A little more than a year ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with Patrick Chapin. We were talking about Modern, Legacy's heir apparent. Patrick was trying to sell me on being excited about Modern.
Come on, man, the same skills apply. It's a big format, and there's a ton of room for exploration. You seem like the right guy to figure out which Legacy deck can make it in Modern. There has to be a way for those skills and that background to do work for you.
I was never excited to play Modern until this past weekend. For those of you who only want a decklist article, scroll down to the list. For the rest of you, the following is an explanation of why I'd been less than attracted to Modern before last week.
There's an early section in Michael Lewis's Moneyball where the author discusses "star power" with Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and central character of the book. Beane argues that baseball fans don't care whether they've heard of the players wearing the team jersey and winning games. If they're winning games, they'll become stars. When they get too expensive for the team's tiny budget, they can move on to greener pastures.
Billy Beane's thinking was that it didn't matter who they fielded—people would watch them if they played well. The problem is that true A-list baseball stars make the game compelling, even beautiful. The merely excellent (and undervalued) grinders of baseball that Beane wanted on his team were good because they had underappreciated talents that made them a great buy.
The Modern banned list feels very similar to me. The marquee cards in Modern nowadays feel like Billy Beane's Moneyball team—great rate, good at whatever they do, but aren't poetry in motion. The cards on the banned list read like the Modern Hall of Fame: "Here are all the cards that make you excited to wake up in the morning and play Magic."
Sure, guys, we had to let go of Seat of the Synod and Wild Nacatl—they were eating up room on the payroll. But hey, now we've got Celestial Colonnade and Experiment One! Let's give them a warm welcome.
Legacy decks are lovable and hateable. You can root for or against Belcher, but you're very likely to have strong feelings about it because it represents something. Same with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben—some people hate her, some people love her. She's a high-impact card in Legacy because there's something very clearly going on and she has a direct impact on that thing.
Modern fails to capture the hearts and minds of most Eternal players because its heroes and villains feel like B-listers. There's no Batman, there's no Xavier, there's no Joker, and there's no Magneto in Modern. I don't want to watch Aqualad fight Iceberg Head. Rhino versus Colossus is not a compelling story.
Go to a Legacy tournament and find people who have played the format for a long time. Ask them what deck they play. They will have one specific answer for you, and most of the time it will be a nickname that doesn't describe the deck at all. These people love their deck, their cards, their choices in this game so much that they have tied up a part of their identity in that choice. They don't do this for any other format—just Legacy. Whatever deck they play is their deck.
"I play Belcher." Alternatively, "I play Show and Tell." Three of the nicest gentlemen I've ever met have played Goblin Charbelcher in most of the Legacy tournaments in their lives. They want to see explosions. I want for them to have a place to create explosions in Modern. I want to be able to tell Legacy players that love Big Flavorful Plays that Modern is a worthy inheritor of the Eternal crown.
Legacy decks have cards that its pilots love.
When Wild Nacatl was Modern-legal, it had fans.
How many people, in their heart of hearts, wake up in the morning excited to cast Pestermite?
How about Deathrite Shaman?
Thalia versus Brainstorm is a compelling game. It features the clash of two distinct ways of building a deck and playing Magic. It's a war between two different personalities, two ways of life, two philosophies.
When people asked me what would get me excited about Modern, my immediate answer was always, "Unban Wild Nacatl and Jace, the Mind Sculptor and give people heroes worth rooting for." Griselbrand is a compelling card. I've seen people beat in-play Griselbrands. They were ecstatic. I'm not sure how many people are genuinely thrilled to Combust a Deceiver Exarch, but I'd guess the number is low.
Legacy has better heroes. That's why people seek it out, even when the price of admission is $600 for a playset of Underground Sea.
I understand that Modern is going to replace Legacy at some point in the future. All I want is for Wizards to learn why so many people love Legacy before the price bubble vaporizes the format. Modern can be made into a more appealing format. I have every bit confidence that the folks in Renton will endeavor to make the format more appealing. I implore them to allow Modern to showcase a different style of game play to new Magic players. Part of what has kept me in the game so long is the contrast between creature-centric Limited and Standard formats and a spell-centric Legacy format.
This deck is the reason why I'm excited to play in two more Modern PTQs this weekend. I know that I'm an unrepentant deck-fondler—that's why I play Brainstorm decks in Legacy. I enjoy games that don't center primarily on the combat phase.
If you feel the same way, I suggest playing this deck this weekend.
This is a Legacy Delver deck in Modern. I lost in the finals of the Green Bay PTQ with it last Saturday.
This deck plays all of the format's best cards. For an explanation as to why playing the format's best cards is better than playing a deck that relies on synergy, see Zac Hill's introductory article here.
In this article, I'll go in depth about the card choices and the deck's role in various matchups. I'll review some common situations, talk about the dizzying array of sideboard options available to you, and tell you off for asking for a sideboarding guide.
The Deck and Its Role
This is an aggro-control deck. It contains many cards that are tremendously efficient at trading on a one-for-one basis while gaining time. For instance, let's imagine that you spend your second turn Inquisitioning their Dark Confidant and playing a Delver of Secrets. They then spend their second turn playing a land and passing back to you. In that turn cycle, you have both created a trade and tacked on one or three damage for every subsequent turn that you spend neutralizing their plays.
If they cast a Kitchen Finks on turn 3 and you Remand it, that Remand is dealing them damage because the rates on Inquisition of Kozilek and Delver of Secrets are so good. If you had cast Tarmogoyf instead of Delver of Secrets, their Dark Confidant hits the table, and the game plays out very differently.
The situations where you play multiple spells in a turn are the ones where you will tangibly pull ahead. Once you create an edge on board position, your other edges come into play.
Because you have an edge on board position and life total, your opponent has to play into your countermagic and inexpensive removal. They have to open themselves up to any available Cryptic Command blowout. They don't have time to wait around. Because your inexpensive cards are clocking them, the impact of your interaction appreciates.
Without those clocks, your Remands are just cyclers, and your Cryptic Commands are just Dismisses. This deck wins because you can create game states where your Remands deal them five damage and your Cryptic Commands deal them ten.
If you've played on either side of a match involving RUG Delver in Legacy, you know what I'm talking about. Every Daze, Wasteland, Stifle, and Spell Pierce is potent when it's backing up a Delver of Secrets or Nimble Mongoose. Otherwise? They're just treading water.
If you've ever played Faeries, you'll understand why some of your second turns will involve holding up Remand and end stepping a naked Snapcaster Mage. It's the same principle as Spellstutter Sprite—sure, your flash two-drop can create value later. If you wanted a dominant end game, you'd be playing cards that cost more than three mana. Start killing them.
What cards are integral to this deck's strategy? As Zac pointed out:
Let's start from the top. Delver of Secrets has 23 spells to flip it and is a critical angle of attack against every single deck in the format. If you were to, say, cut Delver for Tarmogoyf and add a few Breeding Pools or whatever, the deck would be so incredibly worse.
It's not just the difference between flying and not flying, although "flying" mostly reads as "unblockable" in Modern. It's not just that this deck is base U/B and adding green would weaken both Cryptic Command and aggressive matchups if you want to consistently have green mana on turn 2.
It's that the difference between a one-drop and a two-drop is leagues apart. Having Delver of Secrets on the play lets you defend against Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf and Sylvan Scrying and Pyroclasm and Lightning Helix and Searing Blaze. It's that Delver on the draw doesn't open you up to Liliana of the Veil, a card that is problematic for the deck in many senses.
Delver allows you to not have to clear out their ground creatures. It allows you to skimp on answers for Tarmogoyf because you're racing. It lets you hold your "removal spells" longer, giving you more information about whether your Lightning Bolts should be removal or go upstairs.
Delver is a key component of the deck. If your counterargument is that it draws a quick removal spell, my answer is that they have one fewer removal spell for a follow-up Dark Confidant.
Dark Confidant is my pick for second-best creature in the format. It takes over a game like nothing else. Several people tried to wait me out in games where I had a Dark Confidant, hoping that the cost of greatness would be too high. Here's a fun fact: the deck's average mana cost is 1.083. It has ways to manipulate the top of the deck. It has ways to gain life. Maher-induced hara-kiri is incredibly unlikely. If you're playing against this deck, don't count on it.
Deathrite Shaman, as Zac said, is the best creature in the format and likely the best card in the format as well. It's great on turn 1 and almost as great on turn 7. Can't ask for much more than that. As Zac said in his article, get aggressive with your Shaman. If you're not activating your Shaman every turn in the early game for either mana or life loss, you're doing it wrong.
Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets are a natural fit in many ways. Their synergy goes beyond just "both of them want you to play spells, hurrrr." Both of them want you to pass most of the midgame with mana up to protect your board position. Snapcaster Mage re-ups your aggression without opening a window for the opponent to stick a creature that stabilizes the game. The presence of Snapcaster also encourages you to hold your Bolts as long as possible. If you can maneuver a game to the point where they're at eleven with no creatures in play versus your Aberration or Clique, you can win seemingly out of nowhere.
An important skill for playing this deck is envisioning that moment four turns prior.
Lightning Bolt is the perfect removal spell for this deck. There's a reason that the successful Delver deck in Legacy plays red and not white: you don't want to need twenty points in combat damage. You can't do that every game. An Insectile Aberration can't attack unimpeded for six turns. Lightning Bolt is there to close out games just as much as it's there to kill a turn 1 Birds of Paradise. Patience yields better results with Lightning Bolt, as Patrick Sullivan will happily tell you.
Serum Visions would not be in this deck if it didn't have Delver of Secrets. The face value of the card is obvious: you get to stack your deck for Delver and Dark Confidant, so you hit more spells off of one and take less damage off of the other. You get to play fewer lands because you see more cards in the early game. You get to keep more hands because you can see four new cards instead of one by your second turn. Beyond the obvious upsides, though, there is a broader conversation to have about Serum Visions as well.
Much as you don't have Ponder and Jace in the same Legacy deck, you don't have Serum Visions and Sphinx's Revelation in the same Modern deck. This deck is focused on tempo and finding specific cards. This deck cares more about leveraging specific cards at specific times to push the game toward an end point. At a certain point, Remand is worthless. So is Inquisition of Kozilek.
The value of several other powerful cards is contextual, and Serum Visions allows you to spend a mana to gain information. With information comes options, and options are what allow players to determine the context of a game. If you get to choose whether or not to draw a second Dark Confidant on turn 3, the game is testing your skill to determine the marginal value of that card. Is your first copy going to get killed or countered? Would a second copy be a liability? What other cards would be better right now? Do you need to dig for a fourth land right away?
Delver in Standard was a less-friendly version of Caw-Blade. Experienced players won a lot of games with the deck, but newer players who played it did poorly. The reasons for that disparity are Ponder, Thought Scour, and Gitaxian Probe. Knowing when to cast a cantrip and to what end is a complex skill in Magic. Players with more experience in mapping out games across multiple turns have tangible advantages in cantrip mirrors.
Serum Visions is the sort of card that allows strong players to gain an edge for very little cost. The existence of Ponder and two-mana counters created a friendly environment for Delver of Secrets, and Serum Visions is the best Ponder left standing. If you're playing Delver, play this. If you're not playing Delver, your counters and burn are going to be a lot worse. Without Serum Visions and Delver, there isn't as compelling an argument for Grixis over Jund.
Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are pillars of the format. We want to trade cards with our opponents, and we want to have a lot of information. These cards let us do both. We don't want more than five or six copies of this effect in our deck because they have sharply diminishing returns, but drawing one or two over the course of the game is very powerful. If we want more of that effect, we have Snapcaster Mages.
Cryptic Command is your finisher. It is the card for which you set up the entire game state. You want to build games toward a point where you cast Cryptic Command, it resolves, and your opponent is either dead or unable to recover. It's fine as a Deluge + draw, as a Dismiss, or as a Repulse in the midgame. In the late game, though, your goal is to create a window to resolve this and kill them. It could mean countering their Restoration Angel and tapping their team. It could mean countering their Karn and bouncing their Wurmcoil Engine. It could mean tapping their team at the end of their turn and looking at two to five cards for a burn spell.
The reason that Grixis only wants three Cryptics is the same reason it wants only five discard spells. Cryptic Command is a powerful card, but the deck has a lot to do with its mana. There are times when more Cryptics will be a liability since they represent more damage off of Dark Confidant without actually creating more game play value. If you have Remand + Snapcaster + Snapcaster + Cryptic, do you need another Cryptic as counter backup? Being able to rebuy Cryptics is often preferable.
I believe that Remand belongs in the core of the deck. It is a devastating tempo play that fits into this deck's game plan seamlessly. I cannot imagine a metagame where you'd want to play this deck without Remand. Remand performs two functions better than any other card in Modern.
First off, Remand trades your time for their time, often at a good rate and ideally in support of a board advantage. If your fourth turn is "Dark Confidant, go" and their fourth turn is "cast Restoration Angel, you Remand it, go," your Remand pulled you ahead by two mana and a card that is about to replace itself. If you have a creature in play, Remand also Shocked or Bolted them. Players still have the same number of cards in hand, both players used all of their fourth-turn mana, but Grixis now has a Dark Confidant in play. This is a mild example; a more devastating example is Remanding a Faith's Reward or a Pyroclasm cast off of a Chromatic Sphere. Remanding a flashbacked spell also sends it to exile, making Remand far better than Mana Leak at fighting Snapcaster Mage.
The second reason that Remand is phenomenal is its power in counter wars. To explain just how good Remand is in blue mirrors, it is useful review Cryptic Command's modes. Cryptic Command is a centerpiece of blue mirrors, and resolving more of these is positively correlated with winning.
Cryptic Command's modes read "Counter target spell," "return target permanent to its owner's hand," "tap all creatures your opponents control," and "draw a card." The first two target; the second two don't. This means that Cryptic Command can be a spell with zero, one, or two targets. The rules tell us that if all of a spell's targets are illegal, it is countered and does nothing. If one or more of its targets are legal upon resolution, the spell will do as much as it can.
If your opponent casts Cryptic Command choosing to counter your Thoughtseize and tap your team, you can Remand your Thoughtseize, draw a card, and attack freely. If they try to Dismiss your Thoughtseize and you Remand your own spell, they don't get the card. This is widely considered to be a "powerful play." There are, of course, other cards that you can substitute for their Cryptic Command in this example. My point is that Remand can be a Brainbite against a deck with counterspells. Don't assume that Remand always targets your opponent's spells—it's better than that.
This deck plays a number of one-ofs, all of which can be cut for other cards. Their role is to be a slightly different version of an existing effect. This deck sees an extraordinary number of cards per game, so one-ofs will come up quite a bit.
Pillar of Flame could be Forked Bolt. I would recommend against turning it into Flame Slash or Electrostatic Bolt, as part of this deck's appeal is that its removal is also game-ending burn. A one-mana Terror is fine in some matchups, but I would prefer a broader card in game 1s.
It is tempting to cut Electrolyze for Forked Bolt. That instinct undervalues the capacity to hold up a counter and kill a Dark Confidant or Deathrite Shaman at the end of their turn. There are many points where the deck has exactly four mana available—Forked Bolt would preclude Cryptic Command, whereas Electrolyze does not.
Spell Snare is an odd one-of. Usually, it appears as either a three- or four-of. This deck is not interested in stocking up on too many purely reactive cards, though. Spell Snare is powerful, but this deck can always draw "two" if it wants more of that effect. With that said, Delver has somewhat of a problem with Tarmogoyf and Flinthoof Boar, so I would at least consider adding a second.
Mana Leak could very well be the fourth Remand. It was not particularly impressive for me. I enjoyed having a number of different cards that my opponents had to respect, and articles like these somewhat defeat the purpose of splitting Leaks and Remands. After all, if everyone knows that the deck only plays one Mana Leak, they're going to play their spells far more aggressively. By giving people the idea that they have to play around a million Snares, Leaks, Remands, and Cryptics, the deck's pilot can induce far worse play based on misevaluations of the Grixis deck's contents. For that reason alone, I would recommend changing the one-of numbers however you see fit.
Vendilion Clique looks like the sort of card that this deck would want three of. The problem is that this deck wants a lot of spells for Delver and Vendilion Clique is worse than the other four creatures. If you were of the mind to make this deck worse, I would recommend cutting Delvers and Serum Visions for Tarmogoyfs and Vendilion Cliques. For everyone else, board into a second or third copy often. You become more controlling in every single matchup after sideboarding, so more Vendilion Cliques are fine in games 2 and 3.
The Mana and Mulligans
I didn't have Creeping Tar Pit last Saturday, instead playing one more Misty Rainforest, Watery Grave, and a random Gitaxian Probe. Tar Pit seems phenomenal, as it's a tapped Watery Grave and at least a free Lightning Bolt at some point.
The dual lands are arranged so that every fetchland gets every color. You want one nonblue dual so that you can operate off of fewer lands. You want one nonblue basic so that your fetchlands always have the option of only dealing you one point of damage while making mana that turn. Since this is a U/B deck splashing red, it makes sense to have Blood Crypt as the nonblue dual and Swamp as the basic non-Island.
Scalding Tarn is the best dual land in this world since it finds all of your blue sources and your off-color dual. Verdant Catacombs finds everything but your Islands and Steam Vents, and it's the only playable fetchland that finds your Swamp. That makes Catacombs better than Misty Rainforest, which finds all of your colors but doesn't find Blood Crypt or Swamp.
Darkslick Shores is excellent in most spots as an untapped painless dual land, but it suffers the same problem of diminishing returns. You want a lot of fetchlands to power up Deathrite Shaman and Delver of Secrets, so you can't play too many Shores. I was happy with two.
I wouldn't change a thing about this mana base without a lot of data. If anything changes, I would expect it to be the number of fetchlands going up and the number of Creeping Tar Pits / Darkslick Shores coming down.
Tron (Mono-Blue and G/R)
Good news and bad news here.
Bad news first: they're going to assemble Tron.
Good news: it doesn't matter.
There's no Cavern of Souls for Karn or Wurmcoil Engine. Remand is often just Time Walk against them. Cryptic Command is very powerful, Thoughtseize is great, Snapcaster for any of those three is great, and you have Delver clocking them and Dark Confidant feeding you more every turn.
The games you lose are to multiple Pyroclasms or a turn 3 blowout, so consider whether you can win games while playing around turn 3 Tron. If you can't, don't sweat it, but you're advantaged enough that you should look for spots to protect yourself. Don't sweat getting Mindslavered—as long as you get your red cards out of your hand as soon as possible, there isn't too much that can go wrong. I beat running Mindslavers in a PTQ match. They're still spending their entire turn trying to negate parts of yours.
There will be a point past which you always want to hold up countermagic. Get your threats in play, protect them, and figure out how to play around Urza's Tower. Cryptic Command will occasionally bounce an Urza land if they're struggling to assemble Tron, as that's also just a meaningful Time Walk. String together enough of them and they'll be dead. Simple, right?
Your sideboard strategy involves drawing more cards than them, keeping their threats off the board, and disrupting them as much as possible. It's a classic aggro-control versus big mana matchup.
There are around twelve cards that matter in this matchup: Restoration Angel, Birthing Pod, and Kitchen Finks. Beyond those, all of their cards are pretty bad. Focus on keeping those cards off of the board and you'll be fine. Don't crack fetchlands that cut you off of Cryptic Command mana if they're obviously trying to get Restoration Angel in play. It's really obvious when a deck filled with mana creatures passes the turn with four mana up. Hint: they always have it.
Your sideboard strategy involves impeding their early mana development, keeping their board clear of the aforementioned cards, and riding a Dark Confidant to victory. You will usually have to give them a window to stick a powerful card, but your Dark Confidant is going to outclass it in most situations. You're a favorite, so don't feel like you need to rush. Your cards are better than theirs going long since their deck is filled with mana idiots. Without Pod or Angel, their deck is pretty bad.
Their deck is a worse version of ours. Now that they don't have Bloodbraid Elf, our Remands are golden. This will generally come down to who sticks more Deathrite Shamans and Dark Confidants, as the rest of both players' decks trade off. Tarmogoyf is not the end of the world and can be managed by Deathrite Shaman's abilities. Try to stay ahead on board, use your discard spells to cut parts off of their curve, and plan out when you're going to cast Remand to Time Walk them. This matchup rewards planning to a large degree.
Your sideboard strategy is more attrition. Get every two-for-one in your deck, lean on Snapcaster, Cryptic, and Dark Confidant to pull you ahead, and use your counters to make sure you don't fall behind on board. Use your discard spells to make sure that your key creatures are safe, both from their removal and from their discard.
This is not a good matchup. Our Thoughtseizes are awful, our Remands are bad if they have a ton of one-drops, and we're not great at dodging burn if we have to keep tapping out to address their board advantage. Dedicate a large amount of your sideboard to cards that will actually address these issues.
Batterskull and Thragtusk are not realistic plans if they have three one-drops in play on turn 2. They will have Molten Rain if they know what they're doing. Planning out your land drops so that you take minimal damage is very important. Just as important is establishing your own clock. I dislike cutting Dark Confidant here, as your plan is to kill their creatures and kill them before they draw lethal burn spells. Dark Confidant fulfills both of those roles.
You're playing a better deck with higher-quality cards. You have a proactive game plan that generates more card advantage than other decks. You have disruptive elements that will break apart other game plans. Don't over-sideboard.
If you have any questions about the deck, I'd be happy to answer them here or on Twitter. I'll be in Chicago and Madison this weekend, looking to win one more match than I did last weekend. Wherever your PTQ is, good luck!
@drewlevin on Twitter