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Musings on Modern

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Introduction

While I was out of commission, something big happened. Modern was made an official format and was even given a high-profile tournament to showcase it with the best in the game. Modern was a long time coming; rumors first started circulating over a year ago, and anticipation has been especially high since the Community Cup where the format debuted. Modern has the makings of what could be the next big thing in Magic, if everything is done right. However, I’m rather skeptical about the situation, and I’d like to discuss a little about that and share some other thoughts on Modern today.

Speculation May Have Killed Modern

Since about the time mythic rares came out, people have come to an understanding that there are going to be expensive chase cards in both new sets and relics from the past, as Zendikar reminded us with “hidden treasures.” Both Legacy and Standard weathered a number of high price points and managed to survive either with clever budget decks, alternative strategies, or simply going out of the way and often deep into one’s pockets to own the cards for the premier deck in the format. I hypothesize that the formats were able to do that because people already had vested interest in the format in question; picking up the new chase mythic is a relatively low investment for a Legacy player even if a set runs $200. Aside from tournament entry, that may be all that you need to spend on Magic for the next three months, and Standard is often much the same—although the format rotates, so there are going to be additional expenses. Modern, however, essentially has no player base; it’s not even possible for local gaming stores to sanction events for the format. In fact, just about the only people who are heavily invested in the format are those who speculated on it, not the people who intend to play the format, and getting into it is quite costly.

There was plenty of time to pick up things like Dark Confidant and Ravnica duals, and if anyone had thought of it, Vesuva and Vendilion Clique as well. These were cards that were certainly going to be powerful in any new format, specifically one hinted at on April 14, 2010. Of course, most people figured that the format would begin where the Reserved List ended—Masques block—but the loss of those blocks didn’t really lose much in the way of the high-value cards that were simply going to be must-plays, like Tarmogoyf, Bitterblossom, and the slew of other cards printed in recent years that were so strong they were Legacy-playable. Even at that point over a year ago, prices for these cards began to steadily rise. I’ve personally watched people refuse to trade Rishadan Ports at any reasonable number because, “If they make a new format and Masques is legal, Port is going to be insane.” In time, and in conjunction with the rising popularity of Commander, cards like Temple Garden and Watery Grave went from being just a few dollars retail to a few more, and eventually the Ravnica duals settled around the $10 dollar mark in most areas.

As April 2011 rolled closer, marking the one-year anniversary of the MTGSalvation post, the hoarding really started to pick up, just in case, and speculators went wild when Modern was announced on May 19. Finally, tangible word from Wizards—a new format, with a starting point that people could clearly define, was at hand. In my area, the tension was high, but strangely, prices on the staples for Modern were stagnate. It wasn’t until August 12 that things really started to get out of hand. $35 Hallowed Fountains nearly overnight was the first symptom, and Vesuva, Vendilion Clique, and—while I can’t think of another “V” card—all of the other Ravnica duals followed to some degree and even Tarmogoyf reached new highs in price.

What does all of this mean for players? A high barrier to enter the format? Of course, I’m talking as primarily a Legacy player—in Legacy, people are constantly complaining about price spikes. How could Modern even compare? Well, I wanted to find out how expensive it would be to build some Modern decks from scratch. As many players who are entering the format are going to be coming primarily from a Standard background and aren’t likely to own any of the cards, they’ll need to either buy or trade up to these amounts, provided that they can’t borrow cards from friends for extended periods. Here are some of the numbers I found for Modern decks.

Domain Zoo $905.30
Doran $1,074.80
Mono-Green Twelve Post $473.43
Merfolk $341.61
Affinity (Tempered) $434.00
Mono-Red Affinity $267.55
Blue Zoo $1,083.75
Infect $238.49
Splinter Twin $462.85

These numbers are all working with simply the main deck, which means you’re missing the Vendilion Cliques that appear in many of the sideboards. It was interesting for me to see that the decks I had perceived to be the best decks are actually the cheapest ones to build. But some of these decks are really high up there. At the time I’m writing this, Josh Utter-Leyton has just lost Game 1 to Sam Black in the semifinals of Pro Tour: Philly, and those are the highest and lowest decks on the scale. By the time this is published, the winner will be known, but is this a format that you can money your way to the top of?

I ran some of the same numbers for a few Legacy decks, but I didn’t run the full gauntlet, as that is unreasonably long.

U/W Stone-Blade $1,485
NO R/U/G $1,477.33
Merfolk $783 (translates from a Modern deck ~$261)
Zoo $1,238.51 (translates from a Modern deck ~$513)
Affinity $231.98

Just like in Modern, these decks run the full gauntlet of prices. There are the cheaper decks that are powerful and then the decks that use the standby best cards in the respective formats that are going to cost you the most financially.

So, the top end of Modern decks is around $1,100 retail, and Legacy decks are sometimes built to be as expensive as possible, but at the moment, the two most expensive, successful decks are just under $1,500 retail. Is that really where Wizards wants the format’s price point to be?

What Modern Needs but Legacy Does Not

Not too long ago, after the announcement for Modern was made, Drew Levin wrote an interesting piece on what Modern needs but Legacy doesn’t. In it, his focus is Mental Misstep, but I have another idea that I’d like to share with you.

Modern needs reprints. Now.

Not just reprints that may come in a year from the rumored return to Ravnica, but rapid reprints in the very near future. I’m left with the impression that Modern was an idea that was acted on rather impulsively, considering that there doesn’t seem to be any supporting product to push it. Any new set is going to be about a year away. I was under the impression that the reason people liked the idea of a format starting with the end of the Reserved List is that reprints would drive the price of the format down, so it would be possible to build and play several competitive decks without sacrificing the rest of your collection in trade or several months’ salary.

Modern needs reprints because you don’t want a format where the premier aggro strategies are the most expensive decks in the format and the cheapest decks feature degenerate strategies. If the format persists in this manner, as essentially a combo format not only in power terms but in fiscal terms as well, the results could be damaging to long-term interest in Modern.

Why Legacy Doesn’t Need Reprints

Obviously, because Legacy and Modern share a large portion of the card pool, and many of the powerful cards in Modern are also prominent in Legacy, reprinting cards such as Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, and Tarmogoyf in any way other than as a judge foil is going to affect Legacy prices, and that’s both unavoidable and acceptable. These creatures are staples to the format, the same way that Swords to Plowshares, Brainstorm, and Dark Ritual are all pivotal to numerous decks. Allowing greater access to some of these cards is going to open the doors of Legacy to more people and perhaps even inspire innovation in the format that has the most room for it. In this regard, where Modern reprints will clearly impact Legacy, I agree that Legacy too can benefit from reprints. But how can I justify wanting to create an environment with scarcity after arguing that there should be nearly unlimited card availability in another format?

Wizards has several groups that they’re obligated to. First and foremost is Hasbro; Wizards of the Coast is a subsidiary of Hasbro, and Hasbro expects Wizards to remain reasonably profitable. Second is to players; without players, the game goes out of production. Third is to independent retailers; without them, there are no communal places for players to meet up, no outreach to invite new players, and many fewer places to purchase the product. Last is to collectors. Wizards originally affirmed their dedication to collectors with the Reserved List a number of years ago, citing which cards would be safe from the reprint policy. As demand for those cards increased, Wizards did a little twisting of the rules but eventually reaffirmed the sanctity of the Reserved List. Soon after, a new format was rumored to be in the works. That is now Modern—a format in which all of the most popular cards can be reprinted to meet demand. And of course that product can be retailed, which works well for Hasbro, players, and retailers to some degree. However, retailers, especially game-store owners, want to get a cut of the secondary market as well.

The secondary market has always been an interesting problem for Wizards; if you take the Yu-Gi-Oh approach and reprint all of your ultra-rares in a precon soon after that set is released, you make the market for singles volatile and less appealing for game-store owners to run events. However, when you are able to showcase rarities and splashy older cards and have a singles market that is a bit more stable, a retailer is able to get a reasonable markup and, most important, attract new interest to his or her store or events that run in the store. The model used to be to get new players hooked with Standard and Limited, show them that they should keep their cards with Extended, and then convince them that even older cards are going to be worth playing with Vintage and Legacy. If reprints happen how I would like to see them, that dynamic is going to change, because there can be a point where it’s not safe to own cards from a value-appreciation standpoint. Regardless, having a format like Legacy, or Vintage, depending on what is more popular in the area, and having event organizers push it, is going to provide revenue in a time when vast reprints may otherwise cut into profits.

Obviously, this is purely my opinion. As I see it, WotC’s interest lies in printing new sets with reprints for Modern and/or making specialty sealed products that feature these reprints. However, despite the push from the top, I think it makes the most sense for game-store owners to try to find a way to balance Limited, Standard, Modern, and Legacy, but to constantly try to push interest toward the older formats as a way to maintain a player base as people become disinterested with a specific format and to help push sales of older product.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t think there is a great solution to this problem in the near future, and I wish I didn’t need to say that. I would have really liked to have seen Modern launched along with event decks or other sealed product to supplement it, attacking the artificial scarcity that’s been caused by speculation. Modern R&D has been praised a lot recently, and I hope that they’re going to be able to surprise me with this matter. I would like to see something done sooner rather than later; I would really like to see a new format, one that I think is capable of not only coexisting with the existing formats, but supplementing and supporting them, and I hate to see the cost barrier this high to new players—which is almost everyone.

That will do it for me this week. I hope that those of you who will be playing Modern will be given some good news relatively soon.

~ Christopher Walton in the real world

im00pi at gmail dot com

Master Shake on The Source

@EmperorTopDeck on Twitter

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