About half of the top tier Modern decks today didn't exist a year ago.
For a non-rotating format with fifteen years of cards, that's astonishing. The weird part is that not all of these were even because of a new printing. Some of them just took people a long time to figure out.
Right now, Modern is fairly well-defined. Everyone knows Humans, Hollow One, U/W or Jeskai Control, Tron, and Ironworks are the decks you have to beat at the top tables. But what about the rest of the metagame?
There's a ton of promising brews lurking at the bottom of the metagame distribution that could be the deck you wish you had taken a look at earlier.
My understanding of the Hardened Scales archetype was that it was originally a Matt Nass/Sam Pardee meme deck. My understanding is that at some point in recent Pro Tour testing, the rest of their team had to make a rule that they were banned from testing with the card.
Then Matt Nass decided Modern would exist in his image, won back-to-back Grand Prix with another previous joke combo deck, and this happens. And I really don't think it's a fluke.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Arcbound Worker
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Sparring Construct
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Walking Ballista
While the deck recently gained Sparring Construct, I think Throne of Geth is the real improvement from the earliest lists I saw. While it isn't quite Hardened Scales in terms of raw counter output, it gives you something to Ancient Stirrings for that does a good impression of it.
Some of the many things going on here:
Sacrificing a modular creature or Sparring Construct to Throne of Geth results in the death trigger resolving first, then that counter getting proliferated.
- Throne of Geth can sacrifice Hangarback Walker to protect your investment from Reflector Mage or Path to Exile.
- Arcbound Ravager plus Hardened Scales is two counters per artifact sacrificed, a bonus for each modular trigger, a bonus for moving counters, and basically always kills them.
- Walking Ballista that can attack also doubles Arcbound Ravager damage, just like it does in Vintage.
Despite playing the dynamic duo of Ancient Stirrings and Mox Opal, they aren't at their best here. Ancient Stirrings is great but doesn't find Hardened Scales, which is definitely your best card. There's far fewer cheap artifacts in this deck than Affinity, so your Mox Opals just aren't the same. Playing a turn-one two-drop is extremely difficult with only two non-Opal zero cost cards compared to Affinity's eight or nine, and then on turn two a bonus Opal mana is just used to cast Ancient Stirrings or a badly sequenced Hardened Scales, so you are using Mox Opal to cast multiple spells on turn three, which is a bit slow.
What Hardened Scales offers compared to Affinity is a more additive play style. With Affinity, you present a threat or two, then if that falls apart, so does your deck until you draw another one. Almost every card in the Hardened Scales deck threatens to do something bigger if you add one of many other pieces, and you can draw your way into something big and threatening as long as a couple of your cards remain briefly unanswered.
Basically, it's a Merfolk deck that gets to play good cards. You make a dork, then two more, then the game is totally out of hand.
It's weird, but we have seen the Arcbound Ravager-Walking Ballista-Hangarback Walker package trickle forward in formats from Vintage Shops to Legacy Ancient Tomb decks and now into Modern, and it just does the same thing every time. You get really explosive kills starting from low resource bases from it, but it's just hard to kill Hardened Scales because the XX creatures give you tons of defensive play that quickly turns a corner. If they're hitting with a big thing, Hangarback and Thopters stop it forever. If their creatures are small but go big, like Young Pyromancer or Blighted Agent, Walking Ballista shuts that down. If they do something in the middle. your whole deck just goes bigger.
I'm also underselling the power of Ancient Stirrings finding sideboard hate. We don't see a lot of that because Ironworks and Tron want non-colorless answers to permanents and Lantern is largely Whir of Invention bullets, but this deck gets to reliably field a hate card against combo and Tron.
For a first major appearance, this deck feels like it is right on the edge of something awesome. I wouldn't be shocked to see it again, and then possibly just see it become the default Arcbound Ravager deck with the right tuning.
They took all the good rituals from Modern, but people still can't help themselves. All-In Red has been a staple of the Modern League decklists for the last few months, with a few reasonable finishes in Modern Challenges across that timespan.
FluffyWolf92 has been the most consistent name across these results, and most lists seem to share the same base with some flex threat slots where this one has Walking Ballista, Pia and Kiran Nalaar, and sweepers. This list has many of the other usual suspects in the sideboard: Koth of the Hammer, Goblin Chainwhirler, Hazoret the Fervent.
I'm not sure there's a card Infect would want to see less out of this deck than Pia and Kiran Nalaar. The card represents multiple flying blockers or multiple removal spells, and the fliers are even artifacts which randomly causes issues with Apostle's Blessing. Walking Ballista also being present implies that that matchup is a big concern for the latest iteration of this deck.
This deck is shockingly consistent at making something threatening on turn two. Stealing the play with Gemstone Caverns is also a huge boon for your Blood Moon strategy, allowing you to catch opponents on one land a lot more than they are used to.
If there's any problem, it's that your threatening thing doesn't always line up the best. Sometimes they have Lightning Bolt for your Goblin Rabblemaster, or a long game out to your Ensnaring Bridge, or just don't care about Chalice of the Void. Your deck doesn't have card filtering to fix this, and without full knowledge of your opponent's deck, you can't just mulligan hands that work to hope for a different one that works.
If you want to play All-In Red, that's your challenge. Find the right threats and pieces for the right metagame, get the right pairings, and hope your draws pan out.
Naya Moon Chord
Talk about a blast from the past. Naya Chord was Jeff Hoogland's weapon of choice back in the Gitaxian Probe days of Modern, but the deck almost completely disappeared after the more efficient Grixis Death's Shadow took the place of the slower midrange decks it preyed on. With that deck gone and a return to U/W bases as the fair decks of choice, we saw this list pop up in 16th place at Grand Prix Barcelona.
- 1 Avalanche Riders
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Eternal Witness
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Magus of the Moon
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Restoration Angel
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Selfless Spirit
- 1 Thrashing Brontodon
- 3 Voice of Resurgence
- 2 Wall of Roots
- 1 Eidolon of Rhetoric
- 2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
First of all, Kiki-Chord was never the world's best Chord of Calling deck, so I'm very glad we only see three copies of that card. Unlike old Melira combo and current Devoted Druid combo, you only need the first one to combo off due to the chain of Eternal Witness back Chord, Restoration Angel the Witness for the same, get Kiki-Jiki and make infinite Angels. Now you're much less likely to draw two Chords and no one-drops, or worse, one-drops that die, leaving you with a basically uncastable Chord.
Instead, this is much more of a 2018 Modern deck. By that, it has multiple game plans that just aren't messing around. Eldritch Evolution with maindeck hate cards is one of those. The biggest issue with that plan in the past has been that whatever Jund-esque deck existed at the time would crush you because you drew one too few cards that forced them to spend an answer, but no one is doing that any more. Being a card down doesn't matter against Bedlam Reveler or Jace, the Mind Sculptor; you needed to do something before those fair cards started going.
So, what are we Eldritch Evolutioning for against the unfair decks:
It isn't a huge package of cards, but it will do. Eidolon of Rhetoric is one of the few cards that really hits Ironworks where it hurts: their card drawing chains. If they can't just filter through their deck to find exactly what they need to answer your hate card, they will probably die. Magus of the Moon on turn two will steal games against half the format, and Shalai, Voice of Plenty and Scavenging Ooze help mop up the rest of the linears like Dredge and Burn.
The other "my deck isn't messing around plan" is just actual Blood Moon. That brings you up an effective eight copies of the card for turn two purposes off your six mana dorks. Not the best, but not bad for a supposed midrange deck. You have a real plan for free wins that isn't your opponent being unable to beat a Momir Basic assembly of creatures. Losing Gavony Township sucks, but I think this list is just conceding the grindy games against midrange already.
At first I wasn't big on Fiery Justice as the removal spell of choice, but it grew on me as I considered how the current Humans decks are constructed. A turn two Fiery Justice undoes any Champion of the Parish draw from Humans, you have lots of other spells that would be hit by Kitesail Freebooter so your high impact removal does something, and best of all Phantamal Image only takes one damage from a Fiery Justice to kill. Hollow One ignores the card, but should also be vulnerable to your normal Chord of Calling deck plan of assembling seven creatures on the battlefield.
Despite a lot about this list being right, that doesn't mean it is perfect for next week. The return of Infect makes a metagame where you want cheaper removal, or the repeatable blowouts of Izzet Staticaster. Fortunately because your deck has a ton of tutor effects, you can get a lot of value out of single card changes.
For the current moment, a toolbox strategy like Naya Moon Chord definitely seems like it makes sense. If Ben Friedman has his way and Grixis Death's Shadow comes back around, you can reconsider; but if there was ever a time to go back to this nonsense, it's now.
W/B Copter Stuff
At Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan I was absolutely dismantled by a W/B Zombies deck, featuring none other than the Smuggler's Copter plus Lingering Souls combo. This last week I was brought back to that archetype by the following Twitter chain.
While I'm not sure Gravecrawler is quite the spot to be right now, I'm choosing this list as it has a result to back it. The core engine here is real. Smuggler's Copter is definitely at Modern power levels.
As per the Twitter conversation, Kitesail Freebooter wasn't quite the answer. Something like Young Pyromancer would push the deck in a completely different direction, and if you play Tarmogoyf you may as well just attack with it.
Where do you go with Smuggler's Copter from there? Here's one pass at it.
Or maybe you hybridize with the W/B Taxes or Eldrazi decks. Play Thought-Knot Seer and Wasteland Strangler and Relic of Progenitus, but keep the Smuggler's Copter and interactive spells and get every mention of Leonin Arbiter and Aether Vial way out of there.
I'm leaving this one to you, the reader. Mention any other shells you can think of that fit Lingering Souls and Smuggler's Copter, or really just Smuggler's Copter, and let's see what a mini-hive mind can come up with.