lead.

Examining the Deviant

I hear the wails about how all the various Death’s Shadow decks pack numerous ways to recur and tutor up their threats. But that’s consistency, not robustness. DSJ has to run those cards. Death’s Shadow is their gameplan and must be found and defended. Tarmogoyf, and occasionally Liliana, the Last Hope, are backups to that plan. These decks are playing Mishra’s Bauble and Street Wraith not because they are powerful, but because of how they enable Death’s Shadow. They play the maximum amount of discard to ensure Death’s Shadow will survive to attack. They play Traverse the Ulvenwald to find Shadows and Kolaghan’s Command to recur Shadows. It’s all about the Shadow.

A cheap fatty is very good. The shell around that fatty has proven itself. The problem is that without that fatty, the whole thing crumbles. Most of the deck just doesn’t do anything. After a certain point, even the cantrips aren’t good. Jund was always a force to be reckoned with because you could guarantee that every card in the deck was a live and potent draw. That isn’t quite true about DSJ. Without its namesake card, the deck is really unimpressive. This leads me to believe that the deck is far more fragile than players give it credit for. I think of midrange Jund like a square of bricks. Not impressive by itself, but solidly built no matter how you look at it. DSJ is more like a steel beam. It can survive massive compressive forces, but it fears sheering forces and sideways hits.

This is not a unique feature of the constellation of Death’s Shadow decks. Combo decks and many others are trading resilience for power, growing more fragile than before. Abzan CoCo decks are becoming increasingly combo-centric and abandoning any pretense of the fair plan. Doing so gives them more free wins, but also increases the risk of clunky draws that require Collected Company or Chord of Calling to fix. Eldrazi Tron is replacing Gx Tron, enjoying more power at the expense of consistency. I could go on. Whether directly because the rock-solid decks have themselves gone for more power and fragility, or because decks are simply free to push themselves without the threat of Infect, I find the trend to be clear. Robustness is now less important than power.

Implications

This brings me to my impulse to start maindecking Surgical Extraction. It is looking increasingly as though Extraction cards are actually as potent as we all thought when we first learned about them. Ever since Cranial Extraction was unveiled, players have dreamed dark fantasies about neutering their opponent’s deck for nothing. Those dreams died when they discovered how easy it actually was for most decks to survive such attacks. Assuming you even got the opportunity to do so against aggressive decks. Even Surgical being free didn’t solve this problem. Against non-combo decks, Extraction effects just aren’t effective.

With the increasing specialization and fragility of deck design in Modern, this dream is being revived. It is becoming increasingly plausible that Extracting something will actually cripple decks as intended. If you Surgical Death’s Shadow, the deck loses half of its win conditions (excluding Street Wraith). Not only that, but unlike most decks of the past, it makes the deck noticeably worse. So much of any Death’s Shadow deck is built specifically around that card that losing the threat is actually debilitating, a first for fair decks. This is weird, and assuming it is not just me manically searching for meaning where there is none for my constant disappointment, it suggests a new angle of attack against the metagame.

Control Boost?

For these reasons, I am  considering playing Surgical as an actual plan in control decks. I have had little trouble overcoming the initial wave from my non-control opponents, but over time, I just start falling behind as recursion and value begin to pile up. That doesn’t even count the times that actual graveyard shenanigans broke my defenses. Between crippling my opponent’s deck and traditional graveyard hate, my frustration and tilt are pushing me toward that unthinkable void.

And yet, I do not commit. Whether it be from fear of crossing that yawning chasm or some lingering rationality holding me back, I know not. So I ask you, the readers, to judge my question: Is this finally the time of the Extractors? I may be mad, but Grafdigger’s Cage has been on the edge of maindeckability for some time now. And indeed, with creature tutoring and graveyard recursion on the rise, perhaps its time, too, has come.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

13 thoughts on “All Is Glass: Modern’s Fragility

  1. I really enjoyed this article! After coming out of an abysmal performance at GP Richmond this last weekend, I’m seeing the method to your madness. From the top decks in the current meta, which cards would be the best target with Surgical? I keep running into Dredge, but I have no idea what I’d target. Thanks!

    1. Against dredge the greatest priority are threats, specifically Prized Amalgam followed by Bloodghast. The deck is built around overwhelmingly fast starts with those cards and the rest of the deck is uninspiring at best.

      If you are against a robust fair deck then Extraction is not very good, try to remove something that would wreck you. Against the land centric decks you want to hit either Valakut or a Tron piece. Combo decks require you to answer then extract their critical piece.

  2. My testing partner has been on lantern for over a year now. His maindeck extractions have been devastating to every new deck idea I’ve brought to the table. I’ve been noticing the uptick of extraction’s power over this time. Building other decks to have the same maindeck capability isn’t an insane venture.

  3. Hello David,
    You seem to be bashing non-robust linear combo decks, yet you talk about infect, which is also a non-robust linear combo deck, killing on turn 3 with infect to keep the format robust. So my question is now that infect has fallen to the wayside, due to a non-robust card being banned, gitaxian probe, what makes ad nauseam different, which kills on average a turn later?

    Also if the “non-robust” decks are so fragile, why are the “robust” decks not adapting answers for these decks? (this answers your question)

    As time goes on modern will more and more resemble legacy due to more cards being added to the pool.
    EX: storm gaining baral to become relevant again.
    EX: Eldrazi being printed allowing for a plethora of decks to be brewed.

    Wizards doesn’t have the time or money to fine tune modern to bring it back to the “robust” state you are referring to (as much as I wish they did). For this reason and many others is why frontier was created.

    Best wishes on your grand prix trials, Seth

    1. Seth, I disagree on several points.
      1. I don’t think this article is “bashing” the meta or anything. David is simply observing the decrease in robustness as of late, which is not necessarily a problem.
      2. Gitaxian Probe added a lot to Infect’s robustness, because the info allowed them to play around answers and the decreased deck size made it more likely for them to find a new threat when one did get answered.
      3. Ad Nauseum is different than Infect because Infect has more ways to win the game, like normal damage with Hierarch or a variety of Infect creatures, whereas Ad Nauseum can’t win without resolving its namesake spell. Also, the decks operate of a totally different axis, with Infect much easier to interact with.
      4. Modern will certainly get more powerful over time, but I think it will always be significantly different than Legacy, due to the presence of extremely degenerate cards that won’t be reprinted.
      5. Modern can certainly become robust again.

      Overall, especially considering your comment on Modern becoming like Legacy, your comment comes across as an advertisement for Frontier, which doesn’t seem attractive right now because of how diverse and fun Modern is and how small the Frontier card pool is.

  4. So how do we adjust? Rebuild Infect as a slower, more robust GB and some death shadows to be cute? Find a way to play more Blood Moon? Play a Naya Valukut with four Chalice? Do we have to get weird to have that consistency or just play the new default decks? Control seems sweet, but only UW or espero seem robust enough compared to the others. A rebuild of Grixis to be Midrange or New style of control? Old Naya Coco seems okay, but way too damn expensive.

  5. I’ve been playing with surgical extraction for years, and in most designs I have at least 2 of them in maindeck.

    Surgical extraction can really cripple a deck provided your opponent somehow get an important card into the graveyard.

    The two downsides to the card is that it demands that you memorize what to remove from every single decklist in use, otherwise your damage will be to random.

    Second, when there tend to be a lot of rogue decks you won’t be able to figure out what to hit before game 1 is over, and then their sideboard may be your downfall.

  6. While I do agree that Shadow is more fragile than Jund, extrapolating it to the whole metagame feels like a stretch. Abzan Company becoming more of a combo-roulette sort of deck is a response to the fact that Knightfall has a superior fair game, and was thus eclipsing the strategy. Eldrazi Tron is also definitely more robust that Tron – the number of games I’ve taken from Tron with a couple of Seas effects speaks volumes to that fact, and Eldrazi Tron already has built-in tech (such as Mind Stone and basic Wastes) to beat Blood Moon. All in all, I agreed with some of the points made as part of the groundwork, but the conclusion seems off.

    1. As I said, I was massively tilted at the time. Still not sure if it was right or not, but I do know that the shells I’ve tried were bad at making it work.

  7. Thanks for the piece, man. Solid writing and analysis.

    I think this is great, and I’ve been thinking about a single copy mainboard for a while in a jund-style deck. (With more in the side.) I think somewhere between 1-4 is right, but I don’t see the reason to commit to the whole set right away.

    One thought on terminology:
    It seems like your definition is really looking at what I would call “worst-case fail state” – the vulnerability to the strongest type of disruption the deck can come up against. For Death’s Shadow, that’s an extraction (backed by removal and a clock); for traditional Tron, that’s land destruction. For different decks, it’s going to look different.

    Your article then focuses on vulnerability to extractions, which is totally reasonable. That’s your whole goal – to explore SE as a mainboard option and it’s potency in the current meta. I dig it. This leaves out some other possible ways decks fail, but the real claim is that extraction effects are very strong right now against a swath of decks due to the linearity of threats presented. Seems on point. You could do (and did) a similar analysis of ghost quarter, but it’s less devastating or useless so it’s less of a controversial deckbuilding choice.

    Idk why I’m doing this analysis. Mostly, people were getting up in arms about “you not being right about the meta” and it felt silly. You’ve got a good breakdown.

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