UNLOCKED PROTRADER: Modern Flaws

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Sometimes things just line up perfectly. If you read my article last week (of course you did, you never skip an installment!), then you may have picked up on some anti-Modern sentiment (or, at least, pro-Extended). We are going to get into some of the nuts and bolts stuff further along, but the gist of the argument is this: Modern is not necessarily the miraculous catch-all that Wizards imagined when the format was created.

Even from a purely financial perspective, there are a lot of things to not like about it. We got a great example of why last weekend when Collected Slivers made a surprise top eight appearance in SCG’s Modern Open. You know what? Let’s just get started, and you’ll figure it out as we go (or just smile and nod every now and then, and maybe say something like, “Hmm, interesting,” or, “That’s one interpretation.” This approach will also get you through any art gallery showing or non-French wine tasting1).

 

Wizards and Fan Engagement

One of the reasons why Magic is such an enjoyable hobby is because the producers of the game are so actively involved with the consumers. While social media has now made direct fan engagement easier for any companies to do (even though so many of them are bad at it), Wizards has consistently valued fan reactions, responses, and requests.

Heck, the fact that we are getting foil full-art(ish) fetch lands and shock lands in Standard-legal boosters seems to suggest that Wizards has gotten pretty good at parsing through our feedback, even though I would have never in a million years expected the company to do something like this. Yet another way that Wizards engages the community has been by hiring professional Magic players (and some contest winners) into its ranks.

I say all of this to make the point that when Modern was announced as a format, it was to strong fan applause—the demand for it had begun months earlier, and all players were waiting for was WOTC’s blessing. Wizards knew what the fans wanted and gave it to them, but that doesn’t mean what the fans wanted was what was best for them.

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Destructive Urge

Modern Background

Modern came largely out of the smoldering ashes of Extended, a format that had neither stability nor a large fan base. Extended was, for most of its life, “the last seven years,” meaning that it was much deeper than Standard, but still rotated annually. The last year or so of Extended events reduced the format to the last four years’ worth of sets, which gave the format notably less depth, and at a time when depth was needed the most.

Extended was also considered a “PTQ format” in the sense that people would only play it when they were “required to,” which was only during Extended PTQ season (January to April). In fact, the appeal of Extended was so low that most players would sell off their decks when the PTQ season ended, just because they knew the cards would be worthless for the next eight months. I personally liked seven-year Extended, and I even tried out (the current) four-year Extended back in January. I really liked it!

If Modern was just a response to the complaints about Extended, things would probably be a little better—but there is more. Modern was created in 2011, which coincided with the surge in popularity of Legacy. Legacy, prior to the Zendikar Boom2, wasn’t even a PTQ format like Extended. It was closer to how Vintage is regarded today, in that it got a few weekends a year where people outside of the format’s hotspots watched and said, “That’s kind of neat!” and then forgot about it a week later.

The crucial reason why Modern doesn’t rotate is because it took the role of spiritual successor to Legacy, removing the prohibitive barrier of card scarcity (hahahahahahahahaha) but keeping cards in the format indefinitely (besides stuff like banning, which is fair). Unlike Extended in any of its forms, if you love Affinity or Tron, you can play it in Modern ostensibly forever, even though Urza’s Tower hasn’t been reprinted in (just) over a decade, and Magic‘s development team was literally too scared to bring Affinity back in Scars.

Terror

Modern Supply Issues

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following point will be illustrated using MS Paint. I am not an artist. Okay, now pretend I’m saying the next part in a cool Neil DeGrasse-Tyson voice. *clears throat*.

Modern Graph

If we look at the first highly scientific graph that I have provided, you will see the growth of Magic represented as a cone. As it moves forward in time (up), the supply expands to meet growing demand (width). Although in actuality Magic‘s past growth would not be a perfect cone (growth expanded more rapidly in some years than others), the nature of the game’s expansion can still be represented this way.

In Legacy, the floor of the format is the game’s literal starting point in 1993; in Modern, it’s the purple line representing 2003. The reason why many Legacy staples are so expensive is that as you get closer to the bottom of the cone, the supply is constricting, which forces the price to rise as compensation.

Modern, in attempting to be the “new Legacy,” is raising that bottom to a wider point in the cone, but it is still significantly narrower than the top (which is going to happen at any point, unless the player population takes a significant and sustained downturn to the point of throttling print-runs).

Rotating formats like Standard and Extended have a floor, but it moves as the graph grows. Something more like this:

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extended graph

One of the important factors that gets overlooked for Modern is that it doesn’t filter out outdated design philosophies. Part of the reason why I mentioned Affinity and Urzatron lands earlier are because neither currently fit development’s standards for Magic design. In any iteration of Extended, Urza’s Tower would be nothing more than an antiquity. In Modern, the cycle is a pillar of the environment. This is great if you are a dedicated Tron player, but boxes out room for other archetypes featuring newer cards because they can’t compete. This is a form of stagnation that prevents other decks from competing because they are primarily “worse” versions of cards deemed too good for current design philosophies3.

Burnout

Modern Fears

The fear with Modern, unlike Legacy, is that any card can be reprinted at any time (assuming the reprint fits the development philosophy of the product its going in). This means that as cards drift closer to the floor of the format, and their price begins to rise, they can immediately get wiped out.

For example, the price on Smash to Smithereens got smashed (to smithereens!) when it was reprinted twice this calendar year, and it will take years for it to recover, if it ever does. More frequently, you will see cards that exist solely near the floor of the format that don’t fit current development standards spike because of their use in one narrow archetype. The most recent example is Sedge Sliver, a card that only exists because Magic was so briefly unpopular that design wanted to make a card that riffed on a rare from Alpha that most people don’t even remember4. It is highly unlikely that we see a Sedge Sliver reprint any time soon, which means that the new price ($10!) is likely going to take a while to go down, but how much actual demand now exists for the card?

While a static floor allows these “opportunities” to occur, they highlight a larger flaw with the format: in order for players to be competitive, they have to have access to cards at various points in the cone. As the cone continues to ascend and widen, that narrower bottom becomes more inaccessible, and can actively hurt demand for newer cards. If you tell newer players that they can play in a deeper, more enriched format with their existing cards, that is exciting—and probably helps drive interest in selling/trading older cards. But if their current cards can’t compete in the larger format, what then?

Let’s look at it this way: I would feel comfortable playing my current Abzan Aggro list in a field that includes some Standard lists from the past couple of years. At the very least, my losses would probably feel close enough that I would want to buy some new cards and try again. If I played Abzan Aggro in a format that includes things like Tron and Affinity, I’d be more likely to just ignore that format and keep playing Standard. This is the reason why it is so difficult to cultivate a Modern community if you don’t live in one already, and especially if you don’t have a majority of players with collections going back several years.

Reki, the History of Kamigawa

The Modern Point

The point of the article is this: I don’t feel comfortable being a “Modern” guy anymore, at least in terms of keeping staples in stock. The format is continuing to grow in the sense that it is popular online amongst the very vocal, very visible minority of Magic players, but it is an unstable place to park Magic capital long-term.

It’s also not very fun to play, largely for the reasons I spelled out above. I think a lot of players love the idea of the Modern format more than they love it in practice, and I think that there are some serious developmental issues that need to be addressed. The problem there is that because cards in the format don’t naturally expire, the only solution here is banning (which has an associated public relations cost that WOTC does not like).

It isn’t impossible to imagine a future format that serves as bridge between Standard and Modern (there is, after all, more time between now and Mirrodin than between Mirrodin and Alpha). While that format would be more prone to becoming “just” a PTQ Format the way old Extended did, it would also provide a real opportunity for cards with larger print runs to service the growing Magic population better than Modern does. If the format was successful as a year-long player, it would mean less of a hit in prices at rotation, and longer sustained prices. It would also be easier to bridge Standard players into the new format, since the older cards in the format would be more liquid and available.

Liquify

I am not holding out hope for a radical format change, or trying to advocate that people should stop playing Modern if it is something they enjoy. I just want to articulate some of the very real issues with the format, and caution people who think that it is a safe place to “invest.” And again, it’s not fun.

That’s all for this week, although I really want to encourage you to leave your feedback this week. I think this is another one of those articles where a discussion is going to lead to more analysis than I could provide on my own, and it helps prevent me from being the only voice on this topic. I hope that you feel interested enough to leave your thoughts below, and I will check in over the course of the week.

…Except when the Jags are on. BECAUSE FOOTBALL IS BACK!!!!

Best,

Ross

1 See, only my premium readers get this quality life advice!

2 You’ve heard my spiel on this already, but thanks for clicking on the footnote! If you aren’t familiar with the Zendikar Boom, read my first article here on MTGPrice (linked above in the article).

3 It’s important to remember that this is why they originally banned Wild Nacatl.

4 I’ve always loved Sedge Troll. And the crazy thing is, Sedge Sliver wasn’t the only tribute to it in this block!

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14 thoughts on “UNLOCKED PROTRADER: Modern Flaws”

  1. Aww come on… Modern is pretty fun to play actually. Legacy, that’s just stupid in my opinion. 93/94, I’ve yet to try it but looks fun as crap, and what I think should be a sanctioned format, if they can get around that whole “we’ll never reprint these” thing.

    Here… I’ll sum up my thoughts:
    – For people like me (adults, with jobs, kids, and other things taking our attention), playing Modern is fun because you can build a deck, play occasionally, and still be relatively competitive even as the meta shifts.
    – For people who can take the time to follow all the trends, keep up on the latest sets, and don’t mind dancing with rotation every few months, Standard is more fun to play.

    1. Even though I don’t play a consistent amount of Magic, I still play a lot of Standard- largely because there may not be 8 full Legacy decks in Central Florida.

      I’m not saying Modern is necessarily *bad*, but there are certainly legitimate reasons why WotC tried to axe having a Modern PT. Modern would really benefit from removing 8th and 9th from the card pool, since a lot of those cards don’t belong in, ahem, modern times.

      Also, until I can cast Cabal Therapy in Modern and cycle Barren Moor, it will continue to be ranked below formats where I can.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. The introduction of the new dual lands into standard along with the reprint of Onslaught fetch’s pretty much removes the price barrier for legacy.

    If people can build competitive legacy decks for the same price as standard and modern why wouldnt they? It is a much less volatile format in terms of bannings and rotation. Many legacy and modern decks share the same shell just one format accomodates cards with a higher power level.

    I think modern as a format has peaked and will now fall into a format of money grabbing for Wizards. Effectively every two years they will do a mass reprint with MMA XXXX.

    If Wizards wants to keep formats stable they should address the testing of standard cards in modern and legacy instead of reprints to help stabalize the formats and prevent bannings without proper testing.

    1. The problem is that WotC has publicly stated that they don’t have the time or manpower to test and develop new cards for Modern/Eternal (which explains Treasure Cruise). The FFL typically ends up with very rough lists of decks that become things in Standard, although their goal isn’t to predict the future, but to make sure it isn’t immediately solvable (if they can solve a format with their limited resources, then the public will find it overnight). With Legacy and Vintage that’s not a problem, since the formats don’t have as much on the line (the occasional big Legacy events, and the even less frequent Vintage ones are all separate from the Pro Tour, so a bad environment isn’t as much of a PR nightmare). With Modern, it’s sort of caught in the middle- if the format doesn’t look appealing, then changes need to be made; but there is no way they can realistically prepare or check against that happening (aside from not printing obviously busted stuff, but again, Treasure Cruise).

  3. I really enjoyed Modern when it began, but as time moved by I became less and less inspired. Then once Pod was banned, I just about gave up. Amulet Bloom was a cute deck, but I am 100% glad I sold out of it. It’s not even relevant these days.

    As an older player who doesn’t get to play much, older formats like 93/94 and Legacy are the perfect fit for me. My deck won’t become fully obsolete and the cards are solid long-term investments. Duals? Random stuff like Beta Hyppie? Power? All solid to hold onto for years and years.

    Tron lands? May be reprinted eventually. Sylvan Scrying? Awkward…

    You get my point – I like that the older cards are more nostalgic and safe from reprint.

    1. Absolutely! If we look back at Miracles decks from 2012 they’re almost exactly the same. You’ll see the inclusion of Dig now but that’s pretty low budget maintainance.

      The upkeep on Modern is like being on a Hamster wheel strapped to a 15hp Briggs and Stratton. Legacy itself discludes entry not of price but of power level.

      Why would I Serum Visions for $8 when I can Brainstorm for $1??? I recently met a gentleman who was polishing off a foil Legacy Goblins deck. We talked about his success with it lately since it’s fallen out of favor over the last few years. His response was surprising. He plays in 2-3 larger sized events each year and wins more than he losses, including making day 2 twice at GPs.

      I have no reason to not believe him. Here’s a fellow who’s obviously in tune with his deck and KNOWS the line of play to take regardless of the situation. It takes a long time to learn a meta as complex as Legacy and when you find good opponents, they’re just that; good.

      Back to Miracles (and I’m a firm believer in this). A good format is supervised by a Control deck. To be fair I don’t play blue except to jam Forces to protect my combos. However a solid control deck that polices the format keeps every other deck in check. It’s a requirement. From top to bottom Modern is a mess of aggro and combo without a viable control option. It makes for a tedious series of play where the height of skill feels like infinite Twins or someone jamming Rhino up your ass over and over.

      I like “GoblinGuy”, people still punishing players with a pumped up Piledriver in 2015 deserve an award.

      1. Sure, but legacy is a relatively stable field – so little innovation, great for folks who don’t want to keep up with changes.

      2. Legacy is interesting in that it doesn’t “cycle” the way Standard does. Standard may have decks going up and down power rankings from week to week, but Legacy players are more often to lock in a deck choice weeks in advance. If you love Lands, you’re probably gonna play it in the GP no matter what. That means that, like Modern, you have an advantage if you are familiar with the deck rather than trying something new. Unlike Modern, the field is so wide with legitimate options that it’s less punishing to play a “lesser” deck because there are so many different viable archetypes.

  4. It is interesting, Modern format didn’t exist when I quit playing Magic the second time, it was Extended. It is also interesting that the Modern boundary starts right after I quit, and sold my collection. Now I am back, and looking to invest in mostly tier 2 cards for Modern, because I don’t want to pay huge amounts for some of the staples. (Snap caster is an example.) I just this week felt comfortable enough to play my Modern home brews online and ran across Troy and Affinity and proceeded to be jackhammer ed into the ground

    1. Troy and Affinity in the mooooooorning!

      No? Damn. Anyways…

      Modern is still in what I call the “Wild West” phase. I think most of the card prices will go down eventually, but it’s realistically going to be a while. Most Modern cards are only expensive right now because there are so few of them- I’m happy to out everything now.

  5. I think you brought up some very good issues with Modern and I happen to agree with you on a lot of them. Especially this one:

    “I think a lot of players love the idea of the Modern format more than they love it in practice, and I think that there are some serious developmental issues that need to be addressed. The problem there is that because cards in the format don’t naturally expire, the only solution here is banning (which has an associated public relations cost that WOTC does not like).”

    I think that WotC is starting to move in the right direction with banning problem cards AND releasing solution cards into standard at the same time. I feel like the Birthing Pod ban was followed up with Evolutionary Leap and its only a matter of time before that card spawns multiple decklists in Modern.

    I think that we might see a trend emerge where problem cards are experimented with until a watered down solution is found. The problem card gets banned and everyone playing it in Modern is furious. The solution card gets printed in Standard and inspires new players to buy into Modern. The Cyclical nature might just work. Not to mention that older players can sell off their Modern cards to newer players… And then the format investment/speculation cycle continues, with older players buying into older formats. Almost like everyone levels up off of each other.

    WotC might reach a point where they just want to keep the numbers from dropping off instead of concentrating on growing the playerbase. As older players drop out of the game they need enough new players buying into the game to replace them. The only way WotC can attract new players into entrenched formats like Modern is by shaking up the formats by banning cards and then simultaneously printing replacement cards so that people are enticed to build “new” decks and compete in the format.

    I wonder what card is due for a “replacement”??? Do you agree with this approach to keeping Modern “Healthy”???

    1. I definitely think WotC is getting much better at addressing problem cards and making fairer, cleaner versions. The problem is, the earlier, “dirtier” versions are still out there. Take, for example, Oblivion Ring (a card I am not advocating banning)- it is strictly better than Banishing Light in the sense that you can do things with it that are not the intended function of the card, but happen because of wording/timing issues. If given the choice, players will likely play O-Ring over Banishing Light every time (unless we have some Gifts Ungiven in the mix), because they are able to construct situations around that advantage. Meanwhile, every O-Ring variant sees marginal play because it can’t compete with the thing it is here to replace.

      Also, Wasteland is a fairer card than Blood Moon that was designed more recently. Which one is in Modern?

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