Monday, October 3, 2016

Make Island Great Again - Breaking Blue in Modern

As Modern players, I think we have been a nostalgic bunch. “I want Splinter Twin back.” “Birthing Pod was my favorite deck!” “Give us Moxen!”

Okay, maybe no one said that last one that didn’t need a prescription for quaaludes. The fact stands, however, that the last few years have seen cards (really fun cards) taken out of the format. I think the most controversial of the cards to get the guillotine treatment was Splinter Twin.

Splinter Twin, as a deck, did three things. 1) It rewarded decks that wanted to interact. 2) It punished decks that did not want to interact. 3) It dominated the Modern format for most of its lifetime. There were very few times, if any, that it wasn’t tier one (T1).

I could go on for a couple hours about balance and power creep and format warping, but I don’t think that that’s a constructive, nor intuitive, discussion to have. A much more proactive and productive discussion lies in what blue is, inherently. There is a complete disconnect between what blue was a year ago, and what Wizards would like for it to be in future. I think that somewhere in the divide between what we want and what we will go on to have is the answer to the question:

“Why is blue so bad right now?”

The Concessions of Balance

Well why is blue so bad right now? Though terrifying, you have to put yourself into the mindset of Mark Rosewater for a bit in order to understand (Only a bit, staying there any longer would drive any normal man or woman insane).

You have 3 formats you really have to worry about when designing cards: draft, standard constructed, and Modern. You kind of have to worry about Legacy, but those cards are so powerful and people are so set in their ways in that format that there isn’t much in the way of reasonably powered cards that you have to worry about making their way into fighting Force of Will and Hymn to Tourach.

Draft is an environment probably as close to “pure” Magic as you can get, at least to Wizards. You beat down with creatures and whoever trades punches best wins. Standard is much the same way, but on perhaps a grander scale. An element of balance that exists in Draft is far more important in the Standard (cough cough Bant CoCo), but it is more or less the same. Counter a few things, kill a few things, but ultimately win the old fashioned way.

And then there’s Modern.
There’s a reason Splinter Twin won’t be seen again in Modern, but a card like Collected Company does exist and has some likelihood of sticking around. Development has been pushing green for a long time, but does not want to push blue. Green, in their mind, was very narrow on the color pie and did not have a strong color identity. Cards like Ancient Stirrings, Birthing Pod, and Eldritch Evolution are very different from Tarmogoyf and Hooting Mandrills, but it all makes sense. In a lot of senses, green has become the poster boy color of Magic as whole, because it is the design success story.
Blue, however, is not this way. Its share of the color pie is entirely too wide. You can’t have cards like Preordain, Ponder, and Brainstorm in Modern because they both make games too predictable (read “boring for new players”) and also make Storm too powerful. That, however, is another article for another day. But also… Psionic Blast? Archive Trap? Phantasmal Image? These cards all kind of make sense in the context of flavor, but when looking at the design, these cards should not be the same thing.
We’re getting there in so far as design space, though. Spell Queller, Reflector Mage, Bounding Krasis, even Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy are all new cards and all have this underlying theme of gaining tempo, whether that means tapping things down, bouncing them, countering them, or drawing cards.
In terms of Modern playability, cards like Unsubstantiate or Tamiyo, Field Researcher are almost there. For the new idea of how blue is supposed to work, the format will have to slow down a decent bit so that these tempo swings can win games. But how do you do that?

Try // Again

Well, there are few things that have already been done, which include:

·      Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
·      Tasigur, the Golden Fang
·      Pia and Kiran Nalaar
·      Nahiri, the Harbinger
·      Goblin Dark-Dwellers
·      Ancestral Vision
These cards are all very powerful, and are all either doing what the new, streamlined blue is trying to do, or goes right along with it. Pia and Kiran is a great way to gain board control and shoot stuff, Nahiri’s ultimate wins the game and her other effects can lock opponents out of the game alongside counterspells, Tasigur is a magnificent beater if ever there was one, Jace saw Legacy play for a while, Ancestral Vision already sees Legacy play, and GDD can flash it back for free. So what’s the problem? Well, Nahiri is 4 mana, Jace dies to Bolt and doesn’t win the game, Pia and Kiran both die to bolt and are 4 mana, you don’t draw till turn 5 off of Vision, GDD is an ungodly 5 mana, and Tasigur is that the center of a T2 strategy and has a ghastly rate in the face of Rest in Peace. These cards have drawbacks that are not well positioned to answer the questions of the format: Eidolon of the Great Revel, Blighted Agent, Reality Smasher.
I do have to give a bit of credit to closest thing to a blue tempo deck that exists in the format: Grixis Delver. Delver of Secrets is a card that I find to be a lot better in Legacy due to the sheer abundance of spot removal in Modern, but Tasigur here is one of my favorite cards in the entire game. I was an avid lover of the tapout “Blue Jund” Grixis Control deck that saw some play after Kolaghan’s Command came out.Though I’m not the biggest fan of Delver, the Grixis Delver deck is the closest thing to a strong blue deck we’ve seen for a while, and I actually enjoy it quite a bit. Tasigur and Gurmag Angler are effective beaters, and have the ability to stifle incoming aggression just as effectively as the average Tarmogoyf.

However, if you’re trying to emulate Tarmogoyf, why not just play Tarmogoyf? Decks like Jund and Abzan have a clearly defined shell: a number of threats that are tried and true, and really only change in small ways. Whether you are play Kalitas, Grim Flayer and Liliana, the Last Hope, Goblin Dark-Dwellers, or Abbot of Keral Keep (omg i love this card so much), you are still gonna Jund ‘em. Whether you’re playing Noble Hierarch or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, it’s still Junk.
This major format consensus used to exist for blue. Serum Visions, Remand, Snapcaster, Vendilion Clique, and Cryptic Command were the absolute hotness for a while. And they should have been. They are really good cards. But they don’t have home right now. When you play Splinter Twin, you’re leveraging the fact that your opponent doesn’t wanna get Twinned out to gain advantage. Without Splinter Twin or some explosive game winning combo, these cards simply do not win you the game most of the time. If you’re not threatening to make a googolplex of Deciever Exarch’s on turn four, the guy across from you isn’t scared to tap out on turn 3. It’s not like you’re going to do anything that they can’t deal with.

So therein lies the question: What blue card, or card that works with other blue cards, is powerful enough to slow down and beat aggro, but isn’t so good against aggro that it warps the format, and also isn’t so broken that it also pushes midrange out of the format?

(Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are out. To be sure, those cards would have done it, Stoneforge probably being a safe option, but my colleagues have already written at length about these very things, and the ban list is something that has already been rendered irrelevant for the time being.)
I think to answer this question, I think we have to figure out what’s both good in Modern, but also what a blue deck is missing in order to be successful.

We Have the Technology

Here are some elements I think are necessary to facilitate the card we’re looking for:

1) Should be a planeswalker
I think this is a conclusion that comes with a bit of bias, but I think it holds up. Planeswalkers are great as powerful cards, especially in blue. They are great at fighting Jund, they give a considerable amount of card advantage if they stick around, ult-ing them is not out of the question a lot of the time, but they are easily killed if they cannot be protected. Making a decent blue planeswalker is also something that I could see Wizards actually doing. A lot of what made Bant Coco great was its blue cards, but not really a lot of blue spells. Giving us a good blue permanent as opposed to a spell is an equitable solution for us all.

2) Should be three mana
There’s a couple reasons for this. Liliana of the Veil is undoubtedly the most powerful planeswalker in modern, and the fact that she comes down on the third turn of the game is no mistake. The most powerful number in Magic is two (Snapcaster Mage, Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, Young Pyromancer, Stoneforge Mystic, to name the big one in each color), give blue decks the ol' 1-2-3 punch is a great place to start if we wanna play Serum Visions again.
Also, this being another great reason, is that the difference between three mana and four mana is absolutely gigantic. A four mana sorcery speed threat (like Nahiri, for example) is too slow in the current meta. Let’s say, for instance, that you are on the draw. Your opponent got a Liliana of the Veil or an Eidolon of the Great Revel or (heaven help us) a Wurmcoil Engine past you. As a blue deck trying to maintain tempo, you're ideal turn two is threatening or making good on the threat of Remand. Using your turn three effectively (Snapcaster + Serum Visions turn three is a disgrace, you hear me?) can go a long way to make a potentially good blue deck more competitive.

3) Should require two colored mana
1UU, 1RU, 1UB, whatever colors you decide to splash, it should make it hard to splash into other strategies.

4) Should specialize in dealing with small creatures
Being able to stem aggression is really the bread and butter of the strategy here. Dealing with Master of Waves, Inkmoth Nexus, Lingering Souls tokens, it’s hard to be able to going against all that and come out on top. Having a card be able to contend with those is key.
5) Can win the game with its ultimate
This one I could see going either way on, but I think this is what it needs. Jund and Abzan are decks that are trying to get aggressive to win, with Grim Flayer, Tarmogoyf, and Raging Ravine. Blue decks are trying to attack from a different angle, nickel and diming the opponent with card advantage until they can establish their win con. This is what Splinter Twin did, and this is what this new card will need to do to see competitive play, just without the “Oops I win” clause.
With all that said, I have a design in mind:

Put It All Together, And…

[Enter Name Here, I’m Not Creative]
1UR [3]
Planeswalker – [Still Not Creative]
[+1] Create a 1/1 colorless Thopter token with flying and “Tap, Sacrifice this creature: Deal 2 damage to target creature or player”
[-1] Look at the top three cards of your library. Put one of those cards into your hand, one on top of your library, and one on the bottom of your library.
[-7] You get an emblem with “At the beginning of your upkeep, reveal the top card of your library. If it is a land card, return an instant or sorcery of your opponent's choice to your hand. If a nonland card is revealed this way, deal 5 damage to target creature or player.

Obviously, I really like this card. But, I think that a card like this, or a card sharing similar qualities, could see a home in Modern, and also does exactly what you would think a blue red card would do.

The +1 ability is great for a couple reasons. Making a flying 1/1 Pyrite Spellbomb every turn is pretty cool. It kills Master of Waves, it kills Eidolon of the Great Revel, it kills Etched Champion wearing a Cranial Plating. The 1/1’s are also relevant when dealing with Jund, giving a deck playing this card legs against that. However, this ability isn’t overpowered, since you can’t instantly sac the Thopter. You can block threats that are on board, and then untap, +1 again and use a removal spell so that the Thopter can start to shoot things.
The -1 casting Telling Time is really great, because you see 3 cards deep into your deck, which allows you to look for answers. If you topdeck some removal spell against an opposing Reality Smasher, you can -1 to get a card to discard to it. However, choosing to minus when this walker comes down instead of bumping him up also allows you the option of having a 3 mana sorcery speed Telling Time, which is not good, but is sometimes what you need to find an answer.

And, the -7. This is one that took me a while to come up with. I think that URx has gotten a lot of cards lately that have just been short of pushing it into tier 1, so I decided to take some mechanics from a bunch of other cards and put them together. This is sort of like Keranos’ and Tasigur’s abilities rolled into one written on Chandra, Torch of Defiance’s emblem.

An Island in the Sun

There you have it, my take on a possibility for catapulting blue back into Modern. To be fair, this card would require the right Standard format to be printed, and the right limited environment, but these aren’t things that I put into consideration when I designed this card.

A few other notes: I don’t think that this is the only thing that could bring blue back in a real way. You could do a UB version of this that gave -2/-2, and the ultimate could make the opponent discard cards and lose life, or a UW version that exiled creatures with toughness 2 or less. Or you could do none of those things, and print a really great counterspell, or maybe a few creatures that had some of this card’s abilities as activated abilities. This is just my interpretation of what a potentially great blue card would look like.

That being said, I am aware that Wizards does, and don’t expect to see something this powerful printed in Standard. They have a difficult job, but please, for the love of all that is good, please let me be able to play Islands in Modern again without feeling like I’m already losing the game.

Okay guys, that wraps it up for me, please let us here at Modern Day Magic what you think! We would love to get some feedback from the Magic community at large. Seriously, we want to bring the best content we can and you guys engaging with us and sharing with your friends would mean a lot.



  1. Everyone always thinks Blue is a control and combo color, but I disagree. All of the major combo components and win-cons aren't even Blue. Most combo cards are based on other colors, for example Scapeshift, Ad Nauseum and Angel Grace, Through the Breach, Grape Shot and Empty the Warrens, Genesis Wave, Tooth and Nail, and even Splinter Twin (!!). Even looking at legacy the primary combo card is Tendrils of Agony in black. Ignore Snow and Tell.

    Blue is tempo and I think Wizards has been reinforcing that for way longer than people give them credit for. The role of Blue in combo is to tempo out your opponent, so you can then land a threat or win-con. Through the Breach and Scapeshift have even abandoned Blue lately because the ramp replaces the need for extra turns, thereby giving tempo. I think the main problem with Blue in Modern is how people deck build. Counters and card draw/filtering is tempo. Counter set opponents back, and draw tempos you a turn or two ahead in going through your deck and finding answers. In terms of control elements, black (and white to some extent) is way better with discard and removal.

    In Modern right now, no one is trying to use any Blue creatures besides Delver. Ironically, I think the biggest weakness blue has right now is dealing with creatures. Wizards has made it clear that they don't want creatures countered (Cavern of Souls, less catch all counter spells) in Modern set, so Blue needs to bounce, counter, clog up your opponent's hand, and land a threat before they can. There are a lot of good blue spells that aren't being played currently. I want to see decks play Gigadrowse, Frost Walker, Mistbind Clique, and Reality Shift. Fogwalker also seems cool for Modern. They all just need tempo shells. Mono-U Tron is also a really good tempo deck (usually labeled control) that isn't played much.

    So, bouncing off your points, I propose that Blue is Tempo, and Tempo is not good right now, BUT I think it can be fixed with proper deck building and testing existing cards. A new aggressive walker could help, but I think if blue is ever dominate again, it's through Tempo shells.

    1. Yeah, the tempo aspect is what Wizards wants, I think, and is definitely a great option. I'm not sure about Frost Walker and Mistbind Clique.