Pro Tour Dominaria has come and gone and it was a blast.
One thing I'm not going to do is complain about the ubiquity of Goblin Chainwhirler in the top 8. First, a ton of content has already been written about how oppressive the card is. Second, I actually like this Standard format! Maybe it's just because I get to crew Heart of Kiran, but I think the games are generally pretty interesting and there's a still lot of variation between builds within the same archetype.
Instead, I'm going to shift my focus to Modern for bit. For the weeks leading up to the Pro Tour
I've been working mainly on Standard with a bit of Team Sealed. I've largely been ignoring the shifts happening in Modern. Well that has all changed now, as I need to find a deck for Grand Prix Las Vegas this week. I've spent the last week getting caught up on what I missed. Here's what I've learned.
Humans Is Apparently Pretty Good
Ok, I haven't been gone that long. Humans was the deck to beat at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, and has been at least a contender for that title for months now. Emma Handy went so far as to say Play Humans Or Be Wrong . Cedric Phillips said last week that Humans was " far and away the best deck in Modern ".
Is he wrong?
Well, yes usually, but in this case I'm not so sure. Humans has been putting up numbers for a while now and it's not hard to see why: It's fast, disruptive, and not easily hated out. The decks that typically prey on it tend to either be just piles of removal or they tend to be playing Tron lands. Both of those have glaring weaknesses, which means if you want to beat Humans, you must roll the dice and hope the metagame is good for you.
Control Is Great Now
Mardu Pyromancer has been a thing for a while now. I wasn't initially a fan of the deck, but I've slowly come around. For a long time, I thought decks like this were kind of one-dimensional, something that you should only play if your goal was just to beat up on something like Humans. I was wrong. This deck is definitely real. It has its own disruption and resilient threats. With Lingering Souls and Bedlam Reveler, it can grind with the best of them. If you want, you can even maindeck Blood Moon and get some free wins.
When I dove back into Modern last week, I already knew that Mardu Pyromancer was good. I wasn't shocked to see that it has become a format staple. What really surprised me was something else.
Jeskai Control is a good deck now. Like, really good. If you listen really closely you might hear whispers that it's the new best deck in Modern. What changed? Wasn't this deck supposed to be bad?
What a difference a busted planeswalker can make. The "untap two lands clause" is what really matters here. Since you get to play with Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt, you can often tap out for Teferi and still stop two threats on your opponent's next turn. Combine this with Search for Azcanta and you finally have a high enough density of efficient ways to take over the game. These are two threats that you can sneak in without getting run over. After that they each serve dual roles, simultaneously stabilizing your position while providing a way to take over the game. In reality, there's more going on here than just Teferi being good. Jeskai's success is in no small part due to Humans' popularity.
Knowing that, what should I play next week? Normally my deck selection process for Modern has just been "Play what you know." Modern metagames are generally a bit less elastic than Standard, so I generally don't change decks very aggressively. The most popular deck at any given time rarely occupies more than 10% of the metagame. In a large tournament you're likely to play against at least a few decks that you weren't prepared for. For those reasons, I generally default to playing something that I'm experienced with. That line of reasoning leads me here:
Grixis Death's Shadow has everything I want in a Modern deck. You get to rip apart your opponent's hand and then cast your own super-fast clock. You get to play Stubborn Denial, which is like Counterspell except that it costs one mana. The combination of Thought Scour and Snapcaster Mage gives you an absurd degree of consistency, allowing you to get a ton of mileage out of even just one or two copies of any instant and sorcery. The deck is also a blast to play, as you're continually forced to reevaluate your role in the game as it switches back and forth between defensive and aggressive.
There's just one big problem. The deck isn't that great anymore.
It just hasn't put up the numbers that it used to, and this is partly due to Humans. While I don't think the matchup is as bad as many people say it is, Grixis Death's Shadow definitely isn't favored. I was able to get up to about a 50% win rate by giving myself access to three copies of Lightning Bolt in the 75. That addition, along with Snapcaster Mage and Fatal Push gave me enough cheap interaction to give me a decent shot of winning, but that's not exactly where I want to be against the most popular deck in the format.
It's tempting to put the blame entirely on Humans and I hope that it gets hated out a bit, so I convince myself to register Grixis Death's Shadow next weekend. I can't honestly do that though because the truth is that the entire metagame has become fairly hostile to Grixis Death's Shadow.
In addition to having to battle your way through a pile of Humans, you also have the control decks to contend with. Jeskai Control is generally considered to be a foil to Grixis Death's Shadow, but I don't think it's as bad as most people think it is. Jeskai typically plays at least six burn spells maindeck between Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix, and you can punish your Jeskai opponent for this by conserving your life total. Depending on my opening hand, against players who open with turn-one Scalding Tarn, I've started to slow down a bit and fetch my lands onto the battlefield tapped. I try to use my discard to take anything grindy or proactive and leave the burn spells in their hand. Playing a slower game like this can sometimes let you turn a loss into a win if they eventually must start using multiple burn spells on your threats. That said, you're walking a razor thin line and the matchup is still very close.
Mardu Pyromancer is different. I don't have a foolproof strategy against them, and I think the matchup is just plain bad for you. Lingering Souls is one of the hardest cards in the format for Grixis Death's Shadow to deal with. Additionally, you can strip their hand, but they still have hits like Bedlam Reveler in their deck, and they play lots of spot removal that can kill your big threats, like Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. As the game tends to drag on, eventually they draw something great that you can't deal with. I've been playing two Liliana, the Last Hope in my sideboard as I think it's one of your best cards against Lingering Souls, but it's somewhat narrow and it's not enough to swing the matchup in your favor.
The rest of the format has simply evolved to surpass Grixis Death's Shadow. For example, G/W Hexproof is a deck that people still play, and maindeck copies of Leyline of Sanctity is common in that deck nowadays. They don't play it specifically to beat Grixis Death's Shadow, but if they start the game with one, you're probably going to lose because a lot of the spells in Grixis Death's Shadow have the word "target."
When you can't target your opponent or any of their creatures, a large percentage of your hands are just completely non-functional. At Grand Prix Phoenix last spring, out of respect for G/W Hexproof, I included a second copy of Engineered Explosives in my sideboard, but it just wasn't enough to swing the matchup in my favor.
It doesn't really get any better when you look at the rest of the metagame. Just go down the list of the other popular decks right now:
- Jeskai Control
- Mono-Green Tron
- B/R Hollow One
- Mardu Pyromancer
It's not that all these matchups are bad. I feel like most of them are actually pretty close or at least close enough that I could maybe get an edge by compromising my values and adding a card that I absolutely hate.
Although originally I wasn't planning to register Temur Battle Rage, two copies has been the standard for a while now. It makes sense in theory. Modern is full of powerful nonsense. A large percentage of your matchups are just going to be two ships passing in the night. If other players don't want to interact with you, fine! We can just take a turn off of our clock and hope that that's enough to beat them.
In practice though, it never seems to play out that way for me. For one, not every deck in Modern is trying to ignore you. It's demoralizing to sit across from your Jund opponent and stare at that copy of Temur Battle Rage in your hand as you hope desperately to draw another threat. Even in the matchups where Temur Battle Rage is good, it's not even that good. Your deck is filled with disruption, removal, and Snapcaster Mages. The more of it you draw, the worse Temur Battle Rage tends to perform.
I didn't want to give up that easily though, so I took a look at the Top 8 of the Modern portion of the Season One Invitational. The results bolstered my spirits:
Infect came in first place and that matchup is decent for our hero. We are a Snapcaster Mage/Fatal Push deck with discard, countermagic, and a fast clock. In theory, after sideboard, it should get even better since you can bring in even more interaction. You do need to dodge Shaper's Sanctuary though, which at one mana is easier said than done.
Ironworks Combo came in second and that's a similar story. Again, discard plus countermagic plus a fast clock should make you a favorite to win.
As I continued to look down the list I was snapped back into reality.
- 4 Hollow One
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Flameblade Adept
- 4 Flamewake Phoenix
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 4 Street Wraith
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 3 Etched Champion
- 2 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Signal Pest
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 4 Vault Skirge
This looks like a typical Modern metagame. Most of these aren't that horrible for Grixis, but again, I had to ask myself what's the reason to play Grixis Death's Shadow? I honestly can't think of a good one.
So, if like me, you're a Grixis Death's Shadow player looking for a new jam, where do you go? My first instinct was Jund as it's another proactive Thoughtseize deck so the play patterns shouldn't be too hard to learn. Unfortunately, Jund's not at a great place either at the moment. From Lingering Souls to Leyline of Sanctity to Humans, it has many of same fundamental weaknesses as Grixis Death's Shadow.
The unfortunate reality is that there isn't a great replacement for Grixis Death's Shadow at the moment. Instead, if you're in search of a Modern deck this week, I'd recommend giving Jeskai Control a try. Not only is it well-positioned against Humans, but it's also just doing powerful things of its own. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is almost reason enough to play the deck. I'm a bit concerned that my lack of experience with the deck will show next weekend. Of course, I'll be jamming leagues on Magic Online until then to try to get my bearings.
Sometimes the best way to learn is just to dive in and get your hands dirty.