The Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit: Modern's Big Linearity Problem

Modern is in a healthy state … Or is it? In this week's Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit, Hans analyzes and discusses what the swaths of linear decks mean for the Modern format, why this might be a problem, and finally some solutions that might help bring more interactive decks to the forefront of Modern.

Welcome to the Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit, a column where I introduce and discuss a topic that I find to be of interest for the Magic community at large. As I’ve said before, for the non-U.S. American readers that might be wondering where the name of my column comes from, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term bully pulpit as "a prominent public position (such as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one’s views."

In today’s piece, I’m going to be talking about Modern’s big problem: Linearity.

Mage-Ring Bully

Defining "Linearity"

Since this is a piece that’s going to be talking about linear decks and linearity, it’s best that we define "linearity" so that we can identify what linear decks are. In this case, I’m going to defer to future Hall-of-Famer and current No. 2 player in the world Reid Duke, who had this to say about linearity in his article "Linear Strategies" from 2014:

"To employ a linear strategy means that you’re entirely focused on one goal or theme. Every card contributes to that goal, and you have little interest in deviating from that plan. Worrying about what your opponent is doing is largely just a distraction. In short, linear strategies follow a ‘straight line’ from point A to point B."

To paraphrase Reid, the hallmarks of linear decks are that their strategies are repetitive (in that the cards work together to try to achieve one goal) and that they care very little about interacting with the opponents’ cards.

Linearity as a Spectrum

However, there is one issue with this definition of linearity. Namely, the definition doesn’t give us a way to classify a deck if it has the attributes of a classical linear strategy but with disruptive elements mixed in. Take this Five-Color Humans deck piloted by Ryota Endo to a 2nd place finish at Grand Prix Kyoto 2018:

The crux of the deck is to reach a critical mass of Humans and attack with a very large Champion of the Parish or go wide with Thalia’s Lieutenant. The strategy is an aggressive one, and all of the cards in the deck work together to facilitate this game plan; however, we see several cards that also interact in different ways with the opponent.

Kitesail Freebooter Reflector Mage Meddling Mage

Kitesail Freebooter takes cards from opponents’ hands, Reflector Mage bounces their creatures, and Meddling Mage prevents the named spells from being cast. There’s even Thalia, Guardian of Thraben that taxes non-creature spells and Phantasmal Image that either doubles as the aforementioned Humans or copies an opponent’s creature. These are all form of disruption, which is interaction, and seem to indicate that Humans is not a linear deck.

Or does it?

In each previous case, while the creatures provide utility in the form of disrupting the opponent, they are still working to achieve the deck’s goal of, "Reach a critical mass of Humans and turn them sideways for lethal damage." While the disruptive elements of Five-Color Humans may push it towards the more interactive spectrum of linearity, the deck is still a linear deck. Thus, the same can be said about other linear decks that may incorporate disruptive elements.

How Linear Is Modern?

Now, let’s take a look at Modern as a whole: which decks have been popular since the February unbans? I’m going to refer to the results from the top 32s of the recent Modern Magic Online Championship Series, Grand Prix Phoenix, and the Modern SCG Open in Dallas. In the two graphs below, I’ve labeled the linear strategies blue and the non-linear strategies yellow.

Linearity Bar Graph

Two things pop up immediately when looking at the bar graph: the results showcase a diversity of deck lists (41 different archetypes), and four of the five best-performing strategies from the three tournaments were linear strategies.

Linearity Pie Chart

Despite the diversity of individual archetypes, Modern is format where the best-performing decks skew towards the linear strategies. Almost two-thirds of the decks featured in the top 32 from these tournaments were linear archetypes.

The Consequences of Linearity

Grave Consequences

Modern’s a linear format – so what? Each format in Magic has its own distinct feature (Standard tends toward midrange, Legacy is defined by its blue cantrips, and Vintage revolves around powerful artifacts), and one might point out that linearity is simply Modern’s distinct feature. While that is a valid point, an oversaturation of a certain strategy can have negative effects on a format. Smuggler’s Copter was banned in Standard due to its propensity to slot into every deck and thus promote an unhealthy level of aggressive strategies, Felidar Guardian and Aetherworks Marvel had the effect of turning Standard into an unhealthy combo-oriented format, Gitaxian Probe enabled combo-aggro decks to run rampant in Modern, and there are discussions in Legacy about Deathrite Shaman’s impact on the metagame and whether or not it merits a ban.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for any bans. I am pointing out that formats where certain strategies are overwhelmingly represented have been categorized by Wizards as undesirable and in need of a correction. However, even if Wizards were not to deem the current state of linearity in Modern as undesirable, I would argue that they are undesirable in the following respects:

1. Viewing Experience

While there are the explosive highlights of a turn-one Burning Inquiry into a couple of Hollow Ones, viewers don’t enjoy consistently tuning into a match of Magic where the game is over by turn three because one of the players assembled Tron and cast a backbreaking Karn Liberated or the Storm player untapped with Baral, Chief of Compliance and three lands and cast Gifts Ungiven. Although the occasional highlight makes for an exciting viewing experience, the frequency with which linear decks play against non-linear decks (and run them over) or linear decks play against other linear decks (like two ships passing in the night) lack the back-and-forth, interaction, and tension that make for a consistently entertaining watch.

I do recognize that watching Modern isn’t all bad – after all, commentators regularly recite how exciting it is to cover Modern because of the sheer number of different decks that are played in any given tournament. This is more of an eye-test, where I as the viewer have watched games of Hollow One, Bogles, and Tron unfold and have thought to myself, "This isn’t interesting – this is watching glorified solitaire." Recently, these instances have been happening more and more frequently.

2. Gameplay

Playing linear decks isn’t easy – the sequencing, remembering triggers, and combat math add a level of complexity to piloting these decks optimally. There’s also the matter of playing around hate that could hose your deck, a skill of its own, but in any case, fun can be had in playing these linear strategies. Playing against linear decks, on the other hand, is rarely a fun experience – especially for non-linear decks. The crux of the plan lies in mulliganing aggressively, drawing your hate card, and oftentimes dying without doing anything of significance in pre-board games.

Again, it’s not so much that this kind of gameplay is inherently undesirable – rather, it’s the frequency with which these games happen. If the majority of the decisions that mattered in a tournament were made in regards to mulligan decisions and the sequencing of the first couple of turns, is that the kind of experience that keeps you or other players coming back to play? Is that the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged? This isn’t a case of me "yucking someone else’s yum" – I think it’s great that Modern has such a wide variety of deck lists for players to choose from. I see an imbalance in the format, and the imbalance carries detrimental consequences for the format.

While Modern boasts the highest level of popularity out of all the constructed formats, I have a hard time seeing this trend continue if linear strategies continue to dominate or take up even bigger shares of metagame representation. Linear strategies are an essential part of the format, but oversaturation of these strategies neither bode well for viewings experience nor for the gameplay.

Ways the Current Situation Could Change

There are three ways in which the current prevalence of linear strategies could see a shift:

1. Meta adapts to fight the "top dogs."

The Modern community has historically done a good job of identifying top strategies and then adopting counter-strategies to fight the meta. While Hollow One and Humans may reign supreme as of right now, in a couple of months, we may see the metagame evolve to a point where effective counters have been developed and may even have dethroned the top dogs. However, this seems most likely to occur only in conjunction with the next point.

2. New cards are printed to punish linear strategies.

Damping Sphere is the most exciting hate card to be printed since Rest in Peace in Return to Ravnica, and it’s sure to go into the sideboards of a wide range of decks. As long as Wizards continues to print powerful answers into Standard (Fatal Push and Field of Ruin being recent examples]), the hope is that these new cards will dampen the impact of some of the top linear decks in Modern. Over a course of time, the format will naturally adapt and evolve. This brings us to the final, and least desirable, possible change.

3. Changes are made to the Ban & Restricted List.

I do not want to see cards added to the ban list, and I would disagree wholeheartedly if Wizards were to move in this direction. Bans, especially in a format as expensive as Modern, are oftentimes difficult to justify unless it’s on the scale of Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Winter. On the other hand, unbanning a card like Stoneforge Mystic would improve a host of interactive, non-linear decks, and putting Batterskull into play on turn three when the opponent already has a couple of Hollow Ones isn’t a scary or broken prospect anymore. Even then, messing with the Ban & Restricted List is a dangerous business, and while cards such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor have made very little noise so far, there’s an inherent danger that unbanned cards can go the way of the Golgari Grave-Troll and end up requiring a painful re-ban. All in all, I’m wary of Wizards doing anything to shake up Modern via the use of the (un)banhammer.

Final Thoughts

The amount of linear strategies in Modern since the unban has been quite large, with four of the five best-performing archetypes from the top 32s of the recent MOCS, GP Phoenix, and SCG Dallas Open being linear archetypes. Linear strategies, while a healthy part of any format, have negative effects on the viewing experience and gameplay when they become overrepresented. Although there may be ways in which the current state of Modern could be manually altered by Wizards, I’m of the opinion that we should see how the metagame shapes up in the coming months.

How do you feel about Modern? Do you think linearity is as big of a problem as I see it? If so, what would be your solution? Leave a comment below to share your ideas and opinions!

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

5 Comments

Derva(2018-04-24 01:24)

Great article. I can agree with everything you say. Watching finals where titanshift fights titanshift is a chore, and i also feel like unbanning stoneforge mystic would have been the right thing to do (even more so than unbanning jace).

Im really hyped for damping sphere, finally having a great answer against storm and tron that (unlike blood moon) even stacks, is cheaper and can be put into every sideboard.

Fjaulnir(2018-04-17 17:23)

Interesting article, thanks!

This is one of the reasons I can't be bothered to play Modern. I play Pox (among others) in Legacy so for about 60 € I could build Modern 8-Rack. But whenever I watch Modern streams I just have to turn off the videos again after 1 game, I could never clearly word why but I guess this is a big part of it.

I am kind of curious where the linear vs nonlinear division lies in Legacy. I guess ANT/Storm is linear, although if you're playing a deck with answers the matches can be a nice back and forth with interesting alternative lines from both sides, so would that mean it's less linear than Modern Storm or am I looking at it the wrong way?

To be honest I have no idea how to classify decks as linear or not.
Aren't all decks trying to do the same thing each match to some extent?
-Miracles: Counter/remove your stuff, draw a bunch of cards then resolve Mentor/Entreat and bash for 1-2 turns. Still feels like an interactive deck though.
-Delver: Play turn 1-2 efficient threats, Daze/Wasteland your first plays or Bolt your first creatures, kill you before you have a chance to recover.
-Enchantress (I play many different lists, some of them more interactive than others): play a bunch of ramp spells, survive with Prison elements, then cast Emrakul or Helm of Obedience or Opalescence for the win.

Most of these games feel more interactive to me than some stuff I see in Modern, as in, it's a nice back and forth. But that doesn't mean all of these decks are trying to execute the same game plan for a certain matchup each game. Or is it the fact that the gameplan changes (slightly) for different matchups that makes a deck nonlinear? But even Show and Tell which is basically A + B / super linear plays differently based on the opponent's ways of interaction (Karakas deck, Red Elemental Blast deck...?)...

Would love to hear opinions on this!!

hdavidson21(2018-04-16 12:13)

@RJGiel Thanks! GP Hartford definitely proved that linear strategies are overwhelming favorite right now, and even going down to the top 16 shows that that continues to be the narrative right now.

@Weber-Der-Macht I think Nahiri-Jeskai Control (I assume that's what you're talking about, unless you're talking about the Nahiri RW Control deck) is a highly interactive deck and has different ways of winning the game, whether through Snapcaster beats, burn, or the ol' Nahiri + Emrakul combo. Even if we're talking about the RW Control deck (with Blood Moon and Anger of the God), it's a deck that is, again, interactive because of it's removal spells and the myriad of planeswalkers that it plays. Each game plays out quite differently (because the goal of the game is different each game), and I wouldn't at all categorize either as linear.

PS: Thanks! I always appreciate people taking the time to leave comments on my articles, so thank *you* as well. :)

RJGiel(2018-04-16 09:49)

Great article Hans, once again your point is proven by the Hartford top 8, double Bogles, Hollow-One and even KCI as the winning deck.

@Weber-Der-Macht I wouldn't specifically call Nahiri Control as a linear deck ;) It's still a control deck, just with an added Win-Condition (just like Splinter Twin was), those decks just found an additional win-condition in a solid control-shell.

Weber-Der-Macht(2018-04-13 10:35)

Interesting article as very often the discussion concerning modern health evolves around the "aggro issue" which correlates with linearity in some cases but is mistakingly recognized as the same problem in a large part of the community. I'm rather thinking that linearity is another dimension of a deck which is independant of its agressiveness (Nahiri control might be a good example for the other side of the spectrum). I would love to hear your thoughts on that matter.
Btw I am really enjoying your articles a lot, thanks :)

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