Eyeing the Post-Modern Landscape
- Hans Davidson
With the release of Magic Arena's Open Beta this past week, Hans wonders what will happen to a format after Modern. What will it look like and when will it come out? Come join the speculation in this week's article!
Modern is a beloved format largely due to how many viable decks exist. Every tournament, whether big or small, introduces the world to a new decklist using cards from over a decade worth of history. Mix in the new cards printed in each set and the fact that cards don't rotate out, and it's easy to see why Modern is the format of choice for many enfranchised Magic players. None of that changes the realities of Modern's shelf life, however, and I want to spend today talking about bracing ourselves for the expected: a post-Modern format.
Modern Prices and Wizard's Blind Eye
The cost of Modern decks has been steadily increasing over the past eighteen months, with Modern Masters 2017 providing the only reprieve to a market with too much demand and not enough supply. Since then, we've watched staples such as Snapcaster Mage, Noble Hierarch, Mox Opal, and Karn Liberated bounce back from their previous reprintings with a climbing price tag. In spite of numerous opportunities to include Modern-relevant reprints in supplemental products such as Iconic Masters and Commander Pre-Cons, Wizards has been steadfast in its refusal to reintroduce the format's staples back into circulation. While certain cards such as Crucible of Worlds and Scapeshift have made it into Standard, the rate at which reprints have hit the market has been disappointing and half-hearted. Historically looking at the prices of Modern's staples shows that reprints of cards backed up by demand show a dip in value followed by a healthy recovery. For example, reprinting Noble Hierarch and Fulminator Mage in Modern Masters 2015 brought their respective prices down for a year, but they bounced back in no time. In many cases, such as with Noble Hierarch, these cards are the most expensive they have ever been. There's oftentimes talk about reprints hurting the value of the collectors' collections, but cases like these prove that this could not be further from the truth.
If anything, Wizards being reluctant to reprint these staples seems to underlie their desire to make sure that Modern prices do not become accessible. This makes sense. After all, Modern players don't buy into Standard (because why would they when they've already spent 800 Euros on a non-rotating deck) and this directly cuts into Wizards' bottom line of selling their products. It's in Wizards' best interest to make non-rotating and Eternal formats (other than EDH) as unappealing as possible, so that players are persuaded to buy into Limited and Standard. This, however, isn't the only reason Wizards prefers Standard to non-rotating formats such as Modern.
Problem Cards and Problematic Solutions
Modern is a popular format, but there's no denying that the format is full of poorly-designed mechanics and cards that should never have made it to print. I discussed a few of these cards in my last article, but cards such as Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, Cavern of Souls, and Mox Opal are cards whose legality are proof of Modern's flaws. Cards such as Blood Moon and Chalice completely invalidate the strategies of certain decks in very uninteresting ways – the interaction of Blood Moon locking a player out from playing Magic is different from the presence of Wrath of God keeping the Elves player honest by not dumping his or her entire hand onto the board. While enfranchised Modern players might brush off the "unfairness" of these cards by saying that players know what they signed up for when they entered the format, they ignore how these cards make for poor viewing experience. One card locking a player out of the game and forcing a concession isn't very good game design and it's not the kind of gameplay that would bring someone into the game. On a different axis, fast mana such as Mox Opal and Simian Spirit Guide present another kind of problem for Wizards. Fast mana break fundamental rules of Magic and empower the linear, non-interactive strategies of the format and combo decks that abuse these cards pop up like a whack-a-mole game in Modern. For Wizards, Modern's card pool is so extensive that it is a chore to keep tabs on which new cards and interactions break the metagame. There are cards that Wizards would nerf, ban, or never print in the first place if they could have, plus not having the safety valve of an impending rotation makes it so that Modern needs to constantly be kept in check in order to avoid Eldrazi Winter 2.0.
Wizards' answer to a format full of these cards has been to instate a ban list that is curated with very little transparency. Communication regarding cards that were put on the ban list at the inception of the format have either been minimal or non-existent, which means we don't know why Stoneforge Mystic and Green Sun's Zenith are still banned in 2018. To be clear, this isn't me saying that those two cards should be unbanned. Rather, I would like to hear what Wizards has to say about why these cards continue to remain on the ban list. This goes in the other direction as well – what are Wizards' positions on the dubious cards of the format? Are they simply content in printing hate in the form of Assassin's Trophy and Field of Ruin, or are they monitoring the presence of cards such as Ancient Stirrings in the metagame? In either case, open communication would allow players to be aware of which cards could be brought into Modern. But as things stand, the community is left in the dark about the position of certain cards in the format. This approach, once again, seems to imply a hands-off approach for a product that Wizards would much rather prefer people not be invested in. The more transparent communication Wizards uses, the more it would signal to the community that Modern is a top priority format for them.
A Clean Break
Combined with the list of regrettable cards and an ever-increasing price tag to the format, something has to give. Wizards can't continue to support a format where there are so many loose ends that need to be managed every time something new is printed and breaks the format in half, whether financially or in regard to the metagame. It's perfectly reasonable to assume that there will be a post-Modern format that will be divergent in both design and card pool in the future. While mistakes do slip through in the form of Smuggler's Copter and Aetherworks Marvel, the development of cards has done a marked job in reigning in the power level of cards in more recent sets. That's not to say that there aren't format-warping cards (because Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Hazoret the Fervent do exist), but they're on a different tier than the Snapcaster Mages of old.
A fresh new format also allows more control over the expected interactions between cards – Hollow One doesn't break Burning Inquiry and Unclaimed Terrority doesn't enable five-color tribal due to the size of the format. Wizards could experiment with the design of cards more openly without worrying about how, say, Eldrazi interacts with Eye of Ugin. If maintaining sanity is any priority at all, it's in Wizards' best interests to keep an eye towards creating a new, post-Modern format.
There's no information when a new post-Modern would even be implemented, but the release of Magic Arena's Open Beta is another step away from Modern. The developers of the game have come out and stated that formats such as Legacy and Modern will not be supported on Arena. And when looking at the time, effort, and advertisement directed towards Arena, it's quite clear that Arena has high expectations. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that one of these expectations is for Arena to become the face of digital Magic and the big break into the digital card game scene that players have all been waiting for. If (or when) Arena becomes the de facto client for online play, it will only be a matter of time until Wizards introduces an Arena-only format that replaces non-rotating formats such as Modern and Legacy. These older formats will surely survive in various pockets of communities, similar to Vintage, but they'll no longer be supported in the way they've previously been.
I don't expect Arena to be released until late 2019 and perhaps not even until early 2020, so this possible new format wouldn't even be something to keep an eye out for until 2022 and beyond. However, Modern's clock is ticking and with traction that Arena gains, the closer we get to the birth of a post-Modern format.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.