If you aren't abusing mana-cheating effects in Modern, you're doing it wrong. Last weekend#SCGCHAR showed us that Death's Shadow isn't completely unbeatable, but it's hard to do it while playing fair.
Looking at the decks in the Top 8 , every single one of them is cheating on mana in a big way, with Death's Shadow somehow being the smallest offender. Eldrazi Tron, Dredge, Living End, and Grixis Death's Shadow made up the entirety of the elimination rounds; when we take into account the direction that Magic has been headed for the last few years, it isn't shocking that their common denominator is rooted in on-board advantages.
Flashback to the first Innistrad's release. Todd Anderson may not have realized it at the time, but he set into motion the biggest shift in Magic strategy that we've seen since. At the time, card advantage was king and cards like Squadron Hawk and Jace's Ingenuity were seeing significant amounts of play. Todd said "no more," and threw a heck of a curve ball:
- 4 Delver of Secrets
- 4 Lord of the Unreal
- 4 Phantasmal Bear
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Stitched Drake
His first article on the deck makes it appear that the idea was mostly an accident, but the entire format ended up warping around this type of strategy, until it became what is remembered as one of the best decks in the modern era.
Believe it or not, there was a time when playing Vapor Snag was laughable and it was debatable whether or not it was worth registering for a tournament. Times have changed.
Starting off with Todd Stevens' winning list, almost every land in this deck has the opportunity to tap for multiple mana within a turn, and a host of amazing cards to take advantage of that.
Normally, playing cost-prohibitive cards in Modern is a recipe to get cheesed out by the likes of Burn, Counters Company, or a wide range of other linear decks that the format boasts. Eldrazi Tron has the benefit of attacking this from multiple angles.
The key to Eldrazi's disruption is that a healthy chunk of its interactive spells are tacked onto its creatures.
Both of these cards are examples of threats that can keep what the opponent is doing in check while also applying pressure. This means that in games where the opponent has a reasonable draw, picking through their best cards is going to make the game manageable, and close the door in games where the opponent may be floundering.
Older Tron decks had the perfect Expedition Map curve that involved playing Tron piece number one on the first turn and casting Expedition Map, playing the second Tron piece on the second turn and cracking Expedition Map for the third piece. This deck doesn't have to draw multiple unique pieces of Tron in order for it to cheat on mana. Expedition Map can act as a way to grab Eldrazi Temple and crank out a Thought-Knot Seer on the third turn of the game. Between those draws and Mind Stone, cranking out early copies of Thoughtseize-meets-Loxodon Smiter is remarkably easy.
It's entirely possibly that Eldrazi Tron is the best deck in the format. If it is, it's due to the fact that it has the most consistent engine to cheat on its mana in the format. The difficulty to disrupt it just gives the deck more points.
Most of what there is to say about Grixis Death's Shadow has already been written about on this website, but stay with me. Why was Tarmogoyf heralded as "the best creature ever printed" for such a long time?
There isn't anything particularly flashy about it. Nothing except efficiency, that is. Despite not having abilities, Tarmogoyf pushed the boundaries of what the casting cost for a threat could be. This is how it was able to stay on top for so long: despite effectively being a vanilla creature, Tarmogoyf was just huge for the amount of mana (read: time) invested into it.
Both of these decks are trying to do something simple; gain advantages at the expense of the resource that each player has the most of: life.
The most common jab that people will make at this archetype is something to the effect of "Oh sure, the deck's totally fair. Just as fair as a 9/9 for a single black can be!" The power of the archetype lies in the fact that almost everything costs a single mana.
Delve was a mistake. I'm not the first person to say it and I won't be the last.
Delve's ability to hyper-inflate spells' converted mana costs makes them unreasonably powerful due to their resiliency to cards that are meant to compete on the axis that they fight on.
It's unbelievable that there was a time in playtesting Grixis Death's Shadow for #SCGCHAR that I considered the benefits of Disdainful Stroke against a deck that doesn't pay more than three mana for any of its spells.
The fact that Death's Shadow and Eldrazi Tron can both tap two lands for cards that can't be Inquisition of Kozileked or Abrupt Decayed is incredibly powerful. I'd go as far as to say problematic, but that's an entirely different discussion.
- 4 Architects of Will
- 4 Desert Cerodon
- 4 Faerie Macabre
- 2 Fulminator Mage
- 4 Horror of the Broken Lands
- 4 Monstrous Carabid
- 4 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Street Wraith
Living End is likely the biggest offender in the format as far as decks that abuse their mana go. For every mana it spends cycling, it will later gain between four and six mana in the form of creatures being put directly onto the battlefield.
The tradeoff for this incredibly powerful effect is that it's a bit of a glass cannon. The mana spent on cycling creatures throughout the early turns is only going to do anything if a Demonic Dread or Violent Outburst is found.
When the opponent has mass graveyard hate a la Relic of Progenitus or Leyline of the Void, it can be hard for the initial mana investment to pay dividends in the way that the deck plans. Luckily, Living End does several things.
As if the mana being gained as a result of putting a significant number of creatures on the battlefield isn't enough, remember that Living End also forces each player to sacrifice all of the creatures they have before Living End puts anything onto the battlefield. Outside of the card advantage that comes from this exchange, there is an abnormal shift in mana that comes with this as well.
Part of why the Tempo decks in the beginning of this article were so groundbreaking for their time is that they were actively choosing to exchange cards for a mana advantage. Unsummon had been legal for years without anyone batting an eye. Suddenly, Vapor Snag was tearing up the scene and it seemed like a no-brainer that it didn't matter how many cards the opponent had, so long as they were dead.
Getting back to Living End, destroying creatures on the opponent's side of the battlefield is regularly going to act as several Time Walks wrapped into a single card, even if it isn't returning anything to the battlefield. Demonic Dread and Violent Outburst are allowing their caster to effectively trade three mana for all of the mana that the opponent has invested into their side of the battlefield.
It isn't really something that can be played around effectively either. The primary way to prevent one's creatures from being sacrificed is to not cast them, but then how is the Living End player ever dying? It's a miserable squeeze, and part of why Living End is so powerful. Ari Lax wouldn't be adopting the "Just Play X" title format for his article this week if the deck weren't absurdly powerful.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 3 Golgari Thug
- 1 Haunted Dead
- 4 Insolent Neonate
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Prized Amalgam
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
Somehow, Dredge is the deck that felt the least noteworthy in the #SCGCHAR Top 8; and it's not because it's balanced. Dredge is just in the weird position of not being packaged like a fair deck, but it doesn't have the ceiling that Living End does. The tradeoff is that Dredge can be harder to interact with than Living End.
Inquisition of Kozilek? Sure, which of these are you discarding?
Insolent Neonate may very well be the correct call, but it sure doesn't feel very much like anything was properly disrupted.
One Surgical Extraction? That's not gonna do it.
Another benefit to Dredge is that it has the same pretty absurd draws off of a small number of cards. Last weekend, Dredge was the deck that I had the most cards in my sideboard gunning for. In spite of this, I still lost a post-board game to the deck when they mulliganed to four. Their four?
Insolent Neonate allowed Stinkweed Imp to bin another dredge creature, a Prized Amalgam, a Narcomoeba, and a Bloodghast. The following turn, Faithless Looting hit such a series of cards that they ended their second turn of the game with two copies each of Bloodghast, Prized Amalgam, and Narcomoeba on the battlefield.
Equating all of those cards to mana, how much did they cheat on their mana? They spent a total of two mana, and ended up with two 3/3s, two 2/1s, and a pair of 1/1 fliers. Death's Shadow may want to lose life, but twelve power on the second turn is excessive. It's hard to catch up on board when the opponent taps two lands and ends up with fourteen mana worth of creatures on their side of the battlefield.
The drawback to this is that while the deck may not be as soft to a hate card or two as Living End is, a timely Anger of the Gods can still ruin a Dredge player's entire game plan. At the end of the day, Prized Amalgam is still a 3/3, and in comparison to the Tarmogoyfs, Gurmag Anglers, and Reality Smashers of the format, that just doesn't measure up particularly well.
Pushing the Limits
Modern is a format about doing whatever you want on your own terms. In spite of this, Modern is becoming more and more defined by the best board position that a deck can create for the smallest mana investment. A majority of the top decks as of late have been centered around this, be it getting six mana worth of creatures out of a Collected Company, free creatures popping out of an Aether Vial, or Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum vomiting robots onto the table.
The biggest key is finding the balance between the explosiveness of a deck, how powerful the payoff for its engine is, and how resilient the deck can be to hate cards. Decks doing unfair things are all going to be punishable by something, but finding the decks that can continue to do what's unfair while fighting off hate, that's something special.
I recently left my day job in order to pursue Magic content production and play as an official Pro Magic Player (trademark symbol), and you better believe this means my preparation for #SCGINVI will be more thorough than ever. Ideally, there's something out there that's powerful enough to help me not pull a 2016 Golden State Warriors and blow an 11-1 lead.
What are you going to do to compete in Modern?