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December 23, 2015

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Modern Masters: Modern Playable

When the original Modern Masters was released the closest comparable set was Chronicles – a set similarly designed to increase supply of hard-to-find cards – but one that was so overprinted that its impact was mostly to collapse the price of a few good Legends cards. Modern Masters was better than Chronicles, but the comparison is so lopsided that its virtually worthless. The release of Modern Masters 2015 provides a far more relevant contrast for the original Modern Masters, and while my disappointment in the second edition has been well documented, I’d like to give credit where credit is due and also look back at why, in retrospect, the original Modern Masters was such a masterpiece.

The first and most obvious reason is value. Anyone paying attention to prices during the 2013 spoiler season could see that barring a chronicles-like overproduction, booster packs would be a steal at the MSRP of $7. At the time of release, the average mythic was worth ~$30, average rare ~$10 and the average uncommon ~$1.50 (fun fact: Kokusho, the Evening Star was ~$20 at the time!). While the reprints would command a lower price than the originals, and all versions would decline somewhat with the increased supply, the impact was nothing remotely close to Chronicles and booster packs ended up being reasonable buys even at twice the MSRP.

What was perhaps less obvious until the 2015 edition hit the shelves for comparison was how well this value was spread across the card rarities. In 2015 you basically opened a mythic, one of five chase rares, a remand, or your pack ended in monetary disappointment. In 2013 your modern masters rare could be a bit of a disappointment at $3-4, but it was not at all unusual to get another $6 in uncommons and maybe a $3 common salvaging most of the value of the pack.

But neither of these are the real story about why modern masters was such a great set – that story belongs to modern playability. It took the reams of unplayable rares, uncommons, and commons in the 2015 booster packs to appreciate how much of the original set was actually legitimate for modern brewmasters.

The story starts at the top, where in addition to obvious value in Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, and some swords, there were a handful of not-quite-good-enough mythics like Progenitus and Sarkhan Vol. Sure, Progenitus has been eclipsed by Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and you’ve probably never seen a Sarkhan Vol in a modern game, but I can imagine both of these cards finding a reasonable brew-tier modern deck, and I wouldn’t be that embarassed to lose to a deck sporting either. The same can be said for at least two of the mythic Kamigawa dragons – Kokusho, the Evening Star and Yosei, the Morning Star. I’m sure someone out there is locking people out with Yosei, a sacrifice outlet, and Enduring Renewal, and there has to be some mad brewer using some of these in a crazy Silumgar’s Scorn dragon deck. I’m not going to call Keiga, Ryusei, or Jugan modern playable – but these three flops at mythic are pretty much the worst part of the tale on modern masters and modern playability.

Someday, maybe?

Moving down to rares, the 2013 modern masters had a relative glut of $5-15 rares that looked mostly like EDH plants. Two years down the line, I can now say that the majority of these “EDH plants” have actually turned out to be remarkably solid modern cards – anything from tier 1 enablers (Summoner’s Pact) to tier 1 sideboard cards (Engineered Explosives) to brew-tier all stars (Chalice of the Void, Academy Ruins, Gifts Ungiven). I distinctly remember reading Angel’s Grace as nothing but a split-second Fog – but people smarter than me read the whole card, and found a way to stack the effect with Ad Nauseam to enable 21 point Lightning Storms. Even something like Tooth and Nail that had EDH format written all over it has been showing up recently in green tron decks where it tutors up Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Xenagos, God of Revels for the 30 flying haste annihilator 6 win condition. I know there are people out there brewing the Doubling Season + planeswalkers deck, and going really deep I even had someone recently use Impromptu Raid and Treefolk Harbinger to slap me around with a Woodfall Primus. Either Wizards got really lucky, or their design team had an excellent grasp on what cards were brew-worthy for modern.

Add your favourite creature and stir!

Of course the above cards were all worth the cost of a booster pack anyways, so the modern playability was really just icing on the cake. Where the playability really matters is when you’re whiffing on the monetary value of your booster. Getting some cards that can at least go into a reasonable modern deck can go a long way to alleviating the Feelbads of spending $10+ on a pack full of chaff. Cards like Death Cloud, Life from the Loam, Countryside Crusher, and Reveillark all failed to pay for the booster itself, but were legitimate brew-tier cards even back in 2013. Reveillark is particularly interesting as it saw its fortunes wane with the banning of Birthing Pod, but is on something of a resurgence with the new Protean Hulk deck, where it couples with Body Double, Viscera Seer, and Mogg Fanatic to turn the hulk into a one-card infinite damage combo. Even in the lowest of the low end, I can point at cards like Figure of Destiny and Demigod of Revenge that pass the modern sniff-test of CMC-impact-risk, and just need an appropriate shell to jump into the lower tiers of the format (yes, you can put them together with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in a modern mono-red devotion deck – brewing continues on this one!).

It works when it works!

In fact, when it comes to the rares of modern masters 2013 it’s actually much easier to list the cards that failed both the money test and the playability test – first, a bunch of creatures that either die to lightning bolt or have too little immediate board impact for their mana cost:

And second, spells that are just too narrow, expensive, or outclassed by something that does the same effect with less effort or more consistency:

(storm doesn’t need it)
(there are far better big-mana finishers – e.g. emrakul)
(never going to outclass the other Pyroclasm/Volcanic Fallout variants)

Something worth noting about these 13 failures is that a lot of them were still decent in Commander at the time. While commander deck power creep has probably changed that for some/most of them today, in 2013 they still had some reasonable application in constructed magic. I am not confident that the same can or will ever be said of the 2015 chaff like Chimeric Mass and Ant Queen.

And like a gift that just kept on giving, the modern playability of cards in the original modern masters carried through the lower rarities as well. At uncommon there were the sought-after, valuable staples like Path to Exile and Kitchen Finks, but also a lot of juicy brew cards like Desperate Ritual, Narcomoeba, Myr Retriever, and Tribal Flames. At common there were fewer hidden gems, but cards like Aether Spellbomb, Logic Knot, Raven’s Crime, and Etherium Sculptor can indeed be found, alongside a respectable count of proven stuff like Rift Bolt, Lava Spike, and Pestermite.

You didn’t think I would go a whole article without mentioning esper charm, did you?

Remarkably, all of this modern playability came in a set that featured totally unplayable constructed mechanics like tribal giants, spiritcraft, and thallids. Wizards managed to achieve an incredible balance of obscure and entertaining limited mechanics with valuable and playable cards. There were no limited-unplayable-modern-plant eyesores like Splinter Twin or Daybreak Coronet jamming up rare slots, and a mechanic like suspend was used to fuel reprints of modern cards like Search for Tomorrow and Rift Bolt. In short, we pretty much had it all and we never even knew it.

So Wizards, if you’re listening, I’m sorry I complained about you not including Damnation, Remand, and Noble Hierarch reprints back in 2013. I now understand that you could do much worse, and hope we can move to Modern Masters 2017 with a mutual understanding of the importance of not just monetary value but also modern playability in this product called Modern Masters… (and a Damnation reprint of course).

Until next time, may the title of the set on your booster pack have a strong correlation to the cards it contains inside!