Modern Is Effectively a Rotating Format Now

Magic players are absolutely in love with playing their pet decks for as long as they possibly can. Thankfully, Magic offers a wide selection of formats that allow for exactly such an experience. However, the most popular competitive format, Modern, seems to be losing this key feature.


crop rotation

Magic is a game that people play to compete and, preferably, win. However, most people's approach does not end here. Most of us love personalizing the experience, be it through our favorite playmat, art sleeves, or choice of basic lands. I guess that a lot of us have had to put a lot of effort and money into assembling this one deck that we've wanted to play for so long. Once the deck is complete, we want to play it for as long as is humanly possible. Traditionally the best format for such a long-lasting customized experience has been Modern. Though there have been some key shake-ups recently …

What Is a Rotating Format?

Magic's longevity as a card game is in part due to its diversity of gameplay and formats. One way we can divide Magic's formats is Limited and Constructed. Another is rotating and nonrotating. Let's focus on the latter. The word "rotating" typically refers to formats where the pool of cards changes periodically. However, it's not only about new cards being added but also old cards rotating out, hence the name. The perfect example is Standard. The nonrotating formats are, predictably, the ones whose card pool is ever-expanding, but all the previous expansions stay legal—Legacy, Modern, Pioneer.

In some cases, often with disdain, people still refer to formats such as Modern as "rotating." While the terminology is technically incorrect, it conveys a meaningful fear—that old cards stop being relevant as new ones are released.

Modern as a Rotating Format

Let's say it loud and clear: Modern has been the most popular competitive nonrotating format for a long time. No format has come close to dethrone it, although Pioneer had its flash-in-a-pan moment. One of the main reasons is that people can pick up their old, beloved, fully foiled-out tier two deck and still do relatively well. I personally know people who haven't changed their primary Modern archetype in years—including yours truly. You play Burn, Infect, Tron? Dust them off and you're good to go. Or at least that's how it used to be.

As new sets are released, it's no surprise that some cards prove strong enough to see play in Modern. It's usually not that often, usually just a few cards and just for a handful of archetypes. Recent examples include Portable Hole in Whirza decks, Triomes in slower decks, or Expressive Iteration in blue-red decks. Sometimes niche cards can spawn or revive an archetype that otherwise wouldn't exist such as what Unmarked Grave did for Reanimator or Svyelun of Sea and Sky for Merfolk.

All the aforementioned examples are considered rather healthy and a welcome breath of fresh air. It's nice that the format is not in complete stagnation and decks get toys here and there. Lately we're witnessing an alarming tendency though. When you look at any current deck rankings, you'll see that most of them are either completely new or contain a ton of the latest cards. Your beloved Infect deck? Embarrassing. Burn? Easily outclassed. Tron? Give me a break. Why is that? Modern Horizons sets.


winds of change

Once upon a time, we were unbelievably pumped to learn that there was going be a set that would inject cards directly into Modern, circumventing Standard. It meant cards could be way more powerful! And powerful they were. Modern Horizons brought a ton of must-have expensive cards such as Urza, Lord High Artificer, Wrenn and Six, or Force of Negation. Then Modern Horizons 2 came round and brought a new batch of format-warping cards: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Dragon's Rage Channeler, Murktide Regent, Dauthi Voidwalker, Shardless Agent, Urza's Saga … The list is long.

Not that long ago these were the almost universally agreed upon pillars of the format:

This was the stable foundation the format was built upon, and everybody knew it. There were ups and downs, obviously, turbulences along the journey. But it all revolved around these pillars, and it did so for a long time. Then the Horizons sets hit. As much as it saddens me to say, basically all of the above are now obsolete. Yes, you still see Bolts and Snaps, but they're far from pillars. Instead, Modern has become a love triangle between Urza's Saga, Dragon's Rage Channeler, and Shardless Agent.


Still a better love story than Twilight

Undeniable power creep has left a ton of weaker cards outclassed, seeing little to no competitive play. The power condenses at the top, making a clear cut between what's competitive and what is not. What does it have to do with anything whether a format is rotating or not? If you had a deck before MH1, you either needed to buy a different one or completely overhaul it. Then, when MH2 came around, the same thing happened—either buy into these new, flashy, expensive cards or play a rusty, outdated deck. Even though technically old cards don't rotate out, they effectively become unplayable.

To be fair, I still fully expect paper Modern to stay as it has always been. Most FNM players, which is most players, don't want to keep forking out money on the newest toys. That's why Modern at the store level is the paradise we want. But that creates a bizarre disconnect between online and offline. Now MTGO Challenge results are almost meaningless as they are completely unapplicable to local metagames. Online, probably seven out of eight decks will have Saga, Shardless, or Dragon's Rage Channeler. Locally, I'd be surprised to see more than four decks total at a twenty-ish person FNM contain those cards.

To be clear, I don't think it's inherently bad that those Modern pet decks require updates. I myself like toying around with new cards. But it's much healthier if they are not automatic inclusions and preferably not mythics from a limited print-run product.

The Verdict

As far as I'm concerned, it's impossible to disagree with the statement in the title of this article. Though not all hope is lost! First, not all change is inherently bad. The current Modern format is super fun and generates deep and interactive games of Magic. Second, probably your local Modern events look as if Modern Horizons 2 had not been released. Usually, paper metagames adapt at a glacial pace, so enjoy that while it lasts! Personally, I keep rocking the same old Cryptic Command control decks and will probably continue to do so unless it's literally a tier three strategy.

Tell us what you think about the current state of Modern. Do you try to keep up with trends or play your pet deck? As always, hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.



11 Comments

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mätschik(04.08.2021 19:36)(Edited: 04.08.2021 20:11)

I think that adapting my deck every two years to a new enviroment is o. K. And thrilling. Once in a while a card from the standardpool is interesting. Compared to a hobby like skiing my investments are much lower and the hours of fun are uncountable; not to mention health issues... So i'm fine with the modern rotation. But nevertheless i find wizard's print-an-absurd-card than bann it very problemtic from the customer-is-pleased-point of view.

sal196(04.08.2021 17:58)

Power creep was always a potential problem right from 1993, and it's why non-rotating formats can only ever have a limited lifespan. You either have to:
- Do slow rotations, like the old Extended
- Do no rotations, but no additions either, like Old School
- Do no rotations at all, but accept that eventually the format either has to self-destruct either due to Power Creep or stagnate, and should be retired in favour of a new format (which is what Pioneer was trying to do)

damaz90(04.08.2021 11:34)

The real problem about modern are people. Decks like 8rack, mill, tron, burn, and all tribals, are decks absolutely playable and strong, but stupid people blow their mind with new cards and broke format with cascade nutella decks and UR delirium.

Wizards need to be stopped, old players have to rise and stop using horrible new cards.

JonathanG157(04.08.2021 09:35)

Nice article. I'm happy to see I'm not the only one thinking the same about modern being now a rotating format and the power creep.

DHGames(04.08.2021 07:36)(Edited: 04.08.2021 07:44)

It feels wrong that WotC has categorized modern players somewhat 'whales' who buy the latest stuff from latest chase set. It doesn't feel like organic growth, if that's the correct word. Player's who like to play the old-modern-alike format need to run into older, nicher formats like old school, maybe highlander is somewhere middle.
Like commander, modern has started to be more like precon format where you just buy the latest expensive stuff and you'll win. This is probably business-wise the best decision? However I disliked Modern Horizon I more and more. MH II is probably more balanced and maybe even luckily didn't brake so much than MH I did but the dark cloud is there.
What company wants customers that do not pay for the cards or pays to secondary markets? It's just so forced now that it feels awkward.

dunbheagan(04.08.2021 00:36)

Very interesting and entertaining to read, thank you!

I am the type of player/collector who owns exactly one deck, which is a fully foiled japanese Eldrazi Tron. I am pretty scared of power creep :-) Still i think change is good overall and even a nonrotating format needs new toys regulary to stay exciting. But yes, maybe WoC could slow down a little.

Mykir(03.08.2021 20:00)

Looking especially at the last mtgo challenge I can't follow this "the sky is falling"-argumentation.
The Finale was E-tron vs G-tron. The challenge before had boggles finishing 11th and burn 6th.
There are a lot of old decks that got upgrades from MH2 that impacted the Gameplay but didn't change the foundation.
MH1 was a completely different story though with Hogaak summer.
At the moment it's completely different, every week there is a new top deck (with the same card pool) that is the new thing that seems to Trump every other deck.
The mentioned love triangle is an exaggeration to prove the initial argument. Where is the difference to the "pillars of the format"? It just seems that you don't like the new cards...
All in all very much disagree with the article, I really don't like this mentality that's behind writing articles like this one.

sandrag35(03.08.2021 21:53)

Mykir
The "mentality" you think is behind this article is a much less worrying thing than the blatant powercreep these sets have led to. You're pushed to buy these sets otherwise you become irrelevant. And that's the only thing anyone should worry about right now.

Mykir(04.08.2021 12:04)

Sandrag35
You dont become irrelevant. After the initial bannings for MH1 cards last year the format was pretty much filled with old decks. Last fall humans for example was a big player, without any new cards besides skyclave apparition from zendikar rising.
And now after MH2 people brew with the new cards, but its not like tier1 decks (living end, hammer or cascade) are 90% new cards.
The only new decks are the drc/ragavan piles in different flavors, but they are pretty much on par with everything else in this fair metagame.

Baliath(03.08.2021 19:09)

By now literally every format rotates. Even commander.
Due to powercreep and products specifically designed for certain formats (MH1/2 for modern legacy ; Jumpstart Horizon for historic ; continuous powercreep in edh precons/commander legends).
Hasbro said they want to double their earnings over a 5 year span so they actively force everyone in their community to keep on spending more and more money to keep up with the game whilst beloved cards and archetypes from the past become completely obsolete.

Sergio19(03.08.2021 18:29)

"Locally, I'd be surprised to see more than four decks total at a twenty-ish person FNM contain those cards" so you can now easily identify who is going to win that FNM... BTW, at the LGS of my area it doesn't happen the same, most of the people quickly buy the new expensive pool, it's a bit discouraging for the rest of the players, in my opinion I'd like to see this horizons sets each 4 years, as Olympics (or even more) and only as a tool to balance the format

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