Last weekend I played in another Modern PTQ, the last one that was available to me without travel. Unfortunately, despite starting off strong, I was unable to take a draw in the last round and lost to a G/B Midrange deck, eliminating me from contention for the Top 8. Still, I liked my deck and felt that not playing Verdant Catacombs for a change was likely a good choice for me. Of course, I still think that the G/B strategies, Pod included, are the strongest decks, but just like in Standard I'm a little tired of the grind. If Mono-Black Devotion is the best deck in Standard and I know it, I'm still tired of it and that factors into my decision about playing (or not playing) the deck. The same applies here.
Before the event began I knew that I really wanted to play blue cards, specifically Snapcaster Mage. That left me with a few choices, theoretically, but since G/B rock style strategies are so prominent (not to mention simply "good"), I felt that Splinter Twin strategies were probably not the right way to go. Facing off against four Abrupt Decays when your strategy is to stick A+B together is not something I was too interested in. It's worth noting that the U/W/R Kiki Control deck dodges this problem by using an A with mana cost > four (dodging Abrupt Decay),and that might elevate it from the rest of the bunch as a choice against G/B decks that isn't susceptible to the usual hate.
Once I eliminated Splinter Twins from my range (for this event anyway, Tarmo-Twin might be good), that left me with only a few choices. Since I wanted to pair my Snapcaster Mages with Restoration Angels if possible, I was further restricted. Originally I was going to play some kind of durdly control strategy, but I didn't really have anything that I was excited about since I don't think U/W/R is great at the moment. For me, this was particularly bad as I didn't want to slog through another PTQ only to fall short in the end AND not enjoy myself at the same time. I would've been better off trying to grind with a Verdant Catacombs deck! Definitely not what I wanted to be doing.
So, when I was shown this list by someone whose opinion I trust, I was eager to latch on. It was exciting.
Ordinarily, the construction of this deck would leave something to be desired for me, and since there's essentially no card drawing or card selection, finding the two-of that you want at any particular time is not going to be any easier than you may think it is (which is to say, not that easy). But this deck fulfilled all of my wishlist items for this PTQ and more.
First, I got to play blue cards. Admittedly, not that many of them.
4 Snapcaster Mage -- First and foremost, check. This was the most important thing for me. Not playing something like Gitaxian Probe, Thought Scour, or Serum Visions to "maximize" Snapcaster Mage never came up for me; it was always valuable. Things never really worked out with Restoration Angel and Snapcaster Mage teaming up, but theoretically, that could have been nice as well.
0 Cryptic Command -- Why? Well, 1UUU is a steep cost, and this deck's mana is great, but it isn't full of filter lands like Cascade Bluffs. Ironically, it is often the three-color decks that have the best manabases in this format. That being said, I also think Cryptic Command is not particularly well-suited to the metagame right now. It's hard to counter a timely Birthing Pod with it, it's easy for them to Thoughtseize it or play around it once they've seen it, and it's particularly bad against Affinity. There happens to be a lot of Affinity in this area, and I wanted to make sure I could beat it, so when this deck didn't have Cryptic Command, I took that as a good thing.
2 Remand, 2 Mana Leak and 2 Spell Snare -- These are all great cards, and under different circumstances or at different times I've played four of each, and for that matter, perhaps even four of each altogether at once in the same deck. Now, however, the metagame does not call for a counter-heavy deck. Instead, a proactive tempo-based strategy seems best, and these cards can easily fit into that strategy. With each of these spells costing two or less mana, it will be easy to create a tempo advantage, and that's really what we're looking for. Still, against a deck like Burn or being on the draw against a heavy discard strategy, keeping in too many expensive counters (contextually speaking, two mana is expensive) can still be dangerous.
4 Lightning Bolt, 2 Warleader's Helix, 2 Electrolyze, and 4 Lightning Helix -- This is a lot of burn. It's not insignificant, and it is actually an integral part of the deck's strategy. Of note, I don't think Lightning Bolt is particularly great in the format now, but it happens to be great against Affinity and can always kill Dark Confidant. The fact that I had access to 36 points of burn without counting Snapcaster Mages really made things difficult for my opponents. Electrolyze is not particularly well-suited to burning one's opponent out, but it can get the job done in a pinch, so I've included it here.
Many of my opponents did not know what deck I was playing or what cards were in my deck. It's very easy to present as whichever U/W/R strategy when playing this deck. If I never cast Sphinx's Revelation or Supreme Verdict, they might still play around it or assume I'm playing the card and haven't drawn it. A resolved Restoration Angel is still something for them to be afraid of. I could easily, for example, cast a Kiki-Jiki on the following turn! Most U/W/R strategies cannot really take advantage of a low life total created from aggressively fixing one's mana, but I sure could. I'd fire off an end of turn Lightning Helix to set up a Snapcaster Mage or something and all of the sudden they're at eight life facing down a grip full of cards and a Snapcaster Mage! How did that happen?
More than one of my opponents made sarcastic remarks or faces or eye-rolls about my Warleaders Helixes -- before losing to them. The thing is, for four mana, I would expect a bit more than Warleader's Helix provides, but really, it is enough. There's nothing you're really aiming for at four toughness; killing Restoration Angel, Deceiver Exarch or Ravager of the Fells is nice, but taking 20% of your opponent's life total out from under them is even nicer. Also, while Cryptic Command's 1UUU casting cost becomes very prohibitive with a Snapcaster (2UUUU is quite a lot of blue mana) 3WUR to flashback the Helix is pretty doable! I drew both copies of Warleader's Helix in multiple games and was quite happy to do so. I wasn't afraid to board them out when I felt like that was called for (especially against Melira Pod, for example). However, on more than one occasion the lifegain put me into a game-winning position. Against Ad Nauseum combo I was able to double Helix up to 27 in response to the Ad Nauseum, he only had enough land left to do 25 damage.
Against Scapeshift, repeatedly Helixing (both varieties) made it ever more challenging for my non-Prismatic Omen-sporting opponent to actually kill me, giving me more and more time to draw my sideboard permission and disruption spells. Finally I did get paired against a burn deck in one round. It's something that happens from time to time in Modern, and it's quite scary, but I was ready for the challenge. I was careful not to spend too much life fixing my mana and was able to narrowly win.
The one major difference between the list I played and the list above is that I played Geist of Saint Traft instead of Blade Splicer. I really like Geist of Saint Traft, and Blade Splicer is kind of mopey. Geist of Saint Traft synergizes well with the burn spells in the deck and presents a quick clock against combo decks. What I didn't consider was the impact of that single card choice against the most important opponent in the room (the BG/x decks). Throughout the course of the day I played against Melira Pod twice, G/B decks twice, Scapeshift, Ad-Nauseum combo, Splinter Twin, and Burn. Both of my losses were to Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf in tandem. Things never broke my way in practice but still, I felt like there was a pretty big hole in my strategy here. The thing is, had I just included Blade Splicer instead, I think the matchup might really turn around in the other direction. Of course, it's important to consider that I might have lost other matchups with Blade Splicer instead, but I digress. Not only does the mopey part of the Splicer (the 1/1) effectively nullify Liliana of the Veil (instead of providing the juiciest possible target as Geist of Saint Traft does), but it provides card advantage with an option for more in the future which is exactly what Jund strategies don't want to play against. This really would change the texture of the matchup so significantly that I am a little embarrassed to have overlooked it so entirely and also not compensated for it with a different sideboard plan.
The Blade Splicers also provide a great Restoration Angel target, one that if your opponent has to actually use a spell, removing will generate advantage either way. After all, if they're Abrupt Decaying the Splicer AND the Golem, you're still up a card, and it's not like the Angel is dead either. It's just a great flier big enough to block just about everything in the format. But, unfortunately, not having tested the matchup or the deck at all, I didn't compensate for this.
I think the last card I haven't touched upon yet is Thundermaw Hellkite. I think anyone who knew me when Thundermaw Hellkite was in Standard knew of my distaste for it. The card as printed doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The mana that was available in Standard at the time meant that a card that costed 3RR could be included in just about any deck with any number of colors, be it one, two, three, four, or even five in some cases. Had they costed it at 2RRR the card would not have been noticeably worse, but it would have been much harder to splash. I was never happy to play against or lose to the Hellkite, and it was excellent against the decks I was choosing at the time, be they Jund or Lingering Souls decks, or what have you.
Modern is full of Jund and Lingering Souls decks. Admittedly, the game I won against B/G strategies in the PTQ (I went 1-4 in games, winning one game 1 in Round 8 against straight Green before losing twice to eliminate myself from Top 8) was on the back of a topdecked dragon. I never got to actually kill anything with Thundermaw Hellkite, but I could have possibly tried to kill a Pestermite with one at one point. Notably, if there is a lot of Twin in your area, you may want to play a Cavern of Souls in your deck to enable exactly that.
However, since I didn't get paired against any of the many GBw "junk" decks hanging around, my Thundermaws were merely great instead of amazing. Though again, they can be sided out.
Sideboarding with the deck is tricky. In Modern, you can't devote your sideboard to simply beating a few decks or strategies. You can't play three or four copies of four different cards and call it a day; you need to diversify. As such, you won't often have enough cards to take out everything that you may want to take out. In a lot of the matchups you're replacing 6s with 6.5s and 7s, so to speak -- upgrades, yes, but small ones. For the most part you're okay with presenting mostly blue or mostly white depending on what your opponent is doing, but there is the burn element to consider. Keeping the burn cards in your deck is a way to increase your clock, so to speak.
Here again for convenience is the sideboard I used:
All good cards but not a particularly cohesive sideboard in my opinion.
Throughout the day, I got to sideboard in each of these cards, but I wasn't particularly happy with how some of them played out. For example, Wrath of God didn't seem particularly good to me except when I boarded out my Geist of Saint Trafts, which I never wanted to do. I did, however, do just that against Liliana decks. Tapping out for a Wrath of God would open myself up to a Liliana or another hard-to-kill creature, which then puts you in a spot where you need to find another Wrath of God.
I do think it makes sense to play Wrath of God instead of Anger of the Gods; killing Sigarda, Host of Herons and Thrun, the Last Troll are noteworthy and worthwhile abilities of the card. Having access to Wrath of God also makes it quite unlikely that you'll lose the match to Affinity, especially in conjunction with all the other cards.
Wear // Tear is great. It can kill everything from Splinter Twin to Cranial Plating to Bow of Nylea to Sword of Light and Shadow and Batterskull to Blood Moon and Birthing Pod. I wouldn't leave home without these, and while we can't play a third copy due to space constraints, I'd happily try to play a third if I could fit it in.
Crucible of Worlds is great as well. Any time you want to be Tectonic Edging you will like to have access to this card. It makes grinding out Jund easier too, and it lets you discard lands to Liliana in a pinch and then put them into play. Tron, Scapeshift, and even just random decks like Twin, which due to your plethora of strong removal can degenerate into a long game, can reward you for having access to an unlimited amount of Tectonic Edges.
Threads of Disloyalty is good when it's good, which is to say sometimes. Against Tarmo-Twin it's good. Against B/G decks, it's fine. That's about it. I'm not sure how I feel about this and if I'd include it going forward, or if I'd include another copy in order to try to bolster my gameplan against those BGx decks.
Relic of Progenitus and Rest in Peace really did not make me happy. On the one hand, they were okay. I never used Rest in Peace because I didn't run into any Living End decks, and I didn't want to both shut off my own Snapcaster Mages and essentially mulligan by putting the Rest in Peace into play. The fact that Relic of Progenitus can mitigate Tarmogoyf just doesn't excite me in this deck. With access to so much removal and lifegain as well as durable, flying creatures, racing goyfs is not really an issue. But, shutting off Snapcaster Mage really IS an issue. Maybe the play is to board out Snapcaster Mage when boarding these things in, but the prospect of doing that against the B/G decks doesn't really excite me. Especially given the times when you need to ambush a Liliana EOT or just flashback a burn spell to remove a Liliana or a Dark Confidant.
Dispel and Negate were excellent for me when I got paired against other blue decks, and they played a crucial role in my win against the Ad Nauseum. Admittedly that is an unlikely pairing from what I've seen at tournaments. Having access to hard counters to combine with the Vendilion Clique and the Snapcaster Mages make it so you can easily counter and tempo out the combo decks you might play against. The decks in Modern are scary, but they aren't Legacy scary. You'll get to play a third or fourth land for the most part, and each counterspell you draw probably buys you another one-and-a-half to two turns, which will then let you reuse the spells with Snapcaster Mage. I'd probably play another Vendilion Clique moving forward. Most games I played against decks that could present a two card combo-kill, or even Scapeshift (one card), I wanted to board into an end-of-turn deck. Vendilion Clique really adds to that strategy in a way that I can't quantify with words.
Izzet Staticaster is, of course, a great card when you board it in. It especially shines against Pod and Affinity but is more than welcome against Lingering Souls as well. A second copy would be worthwhile depending on what you think you'll see going forward. I know I'd be excited to have two in my sideboard.
I knew when I was drawing my sideboard Thundermaw Hellkite because it was different from the two I had in the maindeck, and I know that the extra copy did not earn its spot. I think I'd be telling another story if I'd gotten paired against a bunch of Junk decks rather than zero, but even so, it probably makes sense to economize and just play the extra Izzet Staticaster instead.
Timely Reinforcements is the last card in the sideboard that I played, and it was wholly underwhelming. Admittedly, I am not sure exactly if it should come in against B/G decks to help nullify Liliana or just catch you up, but I'm thinking not. I got paired against Burn once, and if there's a lot of Burn in your area, I'd consider a second copy because it's excellent against those decks.
When discussing these sideboard cards I've often cited the necessity of knowing your metagame, and I think that's a real thing. You'll get rewarded for building your deck to beat Affinity (if you live near me in the PNW that's true), and I'm sure in other metagames there are more Tron or Living End decks that you should metagame against.
One card that I didn't play in my sideboard but wish I had, is Keranos, God of Storms. It's quite unlikely that you'll be devoted enough to turn Keranos into a creature, but that's almost a positive -- it means he isn't likely to leave the battlefield once he enters. Just like with Pack Rat, in Modern people aren't playing the cards that can punish you for this. There's no Deicide and very few Unravel the AEthers. I saw Cedric Philips play Keranos in his Pod deck! That is exciting to me but probably too cute to be good. However, in this deck, when you're switching gears and playing the control game, I think it's a good fit. It's worth tapping out for, and like I said, it can't be interacted with.
These are the fifteen cards I'd like to try out, but unfortunately, I don't have another PTQ to play in this season. Why don't you, dear readers, try it out and let me know how it goes?