The State of Modern: Understanding the Rules of Modern

(Editor’s note: This article was written before the rules changes associated with Iconic Masters happened. Some sections may be outdated due to those changes.) 

The Modern format is anything but easy to understand. At any given 50-player tournament, there could be 20 different decks, and each player’s decision to play their deck of choice is justifiable.

While this diversity is appreciated from a player’s standpoint, it makes the Modern format very difficult to understand from a rules and policy standpoint. Let’s go through some of the most confusing cards in Modern and break down some of the most common interactions in the format.

Blood Moon

With a Blood Moon on the battlefield…

– A shock land will still enter tapped unless its controller pays two life, but it is just a Mountain.

Darksteel Citadel is a colorless artifact land that taps for a red. It is not indestructible.

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is just a Mountain, and doesn’t turn any land into Swamps.

Dryad Arbor is a 1/1 green Dryad Land Creature that taps for red.

The interaction between Blood Moon and Prismatic Omen/Spreading Seas effects depends on the order in which the permanents entered the battlefield. Because of “timestamp” rules, whichever permanent came into play more recently will override the older one. So, if a player plays a Prismatic Omen when there is a Blood Moon already in play, that player’s lands will now have every basic land type. Similarly, if a player casts a Spreading Seas on their land while a Blood Moon is already in play, that land will be an island and have the ability to tap for blue.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Valakut is one of those cards them seems pretty easy to understand, but gets more confusing the more you look into it. On the surface, it looks pretty simple: Whenever a mountain comes into play, if it is No. 6 or higher, Bolt something. But there are a couple of scenarios with Valakut that are more unintuitive.

Valakut is written as something in templating known as an intervening-if clause (one of my favorite parts of the Magic rules). This means that when a mountain enters the battlefield under your control, Valakut will check if there are five other mountains you control at that point. If there aren’t, the trigger never even goes onto the stack, but if there five other mountains, then the trigger will go onto the stack — but you’re not in the clear yet. Because the trigger is an intervening-if, the trigger will double-check to see if you have five other mountains when it resolves. If you do, then you finally get your Lightning Bolt. If you don’t (because a land was destroyed in response, for example), then the trigger won’t successfully resolve. Here are some quick notes on Valakut before you decide to take it into an event:

– If Valakut is a mountain itself (through effects like Prismatic Omen), then it will count itself when looking for five other mountains. But, if there’s a Blood Moon on the board, it will not trigger regardless of how many mountains are in play.

– If a Valakut enters the battlefield at the same time as a mountain — or another mountain in the case of Prismatic Omen — Valakut still “sees” the mountain come into play, and will deal three damage if there are five other mountains.

– Even if a mountain that enters the battlefield is destroyed (through a Strip Mine effect) before Valakut’s trigger resolves, Valakut will still bolt something if you control five other mountains.

– If a mountain enters the battlefield, and one of the “five other” mountains is destroyed before Valakut’s trigger resolves, then Valakut’s trigger will not deal three damage.

While Blood Moon and Valakut are two of the most confusing cards in Modern, the quirky rules certainly don’t stop there. Here are some things to remember about key modern cards and rules interactions:

Chalice of the Void

– The CMC of Chalice is always 0 on the battlefield, but is equal to 2*X while it’s on the stack. This means a Chalice with X=1 can be countered by Spell Snare, and a Chalice can always be the target of an Abrupt Decay, even if X=4.

Daybreak Coronet

– This aura has a weird clause that says “Enchant creature with another Aura attached to it.” This means that if at any point Daybreak Coronet would be the only Aura attached to a creature, the Coronet will fall off, because the enchanting restriction requires a second Aura.

Eidolon of the Great Revel

– Eidolon’s trigger deals damage before the spell resolves. So, if you’re at two life, casting your three-mana or less lifegain spell isn’t going to do you any good.

Engineered Explosives

– The CMC of Explosives is always 0 on the battlefield, but is equal to X while on the stack.

– The number of charge counters is equal to the number of different colors used to cast the spell, not the amount of mana used to cast the spell. A neat trick is to play an Engineered Explosives for UUB (so X=3, but there will only be two charge counters) to play around a Spell Snare.

Gifts Ungiven

– Newer printings of this card say “search for up to four,” so you can use this card as a double Entomb for only four mana.

– Gifts targets your opponent, so you can get shut down by a Leyline of Sanctity effect.

Grafdigger’s Cage

– This card does nothing against Living End. Living End returns the creatures from exile, but Cage only stops creatures from entering from graveyards. Cascade also casts cards from exile (not your library!), so it doesn’t stop that part of the Living End engine either.

Liliana of the Veil

– Both players discard their cards simultaneously to Liliana’s first ability, and neither play will know which card the other is discarding ahead of time. Most players put the chosen card face-down on top of their graveyard when they’ve made their decision, then reveal the discarded cards at the same time.


– Spellskite’s ability can target anything on the stack, but will only redirect if Spellskite is a legal target for that spell or ability.

– If a spell or ability has uses the word “target” multiple times, such as Kolaghan’s Command choosing destroy target artifact and deal two damage, you can change both targets to the Spellskite, but you’d have to activate Spellskite’s ability twice.

– If a spell or ability only uses the word “target” once, but targets multiple creatures (such as Hex), you can only redirect one of the targets to Spellskite.


– Be sure you know which card types are in graveyard before deciding to Lightning Bolt a 2/3 Tarmogoyf! If there aren’t instants in the graveyard yet, Bolt will resolve and be put into the graveyard (making Tarmogoyf a 3/4) before state-based actions are checked. This will result in a wasted Lightning Bolt, a ‘Goyf that’s still alive, and hopefully an important lesson learned.


– You must take a card if you are able to (even if that card is Obstinate Baloth).

– You’ll lose two life even if there isn’t a nonland card for you to take.

Vendilion Clique

– Clique’s triggered ability can target either player. Make sure to clarify who the Clique trigger is targeting before revealing your hand to the opponent!

Make sure you keep these common rules interactions in mind when deciding which modern decks to build and which deck you’ll play at the Modern CT on July 29! I’ll be head judging that event, so feel free to ask me any questions or concerns you might have about the event. And, as always, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @MaxPlaysMTG with any other judge questions you may have. Until next time!

Max Kahn is the Event Manager for the Nerd Rage Gaming Championship Series and the Judge Manager for all Nerd Rage Gaming events. When he’s not answering your judge calls or working behind the scenes at your local event, he splits his time between Chicago, Seattle, and Twitter.