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We're back for the third and final chapter in The Modern Compendium, a three-part series where I go over the most popular Modern decks.
Part 1 included the midrange decks of the format, Part 2 had the control and big mana decks, and now Part 3 will be about the aggro and combo decks. These decks are either trying to go under the competition or around it by attacking from a different angle.
Let's start with the aggressive decks that are always trying to finish the game quickly and then end with the combo decks.
With the descriptive deck name of "Burn," it's probably pretty easy to understand what the deck is trying to do. There's nothing fancy here, just the best aggressive creatures and burn spells in the format. Before Fatal Push was printed, both Wild Nacatl and Atarka's Command were staples of the archetype, but now you generally only see R/W Burn lists with Destructive Revelry in the sideboard.
Burn hasn't received any big upgrade in quite a while, which has allowed many other Modern decks to pass over it in power level, but it's still a good check on the format for the slower decks. I don't expect it to get many upgrades anytime soon, either, as it's hard to print burn spells or creatures better than the ones in the deck. This does make it a good deck to invest in and foil out if you want something that will always be a part of the metagame and will never get a card banned from. The more decks like U/W Control and G/X Tron become popular, the better choice Burn will be to bring those decks back to reality.
Burn doesn't really have a "Plan B," which means that "Plan A" had better be good enough, and in Burn's case it often is. The creatures in the deck are incredibly efficient and are the best damage sources available, which requires them to be answered immediately.
Searing Blaze is the key card at taking out opposing creatures and is generally used at the first opportunity possible to ensure the landfall clause is satisfied. Generally speaking, the other burn spells usually target the opponent, but there are certainly situations where targeting creatures will be the better tactic. It's not always best to use all of your burn spells immediately, such as against Grixis Death's Shadow or decks with counterspells. With Grixis Death's Shadow, it's usually best to make your opponent have to lose life on their own in order to deploy their Death's Shadows while you're saving your burn spells until they are in range. Against an opponent who is representing a counterspell, it can also be correct to stockpile spells in your hand if you aren't under pressure so you can try to fire them all off on the same turn, using the first one or two as leverage to help the others resolve.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 3 Master of Etherium
- 2 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Signal Pest
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 3 Vault Skirge
- 1 Hope of Ghirapur
Affinity is similar to Burn in many ways. It has also been around forever, hasn't received a big upgrade in a while, and only does one thing, but does that thing very well. Affinity's thing is attacking with artifact creatures, fueled by the power of Steel Overseer, Arcbound Ravager, and Cranial Plating. This is maybe the most difficult aggro deck to play optimally in Modern, with Arcbound Ravager in particular a tricky card to navigate.
You'll want to have plenty of practice in with this deck, as planning out the future turns is critical to success. The hard work put in to the deck is definitely rewarded, as Affinity is one of the format's best decks and can win any tournament, even if some games you'll run into annoying hate cards such as Stony Silence.
Like Burn, Affinity doesn't do anything particularly different against the various decks; it just tries to go under them in speed and over them with flyers. Because the deck is so reliant on creatures attacking, the more removal the opposing deck has, the harder it is to win. The good news is the sideboard can be filled with cards of any color, as Mox Opal helps allow the deck to function as a five-color deck or cast spells through the Blood Moon in the sideboard. Over in the maindeck, Inkmoth Nexus provides plenty of wins from spots that look tough, as you only need to deal ten infect damage to win a game instead of the normal twenty damage. This deck has never been my cup of tea, but it rewards practice and good play while also having extremely explosive draws.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 3 Mayor of Avabruck
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
One of the newest Tier 1 decks on the block, Humans is the real deal with both a fast clock as well as plenty of disruption. Unclaimed Territory and Kitesail Freebooter were the new additions from Ixalan that allowed this deck to rise to prominence. It uses twelve five-color lands to allow it to play the best Human creatures printed in Modern of any color, and the newest versions of the deck have also adopted Phantasmal Image for a Clone effect as well.
Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant give the deck the speed it has, as these two cards can turn into enormous threats if left unchecked. Thalia's Lieutenant has the added bonus of growing your other Humans as well. The deck is surprisingly disruptive for consisting entirely of creatures, with Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage being quite the one-two punch. Freebooter allows you to see the opponent's hand and take a spell, and then Meddling Mage can name their best card against you after you know what's in their hand. This two-card package helps make Humans the anti-combo aggro deck, preying on decks with a key spell they need to resolve. An important part of piloting Humans well is knowing what cards to name with Meddling Mage even when not knowing your opponent's deck.
Like most aggro mirrors, it's a race to see who can win first, but you do have good disruptive elements against everyone. Besides the Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage interactions mentioned before, Thalia Guardian of Thraben helps slow down spell based decks such as Burn, taxing them for each spell they cast. Against creature decks, you have Reflector Mage to slow them down and can use Aether Vial to put Reflector Mage in at instant speed to bounce haste creatures or creatures with a Cranial Plating attached. Finally, Thalia, Heretic Cathar does a wonderful job at slowing down your opponent, making the opponent's creatures enter the battlefield tapped and not able to block immediately.
Some of these can be your toughest matchups, as a bevy of removal spells can beat your creature-only strategy. Your opponents will have to have plenty of different removal spells, however, as Meddling Mage can shut down the best one at the time. Sorcery-speed removal is usually worse against the deck because of Aether Vial, making relying on Wrath effects problematic for opponents.
You'll also want to keep a Mantis Rider in your hand to cast after a control opponent uses a Supreme Verdict or similar card, as it can deal the last remaining points of damage. Even against some of the matchups that look tough on paper, such as Jeskai Control, you'd be surprised at how often Humans can get there and barely win games you wouldn't think it would win.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
This is where knowing the format and what to name with Meddling Mage is so crucial. Naming Grapeshot, Ad Nauseam, or Living End can leave some decks drawing to only a few outs, allowing you to capitalize unless they have the immediate answer. Counters Company and Elves can get around Meddling Mage by using Collected Company and Chord of Calling to set up their combos, making those matchups much harder to win, which is why we see Grafdigger's Cage as a common sideboard card for the deck now.
Big mana decks can have an edge over Humans, as the spells they are casting at the top of the curve can outclass the creature aggro deck, but there isn't much time to cast them. Humans puts the onus on the big mana decks to have a very good hand in order to cast something impactful early in the game while fighting through the disruptive elements of Humans. It's certainly possible, but overall Humans usually has the edge.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 2 Golgari Thug
- 1 Haunted Dead
- 4 Insolent Neonate
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Prized Amalgam
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
Dredge is another creature-based aggro deck, but it uses the graveyard to put creatures directly onto the battlefield. It uses Faithless Looting and Cathartic Reunion to get creatures with the dredge mechanic in their graveyard and to use them instead of drawing cards. Besides the recursive creatures that are relentless at putting pressure on you when playing against Dredge, you also have to worry about the Life from the Loam / Conflagrate combo that is always looming. Conflagrate turns the full hand of lands that you can acquire each turn with Life from the Loam into a devastating burn spell, clearing out blockers or going straight at the opposing player. It's what helps turn this sometimes explosive deck into a consistent aggro deck. Dredge requires you to play Magic a different way, making it a difficult deck to pick up and pilot, especially in paper.