Diving In: Content, Stability, and Motivation

Yesterday, our own Trevor Holmes published “Getting Disillusioned—What Magic Is Missing.” That piece describes the allure of other games while exploring motivation and writer’s block. I don’t agree with everything he wrote—opinion pieces are like that—but I think Trevor raised some interesting points, and his article got me thinking about my own motivations and the things I love about Magic and other games.

In this article, I’ll share my thoughts as coherently as possible. I’d also like to explicitly open up the comments section for readers to share their relationships to Modern Nexus, and to let me know about the sort of content they’d like to see from me in the future.

The Quest for Content

By now, over two years into Nexus’s lifespan, some of our writers (and readers) have raised the issue of running out of material. Writers I’ve spoken to from other sites have also expressed to me a similar problem: it’s sometimes difficult to come up with a brand-new topic every week. What about weeks where we don’t play much Magic, or have time to follow the tournament scene? Or weeks where there aren’t any major tournaments and we haven’t done much experimenting?

I’m fortunate that this isn’t a problem I encounter often. I play in multiple Modern events each week, practice matchups in cafés with Kelsey for fun, and put in reps on Cockatrice while Boston slumbers. All that time in the game fills my head with ideas, and I turn those ideas into articles, even if certain ideas prove less interesting to readers than others. Sure, some weeks I don’t play as much, but in those cases I can usually flesh out an article I’ve had steeping in my head for some time and put it to paper, like my entries in the Modern Top 5 series or my thoughts on player etiquette and toxicity.

Tapping the Reflecting Pool

I can remember a time at Modern Nexus when readers voiced a frustration with our writers focusing too much on their respective pet decks, a time when readers voiced a frustration with our extensive coverage of the Splinter Twin ban, and a time when readers would have given anything not to hear about Eldrazi for the umpteenth week in a row. For starters, I think I speak for everyone at Modern Nexus when I say we appreciate these comments and use them to better meet reader expectations in the future. But if our writers tackle issues they have no interest in, the content they produce is likely to betray some of that disinterest. It’s a fine line to walk.

Luckily, our interest in Magic (and specifically, in Modern) all but ensures we often have something interesting to discuss that readers will also appreciate. After all, Modern is a format known for shifting wildly between events, affording room to breakout brews, and breathing in new life with most expansions. To a degree, the more hard-to-pin-down the topic at hand, the more articles on it write themselves; Modern is quite dynamic, and so yields engrossing content.

The format’s currently in a weird place, as it has been in the past—when Twin was banned, nobody knew how Modern would shake up, and Nexus could do little other than speculate on that future and meditate on the ban’s meaning; when Eldrazi ran rampant, there simply wasn’t much to Modern outside of the spaghetti monsters, and our articles reflected that reality. Modern is still chock-full of decks; in fact, it seems more decks are viable now than have ever been at a single time. But the decks don’t vie for position these days so much as occupy set-in-stone metagame shares and topple each other haphazardly, as lemmings, according to those shares in event standings. In other words, despite its diversity, Modern is experiencing a period of stability. And for Modern, that’s weird.

Stability²: The Gift & the Curse

Previously, our content reflected negative instances of “weirdness.” Modern Nexus is now reflecting something positive: the format’s newfound stability. The arrival of Death’s Shadow midrange decks has deeply altered the format in a way that incidentally cleaned up almost all of its problems. No white? Fixed. No blue? Fixed. No control or tempo? Fixed. No variety among Company decks, fish decks, combo decks, and the like? Fixed! When I asked last month whether Death’s Shadow was friend or foe to Modern, I sided with the former; now, I feel my choice has been vindicated. Not only has Shadow dropped in metagame representation, the benefits of having it around have become more apparent, and the cons alleviated. Loss of diversity among aggro-combo decks? Meet Vengevine; and remember Death’s Shadow Zoo? Loss of diversity among midrange decks? Welcome back, BG Rock and Abzan!

On Trevor’s article, David Ekstam half-jokingly commented, “Perhaps people read and comment less now because they are occupied playing Modern matches?” I think there’s something to this thought—when players get most of what they need out of playing Modern, they’re probably less likely to look for it elsewhere, in this case via online content or engagement. The format is healthier than it’s ever been, and truly boasts something for everyone. Besides, the Modern Pro Tour again looms in the distance, this time with the promise of no shake-up bans. The jokes I used to make at FNM after a fast match, like “that’s why we play Modern!”, aren’t as funny anymore, because they don’t ring as true. The players I meet are thrilled about where the format is at, and so am I.

All this to say I think fewer players are angry at one aspect of Modern or another. When they are, they’ll consume plenty of online content, post comments, and otherwise look to validate their disgruntlement. During “broken” metagames centered around Eye of Ugin or Golgari Grave-Troll, the e-sphere was filled with deafening calls for adjustments, primarily to the banned list but always with the extreme voice or two suggesting the removal of the Modern format. Today, that doomsaying is long-gone, and the Modern events are more packed than ever.

Solving the Millennium Puzzle

So stability is great for Modern, and perhaps not so great for content writers. But that doesn’t mean good content isn’t makeable. Take Ari Lax’s recent SCG article, “How to Exploit Modern;” here, Ari proposes a theory about Modern metagame shifts and tacks on a discussion on interactive cards. It’s a little jumbled, sure, but for the reason that Ari has so much to say that it was obviously tough to fit it all into one article. It seems the writer has recently learned a lot about the format, probably by playing it, and is bursting with valuable new ideas. In the context of Trevor’s article from this week, Modern is Ari Lax’s Destiny. So, what’s mine?

Banished to the Actual Shadow Realm

As someone excited by change and stimulated by obstacles, I somewhat share Trevor’s disillusionment with Modern, although I think to a smaller degree. I need look no further than my spare time for the proof: for the last few weeks, I’ve been obsessively building Traditional Yu-Gi-Oh! decks. Here’s a game that represents everything Magic actively tries to avoid.

Allow me to indulge in a brief comparison of the fundamental differences between Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh! If you doubt this section will be of interest to you, feel free to skip it, but I personally find the discrepancies remarkable.

  • There is no mana in Yu-Gi-Oh! Some Magic cards exist in Yu-Gi-Oh! at no cost: Wrath of God; Plague Wind; Thoughtseize; Divination; Gifts Ungiven; Ponder. You can guess what that means for gameplay: games are blisteringly fast, highly roll-and-draw-dependent, incredibly swingy, and almost exclusively combo-centric.
  • Successful Yu-Gi-Oh! decks are synergy machines packed with on-theme cards, and with little room for off-theme cards—think of Affinity, which has never wanted Modern staples like Bolt or Goyf.
  • As with Galvanic Blast in Affinity, only the strongest disruptive cards (Counterspell and Force of Will analogs, mostly) are splashed into these decks. Without mana, there is no color pie, and every deck with space for them runs the same disruptive staples.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! is hugely complicated. Rather than actively simplify the game, as Wizards of the Coast R&D has done with New World Order, Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s designers purposefully make the game more complicated as time passes by changing its rules. Contemporary cards have multiple, wordy effects with tiny text. Yu-Gi-Oh! allegedly encourages complexity creep to stimulate its playerbase, advertising itself as an ever-evolving game.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! only has two formats: Advanced (which everyone plays) and Traditional (where banned cards are restricted to 1 copy each; nobody plays this format, it seems, except me).
  • Rather than utilize a rotation system to move new product, Konami shamelessly power-creeps its better cards. New expansions routinely carry cards more powerful than any the game has seen before, which cleanly leaves out-of-print strategies obsolete.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! has a banlist almost entirely motivated by short-term profits. Konami bans and limits cards that form the backbone of winning archetypes when they want to sell something new, like another expansion… but not before reprinting those expensive cards in deluxe tins, and waiting until that product has moved. In terms of metagame, such a banlist ensures multiple Tier 0 formats each year.

Greed, For Lack of a Better Spell, Is Good

To a Magic player, many points on this list are completely unheard of. But it works for Yu-Gi-Oh!, which despite the heresy, touts itself as the #1 TCG in the world (a record confirmed by Guinness in 2011, although I can’t find anything more recent). One thing to learn from this statistic is that Wizards has more options when it comes to game management than it may care to admit, and can stand to significantly improve its overall strategy, although these are topics for another article. More on-topic is the question, why am I, a Modern die-hard, playing this game that violates so many Magic tenets?

Commenters on Trevor’s article noted the potential benefit of spending time with another game. Indeed, playing Yu-Gi-Oh! again over the last year or two has given me what I consider some unique insights into Modern, as well as the away-time needed to generate perspective. I also think Trevor was on to something when he mentioned that Destiny decks all play differently from one another, while Magic decks all feel the same; I don’t entirely agree (playing with or against Affinity feels totally different from playing with or against Burn, and each has a clear identity), but the thought merits exploration. What kinds of deck identities are present in Modern? Which does the format lack? Yu-Gi-Oh!, like Destiny I presume, does a great job of giving each deck (or, shoved-down-your-throat-via-a-bunch-of-synergistic-cards “archetype”) its own identity and playstyle.

But that’s not what I love about the game. I’ve watched high-level tournaments and seen 8-0 players make ridiculous mistakes or fail to know every effect of their opponent’s cards. So why are they winning? Because Yu-Gi-Oh! is a deckbuilder’s game through-and-through. There are general metagame shifts, of course, but the players that win big events often do so with unique tech choices and plays. For example, at WCQ Chicago last month, Esala Wathathantrige—playing the established best deck in the format—dumbfounded announcers with combos they had never seen before, that he no doubt had slaved over while preparing; combos, mind you, that utilized all the same cards routinely found in the Zoodiac deck. I find this emphasis the game has on innovation, as well as its speed and excess, very appealing. Modern of course possesses these dimensions as well, albeit in varying quantities. But hey, lately I’ve been playing Affinity on weekends, so there you go.

My Grandpa’s Website Has No Pathetic Articles

Perhaps the perceived standstill in Modern writing has to do with the format becoming stable. It’s also possible it has to do with motivation. In any case, I firmly believe Magic is the greatest game, and while others may captivate me more right now, I still play a good amount and am sure I’ll return to it in full force in the near future. Along the way, I think it can be beneficial to our understanding of what we love so much about Magic to figure out what we love about our distractions from it. What do these games have that Magic is missing?

Most of my Magic writing involves theorizing, metagame analysis, and brews. It’s rare that I publish articles such as this one, heavy with introspection and, well, ramblings. But I thought Trevor raised some interesting points in his article, and opened the way for a productive conversation with our readership. Hopefully the discussion can continue here.

Jordan is the copy editor at Modern Nexus. He has played Magic since 2003, and Modern since its inception. A devoted theorist, he always brings tuned brews to events. Jordan favors card efficiency over raw power and specializes in disruptive aggro strategies.

12 thoughts on “Diving In: Content, Stability, and Motivation

  1. I mean…

    I read this article, and I read the CML article linked within. By the end, I am reminded why I won’t shell out $1k for a deck, try to play in the pro tour, or travel more than an hour to play in a tournament. I’m on the verge of just being a collector over a player, except storm is incredibly fun.

    The attempt to make MtG an esport is basically a joke. The commentary isn’t bad in terms of structure of the individuals’ ability to communicate what is happening – it is just boring as hell. They try to make it way more serious than it really is. Watch a League of Legends tournament and the way it is discussed you’d think Jhin was a real person engaged in a battle of life or death.

    I am a big fan of Travis Woo, who spent a significant amount of time recently discussing cheating, how its done, how to find it, and threw out some ideas to try to prevent it. Meanwhile, there are legit cheaters in the Hall of Fame. That’s not even beginning to discuss Eric Froelich and his idea of concessions, intentional draws, and pro player “equity.”

    I love modern. I am a huge fan of your site. I like playing. For a while I wanted to go on that PPTQ grind and find myself in Bilbao…but I don’t think it is worth it.

  2. These are all fair comments to make. By you and trev, although my personal take is that all this posturing is in lieu of any actual metagame analysis.

    Without that statistical bedrock, I think quality magic writing tends to fall back on rhetoric, which is what we’ve seen this week.

    I’m not saying those statistics magically inspire fresh articles, but their presence allows for a different kind of writing, and a more informative stance while making any assertions.

    I think the Nexus crew needs to have a look into this missing component, not to satisfy me or any individual but in order to make their content better informed and more robust. That’s why I started coming here in the first place and I feel like it was a unique take on the journalistic side of magic which has been somewhat put to the side recently. Even the eminent David Ernewein’s normally stat-heavy and labour-intensive breakdown of potential unbans was missing that sort of discussion in his recent post, instead favouring generalisations and opinion in his writing (I’m not saying the numbers weren’t there of course, just that he chose to show his findings in a more conversational way).

    1. I’d like to amend my earlier comment by correcting myself on David’s preordain article. He states quite clearly at the very beginning that it’s a qualitative analysis and I was focusing too much on the last part of the article. Apologies to David.

    2. I can say for me personally, a lot of my interest in this site fell considerably with the complete lack of number crunching or any meaningful statistical analysis. Now that we don’t even have remotely reliable data anymore, I don’t know if it would be possible, even WITH the resources. But somehow that element (or something similar) needs to come back to differentiate this site from the dozens of other sources of opinion articles and deck techs we see everywhere.

      I still follow this site, but it’s rare to find as many things as interesting to read anymore. Perhaps for some of the reasons spoken about here, or perhaps because of a lack of overall focus. It doesn’t help that I think Modern itself is not at its best, but that’s a personal opinion I hold (It feels the format is essentially all “Tier 2” decks, with the idea of Tier 1 and all accompanying identities of Tier 1 decks basically completely eliminated. I do not think the format is better because of this, but I also miss the Jund/Twin/Affinity/Tron/Infect/Burn+RandomT2Deck meta. Now it feels like everything is “RandomTier2Deck.”)

      1. I also dearly miss this dimension of the site, and if it were up to me, re-establishing that sort of content as regular and crucial would be a top priority. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and I don’t have the statistical chops or love for numbers necessary to do it myself. When I came on to MN two years ago, it was as the resident brewer; my articles since then have explored the limits of what’s possible in Modern and tried to push against them when possible. That’s a far cry from the kind of sterile data analysis I agree the site needs. Hopefully, your prayers and mine will be answered in the near future!

        As for the metagame, that’s an interesting take I’ve been seeing more and more of. Many players like to have a “best deck” to fall back on, or to attack directly; Modern’s primary goal of format diversity clashes with this desire, since in Wizards’ perfect world, few decks take up large shares so that other decks can share the pie. I don’t want to say to you and players like you to just quit Modern, but know that Wizards is actively working against that sort of metagame and will always favor the “RandomTier2Deck” meta.

        They have worked tirelessly for years to create a space that looks just like this one; now, they get to observe it in action, and see if the players actually like it. It’s possible more players like yourself miss bigger decks and Wizards does a 180 on what they want Modern to be about, but I personally don’t see that happening. It seems better to me for the popularity of the format (WotC’s first priority, as it translates to their bottom line) that player X and player Y can play their respective favorite archetypes or cards at a given time. Spikes like Pros are going to play the format anyway, so why cater to them directly?

        1. I have actively stepped back from Modern over the last several months for exactly the reason many others have been praising it: complete lack of identity in the format. Yes, “anything” is viable, but what that ends up playing out like is just more lopsided matches, un-prepared-for pairings, wasted sideboard slots, and an increase in feelbad moments that suck much of the fun and excitement of playing. Too many games are just non-games. Win or lose, that’s just not fun.

          Modern has ALWAYS been a place of massive diversity, where even the strangest of decks could have taken any given GP at any time (except Eldrazi Winter). But without a focused identity at the top, the format feels so… fractured and random. What cards represent the “face” of the format? Maybe this doesn’t matter much beyond sideboard plans, but it feels like all the “faces” of Modern are a thing of the past.

          It seems I am clearly not the player Wizards wants to cater to, at least when it comes to Modern. But lucky for me they have been hitting grand slams year after year with their Commander products and I have something else to focus on in the meantime until another meaningful shift happens to Modern.

    1. And it’s a horribly designed game, to be sure. The guy who writes the manga created the game on a whim after the game, which was barely featured in the comics, drew unanticipated attention from readers. The biggest problem with Yu-Gi-Oh! from a game perspective is its management; even a game with wonky rules can be smoothed out over time.

      And yet, Konami’s doing something right, since YGO outsells MtG despite how hard Magic tries to appeal to new players, retain old ones, create balance, and simplify the game. What exactly are they doing right is the question I find most interesting.

  3. Great read. Thanks for writing interesting stuff consistently Jordan. I agree with other commebts that turnament reports are always appreciated also i would love to see tempo based “what’s the play” puzzles from you. Keep up your brewing and writing.

    1. When I do get back into playing thresh decks, I’ll include some what’s-the-play puzzles. They come up often in matches. I’ve just been pretty sporadic when it comes to casting Serum Visions lately.

  4. Hi Jordan,

    I’m not a regular poster here, but I do read everything that comes to the site, and just wanted to share my personal views on what makes an interesting read.

    The first thing I wanted to mention was the fact that “not reading articles because we’re busy playing”, although said with tongue-and-cheek, is probably a long way off the truth. When I’m enjoying my MTG, I tend to look for MORE content, not shy away from it. I get so passioniate about the game, that I want to get as many edges as possible, and content is 1 way I can do that. So although I understand the angle you were coming from, I think there’s 2 sides to that coin!

    Secondly, like many others, the match reports are pretty solid. But, as you mentioned in your article (indirectly), you’re likely to enjoy them more if it’s about a deck you play yourself. You also mention that you’re a bit of a brewer. I just went to the “brews” section of the site, and there’s been just 2 posts since May. If you are brewing, and if you’re still playing 2-3 times a week – why not take a brew to an FNM and do a match report on that? It may be that it’s a fairly known deck but still rogue (thinking blue steel / amulet and many many many more), or something completely left-field that you’ve come up. Either way, you’re likely to inspire some readers, and also likely to accidently hit a deck someone else is playing, and get conversation flowing that way. I’m a big fan of brews, and a bigger fan of just stealing rogue ideas and trying to tune them. That sort of content is really hard to find, and I’d love to see more of it. It ticks a lot of boxes in terms of being fresh, passion can come out from the writer, and it gets us the high quality match reports that people enjoy too.

    All this to say, there’s some really great content coming from you and your team, but I’d love to see more of the stuff that people don’t know so much about!

    1. I’m aware there’s a divide when it comes to those who want more coverage when playing more and more to tide them over when they aren’t, and it differs wildly between players based on those I’ve spoken to.

      The brewing idea is great and one I am likely to take you up on. I’ve always been hesitant to write tournament reports for smaller events like FNM, and equally hesitant to bring wonkier brews to events where I actually care about prizing, but I think Pandemonium has one of the more competitive Modern scenes I’ve seen in North America as well as a pair of tournaments weekly. Excited to get cracking on this! Thanks for the comment.

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