I won a Magic Online PTQ the other day. I guess that makes not going to Grand Prix Atlantic City worth it after all (and who really wanted to play against Hexproof all day anyway?). I'm sure some of you are wondering "What deck did you play?" or "How the heck did this guy win a PTQ? I've seen his decklists; they're so bad!" Well, I've got some news for you. It turns out every once in a while, when the stars align, I can produce a decent deck, and that deck carried me to victory. Oh, and it carried my friend Brandon Large to victory as well. Yeah, that's right. Back-to-back wins with this beast of a deck. It also just won a Grand Prix this past weekend. Move over, Jund—there's a new fair deck in town.
Played to a combined record of 20-2 between the two of us (Brandon Large and myself), this thing is a monster. Typically, the games end in one of two ways. The first way is playing a Geist of Saint Traft and protecting him. This is the easiest way to win. Geist of Saint Traft is a helluva card. The other way to win is by grinding your opponent out with your incredible amount of removal and Celestial Colonnades. Oh, and all the removal (minus three Path to Exile) can also go to the face to shorten the clock. Almost forgot, you also have a 5/5 with haste in the deck that can blow people out and end games in hurry. Thundermaw Hellkite, welcome to your new home.
I guess I should go back to the origin of this deck. I was bored playing my old Splinter Twin list with Snapcaster Mages, Remands, and Lightning Bolts (if your Twin list isn't running these cards, you're doing it wrong), and I wanted to find a new deck to play. I'd been an avid player of combo decks in Modern since its introduction as a format. (I played Pyromancer Ascension at Pro Tour Philadelphia. The article I wrote about it can be found here). In fact, the only time I tried playing a fair deck was when I sideboarded down on combo pieces and killed my opponents with Vendilion Cliques, Pestermites, and Lightning Bolts.
I decided I needed a change of pace. I went to the most recent Magic Online PTQ decklists and started browsing for something new. Something unique. Something...fair. Jund, Pod, Twin. None of the decks grabbed my attention. Then I got down to the 10th place list, and it immediately caught my eye. Isochron Scepter? Yes, please. Snapcaster Mage? Don't mind him. Aven Mindcensor? Get ready for the blowouts. Sphinx's Revelation? Jeez, this deck has it all! You know what? I think I'll just show you the deck instead of listing every single card one by one and gushing over them.
Clearly, this deck is really sweet. I played the deck in a few two mans, some eight mans, and possibly a Daily Event if I remember correctly. In the Daily, I started off with an easy 3-0 and got blown out in the last round by the silly G/W Auras deck. Have you had to stare down a 16/14 Slippery Bogle with flying, lifelink, and trample yet? It's not very fun when you have no way to interact with the deck aside from your one Disenchant on a Scepter.
After the initial test run of the deck, I realized some changes needed to be made. Sphinx's Revelation was way too slow and clunky for Modern. I know there's no good card draw and it's a viable option, but I thought that, given all of our removal, Jace Beleren was a good alternative. I also drew Hellkite too much and wanted to try more threats with flash, so I added a Vendilion Clique. Here's where I went next:
Adding the Engineered Explosives and the Paraselene to the sideboard was a direct result of losing to G/W Auras. After playing around with this list, I came to the list with which I won the PTQ. It turns out that winning with Scepter takes forever and isn't very good against Abrupt Decay, Ancient Grudge, or even Maelstrom Pulse, so I decided to look towards alternative routes to victory. Enter Geist of Saint Traft. Although many people suggested I add it, Phil Samms will take most of the credit. Not by my choice, but by his tenacity at claiming that he broke it (and that he is also incredibly smart and talented as well as good looking).
Let's talk about my card choices for the list that won the PTQ. For one, I refuse to run Delver of Secrets in this format. I think it's just awful in Modern. Sure, sometimes you flip it the turn after you play it and it goes the distance, but more often than not it's a really bad 1/1 for U. There is no Ponder in this format, so Delver of Secrets should stay away. Another card that people are probably looking for that's not there is Restoration Angel. Look, I get it. You're used to all the U/W/x decks playing Restoration Angel. Well, in this deck the space is really tight, and it occupies a weird spot on the curve.
On turn 1, you want to either play a tapped land or hold up Bolt depending on the match. On turn 2, you want to hold up more removal, play an Ambush Viper, or counter a spell. On turn 3, you can play Geist, Clique, or Aven Mindcensor. You also have the option of yet another tapped land or Snapcaster and removal. On turn 4? Well, that's where all the options meld together. Typically, you'll play a Snapcaster on four mana to rebuy a counter or piece of removal. Sure, after that you can probably play an Angel, but most likely you won't have a guy in play to Blink and you'd be better off taking some other line.
Aven Mindcensor is an insane blowout against a lot of decks, especially game 1. Hitting even one land can mean the difference between casting your spells on time and losing a game. And if your opponent is playing Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling? Well, as Greg Hatch likes to say, that's game. Vendilion Clique is in the main because it's a very reasonable creature. You're a little soft to combo because of the lack of hard counters, so you essentially just play the matchup as a burn deck and never tap out on their turn. Vendilion Clique can prevent you from randomly dying. It's a weird version of a counterspell that way. The removal is a bit obvious as to what it's for. Electrolyze is by far the best removal in the deck. And if you ever Snapcaster Mage it back? Value City, population you.
Moving on to the sideboard, all of the cards serve a specific purpose and a broad purpose. To elaborate, Sowing Salt is mostly there for Tron decks, but it incidentally hits Valakut decks. Counterflux is primarily for combo decks, but it also hits the midrange decks. Engineered Explosives is for token decks, Infect, and Jund, but it also will do against Affinity in a pinch (take that, Etched Champion!).
Pyroclasm is very good against Pod decks, and it also hits token decks, the Bogle deck, Infect, and any random Delver decks that still exist. Let's not forget that it kills Geist of Saint Traft in the mirror. Disenchant hits Blood Moon, Splinter Twin, Affinity, Pod, and any random artifacts that people might have. Baneslayer Angel and Batterskull are both good against the aggro decks. I also bring in Batterskull against any sort of control deck because it's hard for them to deal with.
Now we're at the very niche cards in the sideboard. Rule of Law is clearly for Storm decks, but it also hits Eggs. Tempest of Light is exclusively for the Bogle deck. Man, I hate that deck. If you ever get to cast it and then use Snapcaster Mage with it, that's living the dream.
We've gone through the deck and how it got to where it is. How does it play? Like I said, you typically play it as a burn deck. Or a tempo deck. You know what? I don't know how to describe it. Sometimes, you're just throwing burn at every single creature so you can live and kill them with a Colonnade. Other times, you're throwing the burn at their face so you can finish them off before you get combo'd to death. Occasionally, you get to play Snapcasters and Remands with a smattering of Mindcensors and Cliques and win that way. Each game plays out differently depending on your draw.
While I can't tell you the exact plays to make at all times, I can give some general guidelines. Against combo decks, you'll often want to jam Snapcaster Mage on turn 2. Yes, it has a lot more potential than Ambush Viper, but that doesn't matter if you're dead. The reason for doing this is because you have to apply pressure right away. While a 2/1 isn't a lot of pressure, it's better than literal zero pressure. You'll sometimes have to play Snapcasters without getting their full value because you can't afford to tap down very low, even on their end step. If you're given the choice between casting a Lightning Helix or Snapcaster on their end step, you're gonna get more value saving the Snapcaster, but do you really think you're going to live long enough to maximize his value?
Against combo decks, if you tap out for Geist on the draw, you will die. There's almost no question about it. Scapeshift is the only deck I would feel comfortable with tapping out turn 3 on the draw. Against Twin, if you're on the play, Geist is fantastic on turn 3. If you're on the draw, they better not have three mana open or you're likely going to be moving on to the next game. Granted, once you have plenty of mana, feel free to play Geist. I would never play it into three open mana though. For the record, I think Twin is one of the best matchups for this deck. There's so much removal in the deck that they need Exarch and Twin—Pestermite and Kiki just won't do it for them.
I already said a little bit about Counterflux when talking about the sideboard, but that card is just insane. Insane in the membrane. Out of this world insane. Don't you know it's loco? For the people that are looking at Cryptic Command for their counter du jour, why? Counterflux just stops what they're trying to do, period. I don't care how many Dispels you have—you're done. End of story. And if you get to overload it against Storm? Let's just say that I might have uttered the phrase "Storm 17, my go?" against my opponent during the PTQ.
Moving on from combo to more combo, let's talk about Pod. I really like this matchup. You kill all their guys, and if one or two manage to slip by, you have Aven Mindcensors to stop their Pods from doing anything. Just be careful about losing to Gavony Township. That is a very real threat. Luckily for us, most of their team should be dead or dying so Gavony won't be as big of a threat to us as it is to other fair decks.
Speaking of other fair decks, how is our Jund match up? Well, I personally would prefer never to face Jund, but Brandon and I had a combined record of 8-1 against it, with the one loss coming in the Swiss to my quarterfinals opponent. Your success against Jund depends directly on the number of Tarmogoyfs they draw that game. Liliana? You don't care very much about her. If they want both of you to be hellbent, you're ok with that. You can respond to basically every Liliana +1 with a burn spell or a Snapcaster and get super value. You also have Colonnade to one shot her in the late game.
Back to my original point, Tarmogoyf is the big problem card. If you're lucky, they'll give you the opportunity to Bolt it. If you're unlucky, you'll have to use two removal spells. If you're very unlucky, you'll lose to it. It's not like you don't have answers, but it's not easy to beat multiple Goyfs. This is the one matchup I wish I had Restoration Angel. For boarding, don't forget to bring in Engineered Explosives. A lot of people have asked me how to board against Jund, and not a single person thought Explosives should be brought in against it. Are you guys insane? It blows up everything relevant.
Against Affinity, you just want to kill all of their guys. Try to save some removal for lands because those are slightly more difficult to kill, especially post-board when you have Pyroclasm that won't kill them. Always try to leave up Mana Leak or Remand for Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, and Etched Champion if you can. Sometimes it's okay to take some damage if it means you don't instantly die to a Plating resolving.
Moving forward, I would change the list slightly. If the mirror starts to become a thing, I'm pretty sure I want to have at least one Sword of War and Peace. Restoration Angel is also pretty attractive, but I personally don't like it in this deck. Another card I want to try out is Vedalken Shackles, but that requires retooling the mana base, which I'm not that great at. If my friends ask me for a decklist to play this weekend (and they have), this is what I'll tell them to play.
The sideboard Relic of Progenitus could also be Threads of Disloyalty if you're so inclined, but I like the Relics a little bit more. The deck has no graveyard hate, and a little bit goes a long way. It also shrinks Tarmogoyf down to a 0/1, which is infinitely more manageable than a 4/5. My fear with Threads is that opponents will start to leave in more ways to deal with it, especially if they are aware of its popularity in sideboards.
I'd like to thank the people who watched me test this deck in my stream and helped me tweak it. I'm sure I wouldn't have won without all of your help. Geist of Saint Traft, Engineered Explosives, and Electrolyze would definitely not have been in my deck otherwise. I'd also like to thank Brandon Large for trusting me enough to play 74/75 of my list and winning the PTQ the very next day. I told him to cut the Sword for a third Electrolyze. I cast the Sword exactly twice in the PTQ; the first time it did nothing, and the second time I died immediately. His win definitely helped cement in my mind that this deck is the real deal, and the GP win probably cemented it in other people's minds.
To all of those that are still PTQing, good luck with this new deck in the format. It's the real deal and is here to stay.
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