It all started about a month ago. Slippery Bogle and Gladecover Scout didn't look like the most intimidating creatures on the block, but sometimes the biggest shakeups come from the most innocuous sources. By now, if you've been playing Modern on Magic Online, you've definitely encountered G/W Auras and may have very well lost to it. If it frustrated you, you're not alone. In all honesty, it still surprises me that we've gotten to a point in Magic where such a gimmicky strategy can win, but there's a particularly non-interactive mechanic behind this deck that's been pushed about as far as it can go without breaking. It seems that hexproof is the new creature-centric Magic counterpart to such non-interactive mechanics of yore as Storm and "free spells."
Hexproof is such a powerful mechanic and narrows the scope of the game so frequently into a subgame of "find your answer or die" that it seems obvious, in retrospect. I have nothing but the utmost respect for whoever had the creativity to think outside the box enough to design this beast:
The first time I saw this deck, I laughed out loud. I'm willing to bet that most of you did, too. After all, outside of Path to Exile, it plays nothing that could be considered a "good card" in Modern the abstract. In terms of sustainability, the deck has huge weaknesses to popular cards like Liliana of the Veil, which means that it's a fine metagame choice but won't stick around and dominate a format. It's kind of like Legacy Burn or Legacy Dredge in that respect, which are decks we're all familiar with. We hate having to devote sideboard space to beating them, but you gotta do what you gotta do. The fact that G/W Auras is extraordinarily cheap on Magic Online makes it even more prevalent and easy to get very tired of very quickly, as happened to me.
My amusement at G/W Auras' success really started to turn into disdain now that hexproof is pushing its way through Standard as well. Ben Stark said it best in his succinct, no-frills style on Facebook recently:
"Dear WotC, please stop printing hexproof guys. Yours truly, everyone who has ever played Magic."
Well, that may be a bit extreme, but it gets the point across. Hexproof is great in small doses as a way to make a few creatures extra special, like Thrun, the Last Troll and Troll Ascetic. Things go sour when the ability shows up on enough creatures to give a single-minded hexproof strategy the redundancy it needs to be a tournament playable deck. We're likely going to see a large swath of Geist of Saint Trafts and Invisible Stalkers at Pro Tour Gatecrash, inspired by Jon Stern's Grand Prix-winning deck:
Enough complaining about hexproof; I've said my piece. I'll leave further discussion of the mechanic's benefits and drawbacks to other, more qualified commentators. My concern is where do we go from here? The answer can be found in the Top 8 profiles of the two Bant Hexproof players where, when asked about their worst matchups, they answered "B/R Aggro" and "Bant Control."
Basically, as the classic recipe goes for beating Mythic-style decks, you can beat these decks by trying to go under them with lots of cheap removal for the Avacyn's Pilgrims and Silverblade Paladins alongside a healthy aggressive clock, or you can pack lots and lots of Wraths and a game-ender in Sphinx's Revelation. If it worked against Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, and crew back in 2010, it's bound to work here.
Ari Lax's Mono-Red Aggro is a great place to start if you want to have a solid matchup against the Hexproof deck, but I think that judicious use of Nearheath Pilgrim might turn the matchup back against you. On the other hand, a pack of Nevermores and Rootborn Defenses can ruin your day if you're relying on Supreme Verdict to hold off hexproof monsters.
I'd like to cut a pair of maindeck Selesnya Charms for a pair of Nearheath Pilgrims and put the last two along with a quartet of Loxodon Smiters in the sideboard. With three Nevermores and three Rootborn Defenses in the side as well, I'd feel comfortable taking G/W Auras to any tournament. You have all the fat you could want against aggro decks, and control decks can't beat you if they can't Wrath you. If the deck gets smooth draws, there's nothing that can reliably beat it. Free wins are always nice and I love it when my sideboard bombs make it nigh impossible for my opponent to win, but the deck is a bit high variance for my tastes. So what should we do if we want to fight the new boogeyman?
Well, Matt Costa's U/W/R Flash deck is a lot more consistent than Bant Hexproof; with more Supreme Verdicts and Mizzium Mortars shoved in the 75, I'm sure that the matchup can't be too terrible. Especially considering that Bant self-destructs something like one in six games by mulliganing too much or having awkward mana, Flash may be primed to come back for the last week of pre-Gatecrash Standard. As Gerry Thompson has shown us time and again, all it takes is a sharply defined metagame for the experienced deck designer to take aim and win, and GP AC definitely gave us that defined metagame.
It seems to me, in the aftermath of the GP, that the multi-colored Naya and Jund type decks will fade a bit as Hexproof picks up steam, but that in turn will make things safer for the Flash decks to come out and play if they can pick up some slack in the matchup against the Bant deck. Reanimator decks will also fade out, as they have a hard time beating Hexproof and Rest in Peace is in the sideboard of almost every deck in the format.
The format's definitely in a dynamic equilibrium at this point, and if it weren't for a few ubiquitous and moderately reviled cards (Geist and Thragtusk) pushing the format around themselves, we'd definitely have one of the best, most balanced Standard formats in a long while. As it stands, we merely have a balanced Standard format where the presence of certain cards requires that you build your deck with them in mind. That's not bad, it just requires a little bit of discipline!
Of course, with Gatecrash on the horizon, things will almost certainly change, and fresh aggressive decks fueled by the new Gruul and Boros cards may be enough to push Hexproof out of the limelight. I know people love brewing up sweet aggressive strategies, and Gatecrash promises to be chock-full of them. Geist of Saint Traft isn't so good when it's relegated to blocking duty, and on the draw against Gruul, it might not be fast enough.
Besides, have you seen Glaring Spotlight?! That's sure to solve all of our hexproof woes, right? Thank you, Wizards, for answering all of our prayers with this awesome hoser; it doesn't look contrived at all!
Seriously, though, Esper Control with the mana to legitimately cast Liliana of the Veil and Supreme Verdict (a tall order, no doubt) should also be a fine solution, but we've got a solid hundred-plus cards that still need to be spoiled as I'm writing this before we can say anything definitive. I still have faith that we're going to get something nice from Dimir and Orzhov, and if we do, the Esper deck that's been fringe playable for the last month will certainly become top dog in a hurry. Also, consider how awesome instant speed removal is against bloodrush. But we'll save that discussion for next week.
There's one more deck in Modern that's been tearing up the scene with the best hexproof creature, and we can thank Larry Swasey (krazykirby4) and Brandon Large for showing the Magic Online metagame that Geist of Saint Traft is the real deal in all formats. U/W/R Midrange, despite being kind of an ugly deck with some cards that haven't seen huge amounts of play in Modern recently, manages to put together a perfect mix of aggression and disruption in order to somehow beat both Jund and all of the linear decks that make up the Modern metagame.
I'll let the list speak for itself:
Like I said, it's not a pretty decklist. It's very rough in spots, and I'm sure Larry would be tweaking it a little more if he weren't done with the PTQ season. The hive mind of Magic Online can do that work for us, though, and I'm excited to see where this deck goes as the season moves on. If you want to play a highly interactive deck that can still give the non-interactive beatdown every few games to keep it fresh, I highly recommend Larry's list. I haven't Remanded anything in a long, long time, but I bet it's still almost as awesome as it was seven years ago. On second thought, when you can run it back with Snapcaster Mage, it might be even better!
Apparently Electrolyze is where it's at as well, if Larry's post-tournament analysis is to be believed, so I'd definitely consider adding more of those to the 75 and cutting whatever seems out of place in your local metagame. I also don't really like Aven Mindcensor at all here and would be happy to make that switch.
It may be hard to target a few of the lead actors in Standard and Modern, but with a little careful planning, these boogeymen (Boglemen?) can be beaten just like their respective bad guy predecessors in both formats, Geralf's Messenger and Bloodbraid Elf, could be beaten. At least this enemy has very clear, obvious weaknesses to exploit. And if you can't figure out a way with the toys we have right now, don't fret because Gatecrash will be shaking things up in a few short weeks. Get excited!