Last updated on December 5, 2023
Mentor's Guidance | Illustration by Brian Valeza
Modern is one of Magic’s most beloved Constructed formats. It’s the one format that’s guaranteed to sell event tickets no matter what in the UK. The format features many of Magic’s greatest cards, decks, and strategies from its long history. With nearly 20 years’ worth of sets, the format has a wide variety of powerful cards including most of the strongest creatures and nearly every planeswalker.
The format has evolved a lot in the 10 years since its inception back in 2011, but some of Modern’s most iconic hits are just as relevant today as they were back then. Today I’m going to go over what exactly Modern is, what makes it one of the most popular formats with many Magic fans, and why you should play it.
Ready? Let’s go!
What Is Modern?
Guiding Voice | Illustration by Steve Argyle
Let’s start at the very beginning. Magic had a format known as “Extended” back in the early 90s and 2000s. This format was a 7-year rotating format similar to how Standard is a 2-year format. Extended, or Type 1.X as it was also known, was meant to bridge the gap between Vintage/Legacy (Type 1 and Type 1.5 respectively) and Standard (Type 2).
The format’s popularity began to wane between 2009 and 2011 since having to keep up with two rotating formats proved to be wildly unpopular among competitive players. Modern was born in the summer of 2011 as a result. The format used the whole of Extended’s card pool at the time plus a little extra but was a non-rotating format, something that’s often a big hit with players.
In Modern, players use a minimum 60-card deck with up to 15 cards in their sideboard using cards printed since 2003. The earliest sets that are legal in Modern, Mirrodin and Eighth Edition, were the first to use the current modern card frame that we know today instead of the retro card frame that was retired as of Scourge and Seventh Edition. Modern never rotates, so the format is kept fresh with new sets and the banlist being updated whenever necessary to keep the format healthy.
Captive Audience | Illustration by Dmitry Burmak
Modern is very popular as a competitive Magic format but it can be played by anyone. As someone who’s played competitive Magic since 2009, what draws me to the format the most is that all of my favorite cards are legal in it. With some exceptions of course (curse you, ban list!) This means I can play with a wide variety of powerful cards that I’ve seen printed since I started playing.
A lot of the dedicated Modern players I know have very similar experiences and love that the deck they loved to play in Standard however many years ago is not only legal in Modern, but likely got a bunch of upgrades since then. And that experience isn’t just for veteran players. If you enjoy playing vampires in the current Standard format, Modern has a ton of legal vampires that you could use to upgrade your deck. Not to mention better mana fixing and powerful staple cards like Thoughtseize and Mutavault.
Modern mainly appeals to competitive and veteran players, but ultimately there’s something in this format for everyone to enjoy. You’ve got a massive card pool to choose from if you want to put something together for your local FNM. And did I mention that Modern doesn’t rotate? If you played Magic five years ago and are coming back into the game and you’re upset that your cards are “no longer legal,” you can still play them in Modern!
Faerie Guidemother | Illustration by Mila Pesic
Modern vs. Standard
Standard couldn’t be more different from Modern in the way it plays. Standard often has significantly worse mana fixing, is almost always about creature-based decks, and tends to be about who can resolve the biggest threat (usually for around five or six mana). Modern has excellent mana fixing for every deck, a wide variety of different strategies, and most decks won’t touch cards that cost five or more mana unless they specifically ramp into them.
The gap between Modern and Pioneer is much smaller. The biggest difference between the two formats are the fetch lands. While all ten fetches are legal in Modern, none are legal in Pioneer. This makes mana fixing quite a bit more difficult to do for many decks.
Pioneer is the new kid on the block as far as formats go having started in 2019 and the pandemic has completely halted its progression. But as another non-rotating Magic format with a banlist, the similarities will only grow clearer as time goes on.
Modern started at a point in time when WotC was making creatures a lot stronger. About 95% (pure guesstimate) of Magic’s best creatures come from Modern’s card pool, making the similarities between the two formats pretty obvious.
Where Legacy differs from Modern is the power level of its noncreature cards. The original dual lands from Alpha and Beta, Brainstorm, Force of Will, and other similar powerhouses make Legacy a good couple of turns faster than Modern. Meanwhile all the creature-based decks look almost the same in both formats.
MTG Arena’s very own eternal format couldn’t really be any further departed from Modern. With sets like Jumpstart and the Alchemy digital-only cards about, Historic is becoming an entirely different format in its own right. While Modern is still a lot more powerful, especially with its Modern Horizons sets, Historic isn’t that far off. It’ll be interesting to compare the two again and see where they end up in a few years.
Angelic Overseer | Illustration by Jason Chan
As I mentioned earlier, Modern sets start with Mirrodin and Eighth Edition back in 2003 and all sets printed since then are legal. But this doesn’t count supplemental sets released in that window, like the Commander precons or Double Masters.
Here’s the comprehensive list of all Magic sets that are legal in Modern. If a card was printed in any of the following sets, it’s legal in the format. Unless it was banned, of course.
- Mirrodin Block
- Fifth Dawn
- Kamigawa Block
- Champions of Kamigawa
- Betrayers of Kamigawa
- Saviors of Kamigawa
- Ravnica Block
- Ravnica: City of Guilds
- Time Spiral Block
- Time Spiral
- Planar Chaos
- Lorwyn Block
- Shadowmoor Block
- Alara Block
- Shards of Alara
- Alara Reborn
- Zendikar Block
- Rise of the Eldrazi
- Scars of Mirrodin Block
- Scars of Mirrodin
- Mirrodin Besieged
- New Phyrexia
- Innistrad Block
- Dark Ascension
- Avacyn Restored
- Return to Ravnica Block
- Return to Ravnica
- Dragon’s Maze
- Theros Block
- Born of the Gods
- Journey Into Nyx
- Khans of Tarkir Block
- Khans of Tarkir
- Fate Reforged
- Dragons of Tarkir
- Battle for Zendikar Block
- Battle for Zendikar
- Oath of the Gatewatch
- Shadows Over Innistrad Block
- Shadows Over Innistrad
- Eldritch Moon
- Kaladesh Block
- Aether Revolt
- Amonkhet Block
- Hour of Devastation
- Ixalan Block
- Rivals of Ixalan
- Standalone Sets
- Guilds of Ravnica
- Ravnica Allegiance
- War of the Spark
- Throne of Eldraine
- Core Sets
- Eighth Edition
- Ninth Edition
- Tenth Edition
- Magic 2010 (M10)
- Magic 2011 (M11)
- Magic 2012 (M12)
- Magic 2013 (M13)
- Magic 2014 (M14)
- Magic 2015 (M15)
- Magic Origins
- Welcome Deck 2016
- Welcome Deck 2017
- Core Set 2019
- Core Set 2020
- Straight-to-Modern Sets
- Modern Horizons
Rule of Law | Illustration by Scott M. Fischer
The rules for a game of Modern are the same as for any other 1-on-1 Magic format:
- Your deck consists of a minimum of 60 cards with an optional sideboard of up to 15 cards.
- Your deck can only have a maximum of four copies of the same card except for the eleven basic lands (Wastes plus the five obvious ones and their snow-covered counterparts) and specific exceptions like Relentless Rats and Rat Colony.
- Matches are typically best-of-three which means you can swap cards between your main deck and sideboard between games.
- You start at 20 life and win by reducing your opponent’s life total to zero or having them draw from an empty library, a surprisingly more common occurrence in Modern these days.
Disallow | Illustration by Min Yum
Modern features a pretty extensive ban list at this point. Some of these cards have been banned since day one of the format and have never seen the light of day while others have warped the format over time and had to be dealt with. In one case a card was banned, unbanned, and then banned again (Golgari Grave-Troll).
Here’s the list:
- Ancient Den
- Arcum's Astrolabe
- Birthing Pod
- Blazing Shoal
- Bridge from Below
- Chrome Mox
- Dark Depths
- Dig Through Time
- Deathrite Shaman
- Dread Return
- Eye of Ugin
- Faithless Looting
- Field of the Dead
- Gitaxian Probe
- Glimpse of Nature
- Golgari Grave-Troll
- Great Furnace
- Green Sun's Zenith
- Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis
- Krark-Clan Ironworks
- Lurrus of the Dream-Den
- Mental Misstep
- Mox Opal
- Mycosynth Lattice
- Mystic Sanctuary
- Oko, Thief of Crowns
- Once Upon a Time
- Punishing Fire
- Rite of Flame
- Seat of the Synod
- Second Sunrise
- Seething Song
- Sensei's Divining Top
- Simian Spirit Guide
- Splinter Twin
- Summer Bloom
- Tibalt's Trickery
- Treasure Cruise
- Tree of Tales
- Up the Beanstalk
- Umezawa's Jitte
- Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- Vault of Whispers
- Yorion, Sky Nomad
Devils' Playground | Illustration by Wayne England
There are two main ways to play Modern: in-person (paper Magic as we like to call it) or on Magic Online.
There’s a good chance your LGS might run some Modern events or that you can find other Modern players there. Magic Online has a very strong following with regular competitive events held every week. Monthly card rental services also make it very affordable to play online so there should be options available no matter what your budget is.
Sadly, you can’t play Modern on MTG Arena right now. WotC has been very forthcoming with their plans for Arena and while adding all of Pioneer’s sets to the platform is on their roadmap, they haven’t announced any plans to do this with Modern sets yet. I don’t think we’re likely to see Modern added any time soon given that Arena already has its own eternal format in Historic and WotC is pushing digital-only cards on the platform.
For a non-rotating format with almost two decades’ worth of cards to draw upon, Modern’s competitive metagame tends to shift dramatically from year to year. The two Modern Horizons sets in 2019 and 2021 are the two biggest culprits of this, but even the printing of individually powerful cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath can warp the meta around them, bolstering decks in their presence while completely invalidating others.
While you can absolutely play whatever you like in Modern, let’s look at an eclectic mix of some of the best-performing and most powerful decks in the format.
Colossus Hammer | Illustration by Dmitry Burmak
This decklist won a Modern Challenge on MTGO in the hands of Diem4x. The idea is simple: you can bypass the huge 8-mana equip cost on Colossus Hammer with Sigarda's Aid in play, giving you a +10/+10 bonus for very little mana. If you played a 0- or 1-mana creature on the first turn you can equip and attack on the second turn and cut your opponent’s life total in half in just a single swing. They won’t even get a third turn if all goes to plan.
Hammer Time has been around for a while in Modern’s fringe decks category but has now jumped into the top tier thanks to Esper Sentinel giving it some much-needed disruption and Urza's Saga functioning as a really easy alternate wincon when the combo doesn’t work.
The deck is very beatable if you come prepared, but these new cards give it a lot more resiliency than it ever had before and makes it a tough prospect to fight and one of the best decks in the format.
Death's Shadow | Illustration by Howard Lyon
You could go with a straight Rakdos or Izzet shell or branch out into more colors with Grixis Shadow or a classic Jund midrange deck. All four of these options have put up good results over the past few months and while Grixis Shadow is the best of the bunch, the core of all these decks is the same.
This list is basically the best version of a midrange deck that you can get with Shadow in Magic. You have a variety of cheap and very efficient threats to win the game along with cheap removal and disruption to tackle any build that you might come across. Death's Shadow decks have been a mainstay in Modern for quite some time and have now been put squarely back in the public eye thanks to not just the two new 1-drop overlords but also Expressive Iteration, a card that’s proving to be one of the most powerful cards printed in 2021. It’s the perfect card to get this deck a bit of card advantage that it was sorely missing in previous versions.
This subset of decks is also extremely flexible and can be built however you prefer.
Castle Garenbrig x2
Cavern of Souls x2
Gruul Turf x4
Lair of the Hydra
Simic Growth Chamber x4
Tolaria West x2
Urza's Saga x4
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle x3
Engineered Explosives x2
Force of Vigor x2
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
This deck took second place in a Modern Challenge event at the end of 2021 in the hands of musasabi. Amulet Titan was once an extremely focused and linear combo deck with only one line of attack, but it’s evolved into a formidable machine with multiple angles of attack and ways to win a game.
This list incorporates not just the classic Primeval Titan win but can also win with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle plus Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, Karn, the Great Creator, or Urza's Saga. All of these strategies mesh together into one beautiful combo deck.
The main way the deck runs is by combining Amulet of Vigor with the bounce lands from original Ravnica, Gruul Turf and Simic Growth Chamber. You get two triggered abilities when you play one of these lands. One untaps them (from the Amulet) and one says to return a land you control to your hand. If you have multiple land drops thanks to Dryad, Azusa, or the now-banned Summer Bloom, you’re able to untap the land first and then tap it for two mana and have it return itself to your hand with its own trigger. You can then replay it with your extra land drop and do the same again, giving you large amounts of mana off just one land. Primeval Titan is the best way to go with that mana, letting you search up whatever lands in your deck are best suited for the situation you find yourself in.
Amulet Titan is by far one of the hardest decks to learn to play in Modern. But it’s also on the cheaper side if you’re up for that challenge.
Counterspell | Illustration by Zack Stella
Classic Azorius Control has drifted in and out of Modern’s metagame for a long time. This build was recently popularized by French Hall-of-Fame control masters Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Gabriel Nassif.
Thanks to the recent printings of Prismatic Ending and Counterspell in Modern Horizons 2, classic control received a boon of early interactive spells to help it deal with the ever-decreasing mana curves of opposing decks. This particular list is from Wafo-Tapa himself, though only from a 22nd place finish in an MTGO Challenge event at the end of 2021.
While control is definitely a thing in Modern, the format has become incredibly proactive in recent years and control decks have got their work cut out to keep up with all of the different strategies available. But there are still some great options out there for you if you are a control player at heart (like Corey Burkhart), including this one.
Which of You Burns Brightest? | Illustration by Steve Prescott
This is the real question, isn’t it? The best deck in Modern changes a lot. One of the best decks circa early 2021 was undoubtedly Selesnya Heliod Combo, a deck that uses multiple search effects and mana dorks with a series of one-off silver bullet creatures and the Heliod, Sun-Crowned plus Spike Feeder or Walking Ballista combo to make infinite life or infinite damage.
The deck was strong, versatile, capable of beating most other decks, and was also the deck of choice when former US National Champion Michael Jacob took down the 2020 MOCS finals. Now the deck has fallen out of favor and isn’t seeing much play at all. There’s nothing all that wrong with it and it would still be a great choice if it’s a deck you enjoy but a lot changes in a year thanks to new sets, ban list updates, and so on.
If I had to pick a deck for a tournament tomorrow, I’d choose Izzet Murkide. That’s the best deck in Modern right now in my opinion. But there’s more to it than that.
What if you don’t like the Izzet decks, or midrange decks in general? The answer to “what's the best Modern deck?” changes depending on your individual playstyle. If you prefer playing combo decks, then Hammer Time might the best deck in the format. Maybe you really enjoy playing Temur Crashcade, a deck that uses cascade spells to cast Crashing Footfalls without suspending it. Or maybe you just love to burn people, in which case can I interest you in a simple Boros Burn deck?
The best thing about Modern is how diverse the available decks are. Even if you want to pick a competitive deck to take down a local tournament and money is no object, there are still at least 20 viable answers to that question. The best deck in Modern is the one that suits you the best.
Start from Scratch | Illustration by Bayard Wu
Getting started in a format like Modern is different for everyone based on what your local scene for the game is like, whether you’re going to play on MTGO, and what kind of budget you have. If budget isn’t an issue, like if you decide to use a rental service for Magic Online, then there are lots of great entry-level decks in the format.
Like I just said, the best deck in the format is the one that suits you best. If you’ve played a good number of other formats then you’ve likely found out that you really enjoy playing one or two kinds of decks and not so much with others. Modern is so diverse that you should be able to find a similar deck to what you’re used to playing elsewhere.
If you’re getting started on a budget then knowing what to go for can be difficult, especially if you’re looking at all of the four-figure price tags that Modern decks tend to have. I could go on at length about how to best manage your budget for Modern and what sorts of decks you should gravitate towards… but I already did that.
If you wanted to buy sealed products for Standard or Commander that’s easy enough to figure out. With Standard you can turn to the most recent set and there’s around a dozen different precons printed every year with Commander. But Modern’s a little trickier.
A general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t focus on sealed products for Modern since it’s much easier to buy the singles that you need. But hey, we’re all Magic players and at the end of the day we all love cracking boosters. There are definitely some great products out there to get your booster fix while expanding a Modern collection.
Modern Horizons 2
The first product that should still be readily available at many local game stores is Modern Horizons 2. Despite coming out during the pandemic and not being drafted anywhere near as much as the first Modern Horizons back in 2019, MH2 made an immediate impact on the format.
This set introduced several staples to the format. Sure, there’s the Ragavan, Nimble Pilferers, Solitudes, and Dragon's Rage Channelers for you to get your hands on, but several other cards have made their mark on the format. Unholy Heat, Vindicate, Prismatic Ending, Shardless Agent, and of course Counterspell have all made a sizable impact on Modern, along with many others.
Modern Horizons 3 will be the sixth Modern-specific booster product WotC has given us following the Modern Masters sets in 2013, 2015, and 2017 and Modern Horizons in 2019 and Modern Horizons 2 in 2021. And like all the others, Modern Horizons 2 is a great product to open if you want to fill your collection with Modern staples.
- 10 Modern Horizons 2 (MH2) Magic: The Gathering Draft Boosters
- Exclusive foil alt-art promo card—Yusri, Fortune's Flame
- 40 basic land cards (20 foil & 20 nonfoil)
- Spindown life counter and MTG card storage box
- Introduces powerful cards and beloved reprints to the Modern format
The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™
WotC also released their Lord of the Rings-theme set in 2023, which is another straight-to-Modern set. Wizards has been good at showing they’re dedicated to keeping Modern afloat and they do this by releasing this sort of sets every couple of years.
There are other similar sets that, while not entirely made up of Modern staples, still have quite a few of them. Sets like Double Masters and Ultimate Masters and even the Mystical Archive from Strixhaven offer several reprints that are helpful for building Modern decks.
Double Masters back in 2020 gave us the first reprints of the Urza lands (Urza's Tower, Urza's Mine, and Urza's Power Plant) that we’d seen since Ninth Edition. Keep an eye out whenever WotC publishes big reprint sets like these because there are probably some great Modern-legal reprints lurking about in there.
Commune with the Gods | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot
Modern has to be one of Magic’s most talked-about formats. With more than 10 years of history under its belt there are dedicated communities all over the internet. I tend to discuss it with my local players and in local community groups, but you can find Modern discussion groups all over social media, some very generalized and many more specific ones that look at particular decks or that are for players in a specific region. There’s also a Modern subreddit if you are so inclined.
If you enjoy watching Magic content on Twitch like I do, then there are some excellent streamers who play Modern a lot:
- kanister_mtg (Piotr Glogowski)
- reiderrabbit (Reid Duke)
- yellowhat (Gabriel Nassif)
- WafoTapa (Guillaume Wafo-Tapa)
There are also some dedicated content creators who tend to focus on Modern, like aspiringspike.
Classes on Modern
Speaking of Reid, he is the “professor” for a Modern course over on Spikes Academy.
Definitely check that out if you want to level-up your Modern game. It's even on sale right now!
Tale's End | Illustration by Randy Vargas
That’s it from me on this journey through the basics of what makes Modern tick. If you’ve been thinking about jumping into this format then I hope you’ve taken something away from this and that you’ll come back again next time!
What do you think of Modern? Are you a longtime player, or just considering getting into it? Let me know in the comments down below or find us over on Twitter if that’s more your style.
Coming up soon, I’ll be talking about the history of the Modern banlist and why those cards deserved to be banned, as well as the full and comprehensive Limited review for Kamigawa, a set I’m incredibly excited for! Until then, take care of yourselves and each other.
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