This has become a titanic task, but I decided to write something I would have appreciated when I started playing Modern: an overview of the most played cards. In this article I intend to offer new players a guide to the format by showing them the most important cards and reminding them of some important stuff they should keep in mind when playing this cards, or against them -be it rules that apply or just some interesting tactics.
This first part goes over Spells -that is, everything that is neither a Creature nor a Land.
Path to Exile
A really popular removal spell, and a good reason to remember to play some basic lands in your deck. If you are using this, always remember you are removing a creature, but at the same time speeding up their game by giving them one more land and slightly thinning their deck. Use it when needed, but keep this in mind. This card works great when used with other cards that either render the opponent unable to search their deck (Leonin Arbiter) or punishes them for doing so (Archive Trap).
Sideboard card. This is played against affinity mostly, as lots of their cards are artifacts, and not being able to play their abilities makes life a lot more difficult for them, slowing their game plan. Look up what is an activated ability if you don’t feel confident.
One of the cards that define Modern as a format. This card might seem stupid at first, but it slows down the opponent and lets you draw a card, which is kind of big. Remember you can target your own spell: if you play something and that something is getting countered, you can make it go back to your hand and draw a card. Remember also that drawing a card is a part of the effect, which means a countered Remand will not let you draw a card. This is specially important in counter wars, which get really confusing when this spell is played.
Simple: counters anything that costs 2. Remember though that the CMC of a card is what appears in the upper right corner, and not what the opponent actually paid for it: Ancient Grudge‘s flashback can be countered with Spell Snare.
A popular counterspell. It is played essentially when the opponent tries to curve (use all the mana available to play threats as soon as possible), but keep it can be played as a simple nuisance, making the opponent spend more mana than would, and thus slowing their plan.
This is a fantastic counterspell. It counters so many relevant things. The only problem is Modern (and probably the whole of Magic) is becoming more and more creature-centered, and this doesn’t counter creatures, which makes it sideboard material, as we tend to prefer catch-all solutions.
This does everything. You’d think Cryptic Command is too expensive, but this card teaches you lots about card advantage and versatility. My first impulse as a new player was thinking this was a greedy card for greedy control players and that I would show them. That was a big mistake. Don’t underestimate this, and try it if you can. As soon as it comes down in price a bit, anyway.
Only instants? this cannot be good. But it is! An extremely narrow card that shines in certain games. Almost always sideboard material, it is maindeck in certain explosive decks such as infect and Nivix Cyclops decks, and sided in in other decks to deal with removal and counterspells. It’s important to have this card in mind when the opponent has one blue free mana.
I discovered this card shortly after discovering Modern. This was part of what was described as a ‘limited permission suite’ in a Bant deck, and the definition is spot on: this card is very limited in what it can do, but it is great when you want to apply pressure and you cannot afford to leave a lot of free mana up.
This is a better card than one normally would assume, as it lets you play a free spell (which works great with Young Pyromancer), shows you what you can expect from your opponent (write the cards in their hand down, it is important) and lets you go through your deck. Peek is a similar card: better because it is an instant, worse because it cannot be played for free. This is one of those cards one does not appreciate until seen it in use.
Don’t be fooled by the casting cost in the card: this costs one blue mana in the right deck. This is one good reason to love/hate the affinity mechanic. About the affinity mechanic: the casting cost is calculated when one announces the spell, and then it is paid. This means that it can be cast for U even if one of the artifacts has to be sacrificed to pay the cost. To put an example: Thoughtcast can be played off three Darksteel Citadel and one Chromatic Star, even if we have to sacrifice the Chromatic Star to get the blue mana.
A bad Preordain is still good. Good enough, anyway. This is played to set up Delver of Secrets flips, and to look for cards in your deck. Remember to do one thing first, then the next one: it looks weird if you pick up three cards from your deck. Draw a card, then look at the two top cards in your deck, ideally with your deck face down on the table. Don’t give your opponent any reason to think you might be cheating.
This is essentially played in Merfolk, where it is useful in three different ways: their creatures can gain islandwalk, so there is a very real possibility of achieving a perfect evasion; your lands are disrupted (shutting down manlands and utility lands, plus possibly denying your opponent the colours they need); and drawing a card, which is always useful.
The hand disruption of choice. Things to remember: you play this and resolves, you lose two life, and it does not matter if you couldn’t make the opponent discard any card. Also, the whole hand is shown. This may seem obvious, but it is sometimes confusing for some. Last, but not least, do not show your hand until your opponent says you are the target of the spell. This is rarely the case with Thoughtseize, but the opponent might target themself.
Inquisition of Kozilek
Solid hand disruption, and widely used, not always as a replacement for Thoughtseize. Keep in mind: the Converted Mana Cost is what appears on the top right corner, and not what it would cost the opponent to play this card.
A really solid removal spell with some not-so-obvious implications. This can be played for 1 colourless mana and 4 life, 1 colourless mana, 1 black mana and 2 life, or 1 colourless mana and 2 black mana. This is a black card, regardless of how you paid for the card. This card deals no damage to the creature, so preventing damage will not save it. Neither will being indestructible, as the card is not destroyed, but rather dies because of its 0 toughness. It may seem weird, but this is how it works.
Liliana of the Veil
Probably the best planeswalker in Modern, even better than Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded. This is a card you’re going to see played a lot, so get used to it. You should know sacrificing targets you, not your creatures, so it doesn’t matter if your creatures have hexproof or protection. You will not see the ultimate played very often, but when you see it, hope it’s you controlling Liliana, as it is backbreaking. Think twice before you allow Liliana to stay on board if it’s on the other side of the table: the general rule is to kill it on sight. If it’s you who is playing Lili, use this to your advantage: no one wants you to resolve Liliana of the Veil, much less to let you have it for long, so it can potentially be used as a sort of lightning rod if you have something more interesting. If you don’t, simply keep in mind it will become a priority for the opponent to kill her, and she starts at three loyalty, which means she can be killed with a Lightning Bolt, the single most played card in Modern.
Played in Burn decks. It is important because life gain is the bane of burn decks in any format. Any further life gain after Skullcrack is prevented, but life gain in response to Skullcrack will resolve normally, so keep this in mind.
Played in Burn decks. Three damage for one is so good it is played even if in sorcery form and with such a limited range of uses.
A really slow Lightning Bolt. This will resolve during your upkeep, which is after you untap but before you draw: remember this AND remind this if necessary. Keep in mind that in tournament play forgetting to resolve Rift Bolt will very often involve calling a judge, sometimes receiving a warning (as drawing an extra card can provide information you weren’t supposed to have when Rift Bolt had to resolve) and occasionally getting a game loss, if the judge considers the infraction to be very relevant to how the game is developing and/or you have already been warned before. Remember too you cannot place the card on top of your deck face up to remember to resolve it, as there are some rules that forbid covering the deck. This is generally ok in smaller tournaments though.
Played in Burn decks. Remember you have to sacrifice a land, not necessarily a mountain, and that this is part of the cost, so you have to do it even if the spell doesn’t resolve.
Played mostly in Burn decks, even though it is a wonderful card, probably because of the mana commitment it needs. Important stuff: this spell needs two targets, and therefore it will be countered if it loses one of them. It will not deal three damage to the oponent if it cannot deal three damage to the creature. Just a quick reminder: this card is a good reason to wait for activating a fetchland. Also, remember it can be played without the landfall, even though it is pretty terrible.
Flames of the Blood Hand
Played in Burn decks. Skullcrack is generally better as it is more efficient, but this deals one more damage and lets the burn player have more life gain hate. It is important because life gain is the bane of burn decks in any format. Any further life gain after Flames of the Blood Hand is prevented, but life gain in response to Flames of the Blood Hand will resolve normally, so keep this in mind.
The most played card in Modern. Always keep this card in mind, be it playing or building your deck: you will constantly see it and it is the single most important test for creatures in Modern, meaning three or less toughness is a dangerous place to be for your summons. This card is one of the most popular targets for Snapcaster Mage too, meaning being at eight life against a blue/red deck is not safe at all.
Anger of the Gods
Really nice removal, generally starting off in the sideboard, but possibly maindeck material in a control deck. This is a big problem for any weenie / small zoo deck that relies on small creatures. Remember creatures that die from the damage dealt by this card are exiled: resilience and undying will not trigger, and neither will bridge from below.
Pretty surefire removal for blue and white creatures. Remember the target creature can be a multicoloured one: the only requirement is blue or white have to be one of the colours. Also, even if the card states damage cannot be prevented, creatures with protection against red cannot be targeted by red cards.
One of the two pieces needed for an extremely popular combo. This aura, when attached to a creature, will give the creature the ability to create a copy of itself by tapping. The two possible target creatures played in Modern together with this card allow for the controller to tap or untap a permanent, the target permanent being the creature with the aura attached, which will be tapped again to create another creature and repeat the process. There is a number of ways to disrupt this combo: the creature can be destroyed while Splinter Twin is in the stack (that is, after playing it but before it resolves), or given protection against red, or bounced (returned to the owner’s hand). Interestingly, it can also be disrupted by Vines of Vastwood, which is played in Infect decks and mono green aggro decks. Despite this, Splinter Twin is an extremely powerful card, as it can win the game on the spot in the fourth turn. Always keep the combo in mind, as both Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch can be played at the end of the opponent’s turn.
A punishment for greedy mana bases, greedy meaning when one tries to play too many colours by using few basic lands. Interesting facts about Blood Moon: Shocklands will enter the battlefield tapped unless the controller pays two life, even if they turn into a mountain the moment they hit the battlefield; artifact lands will continue being artifacts; and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth will become a mountain, so it will not give the other lands the ability to produce black mana.
Sideboard material. Used mostly against Tron decks, even though it can be sided in against manlands. A great card in Burn decks, as it lets it deal with some problems without slowing them too much.
Smash to Smithereens
You’ll see this in sideboards, and it will be sided in essentially against Affinity decks, even though other decks have plenty of valid targets. This card shines in Burn decks, as it lets them get rid of some problematic cards and still continue to deal damage.
A really devastating sideboard card. Turn 4 is a bit late against Affinity decks, as they tend to be pretty explosive, but green can provide early ramping, and in any case this is simply backbreaking, leaving any affinity deck in a very tough spot.
Very versatile removal for cheap. 4 life can be a problem, but this will generally be a good trade. A favourite of mine.
The heart of the deck that carries its name. Birthing Pod is green, but can be played and activated with colourless mana, and it often is. A fantastic card that one needs to see in action to understand fully. There are no special rulings to be mentioned, but it is important to remind something: destroy this if possible. Once it gets going, it is difficult to stop it. It is not the obvious threat, but it is what makes the deck tick.
Seen in Tron decks, lets them search for lands or artifacts, which constitutes a great percentage of their decks. Pretty bonkers in this context.
Seen in Tron decks, lets them search for a land in your deck. This will almost always be one of the Tron pieces, which are needed to start producing lots of Mana.
Relic of Progenitus
Found in the sideboard, it works wonders against graveyard strategies. Wait until the right moment to sacrifice it.
Found in the sideboard, it lets you avoid players reanimating or playing flashback cards, thus avoiding some unfair strategies.
This seemingly narrow card shuts down any combo that relies on creatures having an effect when they hit the battlefield, in addition to rendering Snapcaster Mage almost useless. An incredible card that could even see maindeck play in some specialized decks.
One of the most important reasons for playing affinity. Keep in mind this card and save removal for it, as it will mean death many, many times. Remember it can be attached to another creature at instant speed if the controller has black mana available, so check how much mana they have open before blocking.
Played in Affinity, where it fixes and accelerates mana. It is a fun card to play, letting you vomit your hand and overwhelm the opponent. This is a lot of times an important card, as it may be the only way to obtain coloured mana: it is a possible target for removal, even if it may not seem a threat.
This is essentially an all-coloured Mox, and an incredible card. It needs the metalcraft to work though, so keep this in mind: you can shut it down if you lower the artifact count. An affinity deck with less than three artifacts in play is in dire straits anyway, so it might not be relevant many times. Also, remember the legendary rule now states that if at any time there are two legendary permanents with the same name the player may choose which one to sacrifice, so if you find yourself with a Mox Opal in play and one in your hand you can generate mana and then play the second Mox Opal, choosing to sacrifice the tapped one.
A board wipe that lets you save your stuff. You’ll see it played in Tron decks, where you might see some of their stuff get fate counters, and other decks, where it is generally played as a general board wipe. It is relatively easy to see the activation coming, so we can play around it, but it’s really uncomfortable.
Expensive to play, but it is pretty much a finisher. Once the Tron player has Karn on board, it is extremely difficult to recover without some very specific removal. Counter this if possible, and make it a priority to kill it any way you can.
Yet another way to find pieces for the Urza set. This one can be destroyed before it is activated, but I tend to find it is a very slight delay to the Tron deck, and it might be better to save that removal to whatever they play next.
An incredible card. Remember the creature is not cast, and therefore it cannot be countered; it can be played at any time at instant speed, so prepare for it, and it has to match the casting cost exactly. Any extra costs for casting do not need to be paid.
Removal + cantrip, really flavourful representative of both blue and red. It is a bit expensive given the generally tight mana curve of UR decks, but it tends to be worth it. Remember you will only draw a card if the card correctly resolves, so wait before you reach for your deck.
This is in multicoloured because this card is not worth playing if you don’t have access to both red and green mana. An excellent removal, can be played early and played again later, with the opponent knowing all the time they are going to lose an artifact at some point. Even though it is always better to have the element of surprise, it is very effective to make the opponent play around removal when they know it is there: it makes their play slower.
Almost every permanent in Modern costs less than three mana, so this will always find a use. An incredibly powerful card.
Play this card only if you have access to both colours. This is yet another card you don’t quite get until you see it in play, but I’ll summarize it for you: one card placing four creatures in the battlefield is really great. It may not seem specially cheap (it is, though), but it is one card. You can play four Suntail Hawk for one less mana, but you’d have to draw four cards. This is all in one card. This card is a good reason to play graveyard hate or a way to deal damage to all creatures, such as Anger of the Gods or Electrickery.
This is a sideboard card with one target deck: Storm. Storm wins by playing lots of spells and then playing a card with Storm, which is copied for each spell played before it in the same turn. This makes it impossible for normal counterspells to deal with it, as there are multiple spells to counter, but Counterflux deals with this, as its Overload ability lets you target counter every spell played this turn. It can also work as a regular counterspell, which is also good, of course.
To be continued …
Well, that’s all for this week. It’s six in the morning, and I have already spent too many hours writing about Magic. I would like this guide to be as comprehensive as possible, so… did I forget anything? Please, do tell in the comments. Next week I’ll continue with creatures and lands. Thanks for reading!