A Modern Grand Prix will take place in Chicago in a few days rounding up a sequence of three big Modern tournaments in four weeks. Two weeks after the Pro Tour the format looks much healthier (even though Jund just won Grand Prix Lyon). Bloodbraid Elf and company are still the most popular choice but there's been improvement since the Pro Tour in Seattle where Jund was played three times more than the second most popular deck. Infect and Affinity were very close in Lyon and only two decks in the Top 16 were Jund while four of them were Affinity.
The phenomenon of Jund has been well described. The deck is extremely versatile and combines the best creatures with the best removal. It doesn't have any really good matchups but it doesn't have any really bad matchups either. Moreover Jund is easy to adjust against the metagame. Jund's record versus Affinity at the Pro Tour was 29-60 (or a depressing 32% win percentage) while at GP Lyon Jund had a 17-23 record against Affinity on Day 2 (which is a much more suitable 43%). However Jund's overwhelming popularity at the Pro Tour didn't prevent it from posting a negative total record so it was much less popular in Lyon€”and for a good reason. The deck is not only mediocre but is also overhated.
Deathrite Shaman is the greatest addition to Jund since Modern was established. I normally dislike decks that rely on a single card but Jund is good enough without turn 1 Shaman and the card is good at the any stage of the game. Most important of all Deathrite Shaman is a reasonable card to cascade into. This makes the Shaman superior to Birds of Paradise and Lotus Cobra (by the way I still believe that Lotus Cobra has some potential in this format). Deathrite Shaman's potential is probably even greater and I expect to see many different decks adopting it in the next few months. The first wave is already here so let's look at some potential applications of the card.
Brian Kibler wrote about his Junk (G/W/B) deck from the Pro Tour here in which he described it as "Jund with good white cards instead of good red ones." I dislike Brian's decision to play Deathrite Shaman and Knight of the Reliquary in the same deck because I feel that Knight never grows out of Lightning Bolt range even without an opposing Shaman but I also think that Path to Exile and Knight of the Reliquary are just criminally underplayed in Modern. Some players opted to use Deathrite Shaman plus Loxodon Smiter to fight Liliana of the Veil but Knight of the Reliquary with Lingering Souls may just be better. This debate can be summed up perfectly with two different builds of the recently reemerged Gifts Rock deck.
The original Gifts Rock was by SCG's own Dan Unwin (you can read his article about it here) and it featured Noble Hierarch and Knight of the Reliquary. I recently encountered my own countryman Butakov on Magic Online with nearly the same list proving the deck is worth playing as is (though the Affinity and Infect matchups are worse than desired). Butakov chose to play "old" mana dorks and Knight with Abrupt Decay as the only new card.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
If you look at comments of Dan Unwin's article you'll find there some suggestions about adding Snapcaster Mage to the deck. Andre Mueller did so cutting Knight of the Reliquary due to it not having synergy with Deathrite Shaman and posted 6-4 finish at the Pro Tour followed by Yohan Dudognon's 10th place at the Grand Prix Lyon. I'm posting Andre Mueller's list instead of Yohan Dudognon's because it contains four Shamans plus four Liliana (instead of three plus three) and has in my opinion a more reliable mana base.
I'm somewhat disappointed to not see Terastodon in the Andre's sideboard (the best plan against R/G Tron not close). Other fatties of choice include Sphinx of the Steel Wind Wurmcoil Engine and Griselbrand to complement maindeck Iona Shield of Emeria and Elesh Norn Grand Cenobite. Gifts Ungiven is underplayed right now so you'll have a good chance to take some games by surprise. I also like Yohan's sideboarded package for "EOT Gifts Ungiven for Snapcaster Mage Noxious Revival and any card." Searching for three cards works perfectly for Damping Matrix Stony Silence and Intangible Virtue which occasionally isn't played in the deck with four Lingering Souls and three Timely Reinforcements.
Eggs was also popular at Grand Prix Lyon so I suggest exchanging Zealous Persecution for Golgari Charm in this version. Deathrite Shaman survives it (and pumping your own creatures isn't that relevant). Your sideboard can contain only fifteen cards and it's unfortunate to have no answers to Leyline of Sanctity aside from one Maelstrom Pulse. Remember that Gifts Ungiven reads "target opponent chooses."
Generally both versions of Gifts Rock look promising in the expected Modern metagame. They have some problems drawing what they need in certain matchups but they are very adjustable postboard and are probably only viable choices for those who want to play control in this format. The lack of a proper control deck is a general weakness of Modern and there was some Twitter discussion about potential bans/unbans/reprints that could revive archetype and break the current "midrange vs. combo" pattern.
The most common ideas are unbanning Ancestral Visions Bitterblossom and Jace the Mind Sculptor creating some free counterspell to keep combo in check or somehow adopting something like Wasteland as a barrier for playing more colors indiscriminately. I'm very skeptical about Ancestral Visions and Bitterblossom as they'll promote a certain deck which had Cruel Control as very good matchup during its Standard days. Modern doesn't need more tempo or aggro-control so Jace the Mind Sculptor and even Sword of the Meek sound more reasonable.
As for Wasteland Modern isn't a format in which decks are designed to work properly with extremely low resources so I definitely prefer ways to punish opponents for greedy mana bases with cards like Blood Moon. Back to Basics and Price of Progress would be good and the existing Fulminator Mage Anathemancer Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon don't see enough play right now. I've probably strayed too far from my original topic so let's return to Deathrite Shaman and friends.
The next deck saw occasional play at the very beginning of format but was never on the radar. BUG uses the same concept of "all good cards" trading red for blue. Snapcaster Mage Vendilion Clique and Mana Leak are reasonable substitutes for Bloodbraid Elf and Lightning Bolt but the deck was prevented from being successful by its lack of ability to survive its own Dark Confidant. Deathrite Shaman does this job strictly better than Vampire Nighthawk (who isn't really good without a Sword) or Kitchen Finks which is nearly impossible to cast in a mostly U/B deck. A green splash for a bunch of single green cost cards is much more affordable. Mathieu Hautot qualified for Pro Tour Gatecrash by making Top 4 of Grand Prix Lyon with this deck:
I'm not sure how good this deck is against "proper" Jund with red cards but it's just unfair against any combo deck thanks to its combination of discard and countermagic and is well equipped against Affinity and Infect. I dislike some of Mathieu's card choices (like Threads of Disloyalty over a third Liliana of the Veil and the ineffective Hurkyl's Recall) but the deck is well built and surely deserves attention. By the way one or two Ninja of the Deep Hours would be good in the deck since it relies on Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique.
Deathrite Shaman could also fit well in Melira. It's more or less a combo deck so efficient mana acceleration supported by late game options is very welcome. Melira has been highly overshadowed by Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker but I personally never forgot about it. Now is probably the right time to revive it. Playing Melira over Kiki-Jiki gives you much better matchups against Affinity and Infect while major disadvantages are nullified because blue decks aren't very good in the format though Naya Pod's matchup against Jund becomes very bad. Melira is also much better home for Shaman since Naya Pod has to cut some fetchlands and use Grove of the Burnwillows to be able to cast Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker.
Melira's combo is hated by Deathrite Shaman but:
- Shaman isn't better than Path to Exile in preventing Melira's combo so there are definitely ways to play around a creature and untapped land instead of just untapped land.
- Melira always sides out combo against Jund at least partially and becomes a "fair" midrange deck aiming to overpower Jund with card advantage from reusable cards. My favorite sideboarded card in Melira is Lingering Souls not close.
Summing up I wasn't very surprised to see Gonzagu Allouchery take 23rd place at GP Lyon with 10-3 record (excluding two byes).
- 2 Spellskite
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Fulminator Mage
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 3 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Reveillark
- 4 Viscera Seer
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 4 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Wait what? Zero Birthing Pods? Garruk Relentless? Two maindeck Spellskite and four maindeck Fulminator Mage? This list looks incredibly strange until we realize that it's just heavily pre-boarded against Jund. There's no single card against Jund in the sideboard because they're all in the maindeck. I don't really understand the reasoning behind getting rid of Birthing Pod but I'd leave in the deck exactly five search pieces against Jund. Moreover it's a little bit more flexible in going off because it has seven persist creatures which makes Chord of Calling generally cheaper.
While I appreciate such a move I feel that it's too deep and unnecessary in the expected more diverse metagame. I suggest building more conventional deck that's flexible enough to deal with versatile threats instead of concentrating on solely beating Jund. I don't think playing four Deathrite Shaman is affordable (as the ability to accelerate on turn 2 is crucial) but two or three of them are probably good enough to fit into the list. Gonzagu Allouchery used four Deathrite Shaman plus four Wall of Roots but I want to at least have some Noble Hierarch. I might even want to avoid Wall of Roots entirely in a format with Affinity and Infect because turn 1 acceleration is more relevant than a better use of Chord of Calling.
- 3 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 2 Murderous Redcap
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Orzhov Pontiff
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Restoration Angel
- 1 Reveillark
- 3 Viscera Seer
- 1 Wall of Roots
- 1 Kataki, War's Wage
- 4 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
- 1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
This list is obviously insane against Infect and good against Affinity especially if its pilots continue to play Master of Etherium and Welding Jar instead of Galvanic Blast and Shrapnel Blast (nice no way to beat Kataki pre-board). The Jund matchup isn't easy but the deck has all the tools to keep it at least fair. The lack of Fulminator Mage leaves us weak against R/G Tron but I'd take this risk rather than trying to improve the matchup. Cutting Melira options into 75 cards is always painful.
Additional maindeck and sideboard options include Saffi Eriksdotter Linvala Keeper of Silence and second copies of Thalia Guardian of Thraben Ethersworn Canonist and Restoration Angel. A third Obstinate Baloth or even Loxodon Smiter could help fight against Liliana of the Veil. Lingering Souls is good against her too (and it's by far my favorite sideboard card for Melira) but I'm not sure if opposing Deathrite Shamans allow full exploration of the card's potential. Melira has a lot of tools to deal with opposing Shamans so I expect this matchup to be at least decent and it's able to be improved if needed. Honestly I didn't have time to test this list enough but I've kept Melira in mind for a long time and would certainly choose it for GP Chicago (too bad I can't participate).
The last deck I found for Deathrite Shaman is Dredgevine. This type of deck is generally great against Jund (no Deathrite Shaman removing a single card from the graveyard is not a problem) but weak against Infect and Affinity at least pre-board. I honestly prefer Melira at this point but Dredgevine is a strong choice too. Frank Karsten covered three different versions of it in Grand Prix Lyon coverage here so let's sum up them. The two general directions to go in are all-in Dredge and having some sort of Vengevine based explosive aggro. I prefer the second way because I don't see Dredge being faster than Infect in direct competition (even if it's probably as fast as Infect against other decks) so better cards are more attractive to me. Hovewer let's look at both cornerstones of the archetype.
- 3 Dregscape Zombie
- 3 Golgari Thug
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 4 Slitherhead
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
- 4 Vengevine
Hall of Famer Raphael Levy got rid of Blasting Station Deathrite Shaman and Bloodghast going deep into maximizing cheap discard outlets and dredge cards. Such a list solves the main problem of Dredgevine decks€”the lack of fast Vengevine€”as it digs down very fast. However the downside is a serious restriction caused by random discard of Burning Inquiry and Goblin Lore. There are probably better graveyard-filling cards in blue but even with Glimpse the Unthinkable avoiding the unpopular Spellsnare multiple Looting seems better than the blue options. Moreover the most interesting blue card to consider isn't even Hedron Crab Skaab Ruinator or Phantasmal Image. It's Renegade Doppelganger.
- 4 Tidehollow Sculler
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 4 Oona's Prowler
- 4 Vengevine
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Oona's Prowler is a nice discard outlet but I certainly need some dredging creatures here since the current list has no way to fill the graveyard directly from the library. The deck basically works as Vengevine-charged hate bears but the lack of Vengevine in the upper quarter of the deck is still troublesome. That's the main reason to go deeper into the dredge plan. Note the three copies of Creeping Corrosion in the sideboard (the Affinity matchup is tough) Zealous Persecution for Infect and the insanely cute (and surprisingly reasonable) Pack Rat for long matchups like Jund where we want to generate more advantage from our Looting.
Here's the latest update of my Dead Vegetables deck which is a compromise between the two strategies:
Grisly Salvage is in my opinion seriously underrated in Dredgevine decks. It isn't repeatable but it gives us the very fast start that can't be provided by dredge cards without massive random discarding nullifying our ability to grow Lotleth Troll and use important noncreature spells (like Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay). Turn 1 Deathrite Shaman or Wild Cantor into turn 2 Grisly Salvage plus Faithless Looting allow us to build a big third turn which is usually faster than the average deck in format. Wild Cantor is in the deck instead of Birds of Paradise because she can attack and allows some unfair Vengevine-related plots as it's possible to sacrifice her immediately after putting her into play.
That's all about Deathrite Shaman and Modern for today. Despite some unquestionable problems the format is evolving from week to week and is slowly becoming real. I hope that Grand Prix Chicago will help Modern get even more attention which it surely deserves. Legacy is super popular now but the beginning of its era was similar. See you next week and don't stop brewing!