Why on earth would I choose to play a fair deck in Modern?
That was the biggest question on my mind as I looked over the decks from #GPPitt in preparation for the Modern portion of the #SCGINVI in Vegas next week. To say my decision to fly out was a last-minute thing is I suppose not totally accurate, but I did book my flight less than a month in advance. Sometimes you just need an extra segment to hit Gold status, and I figured it was better to scrub out of a tournament in Las Vegas than in New Jersey or Denver. Unlike many people, I do play a lot of Modern, and I have played my share of fair decks. I won't lie to you, I considered a few of them: Abzan, B/G, Jeskai, and even Bant. At one point I even toyed with the prospect of bringing back Norin Sisters to combat all the Twin decks.
Okay, so it was a very small point, but the consideration was there…
Through all this thinking, the question from the opening line kept floating back to the top of my conscious. Yes, Abzan has a lot of flexible removal and some very powerful threats, like Siege Rhino. Yes, B/G has similar strengths without the drawback of losing to Blood Moon, but also without Siege Rhino. The Geist decks have a great combination of resilient threats and either burn or mana acceleration. The one thing that none of them can do, with the exception of Bant Geist perhaps, is just give you a free win. In a format where you can die on turn 2, why would I not want to be one of the people killing on turn 2? Hopefully my thought process in choosing my Modern deck will help you settle on something for the Premier IQ at #SCGDEN or the Modern portion of the #SCGINVI.
Amulet Me Entertain You
The first place I went after deciding to drop any pretense of playing fair was the Amulet Bloom deck that has been the subject of so much ban chatter. I have played the deck a handful of times and the puzzle aspect is right up my alley, which seems to be the main reason people shy away from it. I love combo decks, partly because we get to win fast and out of nowhere but also partly because finding the right line stretches my mind beautifully.
Mike Sigrist piloted this version to a 9th place finish at #GPPitt:
I believe Amulet Bloom is the most powerful of the combo decks in the format. Although many of our potential choices can win on turn 2, Amulet Bloom does it far more often. As so much of the combo relates to lands, it's also harder to interrupt this early in the game. I also really like the inclusion of a second win condition in Hive Mind, letting you win without an attack step or through removal sometimes. I prefer the versions with a bit more focus on that (cutting, for example, the single Simian Spirit Guide, which basically only exists to enable the turn 1 kill), but this is about as close to the list I would play as it gets.
However, power level alone is not enough to make me pick the deck up. An early Blood Moon leaves you needing one of two basic Forests and then a Nature's Claim or a Seal of Primordium, or you just lose. Mike was clearly aware of that as he has Swan Song in the sideboard as a one mana counter to the game-wrecking enchantment, but again, that's slim pickings. Unlike a lot of decks that struggle under Blood Moon, this one has virtually no chance at casting anything, allowing you to develop your battlefield and beat it at will. I've never really understood why the deck doesn't run something like Wurmcoil Engine, Inferno Titan, or even Steel Hellkite in the sideboard as something that can be cast under Blood Moon and do a good job of winning the game quickly.
Fast aggro decks can also be a problem in the games where you don't go off on an early turn, hence the inclusion of so much lifegain in the sideboard. Pyroclasm also helps there, but it's still a dodgy matchup.
As the most powerful deck and the one with the most high-profile players running it, people will be prepared for Amulet Bloom. Playing the deck without error against high-quality opposition is hard enough, but navigating through a field of effective hate adds a level of difficulty that makes Amulet Bloom a poorer choice. The fact that the cards are somewhat difficult to find is not inconsequential.
The Storm deck has been around for as long as Modern has, and it's always hovered around the top of the second tier. Players like Jon Finkel and Tom Martell (really, what have they ever accomplished?) are often found slinging around Grapeshot copies, and with good reason. More than any other combo deck, Storm has been hit by bannings and yet remains a powerful choice. It's also changed practically zero cards in forever, the newest non-land addition in this list from Andrew Shrout (from #SCGPHILLY) being Anger of the Gods:
I mentioned it above, but this deck has seen Ponder, Preordain, Rite of Flame, and Seething Song banned and still beats unprepared decks soundly. The redundancy of all the pieces (just look at all those four-ofs) allows for a fairly consistent turn 4 kill, and the presence of an active Pyromancer Ascension or a Goblin Electromancer makes it almost impossible to whiff once you start to go off from any sort of solid base. The kill condition is very resilient to countermagic, and removal is all but dead against the deck unless it's Abrupt Decay.
The lack of a recent high-end finish for the deck is an indicator of how hard it can be to assemble that stable base, however. In the face of any sort of disruption or a moderate amount of pressure, Storm can be forced to try and go off early, which increases the whiff rate. It can also be very hard to fight through hate cards like Eidolon of Rhetoric or Rule of Law.
There's also Dragonstorm, which replaces Grapeshot, Pyromancer Ascension, Past in Flames, and Goblin Electromancer with Dragonstorm, Lotus Bloom, Scourge of Valkas, and Thundermaw Hellkite. Recently I have also replaced Faithless Looting with Pentad Prism. While the deck is clunkier on the face, it does have the advantage of only needing a storm count of four to win the game most of the time. It also has the advantage of being able to cast a 5/5 beater and attack with that when the rituals aren't flowing. It's worse, but more fun. And hey, you get to ask your Open “Where are my Dragons?”
Until You're Sick of It
You mean I can play an unfair combo deck that is hard to interact with and is pretty consistent…and I get to play one of my favourite jank rares in Phyrexian Unlife? Colour me interested! There are a couple of players locally who play Ad Nauseam, and once it can cast and resolve an Ad Nauseam, the deck is almost 100% to win. Angel's Grace can't be responded to of course, which is also a fun way to mess with people. Oh, and we get to kill people with a Coldsnap card. Zach Vivian piloted this list to a top 4 finish at the Premier IQ at #SCGNJ this past weekend:
Such a strange deck to look at with all the one-ofs, but that is a function of how the deck wins. Cast a white spell, cast Ad Nauseam, draw your deck. Once you have a 40-card hand, it's basically impossible to lose. You have three Pacts of Negation to protect your finish and about fifteen lands in hand to help redirect Lightning Storm in case the opponent gets frisky. You can also go off at instant speed if needed.
Zach has hedged his bets against one of my biggest concerns with the deck: only one win condition in the maindeck. He has added the Conflagrate to his 60, giving him insurance against a Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek catching the Lightning Storm in hand. Even with that hedging, the kill card is fragile in comparison to other decks because it relies on being able to use one of three Pact of Negation to protect it.
The combo kill does require a lot of moving pieces, and in the event that Phyrexian Unlife is your white spell, you are vulnerable to the blowout of having it removed in response to an Ad Nauseam. Of all the combo decks, it is the slowest option and the one I have played the least, and those factors combined to get me running a long way away.
Shoal Me The Way
That leaves us with only one option: pitching Wurms to Shoals. When the deck was trying to win with Fury of the Horde, I played it. When Bob Huang innovated the Nourishing Shoal plan, I jumped back on board. The resilience to graveyard hate and to aggro strategies was a huge draw. Now another respected player has innovated further, as Pascal Maynard played this list to an 11-4 finish at #GPPitt:
I absolutely adore this list. Jace gives the deck a repeatable way to loot without spending additional mana, something the deck sorely needed. You often need every Simian Spirit Guide you can draw to finish the combo off, so any time we can save some mana on our key turn, I am on board. We also get the ability to flashback Shoals, Vengeances, and the like. It's important to note that a flipped Jace will allow you to pitch a Worldspine Wurm to cast a Nourishing Shoal, something we cannot do with Snapcaster Mage.
You will often win games just by casting a Through the Breach and dropping a 15/15 trampler onto the battlefield. Being able to avoid the graveyard is important, as is the ability to win at instant speed. I have won with this deck while facing down a lethal attack in response to a Splinter Twin and with a lethal burn spell on the stack. It's resilient, it's explosive, and it's fun.
I am a little worried about Gaddock Teeg, Burn decks, and heavy disruption. I'm working on a couple of tweaks, not least of which is a second Manamorphose for those times you need to reanimate Borborygmos Enraged instead of bringing him Through the Breach. Barring some huge change, this is where I will be.
Now, all I need is a Standard deck! Fortunately I have some time yet. Thanks for stopping by and working through my thought process. Hopefully I can make some waves in Vegas with this list. Until next time, Brew On!