After trying basically everything for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, I ended up deciding late on Tron despite Cedric's claims the deck "lost to everything" and was "totally unplayable." My finish was only okay, but I'm still happy with the deck I chose. Tron is one of the extremely powerful options in Modern, and it seems like a very viable choice moving forward.
Tron kinda falls into the broad category of proactive broken Modern decks, but isn't actually distinctly faster or slower than the other options there like Affinity or Storm. Just like those decks, you have turn 3 nut draws that basically nothing can beat, allowing you to steal games. So why Tron over those?
Lands are really hard to interact with. A lot of the generic stuff people fill their decks with to stop opposing permanents just doesn't work. Beyond that, Tron is full of stuff like planeswalkers, Wurmcoil Engine, cast triggers off World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that just aren't things people interact with.
One of the biggest draws to Tron is that it is relatively resistant to mulligans. You don't need a lot of physical cardboard to win, just three lands and a single spell. Plenty of your five-card hands are basically the same as your best seven-card hands, whereas something like Affinity often struggles off lower hand sizes. I've even gone as far as three cards with Tron and won a game, though admittedly that was against basically the best possible matchup for the deck in Jeskai Control.
Let's kick this off with a little bit of Todd Stevens. First, the Tron deck he played at the SCG Tour® Dallas Modern Classic.
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 3 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 World Breaker
- 1 Emrakul, the Promised End
- 2 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Where's all the interactive spells?
While the big news out of Ixalan for Modern was the immediate success of Humans on the back of Kitesail Freebooter and Unclaimed Territory, a different non-basic land has honestly had a much more widespread effect on deck construction in the format. Field of Ruin is extremely powerful in a format where the midrange and control decks are constantly looking for solutions to powerful lands like Urza's Tower, Celestial Colonnade, Academy Ruins, or even just shorting their opponents on a crucial shockland-against stretched manabases like Four-Color Death's Shadow. Despite the headline deck on the SCG Tour® being Ben Nikolich's Jeskai Control deck , my attention was on the two-color U/W variants that are half-control, half-land destruction.
As a deck really relying on assembling specific non-basic lands, Tron needed to adapt. Fortunately, as years of bad Blood Moon hands have shown us, you are still technically capable of casting your big spells without actually assembling full Tron. The Tron deck might only have nineteen physical lands, but it also has eight direct ways to find lands in Sylvan Scrying and Expedition Map, another four Ancient Stirrings that usually find lands, and twelve cantrips to filter through all of this to make about two-thirds of your cards into land drops.
The key is just never letting your opponent use Field of Ruin as a Strip Mine, only as a Ghost Quarter. All of the extra basic lands ensure you can always find a replacement off Field of Ruin and eventually just cast Karn Liberated the hard way.
The flip side of this is that you need to cut your non-basic green sources to do this, and with that goes your second color. In pre-sideboard games I found the Fatal Push style cards to be unexciting and honestly detrimental against such a wide field, but I really did miss them come game two. The colorless alternatives to removal and disruption just aren't the same. Spatial Contortion just isn't an acceptable Magic card, and Thought-Knot Seer is just clunky and weird compared to Thoughtseize.
The trick I came up with literally the night before the Pro Tour was only playing four basics, one Llanowar Wastes, and then spending two sideboard slots to switch over to black mana. This also allowed me to sideboard up a land in the matchups I expected to naturally need to cast Wurmcoil Engine, turn Ghost Quarter into a useful green land in spots where it has no good targets, like Humans or Burn, and it generally doesn't cost much as you really can't bring in that many colored cards in any given spot. I think I ended up cutting a Grafdigger's Cage and a second Seal of Primordium, neither of which I really missed.
Also, Yuuya Watanabe did almost the exact same thing, so that makes me feel really smart and probably makes it right.
I played the following deck at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan.
A large portion of the deck is basically locked in. The Chromatic cyclers with green search package is the most reliable way to assemble turn 3 Tron that we have seen, and if you are doing that it's because you assume Karn Liberated is really good (it really is).
In practice, I found four to be the number of Forests I wanted to defeat most pre-sideboard Field of Ruin shenanigans. Three leaves you open to spots where they draw multiple Field of Ruins and you draw basic Forests, especially in drawn out games against U/W where you might need to naturally cast an Ulamog, but it's certainly close to the margin. That left room for one black source in the maindeck, and the reliable untapped Llanowar Wastes was an easy pick over the "I can't use Oblivion Stone on turn 4" Blooming Marsh. In sideboarded games where you often need an early interactive spell to slow down Burn or Counters Company, the painless Blooming Marsh is a much more important resource. Yuuya played an Overgrown Tomb, which I haven't tried, but I think it is within reason to try that.
Some of the lists I've seen play one Horizon Canopy to turn a Sylvan Scrying into a cantrip later in a game, but given the real constraints on your lands between basics and splash sources I'm unsure spending the deck slot on it is worth it.
On the subject of Sanctum of Ugin, Walking Ballista is a huge addition that made that card significantly better. You can't always cast Ulamog, the Ceasless Hunger, or two permanents might just not be enough. Walking Ballista is both the perfect interactive card to find after a Karn against aggro to ensure you clean things up and a card that can trigger Sanctum of Ugin to find a bigger threat if you cast it for X = 4.
With the removal of Fatal Pushes from the maindeck Walking Ballista also plays a key role as an interactive card you can cast without Tron. The one damage ping is notable against Inkmoth Nexus and Steel Overseer out of Affinity, so even for twice the mana, a robot Mogg Fanatic puts in some good work.
On the flip side of your tutor targets, you have ways to take your opponent off lands or other non-creature permanents like Pithing Needle. World Breaker at seven mana can matter in spots to follow up Karn Liberated and is just generally better to draw, while Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is just the end game breaker. Sadly most of the decks you want to chip away at with World Breaker are loaded up on Path to Exiles making the recursion irrelevant, which is also why the second Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is necessary despite being really bad in your cast-spells-naturally games.
Many online lists are playing Emrakul, the Promised End. No one has shown me a good reason why. All the decks I want to cast it against are too fast, die horribly to Ulamog anyways, or don't let me cast ten-drops due to actual land destruction.
Wurmcoil Engine is a weird one. It's absolutely insane and necessary in some spots, basically blank in others. I'm not committed to three being the right number and could see any number between zero and four being right. Just judge your metagame appropriately.
Relic of Progenitus is way better than it looks. Shutting off Snapcaster Mage is very important for eventually resolving some big spell, aggressively stopping Gurmag Angler and Tarmogoyf really narrows many deck's angles of attack, and free wins against Dredge and B/R Hollow One recursion draws are great. It can be sideboarded out when it isn't effective, but it is never truly dead. One important note is that Relic of Progenitus is often crucial in sideboarded games to exile your own destroyed Tron lands to stop Surgical Extraction.
I don't have a dedicated sideboard guide for Tron as so much of it is reactive to your opponent's game plan. Instead, here are some guidelines.
If you expect your opponent to disrupt your mana, you can shave Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, as eight is a lot. This also counts if they are on Eldrazi or artifacts and it doesn't exile stuff, though three damage a turn is still technically a threat to Lantern Control.
Similarly, if your opponent is attacking your mana and isn't U/W where the game takes so long you get there anyways, Ulamog isn't great. The first copy can easily go, and the second can definitely follow.
If they don't have the types of permanents your cards answer in their deck, sideboard those cards out.
If having a random attacker with lifelink doesn't matter because you are just going to die anyways, Wurmcoil Engine can be cut down. One spot this is oddly true is Affinity, where often you are dying to Infect or too much flying damage to matter. Having Wurmcoil Engine there is sometimes fine, but taking one out is also fine.
Be sure not to take out too many threats across all the categories. I don't quite know what number that is, but you do need to be able to actually kill your opponent with all of your mana.
Oblivion Stone obviously has matchups it doesn't do anything, but be aware it is your only instant speed answer to cards like Secure the Wastes. Similarly Relic of Progenitus does nothing against non-graveyard decks that aren't trying to Surgical Extraction you.
These are clumped together because of Stony Silence. I don't think you can ever cut Expedition Maps and Chromatics, especially when you have colored spells to sideboard in, but you can cut your other artifacts that are bad against Stony Silence to minimize your exposure to it. Walking Ballista is also on the fringe of this category. I never cut cards that are actively good in the matchup, but given the choice of an Oblivion Stone or an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon against U/W Control I might bias towards the later to avoid the old four-for-one Stony Silence nightmare.
On the draw against creature decks that produce more than one relevant threat, you can shave a Karn Liberated. This does not include Affinity where Karn exiles their one Inkmoth Nexus or Cranial Plating. On the play Karn is just the greatest thing possible always.
Thragtusk is for matchups where gaining five life is a big deal, a 5/3 blocker is a big deal, or just a two-for-one threat is a big deal. Don't just shove it into your deck because it looks kinda okay to gain some life.
Again, the rule is when in doubt sideboard a bit less. Thoughtseize is just for combo and control. Occasionally I'll sideboard Thoughtseize in on the draw if there is a specific early play I need to stop, like Devoted Druid when their deck is largely creatures.
Collective Brutality is almost exclusively for Burn. Be aware that while the card is generically good against Collected Company, a lot of the Collected Company decks are more Spell Queller and Knight of the Reliquary than they are x/2 creatures this actually kills.
The Naturalize effects might be the only things you want more than you think you do. This isn't just for the Nature's Claim gain four life against Burn, but to cover Stony Silence or Blood Moon and pick off Tidehollow Scullers.
Adjustments and When to Bail
Red is certainly a debatable splash over black. Pyroclasm is a very good card against Affinity and various tribal decks, and Kozilek's Return might also be great. I would have done better at the Pro Tour with red, but you can't really expect to face down Zombies and Merfolk. Pyroclasm is also very important against the Young Pyromancer + Blood Moon strategies, allowing you to clear their fast clock and survive to Wurmcoil Engine. The same applies to Geist of Saint Traft.
If you ditch Fatal Push, you have to start looking at worse spot removal spells. Dismember is specifically good against Death's Shadow but leaves you vulnerable to more aggressive creatures, while Lightning Bolt is the reverse of being great against Burn and Humans but blank against 13/13 Avatars and 5/5 Fish Zombies.
Ancient Grudge isn't actually a reason to play red. The cheaper, less splash color intensive, more enchantment destroying green options are just better against the field and you crush Lantern Control anyways.
The reason to not play Tron at a given time largely has to do with not running it into specific combo decks. Storm isn't a great matchup, Scapeshift isn't a great matchup, and the various Remand combo U/R decks like Kiki Moon and U/R Breach aren't good matchups. If any of those three is very popular, I would not try to Tron people.
The follow up to those combo decks can be brutal as well. Surgical Extraction is merely okay against Dredge, but against combo decks it's a very effective card that also plays double duty against Dredge. Fulminator Mage or Tectonic Edge plus Surgical Extraction is a very effective plan against Tron when people want to come prepared for your deck. If you start seeing that pop up, that might be a sign to look elsewhere.
Neither Burn or Affinity is a great matchup, though both are winnable. I can't describe the exact window you should try to avoid here as often the reaction to these two decks is the Jeskai stuff that Tron destroys, but when these decks start to rise it isn't the best time to play Tron even if you are still capable of winning matches.
That may sound like a lot, but given a field as wide as Modern is, these are fairly specific conditions. Tron is just kinda great, it has been for large parts of the last six years, and it probably will still be for some time to come.