It's now been six weeks since the banning of Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song in Modern. To me, six weeks seems time enough for the thousands of PTQ players across the world to regroup, readapt, and perhaps resolve the format, if such a thing is possible. Six weeks seems time enough for a new "best deck" to show itself—yet it hasn't. Modern remains a very open format, with basically every strategy under the sun taking players to tournament success.
In such a world, just choosing a deck to play yourself can be a daunting task, let alone preparing for every strategy you're liable to face. As a MTG strategy writer that's eager to offer such advice to my readers whenever possible, I sometimes feel like there's just too much to Modern for one player to take on himself. Instead, today I'd like to offer a few nuggets of wisdom from a cross-section of players who are finding success in this Modern PTQ season, each with their own strategy.
I may as well begin at one of the extremes of Modern, which is the Eggs combo deck. With Seething Song now banned, Eggs stands alone as the only pure combo among Modern's top decks—it cannot be raced or disrupted through ordinary means. In fact, the neutering of Storm combo was doubly a boon for Eggs as it eliminated one of the few decks that could rival it in speed and indirectly reduced the prevalence of cards like Rule of Law and Relic of Progenitus in the format.
One man taking advantage of this trend is long-time Pro Tour player James Pirky. Mr. Pirky has been a terror of the New England PTQ scene since even before I got my start there five years back. Two weeks ago, he reached the semifinals of a Connecticut PTQ using an Eggs list that was developed on his team's forum, "Unexpected Results," and has brought others a similar level of success.
"Eggs is the most stable deck with a turn 4 goldfish," according to James. "As long as the white decks continue to dedicate fewer than four sideboard slots, it's clearly the best deck."
Those are strong words, but ones I can't argue with whatsoever. From a deckbuilder's perspective, I find it difficult to justify adding dedicated Eggs hate cards to my sideboard, as they're now applicable in almost no other matchups. In particular, Grafdigger's Cage is much more appealing than Relic of Progenitus because Cage relevantly disrupts the popular Birthing Pod decks. Unfortunately for me and fortunately for Eggs players, Grafdigger's Cage does not stop artifacts and lands from returning from the graveyard (again and again and again...).
"[To beat Eggs] you have to have a clock and at least one hate card. One without the other does nothing since Eggs is both fast and has a lot of manipulation."
For any deck other than Infect, a pure race against Eggs is a losing battle. Similarly, don't expect to sit long on a Rule of Law or Stony Silence, as the Eggs player has the ability to rifle through their deck quickly to find an answer.
Being one of the fastest decks in the format and making most normal forms of interaction useless seems a great place to be. For anyone comfortable playing combo, Eggs certainly gets my stamp of approval. As one last hot tip, James Pirky recommends Pongify or Rapid Hybridization as an answer to any hate bears that become popular in the future.
Compared to Eggs, Splinter Twin has the disadvantage of having to fight through the creature removal that many decks are maindecking anyway. However, what it gives up in that regard it makes up for in its ability to play a "fair" game of Magic, slinging its own removal spells in addition to counters, Blood Moons, and Spellskites.
According to two-time Magic Online Championship competitor David Caplan, Splinter Twin "gives a good player the most play of any deck." That's certainly no stretch; I can tell you from being on the other side of the matchup that the Twin player's capability to operate at instant speed, set up a key turn, and win the game without warning is simply terrifying.
This deck certainly meets James Pirky's criteria of "a clock and hate cards" (in the form of permission); Twin has inherent strengths against opposing combo decks.
There's only one thing I'd consider changing about David Caplan's fine-tuned decklist offered above. For a player as experienced and talented as him, it may come naturally to know when it's right to be patient and when it's time to "go for it." Personally, though, if I was picking up the deck for the first time, I would make it easy on myself and play Gitaxian Probe.
Modern is home to a number of decks that blur the line that separates combo decks from "fair" decks. Scapeshift, Affinity, Infect, Urzatron, and Birthing Pod can theoretically be beaten through traditional means—it's just not easy. Chief among these decks is G/W Hexproof.
Kar Yung Tom, of Team ManaDeprived fame, made Top 4 of back-to-back PTQs with G/W Hexproof, and along the way he lost a grand total of zero matches to any "fair" decks. "The deck is really consistent and only requires two lands to operate. People just pack no hate for it."
While Liliana of the Veil can be a threatening card, targeted removal, damage, and even "destroy" effects are mostly useless against G/W Hexproof because of the resilience of its creatures and the protection offered by Hyena Umbra and the others.
KYT explains that non-combo decks really need dedicated hate cards like Back to Nature or Ray of Revelation to have a fighting chance. He also adds that "it's one of the easiest modern decks to play." I usually gravitate away from decks like this, but even I'm tempted to pick this one up.
For a time, I considered G/R Tron to be an "anti-Jund" deck, built to go over the top and crush the players who were too focused on minor advantages and two-for-one trades. While that is an accurate description of Urzatron, I realize now that the deck's inherent power is enough for it to hold its own even in a changing metagame.
#TeamSCG member Josh Ravitz no longer has to PTQ after his Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Denver, but he piloted G/R Tron to a 7-3 record at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, played the deck up until the bannings, and is considering it again for upcoming Grand Prix San Diego.
"The best way to beat a turn 3 Karn used to be killing me beforehand with Past in Flames or Pyromancer Ascension; that's not viable anymore. Matching me one for one with land destruction isn't effective either because of the redundancy that Sylvan Scrying and Expedition Map offer."
Despite his affinity for the deck, Ravitz admits that it should come down to a metagame decision. If there's little nonbasic land hate and lots of decks that roll over to an Eldrazi, Tron is going to be a great choice. If there are too many Sowing Salts and everyone has a good plan to beat turn 3 Karn, then Tron may have to wait for another day.
- 1 Spellskite
- 1 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Deceiver Exarch
- 1 Glen Elendra Archmage
- 1 Harmonic Sliver
- 1 Izzet Staticaster
- 3 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 1 Thragtusk
- 1 Wall of Omens
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
- 2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
In my opinion, Birthing Pod gets the best of both worlds in the sense that it has a combo finish that can go over the top of an unsuspecting opponent but also gets to play real Magic cards that do things on their own. In fact, one advantage Pod has over Modern's other combo decks is its resilience to hate cards. Max Brown, who made Top 4 of three PTQs with Birthing Pod this season, explains:
"None of the decks that could threaten you with a hate card are able to play the hate cards. Blue decks can't play Grafdigger's Cage or Torpor Orb because they're too reliant on Snapcaster Mage. All they have is Stony Silence, which isn't even good since I shave Birthing Pods in those matchups anyway. Beatdown decks can play Grafdigger's Cage, but in those matchups, I'm moving away from Tutor effects and focusing more on 'value' creatures. When an aggro deck goes down a card trying to hose me, they're just playing into my plan."
Birthing Pod stands out to me as one of the strongest, most well balanced decks in Modern. The only question is which is better, Kiki-Jiki or Melira?
Max Brown offers three reasons why Kiki gets the nod over the other Pod:
1. "It's easier to assemble your combo." Two cards instead of three.
2. "Less vulnerable to hate and Deathrite Shaman." Doesn't use the graveyard.
3. "The cards are more synergistic with one another outside the combo." Restoration Angel with tons of enters-the-battlefield effects.
In the interest of fairness, I happen to know that on the other side of the Rocky Mountains this past weekend, fellow Magic Online Championship competitor Sam Pardee won a PTQ with Melira Pod. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for an interview, but I'm sure he would have a counterpoint or two for old Mr. Brown.
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 3 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Tarmogoyf
With that, we move on to the "fair" decks of Modern. That is, if you can rightly consider a deck that puts out 25 damage on turn 4 "fair."
Semantics aside, Gabe Carleton-Barnes won his Seattle PTQ the old-fashioned way: creatures and burn spells. If you've read up to this point, I bet you're wondering why someone would want to play fair Magic in Modern when there are so many unfair things to do! I know that after interviewing the players mentioned above, I felt the same way.
Then I found Mr. Carleton-Barnes winning decklist, and I reconsidered. Remember James Pirky's criteria for beating combo: a fast clock and a hate card? Well, R/G Aggro meets the first half with such flying colors that a single hate card, like his Blood Moon or Tormod's Crypt, is enough to bury a combo player! What's more is those decks that straddle the line—Twin, Pod, Tron—can be beaten with ordinary removal when the rest of the clock is in place! Yes, I believe there's still a home for old-fashioned aggro in Modern.
I asked Gabe what his R/G Aggro deck, designed by Manu Sutor, has over other "Zoo" decks. "This version is very explosive and can just outrace combo decks. The mana is easy, you can always play your spells, and you don't do tons of damage to yourself, which is an edge in the aggro 'mirror.'"
"Jund is awesome again."
-Logan "Jaberwocki" Nettles
One option is the build that Jaberwocki and Carlos Pal are championing. While aggressively slanted, it's a well-balanced deck packing removal and disruption and maintains the strength of the old Jund deck.
I'm curious to see how Jund develops, but in the meantime, allow me to impart to you a bit of simple, elegant wisdom that Jaberwocki gave me to help with my quest for the perfect Modern deck. "Whatever deck you play, make sure it has Tarmogoyf. It's the best card in the format."
Well said, sir.
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 2 Restoration Angel
- 4 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 4 Geist of Saint Traft
- 2 Vendilion Clique
The U/W/R Geist deck is the heir apparent to Jund as Modern's most popular, least attackable deck (I hesitate to use the word "best," though it may be applicable).
Harry Corvese, master of U/W/R in multiple formats, had quite a lot to say about the deck and its flagship card. "Think about a card like Geist of Saint Traft: you see it show up all over the place. I like how quickly it can close a game when the opponent is on few or no resources, and that's a place you find yourself frequently when playing a lot of removal and some light countermagic."
It's true—few cards in modern have the ability to close a game of magic like Geist of Saint Traft does. And while many decks make use of the card, the U/W/R shell is a particularly great home for it since cheap burn can clear a path and quicken the clock while countermagic stops the opponent from coming back from behind.
However, there's more than one way to play U/W in Modern, and Harry C. says he'll be experimenting with more of them. In part because, as he says, "Blue and white have the most powerful sideboard options available in Modern."
- 3 Kitchen Finks
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 3 Snapcaster Mage
- 2 Sun Titan
- 2 Wall of Omens
- 2 Vendilion Clique
I'll close by offering just one alternative to the Geist of Saint Traft strategy of U/W. When I asked Kevin "Kfed" Jones about his PTQ winning deck, the words he used repeatedly were "awesome," "smooth," and "consistent."
It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see why Mr. Jones feels that way. A high land count (25) in a two-color deck leaves a minimal chance for mana screw, but Tectonic Edge, Celestial Colonnade, and Sphinx's Revelation are insurance against flood.
Kevin explained that he preferred his deck over W/U/R Geist because "this deck can play a defensive role much better. I hated W/U/R Geist because once I would fall a little behind, all of my cards were suddenly bad."
We started at one extreme of the format with the brutal Eggs combo deck and with Splinter Twin, whose big strength comes against opposing combo decks. Now, we end with U/W Control, which in a sense is the king of Modern's "fair" decks. According to Kevin Jones, "Modern is a format based primarily on strong creature threats. U/W is amazing against creature decks."
From one extreme to the other, we've touched on a lot within the Modern format today. Perhaps you can identify with one of the successful players interviewed above and follow in their footsteps. If not, then I hope you've learned a little about what makes your opponents tick: why they choose the decks they choose and what you'll need to do to beat them. Either way, please remember just how much there is to the Modern format—too much for one player to take on themselves.