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Modern and the Pro Tour: A Look Through History

July 19, 2023
Meghan Wolff

It's the fall of 2011, and the first ever Modern Pro Tour is underway in Philadelphia. While the format has unofficially been around on Magic Online, this is its introduction to the world as a sanctioned Magic format and the Pro Tour's first non-rotating format. At the end of the Top 8, Samuele Estratti becomes the first Modern Pro Tour Champion, piloting Splinter Twin, a deck that will go on to become synonymous with the format for the next five years.


Even before it debuted as a Pro Tour format, Modern was a favorite among Magic players, providing a non-rotating format option in a world of Standard and Extended. By the time it reached Magic's biggest stage, competitors were ready for the powerful archetypes and options that Modern offered.

"I remember playing at the first Modern Pro Tour and playing the Zoo deck that had Wild Nacatl and counterspells," said Hall of Fame player Luis Scott-Vargas. "Getting to play Wild Nacatl into various counterspells and a bunch of Lightning Bolts was a pretty neat experience."

Luis Scott-Vargas, Magic Hall of Fame

From the start, the discussion around Modern has revolved around the decks that define it. It's a wide field, filled with niche archetypes and formidable strategies, that rewards a thorough knowledge not only of the metagame, but of each individual deck.

"I've always liked Modern," said 2018 World Champion Javier Dominguez. "It always was my best format in the Pro Tour, and I've always felt that the skills for Modern are often gained by having experience in the format and that the skills from other formats don't really translate as much into Modern, and I like that. I like that Modern rewards deep knowledge about the decks. I think it's always an interesting situation to play Modern at a Pro Tour because Pro Tours are always about taking all the information, but Modern has a lot of information out there and I like it."

Javier Dominguez, 2018 Magic World Champion

"I really like how powerful Modern is, that makes it a bit more fun and diverse," said Magic streamer Derek Pite, also known as MisplacedGinger, who will be competing in his fifth Pro Tour in Barcelona. "I like that there are a lot of unique decks. You can play a lot of unique things. Whenever somebody does a tier list, there's 10, 20 decks that are possible in any tournament to win the event. I really like that about Modern, that you have a lot of specialties and a lot of unique gameplay also because of that."

Derek Pite, Modern Specialist

A year later, in October of 2012, it's time for the second individual Modern Pro Tour with Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Stanislav Cifka pilots the infamous Eggs combo deck to a 13-0 start and a 15-1 finish in the Swiss and goes on to win the tournament. Lee Shi Tian gets his first of three Modern Pro Tour Top 8s with Scapeshift, and Jund makes its mark by taking three of the spots in the Top 8.


Modern's history is full of decks whose power level is both staggering and unforgiving, leaving little room for error, but many fans of Modern appreciate this about the format.

"My favorite thing about Modern is how complex in terms of actions the gameplay can become," Dominguez said. "It's not that hard to find a Modern game where you lose because you didn't fetch, or because you fetched, which makes it tricky. I think that's why so many matches in Modern actually look a little bit like Legacy, where you have a lot of options in-game, and I like that."

"I think my favorite thing about the Modern format is that the decks are really powerful," Scott-Vargas said, mirroring the sentiment. "Modern is a lot more about these very linear game plans, big swings, and things that end a game on the spot, and I always enjoyed the combo play. That's the thing I miss most about playing Standard, or even to some degree Pioneer, is there's not as much true combo, and I like playing those decks."

It's February of 2014 and almost 400 players are gathered in Valencia, Spain for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. The recent ban of Deathrite Shaman takes a toll on Jund, while the unbanning of Wild Nacatl makes Zoo the most played deck. Splinter Twin is ultimately the deck of the tournament, though, with three copies in the Top 8. Lee Shi Tian once again makes the Top 8, this time with Blue Moon, and Shaun McLaren takes home the trophy with Jeskai Control.


It may be volatile, with games hinging on minute decisions and interactions, but Modern's flexible and ever-shifting archetypes make the format a favorite, as do the density of decisions.

"I've always enjoyed playing Modern," Scott-Vargas said. "It's very much a format where you can play any style of deck you want, which I think is pretty neat. I enjoy that people can choose what playstyle of deck they like. If you wanna play combo, if you wanna play some kind of attacking deck, if you wanna play a control deck – whatever you want to do, there is a deck that is at least decent that will do that thing."

"From my perspective, Modern has always been underrated by a lot of players that don't really play that much Modern because there are some games that are decided on like a sideboard card," Dominguez said. "That is true, and Modern is a format where you still have lopsided matchups, but I think the format is still super deep. For people that have not tried Modern, I would recommend it because, for me, it's a very unique experience."

"That's the sort of thing I like, a game that's short in turns but has a lot of decisions," Scott-Vargas added. "It's just as interesting as a game that's longer in turns but has fewer decisions. It just compresses them into less turns."

One year later, the ban of Birthing Pod, a key player in the Modern metagame, shakes up the field at Pro Tour Fate Reforged in Washington D.C. Splinter Twin once rises to the top, and Antonio Del Moral Leon wins the tournament with the deck. Abzan replaces Jund as the midrange deck of choice, Justin Cohen puts the powerful Amulet Bloom combo deck on the map with a second place finish, and Lee Shi Tian is once again in the Top 8, this time with the multi-format classic, Burn.


Modern's history can also be traced along the rise and fall of the format's best and most popular decks. Everyone who played Modern during the era of Birthing Pod remembers it, and the same can be said for Splinter Twin, the heyday of Death's Shadow, the time Tron finally won a Pro Tour, and so many more.

"My favorite deck in Modern history is probably Birthing Pod, before it got banned," Pite said. "I felt that you got a lot of edges from deck building and format knowledge and if you played it enough or well enough you could win any match just because you had toolbox opportunities to tutor up anything you wanted at any point.The deck had the opportunity to win at any point. It wasn't super linear and it was obviously too powerful for the format because it eventually ended up banned."

It's February 2016, and the bans of Summer Bloom and Splinter Twin have brought the reigns of their decks to an end. But it's Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, and a new Modern menace is about to take the tournament by storm. New, smaller Eldrazi from the recent Battle for Zendikar block, combined with older cards, most notably Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple, lead to explosive Eldrazi decks that take six of the eight spots in the Top 8. Jiachen Tao wins the tournament with a blue-red iteration of the deck. Two months later, Eye of Ugin is banned and Eldrazi decks largely disappear.


While Modern has occasionally had a Pro Tour where a known, or unknown, entity completely upended the metagame, recent years have seen more deliberate shifts in the format. One of these shifts, the infusion of cards from Modern Horizons 2, happened between the last time Modern was on the Pro Tour stage and now.

"It has changed the landscape so much, a lot of the old decks are not good anymore," Dominguez said of Modern Horizons 2. "Also, last time the Pro Tour happened in Modern, Hogaak was around, which was clearly the best deck by a lot, it was not close. This time though, there's nothing like that. I mean, if you ask someone which is the best deck in Modern, you might get different answers from different people, even among the top players. And I think that that's a very good situation for a Pro Tour."

"The Modern Horizons sets have been the biggest change that I can think of, and I think that's for the good of Modern," Pite agreed. "It's made the format a lot more wide and open. And then obviously The Lord of the Rings: Tales from Middle-earth™ with The One Ring and Orcish Bowmasters have also changed the format a lot. It seems to be that there's not as many midrange things like Jund going on and there's a few more linear things in the format, which I think is also really cool."


It's two years until Modern takes the Pro Tour stage again, this time in Bilbao, Spain at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. In the years since the last Modern Pro Tour, Death's Shadow decks rose to prominence, leading to the ban of Gitaxian Probe. New cards Unclaimed Territory and Kitesail Freebooter give Humans a new edge. At the end of the tournament, though, it's Luis Salvatto with Lantern Control who takes home the trophy, marking a high point for the niche and exceptionally grindy control deck.


While there have been Modern Pro Tours where playing the best deck, or planning for the best deck, defined the tournament, the bulk of them have resulted in a delightful jumble of archetypes on the Sunday stage, the result of players knowing their preferred decks inside and out.

"Modern was my best Pro Tour format, but also it was my best format overall," Dominguez noted. "I'm good at understanding decks, and in Modern, if you understand both sides of the matchup, it's actually way easier for you to figure out the plans, because there's a lot of small interactions that define matchups that are not obvious on the surface. I think knowing most decks in the format was what helped me the most. My preparation used to be to play a bunch of leagues with literally every deck. Not about playing my deck so much, but playing all the decks, unlike in Standard, where I always focus more on knowing my deck."

Just after Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, Matt Nass begins an astonishing run of Grand Prix finishes piloting the Krark-Clan Ironworks combo. In March 2018, Nass finishes third at GP Phoenix, then wins back-to-back Modern GPs in Hartford and Las Vegas. In January 2019, he makes the Top 8 of yet another Grand Prix, and that same month Krark-Clan Ironworks is banned. In February, Modern returns to the spotlight at Mythic Championship II in London. The new mulligan rule introduced in London is expected to lend an advantage to decks like Tron, and two copies make the Top 8, but ultimately Eli Loveman harnesses the power of Five-Color Humans to secure the title.

One of Dominguez's favorite decks in the history of the format was prevalent in London – Arclight Phoenix. For Dominguez, the deck highlights a lot of what he enjoys about the format's complexity.

"I like Izzet Phoenix because every game was like a puzzle. You had so many options, not only the classic Modern situations, but also you often had to decide to hold or to play cantrips, which meant every game had a lot of decisions involved and I love that. You could play the deck as a combo deck, as a control deck, or as an aggro deck, and having all the options and all the angles made the deck like a Swiss Army knife. I think that that's probably the most multidimensional deck I've ever played and that's why I liked it so much."


Later in 2019, at Mythic Championship IV in Barcelona, Modern Horizons redefines the Modern metagame. Newcomer Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis spawns a new archetype, but maindeck graveyard hate keeps the deck from dominating the tournament. Wrenn and Six reestablishes Jund as the midrange deck of choice. Tron finally has its day, and Thoralf Severin wins the tournament with Mono-Green Tron, one of three copies of Tron in the Top 8.

It's been four years since the last Modern Pro Tour or Mythic Championship, and the cards from Modern Horizons 2 that impacted the metagame have yet to show what they can do at Magic's premier event.

"I think Modern is going to be remarkably faster, especially since there's all these people who haven't gotten a chance to really showcase Modern on a big stage for a while," Scott-Vargas said. "I do think that the format is going to be very explored and tuned and fast and very optimized. So that'll be interesting to see. Like I said, I don't mind that, I enjoy the gameplay."

Modern's Pro Tour history has been full of everything from dominating performances from newcomers to the long-awaited success of beloved decks, and either could be true in Barcelona this summer. The impact of the month-old The Lord of the Rings: Tales from Middle-earth has also yet to be fully explored at Magic's biggest events. It has players looking forward to the surprises that could be in store, or just looking forward to a potentially new way to enjoy a perennial favorite format.

"I think this format for the Pro Tour is going to be very unique and pretty under-explored up until the event," Pite said. "I think there's going to be a few surprise decks and I'm looking forward to that and seeing how the format shakes out and who decides to bring what deck and what actually ends up winning or Top 8-ing the event.


"I'm really hoping to get to tap The One Ring to draw, like, five cards," Scott-Vargas said. "I enjoy it. I do think The One Ring is the second best card in the set for Modern. I think Orcish Bowmasters is better, but The One Ring is a pretty fun card to play."

With Modern returning to the Pro Tour in Barcelona, it's only a matter of time before we find out if Luis Scott-Vargas is right. With The One Ring, Modern Horizons 2, and nearly four years of metagame evolution between this Modern Pro Tour and the last, it's going to be a weekend for the history books.

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