"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic."
–Arthur C. Clarke
Of all the current competitive Magic formats, Modern is the least rigidly defined and thus the most exploitable by way of superior strategy. The recent banning of Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song has left a significant void in the metagame and an opportunity for savvy deckbuilders to capitalize on a transitional format.
"Red, historically the most powerful color in Magic, is once again brought down a notch."
The Modern Grand Prix in San Diego is only days away, and I have spent the last week learning as much as possible in preparation for the event. While I haven't decided exactly what to play in San Diego, in theory I like the idea of playing blue midrange or control. In today's article, I will share what I have learned about Modern in preparation for Grand Prix San Diego.
Let's Talk About Technology
In Magic, as in all things, the person with the best information is at an advantage over all less informed parties. The benefits of being "in the know" are extensive and culminate in the likelihood of greater tournament success. The pursuit of achievement is what motivates players to read strategy articles like this one, scour Magic Online for trends, and playtest extensively with friends and teammates.
The end result of this arduous preparation is the creation of new technology for tournaments. When players refer to technology, or tech, they refer to innovative and/or novel cards selections that directly address the anticipated decks of potential competitors.
DeMars' Household Tales
Once upon a time, there was a Standard format of Mirrodin and Kamigawa blocks. Two popular decks from that time were Mono Blue and Tooth and Nail. A big problem for the Mono Blue deck was that Tooth and Nail could easily find the land Boseiju, Who Shelters All and use it to make their Tooth and Nail uncounterable.
One day I was watching a game of this matchup where the green mage produced an uncounterable Tooth and Nail. Game over, right?
"Whatever will the blue mage do?!"
The blue mage calmly cast Twincast and copied the Tooth and Nail. With his copy of Tooth and Nail, he searched up Uyo, the Silent Prophet and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and used Uyo's ability to again copy the Tooth and Nail. The next copy of Tooth and Nail found Venser, Shaper Savant (which finally bounced the opposing T.A.N.) and a Darksteel Colossus. The Kiki-Jiki copied the DSC, and the game was over.
It was quite the turnabout.
"Counters opponent's uncounterable 'win the game' spell and deals 39 damage for UU. Not bad."
If you know the other player is going to try to beat your counterspells with Boseiju, then you have to find a trump to trump their trump.
Here's another example of sick tech from the age of Kamigawa (I was going to pick one, but they are both so cool I couldn't decide which).
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...I was playing the green mirror at Michigan States (Birds, Swords, Jitte, Plow Under, Eternal Witness, Kodama's Reach, Troll Ascetic, etc.). I had the absolute nut draw with my opponent dead on board on my next turn with no conceivable play he could make to survive. He had a Troll Ascetic and nothing else and was at two life.
"The original miracle off the top blowout."
He had been holding the Plains and topdecked one of his multiple copies of Worship. You see, in a deck that plays Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, and Birds of Paradise for fixing, he had figured out he could easily board a Plains and multiple copies of Worship. I had zero outs to Worship + Troll Ascetic and conceded. I had never seen that technology, and it didn't even occur to me to board in an answer to it.
While Magic is a decade removed from Kamigawa Standard, the general lessons from these stories remain poignant to this day. Good technology can devastate an opponent's strategy and can singlehandedly defeat even the best of opposing draws.
Brave New Red, White, & Blue
One deck I have been working on for the Grand Prix is a U/W/R midrange deck.
The deck is pretty straightforward and features quality attackers, tempo-based permission, and burn. Various red decks have been popular and performing well online, which means that midrange decks should be a solid choice to defend against the threat.
Unfortunately, midrange decks tend to fare poorly against linear decks like Tron and Dredge. Against Tron, I do not believe it matters tremendously whether U/W/R positions itself on the more controlling or more aggressive side because the matchup is bad either way.
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn gives Tron a game-ending threat that permission cannot defend against. Rather than be a control deck, it seems more optimal to be an aggressive tempo deck and hope they stumble.
Let's go over some of the cool technology I have discovered while preparing for this tournament.
"Reckoner is the name; wrecking aggro is my game."
Modern is a fairly shaken up format, and the recent Magic Online success of various red beatdown decks doesn't surprise me in the slightest. When things are up in the air, simply putting the opponent on a clock is never the worst option available.
Boros Reckoner is very, very good against these very aggressive decks. They have to remove him, and he is going to take something off the board with him when he dies. If they can't remove him, uh-oh...
He is also a pretty reasonable-sized threat against more controlling decks. He dies to Lightning Bolt but sends the damage back at their face, which isn't insignificant in a deck full of burn.
"To be fair, it's like 95% War and 5% Peace."
Swords are really, really good right now, and that might be an understatement.
I tried out Sword of Fire and Ice (which was also fantastic) and found that in either case hitting somebody twice usually just killed them. The extra cards were nice but often didn't matter because my opponent was just dead. The biggest reason that I liked Sword of War and Peace was that it gave protection from Path to Exile and Restoration Angel, which was a big deal. (The first time your Spirit token from Moorland Haunt wearing a Sword of Fire and Ice gets ambushed by a topdecked Restoration Angel, you will understand.)
In any deck that plays creature, I think that looking to Swords to break stalls and games wide open is certainly a powerful option.
"People should play this card Moor."
Most of my testing has been heavily influenced from discovering that this card is very, very good right now.
Opposing U/W/R decks are on the one-for-one plan, which means that producing an uncounterable threat that forces them to answer it every turn is fantastic. It is especially good because it provides a never-ending army of creatures capable of wearing a Sword!
"Whoever said 'white planeswalkers can't Jump' was clearly mistaken."
The same idea behind Moorland Haunt applies here: we are looking to play cards that create more than a card. Elspeth can do two important things really well in a midrange blue deck. First, she is a card that creates virtual card advantage; if she hits the battlefield, an opponent won't be able to answer her profitably. Second, she can come out of nowhere and surprise an opponent with a bunch of damage.
For instance, I had a game where my opponent was at ten life and tapped out for a Batterskull when I had four lands and no board presence in play. I Bolted him, cast Snapcaster Mage to flash back my Bolt, untapped, played Elspeth, Jumped my Snapcaster Mage over his Batterskull, and killed him.
Also, planeswalkers are awesome.
"Ha-llow, I love you."
There are a lot of burn decks, and Hallow is a card that people with Snapcaster Mages should really be considering. Against people who are just trying to cast Boros Charm and Bump in the Night at your face, simply drawing this card alongside a Snapcaster Mage is pretty much unbeatable.
Seven More Cards Worth Knowing About
Over the past two weeks, I got to play a bunch of Modern, and while not every deck I shuffled up was something to write home about, I stumbled upon some cards that are quite good and underplayed.
"Was watching The Three Stooges. I cast Shadow of Doubt. Curly stopped dancing."
Wow, that one was terrible even for me.
Anyway, while I was testing for the first Modern tournament ever, Pro Tour Philadelphia, Patrick Chapin was very keen on Shadow of Doubt and built many decks featuring the card. While it is true those were different times (Cloudpost times to be exact), the fact remains that Shadow of Doubt is still a pretty sweet card.
For the same reason that Stifle is fantastic in Legacy, Shadow of Doubt is good in Modern. That reason is that fetchlands are among the best and most important cards in the format. Disrupting an opponent's ability to fetch out a land with Shadow of Doubt can fall anywhere in the range of a modest two-for-one (you draw a card) to a crippling blowout that mana screws an opponent out of a game.
Countering any land drop in a blue mirror with this is a huge deal. Also, ever counter Gifts Ungiven with this sucker? BlOwOuT!!!
I played four of this card in my Five Color deck (I lost in the finals of 5C Worlds) to offset my black card commitment. It is not unreasonable to get freebies with this card. For instance, it says players can't search until end of turn. So, somebody would cast a Tutor, and I would Shadow them. Then I would cast a spell on their end step, they would crack a fetchland to cast a spell in response, and oops.
This is a real card, so be aware and play around it when you can.
"Tyler Perry Presents: Big Mana's House."
At Worlds in San Francisco (aka the tournament that got Punishing Fire and Wild Nacatl banned), I played a Four-Color Control Cruel Ultimatum deck to a 4-2 finish and lost only to the card Punishing Fire. My deck was largely built on the back of resolving the powerful Coalition Relic and using it to not only fix my mana but power out absurdly powerful and over the top spells.
Here is that list for reference:
- 1 Batterskull
- 3 Coalition Relic
- 1 Engineered Explosives
- 1 Nihil Spellbomb
- 1 Careful Consideration
- 2 Cryptic Command
- 1 Doom Blade
- 1 Gifts Ungiven
- 2 Lightning Bolt
- 1 Logic Knot
- 2 Mystical Teachings
- 1 Nature's Claim
- 1 Pact of Negation
- 1 Punishing Fire
- 1 Slaughter Pact
- 1 Smother
- 1 Spell Burst
- 1 Tendrils of Corruption
- 2 Cruel Ultimatum
- 1 Damnation
- 1 Firespout
- 1 Life from the Loam
Coalition Relic is a card that should be in the conversation for anybody trying to cast spells that cost more than four mana. It is also pretty sweet that it is an artifact for the purpose of playing Thirst for Knowledge.
Cavern of Souls is absolutely backbreaking in the blue mirror match where using Spell Snare to stop opposing Snapcaster Mages is very, very important. Besides for being good in the blue mirror match, Cavern of Souls is generally very good in Modern right now.
With Bloodbraid Elf out of the equation, I expect that people looking for an easy two-for-one creature will move to Snapcaster Mage as the default strategy of choice. U/W/R Snapcaster decks have been very popular and among the best performing decks on Magic Online in the past week.
"Godon't underestimate this Commander staple."
I already wanted to play Batterskull in almost every deck that I put together, but one of the big problems was that it is difficult to resolve against opposing blue decks.
As I've already stated, I also think that Swords are very well positioned right now. Between Swords and Batterskull, there are a lot of cards worth getting with Godo that I might already want to be playing.
Six mana is a hefty cost, but for that investment putting seven power (four of which is lifelink) onto the battlefield is pretty sweet. If you attack with Godo, don't forget that since the Batterskull has vigilance it also gets to attack twice.
Expecting both to live is probably expecting too much, but nonetheless he is an extremely powerful card and effect to have at your disposal. The main reason I like him is that he combos nicely with Cavern of Souls against counterspell decks. I already want to put Cavern on Human to protect my Snapcasters, and it is pretty huge pressure to tap out for Godo on turn 6 or so.
Another thing to consider is that Blinking Godo with Restoration Angel is crazy.
"The luck of the Bantish."
I'm not saying that I will play Bant at GP San Diego, but it is certainly something worth considering. U/W decks stand out to me as very strong options for beating up on the aggro hordes, and while U/W/R stands out as the premier U/W deck so far,one could also make a case for playing green over red.
While making broad blanket statements is often an exercise in futility, if somebody put a gun to my head and asked me what the best card in Modern is, my answer would be Tarmogoyf. To play green as a third color is basically to play Tarmogoyf, but other than the Richard Goyfus, Bant options are sparse.
I played Bant in Modern to a ninth place finish at GP Columbus and can comment on how good Bant Charm is. The flexibility that it provides made it one of the best cards in my deck, and many close games were won on the back of the Charm.
I destroyed a Birthing Pod.
I destroyed a Cranial Plating.
I countered a Gifts Ungiven.
I exiled a Wurmcoil Engine.
Bant Charm is a card that I believe is actually better positioned now than ever before.
Birthing Pod, Cranial Plating, and Gifts are all still things that people do. However, without Bloodbraid Elf in the format, Cryptic Command is more popular than ever. Batterskull is also a card seeing more play in Modern that I would happily use my flexible maindeck Shatter to blow up (and grow my Goyf!).
"Modern is full of creatures that will, in fact, die in a fire."
I strongly contest that the only reason Firespout isn't seeing more play in Modern is that Patrick Chapin isn't actively brewing for the format! When I used to test with Patrick when he lived in Michigan, we were always working on midrange-control decks with Firespout for old Extended (which is fairly similar to modern...Modern).
Firespout is one of the best cards at punishing swarming rush decks full of Kird Apes, Burning-Tree Emissarys, Flinthoof Boars and the like. It also clears out Geist of Saint Traft, which is a card that is often a problem for a slower deck. It provides flexibility in that one can hit only the sky or air and also doesn't hit Restoration Angel, which is presumably a card a midrange deck would be playing already.
While Supreme Verdict has established itself as the premier "sweeper" in Modern, such status is probably more a function of U/W being so popular (as opposed to RUG). Firespout is also unique in that it is a three-mana board sweep, which could be relevant if Verdict on turn 4 turns out to be too slow against aggro decks.
"Caw-Blade: The Next Generation"
Squadron Hawk has already seen some play in the Soul Sisters deck (where I have always thought it was plain and simple one of its best cards), but I think the card is capable of expanding beyond SS.
If Modern does in fact become a format of grinding out wins against U/W/R and Jund, Squadron Hawk, especially coupled with equipment, could be a pretty huge game. Against decks that are trying to set up two-for-ones with Liliana of the Veil or Snapcaster Mage, a Bird "card" that is really four Bird "cards" seems pretty good.
Over and Out
Well, I hope that some of the spicy tech cards I have suggested find their way into your 75 for Grand Prix San Diego or your next PTQ. At the very least, it is useful to know these cards exist to play around them.
I am really looking forward to the Grand Prix and can't wait to see the cool tech that comes from the event!
Good luck everybody, and thanks for reading.