The Modern PTQ season starts in two weeks, and Grand Prix Toronto just set the starting point for a long and hopefully very interesting winter. While the StarCityGames.com Invitational is unquestionably the most important tournament before the end of 2012, it's time to look forward and decide what you want to play in the format in between Legacy and Standard. This will be Modern's second PTQ season—it's time to prove that it's more than "another seasonal Extended." Some discussion has taken place about the weaknesses of Modern (which are clear compared to the current fast-changing and healthy Standard), but I still believe it's possible to heal the format with more attention and searching for new opportunities.
The most popular deck is obviously Jund, these days coming in form of four colors with Lingering Souls. Modern is about being versatile (read: Jund) or having a straight game plan invulnerable to the opponent's actions (read: Combo). Unfortunately, most Modern decks fall into one of those two categories, as it's hard to build a fair aggro deck that's able to outrace Jund or a control deck that's able to prevail in an attrition war against a pile of the best cards available. This bipolarity forces everyone to choose a side since it's hard to do both (the person who does will break Modern). The best example is G/R Tron, which beats "fair" decks and stumbles against "unfair" ones.
However, there are still some weak spots to exploit. The first is the Modern mana base. Deathrite Shaman made Jund's mana better, allowing it to play a fourth color, but he also highlights the lack of good land destruction (like Wasteland) which keeps the multicolored madness in check. Mana dorks are available to too many decks, and fetchlands plus shocklands are also attractive, while the card quality is too good to make slow monsters like Cruel Control playable. I'm not calling for banning fetchlands, but attacking the mana base is a possible way to beat Jund and many other decks.
The best Blood Moon deck—All-In Red—is a Chrome Mox short of being playable, but there are other ways it can be utilized. It's hard to build a dedicated land destruction deck due to the lack of win conditions and high cost of LD spells; Living End is the closest one, but Deathrite Shaman significantly deprives its flexibility. Nevertheless, Blood Moon already sees some maindeck play in various control decks accompanied by blue or white cards, including Ajani Vengeant as additional resource denial card. An example of such a deck by Nr13 from a Magic Online Daily Event:
This deck looks like better version of RUG Delver (which was never good against Jund), so I'm not sure about the complete concession to early discard spells (by choosing Spell Snare over Spell Pierce). I'd go deeper into the Blood Moon plan with one or two Magus of the Moon maindeck rather than playing mono-answers because it's hard to beat Jund without the red enchantment. The weakness of this list is that it has to draw its situational cards at the right times, which you can't always rely on (like Bant Control in Standard) due to Thoughtseize.
Another hole to exploit is…the mana base! Shocklands and fetchlands are great but painful, especially if you're playing all the best cards across four colors. The two best life gain spells of the format (Kitchen Finks and Lightning Helix) aren't seeing much play right now. Burn first took my attention when Geralf's Messenger became a permanent resident of Jund, but conventionally accepting Lingering Souls has taken Jund's vulnerability to Burn to the next level.
Deathrite Shaman helps Jund, but it's nothing like last season's fatalism when I said to a friend aiming to play R/B, "And make sure you don't throw your deck into your opponent's face after the third Kitchen Finks in a row." The same is true for U/W, which adopted Blade Splicer over Kitchen Finks after Emanuel Sutor's finals performance at GP Lyon. Two decks actively using Kitchen Finks are Birthing Pod variants, but I don't expect them to be very popular, even after a strong GP Toronto presence (and even though I'm strong considering playing Melira Pod).
Burn is a good deck choice for the first weeks of the Modern PTQ season. Jund will be even more popular than it should be since many players that have no idea what to play will choose it. The primary issue is determining the most popular combo decks and being ready to withstand them (as they're faster than you). Another question is whether to be mono-red or to splash black (for Bump in the Night and Deathrite Shaman), white (for Lightning Helix and Rule of Law), or both. You may have noticed both attempts in the GP Toronto grinder-winning decklists, but I don't like either list to recommend as is. So let's try to punish opponents for eschewing Kitchen Finks.
Deathrite Shaman is just awesome, even without the ability to gain life. He helps beat Snapcaster Mage, makes the flashback of Bump in the Night much more reasonable (I can't count all the times when I stumbled at five mana last season), and allows participating in Deathrite Shaman wars. However, Grim Lavamancer is still playable, especially as he can kill Deathrite Shaman—which seems to be more important than beating Snapcaster Mage. There are three to five slots for these cards, and nearly all combinations are possible depending on what you expect to face.
The next important feature of this list is four Searing Blaze and three Volcanic Fallout. These cards used to be bad pre-board against Storm, but Goblin Electromancer has fixed this problem, making all our versions of Lava Spike workable in nearly all matchups (setting aside exotics like Eggs and Hive Mind). Nearly any matchup features creatures you really want to kill: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Deathrite Shaman, Goblin Electromancer, etc. The ability to deal with them and still hurt your opponent is what you want because any damage spell not thrown to your opponent's face could spell trouble.
Volcanic Fallout is in place of Flames of the Blood Hand to fight Lingering Souls; it also helps in the problematic matchup against Affinity, even if it's ready to deal with Lingering Souls with more Steel Overseers. Luckily, Rakdos Charm helps save sideboard slots so you can dedicate more space to troublesome opponents. It's unfortunately still hard to beat combo decks. Nevertheless, if you want to punish opponents for having greedy mana bases, Burn is good. People will surely play sweet cards in all colors and suffer a lot of pain from fetchlands and shocklands, so direct damage is just what they need to lose.
Going deeper into the idea of punishing people for greedy mana bases, I came to the conclusion that it's the proper time to play Anathemancer. He and his nonbo brother Fulminator Mage could be good at gaining a percentage in the Jund mirror, but the former is also appealing as a build-around-me card. Jund mirrors typically are close races, so Anathemancer plus Lightning Helix is a good recipe for a "better" Jund—you're going to have many more lethal topdecks in the mid and late game and more chances to survive long enough to win.
Subsequent pondering led me and my teammates to the idea of a W/B/R deck with a Zombie presence, which seems to be reasonably positioned against both Jund and combo decks (thanks to Tidehollow Sculler). We still haven't figure out if Deathrite Shaman is good enough in a non-green deck. (Did I already mention the idea of banning Deathrite Shaman? Okay, let's pretend I didn't).
The real difference between the two approaches is if we want to be a grindy "hate bears" deck or somehow go bigger. In the first case, we rely on Dark Confidant, Lingering Souls, and good amount of discard spells supported by some way to beat other players' Lingering Souls (probably Zealous Persecution). In the second case, Restoration Angel is a "bigger Souls," and some sweet enters the battlefield abilities aside from Anathemancer are welcome.
The plan is to outlast Jund and to beat combo decks with discard, problematic creatures, and a reasonable clock. This approach obviously has its disadvantages (like being stone cold to G/R Tron and any deck with Pyroclasm), but there's no universal cure for Modern.
I mentioned a "reasonable clock," but Gravecrawler isn't in fact very appealing, especially if Deathrite Shaman prevents recurring (that's why I put Grim Lavamancer in the list). And Lingering Souls, while being very flexible, is slow without pumping. Our game plan includes opponents helping us by inflicting damage on themselves, but it's not always enough. Here's a faster attempt by my buddy Nikita Sekretarev.
- 3 Tidehollow Sculler
- 3 Anathemancer
- 3 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Keldon Marauders
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 4 Steppe Lynx
Geralf's Messenger is similar to Anathemancer in the midgame and provides comparable amounts of damage, but Alara's Zombie is better with Restoration Angel and in attrition wars, while much more aggressive one-mana creatures help establish a clock. Hey, I'm old enough to remember when Tidehollow Sculler was a valid Zoo creature! This list, however, tries to be another form of Jund rather than another form of Zoo and takes advantage of qualitative discard spells, whereas Zoo relies solely on its speed to beat combo.
Such a deck predictably loses to any version of Birthing Pod (due to Kitchen Finks shenanigans), so you may note Grafdigger's Cage as the graveyard hate card of choice (while Relic of Progenitus is also appealing against Tarmogoyf) alongside Aven Mindcensor and Slaughter Games. These are also good against Scapeshift, which seems to be well positioned right now and for similar reasons.
Scapeshift is good against Jund, so there's always the temptation to choose it. But honestly, with all my love for Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Tron does the same things—beats Jund and loses to combo—and also beats Scapeshift by being a half turn faster. Moreover, Tron is much less vulnerable to Slaughter Games. So when choosing your deck for the first weeks of the Modern PTQ season, choose wisely and try to find common weak points to capitalize on.
Good luck at PTQs this winter, and don't forget to tune in to the amazing StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Invitational in the City of Angels this weekend!