There's obviously a ton of space to explore in No Banned List Modern, since it's a format that the community at large has never been seriously incentivized to work on. And without online support, it's difficult for most players to test for, so for those of us without personal connections with a group of players interested in seriously testing the format, we'll have to rely largely on theory to prepare for the upcoming tournament at #SCGCON.
So how does one even begin to theorize about such a format?
I find that it's best to start at level 0: What is the most powerful thing you can do in the format? In this case, I'd start by asking which deck has the fastest and most reliable goldfish kill. I'd guess that the fast decks in the format are:
- Glimpse of Nature/Skullclamp Elves
- Amulet Bloom
- Blazing Shoal Infect
I originally imagined that Elves would be faster than it is, but without Birchlore Rangers or Wirewood Symbiote, it's too hard to reliably assemble a mana engine, and Skullclamp activations aren't free. Even trying things like Chrome Mox or Simian Spirit Guide, I think it's actually an inconsistent turn 3 deck, and it almost wants me to explore some kind of Elf/Stoneforge Mystic Skullclamp/Jitte grindy combo/aggro deck.
Between Baral, Chief of Compliance, Pyromancer Ascension, Gifts Ungiven, and Past in Flames, I have no idea what the right way to build Storm with Rite of Flame, Seething Song, Ponder, Preordain, and Gitaxian Probe is. There are enough rituals and good cantrips that you have a ton of flexibility on the exact mix, and I simply don't know what's right. I'm pretty sure that if your goal is to come as close as possible to winning on turn 3 against a goldfish 100% of the time, Storm is the best way to do it.
Hypergenesis is probably the best competitor for that title, but I imagine that too many of its hands need another turn or two to actually finish someone off after resolving Hypergenesis, since you don't really get to choose which particular finishers you happen to draw, and they don't all have haste.
Dredge is another fairly large question mark for me in terms of the exact build/kill, but I'm guessing Legacy/Vintage has basically solved what you should be doing with your Dread Return, and I'm guessing you should also be able to reliably set this up on turn 3 as well, so I'm thinking turn 3 is basically the fundamental turn of this format, which is good, because it's slow enough that it feels like the opponent can actually try to disrupt you in that time.
If your goal is to turn 2 as often as possible, first of all, you have to accept that I don't think you're breaking something like 25% (and even that seems like a stretch), and I think your best options are Storm, Amulet Bloom, and Blazing Shoal Infect. All in Glistener Elf/Spoils of the Vault Blazing Shoal Infect might be the most likely to turn 2, but I think Mono-Blue Blazing Shoal Infect is a much stronger deck, especially in a format where Mental Misstep is legal.
I think Amulet Bloom is more likely to fail to turn 3 than the other combo decks, so I think that playing Amulet Bloom is largely a decision to avoid playing fair Magic, but to try to prey on the fair decks that are trying to beat the other unfair decks and accepting a bad but winnable-if-you-get-lucky matchup against other fast combo decks. If someone shows up with Chalice of the Void or discard or counterspells or graveyard hate to try to beat the combo decks, there's a good chance that you'll beat them, even if they manage to slow the game down a bit. Ideally, you'd hope that the speed of the other combo decks discourages people from trying to use Blood Moon, since it might just be too slow.
Mono Blue Blazing Shoal Infect is kind of the opposite--it's the combo deck that's designed to beat other combo decks, in that it can both win the race and has more disruption than any other combo deck. The downside is that it's easier to interact with, but I think it actually plays a decent interactive game against fair decks. Still, I might be a little biased (informed).
I'm not going to lie about Eggs. I have no idea how fast that deck is. It was banned too quickly after convincing the world to take it seriously, and I just haven't played with or against it much. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it's flat out busted, especially with artifact lands, or maybe Whir of Invention breaks it. I have no idea. I'm pretty sure it's a non-interactive combo deck that's similarly positioned to some builds of Storm, and if you happen to know that it's faster/better in some way, then by all means, play that instead.
Affinity is in a really weird space where it has a bunch of banned cards, but I'm not sure how much they matter. Skullclamp is the most unfair of them, but again, I'm not sure that Skullclamp makes the deck faster, it might just make it grind better. Artifact lands and Disciple of the Vault? Yeah, those were totally busted in Standard, but I can't imagine they relevantly increase your turn 3 kill rate, and the more artifact lands you play, the weaker you become against hate.
The next consideration is the level one decks--these decks are designed to beat the fastest decks, and now that we've identified what those are, we should be able to target them to do that. Given that these decks were chosen because they're the fastest, we should assume that level one decks won't be trying to beat them by going faster--if that were an option, that faster deck would be a level zero deck. Instead, the level one decks have to be able to interact in some way to stop the opponent from winning.
Given that the level zero decks are trying to win on turn 3, you have to be able to meaningfully disrupt them by turn 2 for your deck to be viable as a countermeasure, because you don't want to lose every game that you're on the draw. This means that we're primarily interested in disruptive spells that cost two mana or less.
The most important of these are Mental Misstep and Chalice of the Void, but Thoughtseize/Inquisition of Kozilek, Spell Pierce, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and any cheap removal spells will also be important tools for these decks.
The most obvious and powerful level one decks to me are Delver and Colorless Eldrazi.
Delver of Secrets the card has largely been replaced by Death's Shadow in disruptive aggro control decks in Modern, but Ponder and Preordain improve Delver of Secrets enough that I think it becomes the default clock for this kind of deck again, though precisely what mix of Delver of Secrets, Deathrite Shaman, Death's Shadow, and Young Pyromancer you happen to use to kill your opponent isn't that important. Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler become irrelevant as threats because Treasure Cruise is a much better use for cards you're looking to delve away. These decks will all play four Mental Misstep, and likely Spell Pierce as well, on top of whatever one mana removal spells their colors allow, as their goal is simply to trade cards at an even or positive mana ratio as quickly as possible and then pull ahead with Treasure Cruise, or simply end the game with their one mana threat.
Because these decks are all about mana efficiency and casting as many spells as possible, they're extremely vulnerable to Chalice of the Void, and to a lesser extent, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thorn of Amethyst.
In this way, Colorless Eldrazi is kind of a level two deck, as it certainly has Delver in mind as prey, but I still think of it as a level one deck because I think it still has to try to position itself as an anti-combo deck, it just happens to also win the "anti combo mirror" against Delver.
Chalice of the Void is Colorless Eldrazi's most important disruptive card, followed closely by Thought-Knot Seer (which costs more than three mana on paper, but between Eldrazi Temple, Eye of Ugin, and Simian Spirit Guide it can often be cast on the second turn). While Luis Scott Vargas didn't use it in Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch , I expect Thorn of Amethyst is likely an important sideboard card for this deck in this format. It's also worth noting that apart from getting to use Eye of Ugin again, this deck also benefits from gaining access to Cloudpost.
Theoretically, you can always go another level up, and try to find the level two decks, and then the level three decks, but with a format as much in its infancy as No Banned List Modern, I think the most edge is to be gained in picking the right level zero or level one deck and having the best list for that deck.
If you disagree, then I suspect level two is probably something like Punishing Twin and Green Cloudpost. Punishing Fire Splinter Twin decks have a respectable clock and solid disruption, they don't rely on one mana spells and they can shut out most of Delver's threats with Punishing Fire. The fast clock of the Splinter Twin combo allows them to race Eldrazi, and they can sideboard Blood Moon against Eldrazi and Cloudpost decks. This doesn't sound like a terrible place to be, but you will have a terrible matchup against Storm and probably Dredge.
Green Cloudpost decks look to ignore most of Delver's interaction and narrowly outpace Eldrazi by going bigger in a way that Chalice of the Void doesn't interact with. I'm not exactly sure what the best configuration of Green Cloudpost deck is, but it looks something like a cross between Tron and Valakut and exists solidly in the "big mana deck" space with a lot of similar functionality to those decks. This means that it will lose most speed races, but that it's resistant to almost all forms of interaction that don't directly attack its mana.
Not all level zero decks are created equally, and countermeasures against some are not necessarily effective against all. Like Splinter Twin, Affinity is another deck that can prey on Colorless Eldrazi because despite theoretically being a level zero deck against a level one deck, Eldrazi's interaction is relatively ineffective against Affinity because Affinity's important spells cost two mana--this is especially true if the Eldrazi player doesn't know the matchup, because it's important that they know to play Chalice of the Void on zero on turn 1 on the play, which they're only likely to do if they know they're playing against Affinity.
Dredge requires a different kind of hate than other level zero decks, and it's hard to say which archetypes are good and bad against it because in general, it will just come down to how many sideboard cards a specific player decided to devote to the matchup, and any deck can play as much or as little of that as they want--Dredge is favored against anyone slower than it unless the slower deck is prepared for that specific matchup. Dredge is awful against anyone faster than it. In this way, Dredge is almost a level two deck, since it beats the people who slow down to interact and loses to the fastest possible decks.
Amulet Bloom is another deck that's somewhere between level zero and level two in a weird way--its best draws play like a level zero combo deck, but if it's disrupted, its back door big mana plan kicks in and it can just try to win a long game against fair decks. What does that mean about its positioning in the field? Blood Moon is still the last thing it wants to see, and it can't do a lot against people who naturally outrace it apart from trying to get one of its lucky fast draws, so it least wants to play against Infect, Storm (/Eggs?), and Twin.
Another major swath of decks I haven't touched on is Thoughtseize decks. This is an alternate level one approach. The problem with Thoughtseize decks in my opinion is that they play really badly against Ponder/Preordain/Treasure Cruise. You can disrupt their opening hand, but they're so likely to find a dig spell and chain their way into Treasure Cruising you out of the game. I'd like to recommend something like Lantern with artifact lands for better Mox Opals, but it's just so hard to establish a hard enough library lock through the good cantrips.
If I really had my heart set on Lantern, I'd probably not play Whir of Invention because I think G/B with Surgical Extraction is better against combo decks and this format is going to be less creature-centric than current Modern, so there's less focus on having more access to Ensnaring Bridge. This means you won't find Lantern of Insight as often, which is a problem, but Whir would often be too slow anyway. Ultimately, I just wouldn't recommend this strategy, or really any Thoughtseize centric strategy.
Two other obvious Legacy ports that this format allows are Esper Deathblade with Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, and Umezawa's Jitte, and Miracles with Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top. Esper Deathblade feels too fair. I don't think you can just remove Brainstorm and Force of Will from a Legacy deck and hope to compete against fast combo decks with it. Miracles is more interesting--it's basically trying to position itself similarly to Eldrazi, with Sensei's Divining Top + Counterbalance replacing Chalice of the Void in a similar role. The fact that it requires a two card combo instead of a single card makes it slower and less consistent, but you get to play a blue deck and cast your own one-mana spells, so you can play Mental Misstep and Spell Pierce. In a way, it's trying to have the best of both worlds--Eldrazi and Delver.
It's possible that Miracles is great, but without Brainstorm to set up Terminus I'd be worried about its matches against fast creature decks like Eldrazi and Affinity, and despite how powerful the Counterbalance lock is against Delver, setting it up isn't trivial, especially when they can Mental Misstep your Sensei's Divining Top. This deck is in a weird space where I can't tell for sure if it's good against everyone or no one, but my current intuition is that there's a good chance it's just 40% against the field or something. It feels like too much needs to go right and it suffers from the absence of Brainstorm and Force of Will and the presence of Mental Misstep compared to its successful Legacy counterpart.
To sum up, my recommendations:
- Don't try to play too fair. Thoughtseize is too fair. If you're not trying to win as fast as possible, you need to prevent your opponent from casting or resolving spells in some way (counterspells, Chalice of the Void, Counterbalance, mana denial).
- Do try to break it--if you can come up with a version of Storm or Eggs or whatever that kills half a turn faster than you expect other people to kill, that's probably a great deck choice.
- Splinter Twin is probably the best fair deck, especially with Dig Through Time. I think you want Punishing Fire to beat other blue decks.
- I like Blazing Shoal Infect as a speedster that beats other speedsters, and I think it's the deck that benefits most from Mental Misstep being in the format.
- Eldrazi might be great.