In order to actually play Modern, you’re going to have to pick up a deck. We’re going to get into buying the cards in our next installment, but this article is dedicated to helping you figure out exactly what you want to play. You might already know, and you might have absolutely no idea. Either way, we’re going to walk through the best ways I think you can go to finding something you really enjoy. Let’s dive right in.
The archetypes of decks
One of the biggest appeals that Modern has to players is that basically every playstyle has some type of deck that can be run. Such a wide breadth of choices can cause you to feel overwhelmed, but we’re going to go through the archetypes of decks, and then talk about diving into specifics.
Aggro is slang for “aggressive”, and refers to decks that are trying to be proactive with their threats, and trying to get the game over with quickly. The general rule of thumb is that if a deck is trying to get its opponents life to 0 as fast as possible, it’s an aggro deck. An example of a Modern aggro deck would be Burn, a Mono-Red deck (with some splash) that tries to win with lots of and aggressive creatures like . This is the epitome of aggro deck, but there are other ones as well.
A deck that might be a little less obvious of an aggro deck is Grixis Death’s Shadow. This is a list that has counters like , and hand disruption like . But it’s still arguably an aggro deck. It plays cheap, big creatures like , and , and tries to hit the opponent a few times before killing them outright. Now the lines that this deck runs might not be as straightforward as “do damage to your opponent” like Burn, but the fundamentals are there.
Aggro decks tend to be run by people who enjoy being proactive in their playstyle. They don’t like to wait turns to do things. They’d rather jump right in with their threats and answers. Contrary to popular belief, Aggro is not definitively “easier” than other archetypes. I’d say it has less decision points when running them, but that only means that when you do make a mistake, it might be far more impactful. Games with Aggro decks tend to be quick when you win, and long when you don’t. So if you don’t want to have your matches go to time every week, this might be the deck for you
Control decks are the polar opposite of Aggro decks. They try to control the boardstate and have games go as long as possible. Their win conditions are few and far between, but are pretty certain to come out, given enough time. These are the decks of methodical planning and patience. Some Modern examples of these decks are UW Control, which utilizes removal spells like , board wipes like , and counterspells like . It tries to win with powerful Planeswalkers like and .
Control matches tend to have a lot of decisions in them, but that also might mean that making a mistake on a random one may be far more forgiving. It all comes down to matchups and experience. Control decks often go to "extra turns", or over the time limit for a match. This might mean that you draw a few more games than you'd like, but also might mean you get to play Magic as long as you'd like, with little down time. If you like to dictate the pace of a game through means of permission cards, then a Control deck might be for you.
Combo decks work on a different axis than Control or Aggro decks. Combo decks utilize a set of cards in conjunction with one another to either win the game, or gain an insurmountable advantage. An example of a deck like this in Modern is Living End. is an odd card, and if you've never played with it or against it, you might have no idea what the deck is trying to do. Basically you're trying to "cycle" as many creatures, like and Desert , as you can, and then play a Cascade spell like . What happens is that you reveal cards from the top of your deck until you hit a card that costs less. The only one that costs less in your entire deck is Living End, which returns all the creatures that you just cycled back to the battlefield, as well as get rid of any board your opponent just had. This is an example of a combo.
It's somewhat hard to put a description on all of these, since every combo is pretty unique. There's decks like Storm that are built around playing as many spells as you can in a turn. There's decks like Dredge that try to get as many cards from their library to their graveyard as quickly as possible, to trigger cards like and . And there's decks like Amulet Titan that try get a out as quickly as possible, and turn it into a Double Strike-ing monstrosity to win the game. That one's even a little to complicated to get into.
What each of these decks have in common is that they're trying to use a specific game mechanic to their advantage. Some of these almost feel like exploits, while others feel far more intentional. Something a lot of them have in common though is that when they win, they really, really win. But.. when they lose, it almost feels like you didn't even play that game. If you're a player who wants to win in a really flashy way, and are ok with some games just not panning out, you might want to try out some combo decks. Modern sure has a ton of them.
Some decks don't neatly fit into the three buckets above, and are more of a mix and match of pieces of several archetypes. One very well known hybrid archetype, for example is Midrange. Midrange refers to the mana cost of the cards in the deck, as they often are middle of the road in terms of expensive. The reason that this is somewhat of a hybrid archetype is that it's gameplay changes significantly depending on what the deck is up against. The general rule of thumb is that Midrange becomes "Control" in the Aggro matchup, since your cards are generally going to be more expensive than your opponent's, and become "Aggro" in the Control matchup, since your cards are going to be cheaper and more aggressive than your opponent's. A popular example of this deck is Jund, or BGx decks (referring to the color pairing of Black, Green, and maybe something else). Jund can burn out an opponent sometimes, but can also have a really grindy match as well. When this works out, it's hard to beat, but sometimes you get the wrong cards for the wrong matchup and just, well lose.
An example of a Combo Control deck would be Tron. Tron is trying to win the "late game", and it probably will win cards like , , and . It tries to get over it's opponent's by assembling a "combo" of lands, namely the Urza lands, , , and . These three lands together, referred to colloquially as "Urza Tron" or just "Tron", in reference to the assembly of parts to make a greater whole like Voltron, make 7 mana, and can come out as early as turn 3. The deck is essentially trying to combo itself so it can jump quickly to the late game, and win the control game that way. There are many other types of hybrid archetypes, too many to cover at once, but if you can think of it, there's probably a deck that can fit the mold.
Linear and Non-linear Gameplay
In addition to the various archetypes we've covered, there's also two terms that are used to describe decks. These are "linear" and "non-linear". These terms refer to the average game of a deck, and how it looks from matchup to matchup. A linear deck will nearly always be on the same gameplan, while a non-linear deck will have matches that look vastly different from one another. An example of a non-linear deck would be Jund. I mentioned how Midrange often shifts it's gameplan depending on the matchup, and this is a good indication of if a deck is linear or not. Tron, on the other hand, is an example of a linear deck, since you're just trying to find your Tron lands in every matchup.
There's nothing inherently wrong with either type. For a long time, non-linear Midrange decks were the decks to beat in Modern, and a lot of people hated it. Now, things are in the opposite direction, with tons of Linear strategies that need to be considered when playing against a field of decks. Some people like some decks, while other's hate those decks. Such is the circle of life. One thing I will say, however, is that if you think you're interested in a deck that would be considered by many to be linear, you should play test it a lot before buying into it. There are some linear decks that I do like to play, however I've found that linear gameplay can often become stale quicker. There are some people that really love their combo, but if you think that a hundred matches that all are pretty similar might sound boring, it might be best to get those matches in before spending money.
I mentioned several different decks that are popular in Modern, without too much context for the format as a whole. The Modern format is honestly too diverse and ever-changing for me to write conclusively about it and have this still be relevant in the future. So instead, I'd suggest looking at sites that have information about the meta. I suggest MTG Goldfish, MTG Top 8, and the MTGO 5-0 lists that Wizards puts out. Each of these will give you a general idea of what decks are out there.
Remember that Modern is a very wide format. You won't see every deck in every tournament top 8. You might like a deck but it seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. If you are interested in something that has put up absolutely no results in the past few months, you may want to consider looking at some other decks, but overall, it's pretty normal for decks to fluctuate like that. Modern is cyclical, and decks come and go. Grixis Death's Shadow, which I mentioned before, was considered a "dead" deck just a few months ago, as of time of writing. It came back, mainly because it preyed on other decks that became popular. And I can guarantee that eventually, decks that prey on it will start to become popular as well. So on and so forth.
Trying Out Decks
I've been talking a lot about trying out decks. Once you have a list of cards that you think is fun, how exactly are you supposed to figure out if you like it? Well this is, and isn't, a little tricky. If you've spent some time looking at Modern decks, you've undoubtedly noticed the price tag. We're going to talk about that in the next article, but my suggestion is to not worry about it just yet. No one goes out and buys a crazy deck all at once.
Once you have a list that you like though, you're going to want to play it before committing to it with cash. There's a few options for this. First, you can cut out copies of the cards, and play them as proxies. This can be anything from just little pieces of paper with the name of the card on them, to full color print outs. I'd suggest the latter, since full copies of the cards will help you get used to actually looking at the cards' text, in case you forget, and it feels a lot more like the real thing. My personal favorite way of doing this is to print out versions of the cards, cut them out carefully with scissors or paper cutter, and slip them in front of a card in a sleeve. It gets the job done. You won't be able to go to an "official" DCI Sanctioned event with proxies, but if you have some people that you know play Modern, and you're forward about wanting to try some stuff out with proxies, they'll likely be fine to play some games with you. And having cards to playtest with is something even pros do. If you look at the Vs. Live series from Star City Games, they'll sometimes have cards representing cards that have been previewed, but not released, without official art (since that's Wizards of the Coast's official policy). And it's perfectly fine! If you read this article here, you can see that they have no intention of policing casual play for things like this.
To this point, I'd advice strongly against buying proxies. There's a few reasons for this. Firstly, sites that offer proxies for sale are usually just calling them proxies because saying they're counterfeit has some legal ramifications, as well as being against the official policy of Wizards of the Coast. Secondly, they cost too much money. The only reason people spend $5+ on a fake card is because they don't want it to look fake. You could end up spending $60 on a fake deck, and it's just a total waste of money. Thirdly, there's the look of it. Talking to someone about how you want to get into Modern and having a stack of paper cut outs shows that you're just trying to play a few games before dropping lots of money. Having cards that require a bit of looking to tell that they are fake, and players might be hesitant to play, even if you're forward about it.
In my experience though, the above works for trying out a specific deck. Maybe you want to try out this one matchup. If you're trying to find something you like out of 40 possible decks though, you're likely going to want to try a lot of them. And proxying up that many cards is not only time consuming, but also not really effective. Instead, I'd advise to people to try out playing online. There's a few benefits to this. First, you'll get to brute force trying out decks. You can queue up with someone within a minute, and go from match to match. Maybe after a couple hours of some fun, you find you don't like that deck anymore. That's a lot better than spending tons of money on it and months of time getting it together before learning that. Second, you can play with rules set in place. Some of the interactions in Modern might be a bit more complex than you're used to, depending on the format you're coming from. When playing online, the software is set up to show you what you can and can't do at any given time, which can be useful for both figuring out your deck, as well as learning about other decks you'll be playing against.
There's a few routes you can down for playing Modern online. The first is MTGO. This is the official product by Wizards of the Coast, and it includes support for Modern and all the cards you can play in it. In order to play online, you'll need to pick up cards though, and that costs money. You can buy these, but since we've been talking about cheap versions of sampling the format, that's probably not a great option, since it still costs hundreds of dollars for some decks online. Another option though is to subscribe to a rental service like Mana Traders. I'm not sponsored by them, and renting cards has it's downsides. I wouldn't recommend doing it long term. But for the short term, you could get a single month's subscription for maybe $30, and play to your hearts content, switching out decks as you like. You'll be playing competitive or friendly matches against people (note that competitive leagues do cost money to even play in), against real players. And a month of playing might be enough time for you to figure out what you like and don't like, and you can cancel your subscription.
Another, less official option is XMage. This is a third party software that's open source. It's definitely in a copyright gray-to-black area, since they absolutely don't have Wizards of the Coast's permission to use their cards. I don't want to give them too much "advertising", other than to say that it's a great place to try out decks quickly and for free. You can search for tutorials on how to get spun up on it.
Doing the above is going to take time, and it might be frustrating since not only are you trying to figure out what you like to play, but also trying to figure out the format as a whole.