Team Unified Modern...what a polarizing format. Our own fearless leader here at StarCityGames.com®, Cedric Phillips, has let his disdain for the format be known. His critiques are valid, of course, as the Unified restriction means that not all decks will be played in proportions representative of their true metagame positioning, and the nature of Modern's linear decks means that there are strange incentives for running with glass cannon strategies. Signing up for a Unified Modern tournament is asking to get into unsatisfying matches against non-interactive lineups like Burn-Ironworks-R/B Vengevine or Storm-Tron-Dredge. The gameplay can be a bit brief and disappointing, and it is exacerbated by this restriction. Additionally, all post-tournament decklists from a Team Unified event have to be lightly cross-checked and analyzed to try to spot any substitutions or alterations that were made specifically due to the restriction, and then reverse-engineered to find the optimal individual list.
Further, Unified Modern only appeals to Modern aficionados, while three-format Constructed appeals to anyone who plays Constructed Magic at all! What gives?
Well, on the other hand, Team Unified Modern is paradoxically easier for most teams from a logistical standpoint, at least compared to the popular alternative, Standard-Modern-Legacy. By now, almost every competitive Magic player is familiar with the Modern format, and most have either invested in a deck for the long term or have access to a network to borrow or share cards as needed. Compare this to Legacy, where the Reserved List is a barrier to entry for many players (though you might be surprised with the options in Colorless Eldrazi, Death and Taxes, and a basics-over-duals variant of U/B Death's Shadow!). Or compare to Standard, where a few years of Kaladesh Block-related mishaps have left a sizable portion of the tournament player base disenchanted and divested of the format until the much-awaited rotation.
Modern is the most popular competitive format by a lot, and when everyone at the local card shop has their pet deck(s) ready to battle, it makes a lot of sense to just let everyone bash it out together with their favorite decks. Plus, with the direction of Modern in recent months, there are actually not a ton of overlapping or conflicting decks, as most of the best choices fall into a few macro-categories. A few key power cards that define large segments of Modern inform the possibilities for the best combinations of decks, and a few of those configurations are bound to rise to the top.
First, let's go through those influential power cards and see what archetypes they bind as mutually exclusive, although there's bound to be a little bit of overlap with some decks.
- Mono-Green Tron
- Amulet Titan
- Hardened Scales Affinity
- Bant Spirits
- Abzan Company
- Hollow One
- Jeskai Control
- Mardu Pyromancer
- U/W Control
- Jeskai Control
- Grixis Death's Shadow
- Hardened Scales
- G/W Hexproof
- U/W Control
- Jeskai Control
- Bant Spirits
- G/W Hexproof
- Bant Spirits
- Hardened Scales Affinity
In addition to this list, there are some key utility or sideboard cards, like Leyline of the Void, Dismember, Izzet Staticaster, Dispel, or Nature's Claim, that can cause friction between would-be compatible archetypes.
These restrictions breed a bit of acrobatics, where decks that interfere the least with other segments of the metagame (such as Tron, Humans, or Ironworks) increase their desirability while good-stuff piles of highly in-demand cards (such as Jeskai Control, Grixis Death's Shadow, and Mardu Pyromancer) drop off a bit.
As such, bearing in mind these restrictions, there are a few lineups that are head and shoulders above the rest, and savvy metagamers should take an extra close look at these patterns to inform their own deck selections.
1. Ironworks, Humans, U/W Control
This is the gold standard. There is no denying that. The recipe is straightforward: Take the best combo, aggro, and control decks and chuckle as they fit together perfectly with almost no conflict at all. I say almost because Ben Stark's Ironworks list from the Pro Tour contains sideboard Negates in addition to Sai, Master Thopterist, but one can replace those with Guttural Responses with little to no backlash.
I suspect that this will be the overall most popular configuration, provided that there are enough people willing and able to pilot Ironworks through the heavy waves of hate cards that appear to be swelling in Modern these days.
However, for those teams that don't wish to deal with Ironworks headaches, the next best option is…
2. Mono-Green Tron, Humans, U/W Control
Tron has the high raw power of a linear Ancient Stirrings deck, while being a heck of a lot easier on the ol' brain cells. There's a tiny conflict between Tron and U/W Control in the card Ghost Quarter (but one could easily forgo this card in U/W) as well as Dismember between Humans and Tron (likewise, one could drop the card from either deck with little to no suffering). This (or a variant including Jeskai Control rather than U/W Control) is likely going to be the most popular three-deck combination at the whole tournament. It would not surprise me one bit to learn that the Peach Garden Oath (assuming that they'll be in attendance) will be packing this deck. Of course, we all know that Owen Turtenwald thinks that Humans is a weak choice for strong Modern players , so he might just convince his teammates to replace it and run…
3. Mono-Green Tron, Hollow One, U/W Control
Owen seems to love his Tron and Hollow One, that's for sure! Hollow One exploits one of the other most busted cards in Modern in Faithless Looting. Ancient Stirrings and Faithless Looting are undoubtedly the best card selection in the format, and as such, their natural deckbuilding restrictions breed some high-powered linear strategies designed to exploit their efficiency.
Mixing and matching any non-conflicting combination of the above five decks (Hollow One, Humans, U/W Control, Tron, and Ironworks) is likely a safe and potent strategy. However, there are some next-level opportunities if one is willing to ditch the control deck and try some things a little out of the box…
4. Storm, Bant Spirits, Tron/Ironworks
At this point, I'm going to shorthand the Ancient Stirrings deck slot, which should be either Tron or Ironworks, and just combine the two. There are enough different combinations of decks not to keep rehashing the same swaps. Regardless, Storm was good enough for two World Champions in Seth Manfield and William Jensen at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, so it makes sense to try and slot in a deck that conflicts with U/W Control (because of Opt or Serum Visions) and all the Lightning Bolt decks. If you can get away from U/W Control and play Storm in its stead, you open up the white sideboard cards for Bant Spirits rather than Humans as your Noble Hierarch deck of choice. This combination is my dark horse pick for the slightly advanced selection that could slide past the teams playing older, more established decks.
On the other hand, let's say that you absolutely hate Tron and Ironworks. This is understandable, as some teams simply don't have a confident Ironworks player and many people refuse to play Tron out of (irrational?) hatred for the deck. I'm not personally thrilled with Tron's metagame position in current Modern, but would be willing to play it if necessary. I'm also not very experienced with Ironworks and don't foresee myself succeeding with it barring a lot of intense practice.
In that case, I might suggest…
5. U/W Control, Humans, Hollow One/R/B Vengevine
A Faithless Looting deck to go with the now-classic PB&J-style pairing of Humans and U/W Control is the next best thing and depending on how much variance one wants to introduce into their Looting deck, one might play the more explosive R/B Vengevine deck or stick with classic Hollow One.
An interesting pattern that emerges when one looks at the configurations long enough is that two opposing two-deck pairings seem to exist as powerful anchors for a team. Storm and Bant Spirits, and U/W Control and Humans.
Bant Spirits can't coexist with U/W Control because of the Path to Exile, Stony Silence, and Rest in Peace conflicts. U/W Control can't coexist with Storm because of Opt (and if you prefer Jeskai, then Lightning Bolt as well). Spirits and Humans obviously can't coexist. Thus, if one prefers Bant Spirits to Humans as the Noble Hierarch deck of choice, one is priced into playing Storm over U/W Control as the Opt deck of choice. This is interesting, and the face that a large number of teams will have U/W Control and Humans as their decks in these slots may incentivize players to jump ahead by playing Storm and Spirits as higher win-percentage alternatives against both U/W and Humans. Theoretically, Spirits has been touted as favored against Humans, and Storm is supposed to have this sideboard plan to drag it across the 50%-mark there, so it may be wise to abandon the conventional one-two punch of the most popular decks in Modern and gain an edge here.
Let's see some configurations with a little more pizzazz, though. The new kid on the block is Hardened Scales Affinity, and it has a ton of desirable cards: Mox Opal, Ancient Stirrings, and Inkmoth Nexus headline the list.
Combining Hardened Scales Affinity with Humans or Spirits is a little annoying, as Horizon Canopy is an unfortunate conflict, but it can be done. I recognize that a slightly neutered pairing of Humans and Hardened Scales Affinity would be a perfectly acceptable selection. Control decks, however, can mix with an aggro-combo deck just fine, leaving us with…
6. Hardened Scales Affinity, Hollow One, U/W Control
Erstwhile meme decks unite! At some point in recent-ish Modern history, all these decks were considered somewhere between "vastly inferior to a current Tier 1 deck" and "a joke deck." These three decks started from the bottom, and now they comprise some of the most fearsome strategies in the format! If you're a fan of aggro-combo, you'll want to look long and hard at this configuration, featuring two different intricate proactive decks. As a side benefit, your proactive decks will finish matches quickly, leading to exciting Three-Headed Giant team action in the U/W Control match.
To be fair, some people just can't abide by what others recommend. Let's say you don't want to play any of this crap. You're sick of Horizon Canopy, sick of Ancient Stirrings, and you don't want to deal with Path to Exile.
7. Infect, Ad Nauseam, Burn
Yeeeeeeaaaaah baby! Finish quickly so you can get back to eating your second lunch of the day or gossiping about the latest Hall of Fame news bite or doing team push-ups. (Whatever best builds your team cohesion!) This team has the possibility of winning the whole match in under ten turns. Now that's efficiency!
Ad Nauseam has been discussed recently by Bryan Gottlieb as a potential Scissors choice in a metagame defined by the Rock that is Humans. You beat up on a lot of decks just by ignoring their nonsense. You don't want to play against Humans or Spirits, though...like ever. If you can dodge for a few rounds, you will rack up wins against decks like Tron, Ironworks, and most control strategies.
By the same token, Infect is a Noble Hierarch/Inkmoth Nexus strategy that sports decent matchups against a lot of the field by virtue of mana efficiency and false tempo against U/W Control as well as a faster clock than stuff like Storm and Ironworks. Izzet Staticaster out of Humans is a real kick in the teeth, but the matchup is likely still very close. Infect is a secret heavy hitter for this weekend, and if you want to replace your Humans/Spirits seat with Infect, you may find it very rewarding to do so.
Burn is love, Burn is life. Just scoop up your neighborhood pyromaniac if you need a third and sic 'em on some unsuspecting Tron opponents.
Now, don't think I haven't forgotten my Grixis Death's Shadow aficionados. Shadow is a great choice for experienced pilots who're ready to navigate the expected metagame of Stirrings decks, U/W Control, Looting-based graveyard decks, and Noble Hierarch aggro. It conflicts with Hollow One and U/W Control, but pair it with a Noble Hierarch deck and an Ancient Stirrings deck and you'll be ready to go…
8. Grixis Death's Shadow, Humans/Bant Spirits, Ironworks/Tron
I may try to convince my team to play Tron and Bant Spirits in order to bless me with the opportunity to play some more undercosted monsters, but I do try to stay a happy and generous team player for the most part. If you're a dedicated member of the Shadow Realm, though, this is the set up for you.
Certainly, it wouldn't be right or proper to ignore classic Affinity just because the new kid on the block showed up with some cool toys. Affinity has a surprising number of conflicts for a deck of all narrow artifacts (think Rest in Peace, Damping Sphere, or Thoughtseize in the sideboard), but combining it with a few proactive and powerful strategies sounds like a recipe for success (or at least, a more conventional attempt to run something like the Burn-Infect-Ad Nauseam pairing)...
9. Affinity, Humans, R/B Vengevine
Get in there, make the opponent do something to react to you, and sometimes just win anyway with surprises like double Mantis Rider, instant-speed Greater Gargadon, or heavily-boosted Inkmoth Nexus. I respect this pairing immensely, and if my team had the pilots to properly use these archetypes, I'd recommend it for us in a heartbeat, though I do sense a slight weakness to Terminus out of U/W Control.
For the final configuration of the day, I thought I'd select three previously-unmentioned decks that both fit together and are deliberately chosen to have good matchups against Humans. Modern has such a flat power curve that these three decks are mere inches behind the leading players in the metagame, and together they offer a ton of equity when going up against Thalia and her ilk…
10. Elves, TitanShift, Lantern
Drop an Ezuri on 'em and knock out those pesky Humans. Or just drop a couple of Mountains on their precious creatures and/or life total. Or just drop an Ensnaring Bridge and laugh at them behind your wall of lock pieces. These decks have no stock lists, as they simply aren't popular enough to have been optimized perfectly, but if you want to absolutely pummel an enemy Humans player, this is the setup for you. Hope you don't face U/W Control!
Love it or hate it, though, Unified Modern is going to be the format of choice for at least a handful of Grand Prix events this year, and it behooves you to get familiar with the major players as well as potential techy choices for a bold metagame call.
Now, I get to look forward to being endlessly surprised this weekend by crazy decks like Grishoalbrand, Grixis Control, Bant Eldrazi, or Naya Chord. That's Modern for you!