What makes for a good Modern deck?
That's one question I constantly ask myself when trying to evaluate the format. There isn't one answer, as a “good” deck is an intangible entity. When you see one, or play with one, you'll get a sense of whether or not it is a good deck. Some are a little harder to evaluate than others because they are a bit more complex. Others seem irrational on the surface, or just look like a pile of cards that the pilot chose to put into the same 75. Whatever the case may be, figuring out what to play in Modern isn't exactly easy, because there isn't really a right answer.
The easiest thing I can tell you about building a Modern deck is this: do the kind of things you like to do. Almost every type of deck is viable in Modern, so long as you build it correctly. You can either have all the answers or all the threats. You can play combo as long as your combo effectively wins the game, and as long as you have answers to the hate cards people will throw at you. Make sure you're doing something proactive, powerful, and utilizing the cards in your deck to their fullest potential.
- Garret Young is constantly trying to break Griselbrand.
- Jeff Hoogland keeps battling with Geist of Saint Traft.
- BBD won't stop jamming Collected Company.
- Tom Ross is branching out into Soul Sisters.
- Some go big on mana with Amulet Bloom or G/R Tron.
- Some push Jund or Abzan, while others stick to their guns with Snapcaster Mage.
And none of these people are wrong.
I don't want to tell you that your idea for a Modern deck is wrong, but only that it is possible you're going about building it the wrong way. Every deck in Modern has a soft spot, so making that spot as small as possible is important. It is also essential that you know what you're getting into as far as the other decks in the format are concerned.
If your deck can't beat Amulet of Vigor into Summer Bloom, you're going to have a bad time. If you can't beat a turn-three Karn Liberated, well, you're not alone. Of course, there are nut draws that few decks in Modern can beat, but being prepared enough to fend off their normal draws is important. Some decks require you to have specific hate cards to interact with them, and others take advantage of certain avenues of attack that are not necessarily “normal.”
This is one of the reasons why it is important to be proactive, but you also want elements in your deck that can interact with just about anyone. Cards like Remand or Thoughtseize have a lot of power in Modern because they can interact with just about any strategy on a generic level. But most combo decks are putting onus of interaction on the opponent. It is unfair to belittle a deck or combo just because it looks shaky or seems unfair. That is the job of the combo decks: to be unfair. If you can't interact with them, then that is probably a fault in your deck choice, or how you built your deck.
This can lead to some “feel bad” games, but that's the price you pay for playing such an expansive format. Modern contains some powerful stuff, and while it can occasionally feel like two decks playing solitaire that isn't the heart of the format. Modern is much more about building your deck properly than any other format, which can be a turnoff for many who just pick up a deck right before a tournament. Skill during gameplay is almost as important, but lacking the right answers in the right situations will lead to failure. A single incorrect sideboard choice or sequence of spells can result in defeat, and that is both a wonderful and terrifying place for a format to be.
Building The Best Remand Deck
If you've played Modern at all, you've probably had a few spells hit with Remand. It is a common tempo play out of blue decks in the format, as it helps them seamlessly hit land drops while keeping you from gaining any traction. Remand is pretty similar to Vapor Snag in that you trade time and resources to gain a small advantage. Both of these cards can be invalidated in one way or another, but both also get better when you have a threat in play. You want to trade up on mana when you cast your spells, and that creates “tempo.”
But tempo is just an idea, and one that few people understand how to capitalize on. You can gain tempo with a Remand by sending a more expensive spell back to their hand, but it doesn't actually get you anywhere if you're not taking advantage of that trade in mana. You're also not getting very far if you're not using the extra mana available to you when casting said Remand.
At times, Remand is effectively a Time Walk, taking up your opponent's entire turn while you use the rest of your mana to progress your board. Whether that means casting Tarmogoyf, Vendilion Clique, Tasigur, or even Hooting Mandrills is entirely up to you and how you build your deck. But Remand becomes much weaker if your opponent's deck is full of cards that trade down on Remand.
Decks like Burn, G/W Hexproof, and Affinity have a ton of spells that cost less than Remand, lowering its significance within the game. When they can easily recast their spell on the same turn, Remand is almost worthless. These are the matchups where your deck needs to find another angle of attack, and that is where your sideboard becomes invaluable.
But accentuating the strength of Remand is not just about trading up on mana and digging for more resources. Remand is more powerful when you force your opponent to play into it. When you get to cast Remand on your terms, on the spells you want it to hit, you're gaining another edge. Navigating the game to this point is key, but building your deck to put an emphasis on this concept is equally important.
This is one of the reasons why I love Tarmogoyf in the Splinter Twin decks. By having a cheap threat to play early in the game, you gain initiative over the next few turns. They're either forced to interact with your Tarmogoyf on your terms, or ignore it completely. You can accomplish this by casting the Tarmogoyf early enough to get under their counterspells, or casting it on the turn where you can potentially have a counterspell on backup. On top of all that, Tarmogoyf gives you a way to put a lot of pressure on combo, control, and midrange decks without investing a lot of resources. Cards like Tasigur, the Golden Fang don't die to Abrupt Decay, but are much worse in situations where you need an early threat or when keeping your graveyard intact is relevant. Tasigur is also legendary, making it bad in multiples, where I want to draw as many Tarmogoyfs as possible.
These types of alternate win conditions out of Splinter Twin can give you an element of misdirection. They become afraid of Tarmogoyf instead of your combo. You can also use your combo pieces like Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch to “protect” Tarmogoyf. As long as you keep them afraid, and guessing, they'll guess whatever you want them to guess.
Sometimes, you gotta walk the dog.
I will often upkeep a Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch to tap their land in hopes they kill it instead of Tarmogoyf. But when I have a Splinter Twin in hand, I will usually wait to see what they do first. If they tap out for some threat, I get to kill them. If they don't tap out for a threat, I might play a removal spell, Vendilion Clique, or something else to grab their attention.
During all this time, I'm picking and choosing the right spots to cast my Remand. I'm making calculated decisions on whether I should save that Remand for when they're using more of their mana, or on a more crucial turn. Most people just burn their Remand early, and that usually isn't a bad play, but it might not necessarily be the right play. Much like Thoughtseize, casting Remand at the first possible moment might not always be correct. You want to maximize the effectiveness of all your spells while also making sure you utilize your mana correctly each turn.
Remand And Winning The Counter Battle
When I'm playing a Remand deck against another blue deck, it feels like playing Legacy. There are so many small exchanges that take place over the course of the games where you can gain an advantage. It also helps if you have built your deck correctly to win the right fights, as having access to cheap counterspells is important for winning those battles.
Sometimes you won't draw the right counterspell for the right situation and you'll be on the losing side of an exchange, but you can leverage early pressure to mitigate how often that comes up or how much it impacts the rest of the game. When your opponent is playing into you, you will usually be the one who comes out on top. Gaining initiative in blue-on-blue matchups is important because it allows you to dictate the action and pace of the game. You get to put emphasis on the turns and points in the game that are favorable for you, forcing your opponent to react. When they're reacting how you want them to, you get to play your Remand and other counterspells in the spots where they benefit you the most.
When you get to pick your battles, you'll generally come out on top.
But one aspect of Remand that many people forget is that you can cast Remand on your own spell. This is particularly powerful if your opponent is attempting to Remand or counter your spell, as it effectively “bounces” it back to your hand while still drawing a card. This is a way to gain card advantage, and an alternate use for Remand if they have enough mana to just recast their counterspell. You don't always want to do this, as forcing through your spells is important for getting pressure on the board or even just flat-out winning, but it is a nifty trick that isn't exactly intuitive.
Remand is also absurd against an opposing Snapcaster Mage, but maybe not in the way you might think. Since Flashback has a clause that always exiles the spell after it leaves the stack, Remand will counter the spell, draw a card, and the spell doesn't get to go back to their hand. In blue matchups, Remand is often saved as a way to invalidate whatever card is brought back with Snapcaster Mage while drawing a card in the process. As most counterspells want to hit Snapcaster Mage itself to keep them from playing the spell out of their graveyard, this is another thing some people might miss.
Playing around your opponent's counterspell is also key. Creatures with Flash are huge in this regard because they allow you to use all of your mana while your opponent is in a weakened state (with most or all of their lands tapped). While they are in this weakened state, it is usually correct to deploy a threat such as Pestermite, Vendilion Clique, or even Deceiver Exarch. While they aren't all that menacing up front, making sure you have control of the board is important, and being the first person to get something into play is crucial.
If you've ever watched me play with Twin in Modern, I regularly cast Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch while my opponent is tapped out because I don't want them to get full value from their Remands. As I've emphasized already, making them cast their spells when you want them to is huge for taking control of a game. If you tap out, then they tap out, then you have the option to tap out again or just take care of their creature(s) while holding up mana for Remand, or... you get the picture. If you make it onto the board first, they have to deal with your threat while you get to protect it. I would always want to be the one protecting my threats instead of battling against theirs.
Understanding The Importance Of Snapcaster Mage
We all know by now that Snapcaster Mage is a powerful card. It dominated Standard during its time there, and has continued to be a presence in both Modern and Legacy since then. But what most people don't realize is that the best way to make use of Snapcaster Mage is to put the body to work. What good is flashing back a spell for two mana if the body on Snapcaster Mage isn't relevant?
This is yet another reason I like Tarmogoyf in the Splinter Twin decks, because it pairs nicely with Snapcaster Mage to put a lot of pressure on the opponent. If you're putting pressure on the opponent with two different threats, a single removal spell isn't going to clear the board and buy them enough time to claw back into the game. Damage in Modern adds up quickly thanks to Lightning Bolt and even your opponent's lands usually costing a few points here and there, so just two or more damage from a Snapcaster Mage can make all the difference.
Snapcaster Mage is also one of the only efficient ways to gain card advantage in Modern. It is generally one of the best spells you can draw in the late game, and one of the best ways for pushing an advantage you already have. If you're able to use Snapcaster and Lightning Bolt to take care of two creatures, you've spent a grand total of four mana and two cards for two removal spells and a 2/1 creature. If they spent more than four mana on those threats, you're in even better shape, but the more important thing here is that you've gained a card even if that card is just a 2/1 creature. This is why it is key to make the best out of that body. Having an extra card isn't all that useful if the extra card is just a 2/1 pushed into chump-block mode.
But Snapcaster Mage can also be invalidated by something as small as Scavenging Ooze or knocked out of your hand by Inquisition of Kozilek. Finding the right time to cast Snapcaster Mage isn't always easy because there are limitations to playing an early Snapcaster Mage. These are the times where you need to make calculated decisions on the importance of what you're doing. If drawing a card is helping you build the board and hit land drops, then it probably is worth it. However, if you are playing a matchup where having another virtual copy of Roast or Lightning Bolt is key, it might be better to save it.
You also need to know what matchups and what situations where it is right to just jam an Ambush Viper into play. Like Tarmogoyf, Snapcaster Mage can be an early form of pressure. This is one of the many reasons why I like some number of Gitaxian Probes in most Splinter Twin decks. Being able to see their hand is nice, but making sure you can apply early pressure while still drawing a card is huge! Not nearly enough people play a “naked” Snapcaster Mage, but recognizing when you need to apply pressure is important in Modern.
From Translation To Execution
Everything written above can be executed in one example. It is a deck I've talked a lot about over the last year, but one that continues to be overshadowed by other variations of Splinter Twin.
Perhaps it is only that this deck plays to my strengths more than any other deck in the format, or perhaps I'm wrong about how good the deck actually is. Regardless, I've done incredibly well with the archetype over the last year, and I don't see any reason for me to play anything else. As I've written before, this version of Splinter Twin is the best for making the transition between combo and aggro/tempo. So many of your cards are versatile, and can be played at many important points of the game. I win about as much with Tarmogoyf as I do with Splinter Twin in Game Ones, and I probably win with Lightning Bolt more than anything else. Of course, that isn't possible without the initial pressure created by Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage, but my opponent is usually able to kill those before they end the game on their own. Lightning Bolt is just there to mop up after the carnage.
The options out of the sideboard are geared towards what I think will show up in the highest number. Jund is on the rise, and Huntmaster of the Fells is likely the best option available there for the cost. It isn't that hard to hit four mana in this deck, with Serum Visions, Gitaxian Probe, and Remand helping you along. But the main point is that, against those decks, you need a threat that has a big effect. The life and extra creature from Huntmaster, as well as the “you must kill this” effect is strong. You can also flip it back and forth with ease since so many of your cards are cheap and can be played at instant speed.
You can tell I'm excited to play this deck. Genuine, raw, real excitement, because not only is this deck a blast to play, it is also one of the most powerful things you can be doing in the format. We don't have as much protection for our combo as the U/R versions, but you don't really need that stuff. It just rots in your hand when you don't have the combo. Just think of Tarmogoyf like a Spellskite that can attack. If they don't kill it first, it will likely get the job done by itself.
But this deck is not that easy to play, and that could push people away from the archetype. It deals with a lot of the fundamentals of Modern (and Magic) that we discussed above. Blue decks in Modern are probably not where you want to start if you're just getting into the format. I've learned a lot playing this style of deck over the last few years, and I'm still learning new stuff every time I pick it back up for a tournament.
I know that this is the right pick for me for Grand Prix Charlotte. I might change a card or two before the event based on what I read or hear people talking about, but that's the nature of these customizable Modern decks. If you have enough card manipulation to find the singletons you need, and you can also find a good combination of cards that all do kind of the same stuff (see Roast vs. Dismember), it is probably correct to mix it up a little. Roast and Dismember do very different things in specific situations, but both kill five-toughness creatures. The extra life and instant speed is worth it against stuff like Splinter Twin, but unlike Dismember your Roast will still be castable when you're at a low life total.
Give and take. That's just how it is in Modern. When you find a deck, play it until you are sick of it, then play it some more. After that, you'll probably have a good understanding of what the deck wants, how to make it better, and how to play it proficiently. No deck is ever perfect, which is why we're constantly tweaking the numbers and changing the manabase. Building a deck like this feels much more like creating a piece of art than an exact science, but I think that's how you should approach a format as diverse and unforgiving as Modern. Have fun with it. Make some oddball card choices. You might just be surprised how good those oddball choices can be.