The World Championships has started, and tons of hours of preparation have already been put in. Even with all this preparation, there is something that the majority of the pros are going to be missing, a Modern deck. I know this because every year it is the same; everyone wants to start off with a good record and make sure they have both a good Standard deck and have plenty of drafts under their belt. When it comes to the third day of competition, however, everyone gets nervous and scrambles for a good deck for the final stretch. I have been in that position every year and even skipped Worlds last year because I didn't feel confident in any Extended decks at all. With the Modern portion of Worlds taking place this Saturday, I can only hope that you get a chance to read this article in time.
About a month ago I played in a tournament called the “grudge match.” It was a Sealed event, then a Standard event, followed by the top performing teams playing in a three-man Constructed event of Standard, Modern, and Legacy. I was lucky enough to team with both Gerard Fabiano and Dan Jordan. Knowing that we were a lock for the finals before the car drive to the tournament, we tried to figure out who would want to play each format. It was decided that I would be the one with the undefined Modern format, which I was pretty happy about. I love undefined formats and especially like being able to build a deck out of one as big as Modern was. Most people feel like it is a pain and more work than it is worth, but it is this part of the game that I love the most.
With the recent banning of Rite of Flame, Ponder, Preordain, Blazing Shoal, and Cloudpost, I came up with some conclusions on what I thought the format would be. First I looked at what in the format didn't change very much. Basically the aggressive decks, Affinity and Zoo, were both top contenders prior to the banning and weren't touched by the new banning. These are the decks with targets on their heads. This is a good place for a format to start, both because it sets a timeline for how fast future combo decks have to be, but it also gives potential for control decks to step forward.
This is not to say that the existing combo decks would be dead; they just get a lot worse. They become slower and less consistent, so as a result the aggressive decks can pick them apart, which is not where a combo deck wants to be. As a result, slower and more controlling combo decks get to step in their place. These decks are the ones that were being held back by the former combo decks. Lotus Bloom was previously too slow for the format, but that is no longer the case. I expected to see Second Sunrise type decks, Enduring Ideal, and possibly Tooth and Nail combined with Urza lands to emerge as the new combo of the format. Splinter Twin has so many pieces that overlap that the downgrade from Ponder and Preordain to Sleight of Hand and Serum Visions isn't going to destroy the decks success, but it will definitely make it less appealing.
Another thing that happened since the banning was the printing of Snapcaster Mage. Previously something that made building a control deck so hard was that you didn't know what to put in it. Now with the addition of another probable four-of, filling out a list for a control deck seems rather easy. With other four-ofs that I would most likely want to play like Spell Snare, Mana Leak, and Cryptic Command, the deck actually starts to make itself.
Mana Leak is better than Rune Snag because of Snapcaster Mage. Flashing back Rune Snags and removing them from the yard isn't going to make Rune Snags better in the late game like they were intended to be. Control decks are typically going to be more powerful in the endgame anyway, so making sure to get there is something Mana Leak will help do a little bit better than Rune Snag.
Tarmogoyf is one of the best cards possible for a blue control deck of this type, and the deck also needs some type of library manipulation/card advantage. This is what I was originally playing and would have suggested for Worlds…
That's not the exact list, since it has been a while and I have trouble remembering a few cards, but as a whole the deck looked something like this at some point. I know I didn't have the Spell Pierce and Dispel in the list at all originally, but those cards are very important in how certain games were playing out for me. Once I added them, I haven't taken them out.
There are other ways I thought you could take the deck like playing white to make Kitchen Finks easy on the mana, and also the addition of Path to Exile would be appealing. A white list would also have more Islands and fewer Grove of the Burnwillows, so a card like Vedalken Shackles could also make its way into that deck. All that said, Punishing Fire is awesome in this format, and although I did lose to a white version of this deck in the finals, it is almost certainly because I didn't draw any Punishing Fire. The reason I can say this with certainty is because I took all twenty damage (minus my own fetch/shockland damage) from Mutavaults.
Originally I thought that beating Tarmogoyf would be pretty rough, but how the games play out, I no longer think that's the case. With access to Spell Snare, Snapcaster Mage to flash it back, Mana Leak, and your own Goyfs, that card just didn't provide me with much of a problem. Even if they manage to sneak one in before you draw a Snare or have mana for Mana Leak, you still have Lightning Bolt or Flame Slash to take it out on the spot. With that said, Threads was an underperformer and so was my own Tarmogoyf against the other control decks. If Goyf wasn't a problem for me, then it is most likely not much of a problem for another control deck either. He is good at closing out games versus other decks, but I am more about inevitability than ending the game right away.
Still I continued to play with this deck for quite a while, getting a feel for what other people would be playing. Along the way I noticed that I hated Serum Visions. I didn't only hate it because it was bad; I hated that I never wanted to tap down on my turn to flash it back with Snapcaster. That card needed to go.
The problem then became that there was no decent one-mana spell to replace it. Snapcaster would get worse without one, and finding key spells for turn two without it would make the deck worse. The best way to solve this was to play a discard spell in its place like Inquisition of Kozilek or Thoughtseize. This would be an ideal turn-one play that could work nicely with Snapcaster but would also disrupt the opponent and buy some time to get to the late game. Losing Punishing Fire was not something that I was happy about, especially without having a decent card-advantage engine ready to replace it.
Around this time, I played in SCG Baltimore's Standard Open and saw something that made me happy to be a control player at heart. All along in Standard people kept asking me how U/B Control could beat RDW (I was RDW at the time) and in particular Shrine of Burning Rage. There weren't many good answers that I could give out, but then I saw it. Two seats down from where I was playing there was a RDW player with a pretty full grip and a Shrine with thirteen counters on it, versus U/B Control, which could only be explained as having… not a prayer in the world. A Sorin's Vengeance and Snapcaster Mage later, the game was over.
I want to be that guy.
So there it is. The deck might look somewhat familiar, and that is because it looks a lot like Michael Jacob's PT Amsterdam top 8 decklist. I have been playing this for the past few days, and I haven't had trouble anywhere. If you thought Sorin's Vengeance plus Snapcaster was a pretty sweet find or maybe even you didn't, I know you will enjoy the interaction between Snapcaster and Cruel Ultimatum. Play a Snapcaster early and flashback something sweet. Play a Cruel Ultimatum a few turns later and get that Snapcaster back, ready to Cruel them again in the near future. And no, Cruel Ultimatum isn't too slow for the format, especially with the amount of time Snapcaster now gains you.
It was easy to move away from Tarmogoyf, like I said earlier. Black gives the deck a ton of great options, and the one I am happiest to have access to is the sideboard Deathmarks. Killing Wild Nacatl turn one is very important, but finding a card that does this, while also killing a turn three Knight of the Reliquary, is hard to find. A cheap spell like this is great with Snapcaster Mage and allows you to work with their threats each step of the way.
Much like Tarmogoyf, I moved away from the maindeck Grave Titan that MJ played. It is a game ender, but I am not having trouble closing the game out with Punishing Fires, Snapcasters, Cruel Ultimatums, Lightning Bolts, and Creeping Tar Pits. I did have Titan for a little while, but it just let me win a couple turns earlier than I was already going to.
Forbidden Alchemy is very awesome in this deck. I like the card much more than Mystical Teachings, and now you don't have to play random one-ofs that aren't that great when you draw them naturally, like Extirpate for instance. Alchemy works very nicely with Punishing Fire and Snapcaster Mage, as well as giving the deck some card advantage on its own. It would also have some nice synergy with a card like Exile into Darkness, which GerryT always has on the back of his mind every time he has a black control deck.
The sideboard has some interesting choices, so here is my explanation. I would love to play Tectonic Edge maindeck, but I just can't justify it with Cruel Ultimatum in the deck. They would still work if I drew the Urborg, but Tectonics aren't so good that it is worth the risk of slowing Cruel Ultimatum by turns. Tectonic Edge is so good when it is good though. I have played against countless Tron decks, repeatedly killing Boseijus from Enduring Ideal, and even killing opposing Grove of the Burnwillows can be game changing. In addition to these, there is a single Life from the Loam which functions as a fourth Tectonic Edge, but also works nicely with Forbidden Alchemy. Both set up a graveyard full of lands; then you can dump the Loam into the graveyard without having to pick it as one of the four cards.
Additional discard in the form of Thoughtseize is important in order to fight cards like Splinter Twin, Kiki-Jiki, Enduring Ideal, and Cryptic Command. Pretty straightforward, but the amount of decks with spells that cost more than three is getting higher. I would consider these maindeck over Inquisition of Kozilek, but I flashback the Inquisitions quite a bit with Snapcaster Mage, and the two life could end up mattering, especially in the pre-boarded games.
Spell Pierce and Dispel are two cards that I really like but never really want to draw more than one of each. These are two cards that I strongly encourage no one to cut and even think you should be playing them in your other blue decks. There aren't that many cards that stop Cryptic Command and Spell Snare other than Mana Leak, but having a one-mana answer goes a long way to winning you a game. Dispel is usually the better card, but there are enough non-instant spells that I want to counter that make Spell Pierce number one better than Dispel number two.
I have been playing against quite a bit of burn style decks on MODO and as a result have added the Batterskull. I don't think it is essential, as I have been beating them without drawing it, but it is a very good card on its own. It is safe versus all the removal I expect, so I wouldn't be afraid of bringing it in versus a deck with Path to Exile like I would if it were a Wurmcoil Engine or something of the like.
Ancient Grudge is pretty straightforward, but it isn't just for fighting Affinity. Decks are now playing Signets and Lotus Blooms, so having a card like this is nice to have. Again, it works nicely with Alchemy.
Over the past few days I have played against a lot of different strategies, and none of them have been giving me much difficulty. There has been Zoo, Empty the Warrens Storm, Enduring Ideal, tons of Burn, WW with a Human theme, Tron, and a few more. This deck is very strong and highly recommended. The Magic Online format isn't going to be exactly the same during Worlds or after, so there are cards that should be changed around given you know something that maybe I don't. Cards I would change, if you feel comfortable doing so, are the one Damnation and the fourth Punishing Fire. I actually don't even like the Damnation, but it is there because I don't know exactly what I am going to run up against, and having a card like that will sometimes be a game winner.
A weakness I feel this deck is going to have is to cards like Blood Moon and Anathemancer. No one is playing these that I have noticed, so I haven't had to go out of my way to beat them, but just know this while you consider the last few cards to finish your deck.
Here is a bonus deck that looked good in one of the queues, just in case you want to play something more aggro…