The Modern landscape has changed a lot recently. Aside from a couple months of uncertainty after the unbanning of Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Modern has looked more or less the same since the printing of Unclaimed Territory and the rise of Humans. Sure, the format has shifted around as decks gain and lose popularity on the wings of the metagame, but it has been the same decks rising and falling in an endless cycle, with few new movers entering the scene.
Ironworks, largely thanks to the heroics of Matt Nass, has been slowly making its way into Modern's top tier for awhile now. At this point, it's hard to argue against the deck being a real contender in Modern. It made the finals of Pro Tour 25th Anniversary in the hands of Ben Stark and was the third most popular deck at that event with over 10% of the field on it. The extremely high complexity of the deck probably worked to slow the deck's rise, but it looks like we've now reached the point where players are willing to put in the work to unlock the enticingly high win percentage that Ironworks offers.
- 3 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Greater Gargadon
- 4 Insolent Neonate
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 4 Vengevine
If you were to come up to me and tell me that B/R Vengevine was a very explosive deck, I would agree with you, but I wouldn't know precisely what you meant. You see, it's difficult to decide which makes the deck more explosive: it's ability to produce upwards of six power and toughness on the first turn of the game or the speed at which it transitioned from a fringe Magic Online deck to a respectable deck selection made by 6% of the Pro Tour 25th Anniversary field, the sixth most popular deck choice. Luckily, we don't really need to decide which is the more noteworthy accomplishment, as they both point towards the same truth: this deck is the real deal and it's here to stay.
These new decks are all well and good, but not that appealing to those of us looking to stick with the fair side of Magic. But even if we have no desire to play these decks, we still have to put in the work to make sure we understand them. How else will we know what to Thoughtseize?
Going with the tried-and-true strategy of always Thoughtseizing the namesake card of the deck works well for Ironworks, but you really shouldn't try that against B/R Vengevine. Jokes aside, the whole draw to midrange as a strategy in Modern is that you're never dead to a particular matchup. As a dedicated Jund mage, Tron is basically the bane of my existence, but even when my opponent leads on Urza's Mine, I still know that I have somewhere around a 30% chance to win. The flip side of this matchup resiliency is that to claim your full win rate, you must know exactly what you're supposed to do in every matchup. Little missteps will cost you big, and it's hard not to make a misstep against new decks. And so, let's dive in to how to best combat this new breed of unfair decks.
Similarities to a Thoughtseize Mage
But first, a brief discussion of why it makes sense to consider these two decks at the same time. Yes, they're both new entries into Modern entering the limelight at the same time, but that's not enough to get me to want to pair them. After all, they are fundamentally different decks. One is a set-up combo deck that does very little to affect the battlefield until the turn it kills you, the other is an explosive graveyard-fueled battlefield presence deck that seeks to win through the combat step, often over the course of multiple turns. They're both susceptible to graveyard hate, but that's the only obvious link between them.
The first similarity that has me interested in pairing them is that both decks are quite good against discard spells. Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are black midrange's first line of defense against unfair decks in Modern, so it's never good when unfair decks resilient to discard pop up. Don't get me wrong, Inquisition and Thoughtseize still have a role to play in these matchups, they aren't just awful. But they're much worse then they are against Storm and other classical unfair Modern decks, and that's something we have to respect.
B/R Vengevine is good against discard because the entire purpose of the deck is to get the key cards into the graveyard. Taking a Bridge From Below with an Inquisition doesn't help you in the slightest, outside of fringe scenarios where you take it and then immediately kill one of your own creatures to exile it, but that doesn't come up very often. No, your discard is mostly reduced to attacking the enablers in this matchup, but they play so many enablers that this is quite the Sisyphean task.
Redundancy is also the main reason why discard is anemic against Ironworks. Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler matter a lot, Engineered Explosives can matter a little, and everything else virtually doesn't matter. Worse, everything else helps dig for those cards. A very large percentage of the Ironworks deck is cantrip artifacts, and discard has always underperformed against decks relying on vast quantities of cantrips. You have to Thoughtseize at very specific times to nab a card that matters, and it's always just a matter of time until they find a replacement.
The other important similarity between these two decks is that they're both uniquely resilient to hate, albeit for very different reasons. There was a game shown on camera last weekend at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary between Bant Spirits and B/R Vengevine where the Spirits player had Turn 2 Rest in Peace on the play.
The B/R Vengevine player got a Bridge From Below into the graveyard on the only turn they would have such a thing and promptly traded in a bunch of zero mana artifact creatures in the hand for 2/2 Zombies on the battlefield. With a little help from a Goblin Bushwhacker, they were enough to get the job done. A Turn 2 Rest In Peace on the play was just too slow.
That game was certainly a tad atypical, but the fact that it's possible demonstrates what I'm trying to get across: B/R Vengevine can get under your hate cards and win despite the fragility of their gameplan. This isn't to say that you shouldn't play hate cards against B/R Vengevine, to the contrary, you need them, it's to say that you effectively get to play less of them.
Wait, what was that? The idea here is that the way we value cards affects how many we get to play, virtually speaking. If you have a three-of in your sideboard that by itself wins a matchup 90% of the time, you're going to get to play it more often than a three-of in your sideboard that needs help to win the matchup. This is because you get to keep weaker hands that have the better sideboard card, hands that you wouldn't otherwise keep, but you can't do that with the weaker card.
In that Bant Spirits VS B/R Vengevine match, the Bant Spirits player must have valued that Rest In Peace in their opening hand very highly. The rest of their hand didn't do much, and they died quickly to three Zombie tokens. That's the point: hate cards alone won't be good enough against B/R Vengevine, the rest of your draw still needs to function in short order.
The same logic applies to Ironworks, but for very different reasons. Ironworks doesn't get under your hate cards, but it's uniquely good at beating them. The fact that the deck just naturally wants zero-mana artifacts means it gets to play with Engineered Explosives, and the deck is designed to find the specific artifacts it needs as soon as possible. This adds up to meaning that trying to beat Ironworks with permanent-based hate is a huge headache.
The takeaway from this concept of the devaluation of hate cards against these new unfair decks is simple: you need to play more of them. Against less robust combo decks, the high EV strategy is to play a few pieces of powerful hate and aggressively look for them, but these two decks are very good at punishing that plan. But since you're a midrange deck, you do still have to interact with them, which means you need to register a higher quantity of hate cards.
Modern being what it is, you can't really afford to dedicate much more of your sideboard real estate to these two decks. So instead of playing a few really powerful hate cards, you end up playing a lot of marginally effective pieces of interaction. The kinds of cards that are good, not great, in these matchups and still good in other places. You need to up the raw number of sideboard cards you have for these decks, which in Modern tends to mean decreasing the power level of each of them to ensure your bases are still covered.
The first thing to understand about Ironworks is that you're overthinking it. The deck is very complicated and filled with niche interactions, but if you're not playing the deck, very little of that complexity matters to you. Don't be intimidated by the complexity. Forget everything you think you knew about the steps of casting a spell and the weird rules quirks of generating more mana than you need to pay for a spell. Your knowledge of those things will not be tested. Here's what does matter:
From your perspective as the opponent, Ironworks functions as a two-card combo deck. Your goal is to end the game before they manage to get Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler on the battlefield simultaneously. Yes, there's much more to it than that, and there are times when understanding the intricacies will benefit you, but as a base-level shortcut, treating it as a two-card combo will serve you well.
Generally, two-card combo decks are good for black midrange. The card Thoughtseize is at its best against these kinds of decks, but we've already discussed why this isn't the case against Ironworks. The thing to understand, to really internalize, about Ironworks is that if you give them enough time, they will find it. You can Thoughtseize them every turn of the game, if you aren't attacking with a Tarmogoyf simultaneously, they will eventually win the game. You need to put them under pressure.
This is important to talk about, because it's the easiest step. Value Tarmogoyf higher than Thoughtseize in your opening hand. Mulligan hands that don't put Ironworks under pressure quickly, no matter how disruptive they are. Time is not your friend in this matchup. No matter how good a job you do disrupting them, no matter how tricky you get with your interaction, they will win the game unless you win it first.
With that distasteful 'aggression is paramount' admonition out of the way, let's dive in to the fun stuff: how to use our interaction to stop them from comboing for as many turns as possible. As discussed, they have two cards that really matter: Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler. Because we play so much removal, they will typically hold Scrap Trawler until after Ironworks comes down. This means four mana is the critical amount that we want to Thoughtseize prior to.
In a perfect world, we would Thoughtseize them on turn 3 to nab Krark-Clan Ironworks. Unfortunately, there's a complication:
The presence of Mox Opal in their deck means that they can jump from two to four mana on turn 3 and potentially combo you right then and there if their hand is particularly strong. If the Mox Opal is on the battlefield, it's immediately apparent that you should Thoughtseize ahead of schedule. If not, I tend to err towards not respecting the potential Opal. Every turn you get to delay your Thoughtseize is a turn of cantrips you get to see the end result of, and that value is enough for me to risk the Turn 3 kill. I also am ideally deploying a threat on turn 2, further shifting the calculus.
Since Inquisition of Kozilek cannot take Krark-Clan Ironworks, you're less incentivized to hold it as long. You're still somewhat incentivized to do so, as Scrap Trawler tends to sit in their hand as long as Ironworks does, and that's the best card for Inquisition to hit. Still, your Inquisitions will often just take Ancient Stirrings or a cheap artifact and I'm willing to cast them earlier than Thoughtseize if it makes sense with my curve.
As a simple rule of thumb, here's my loose hierarchy of Thoughtseize takes, from best discard to worst:
Krark-Clan Ironworks, Scrap Trawler, Ancient Stirrings, Ichor Wellspring, Myr Retriever, Chromatic Star, Terrarion, Chromatic Sphere. Engineered Explosives is highly variable depending on the state of the battlefield, but sometimes is a very important take. Mox Opal is sometimes a valuable take if they are mana light, but in general the graveyard is a perfect spot for it in their eyes anyway. After sideboard your discard spells get better as they let you take Nature's Claim and Engineered Explosives to protect your hate cards, as well as combo with early graveyard hate like Surgical Extraction.
There's not a lot to this. Your removal spells are important pieces of interaction in that they can kill Scrap Trawler. You tend to want to do this as early as possible, and when you get to the point in the game where they can combo you, you'll want to make sure you leave mana up. Ideally, you'll be pairing your Lightning Bolt with one of these:
The ideal sequence with Nihil Spellbomb is to Lightning Bolt their Scrap Trawler then get their graveyard with the Scrap Trawler trigger on the stack. Ditto for Surgical Extraction, although it's important to note that you're likely better off using Surgical on the Trawler itself, not whatever the target of the trigger was.
If you have Nihil Spellbomb or Surgical Extraction without a removal spell, don't expect things to go well for you. With a Scrap Trawler on the battlefield, the Ironworks player can just respond by sacrificing another artifact and claiming whatever was important in their graveyard. They will make sure that the graveyard you exile is the one that is optimal for them. Without a Bolt to go along with them, these cards aren't prizes. Get whatever value you can from them and don't expect too much.
Your permanents that shut down their ability to combo are pretty simple to play: get them on the table as soon as possible. There's very little reason to ever wait; trying to get fancy and play them the turn before they go to combo so they have to spend a turn using Engineered Explosives on your hate card before they combo rarely works out. Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace especially just do such a good job shutting down the engines of their deck that every turn you manage with them in play is for the best.
What's interesting about these cards is what to do with duplicates. Kambal, Consul of Allocation is legendary so that's not a concern, but when you have a Leyline of the Void on the battlefield and one in hand, do you play the second to play around Nature's Claim or hold it to play around Engineered Explosives? Unfortunately, there's not a clear answer here: do what seems right based on context and whatever reads you might have, erring towards playing around Engineered Explosives because that's the one that the deck's engines are capable of finding.
This frequently encountered dilemma does have a cool ramification: when possible, diversify the converted mana cost of the permanent hate cards you play against Ironworks. Two copies of Leyline of the Void is much easier for Ironworks to beat than a copy of Leyline and a copy of Rest in Peace or Kambal.
Last card before we move off Ironworks: I like Fulminator Mage quite a bit in this matchup. Fulminator isn't great, you don't value it highly, but it's exactly what I think you need against these hate-resistant unfair decks: a card that interacts with them, even if weakly. Despite the intense amount of mana that Krark-Clan Ironworks can generate, they need four mana the normal way to get off the ground, so to speak. Fulminator can slow that down and that's important.
Your highest priority targets with Fulminator Mage are Inventors' Fair and Buried Ruin. Keeping these cards off the table can make your Thoughtseizes actually matter, as it greatly reduces their ability to find additional copies of their key cards. It can be tempting to take their only green source to turn off any Ancient Stirrings they may find, but between Chromatic Sphere, Chromatic Star, Terrarion, and Mox Opal, you're better off just taking the value lands. When they need colored mana, they'll have it.
VS B/R Vengevine
From the perspective of a black midrange deck, the B/R Vengevine matchup is an exercise in battlefield control. Yes, they're an unfair deck, but they do win the game in a fair way: the combat step. This means that every creature you deploy to the battlefield is an enormous asset. They only have one path to your life total, and your creatures stand in the way.
This means that B/R Vengevine is the rare unfair matchup where I'm not going to sit here and preach about how important it is to be aggressive. You do need to end the game eventually, but not until you are firmly in control of the battlefield. Your goal is to shut down the powerful unfair things they're doing, eliminate their resources, and eventually take control of the game. Let's begin.
These cards are much more straightforward in this matchup. You can't touch their cards that actually matter, so you have to take the enablers. In almost every circumstance, it's better to take creatures than non-creatures. Faithless Looting digs deeper and fills the graveyard fuller, but Insolent Neonate makes Zombie tokens and brings back Vengevine. That's far more important. Stitcher's Supplier, Insolent Neonate, Goblin Bushwhacker, and Faithless Looting are the four big cards you're looking to take with your discard effects, roughly in that order of priority though it changes a lot based on the contents of their hand and what's in their graveyard already. Greater Gargodon and/or Viscera Seer are also valuable takes in some spots.
Using your removal on their creatures works the same as it always has, and it should be pretty apparent when that's something you need to be doing. More interesting is your ability to use removal on your own creatures in this matchup to exile copies of Bridge From Below from their graveyard. Bridge From Below is by far the most powerful thing they can do in this matchup and the easiest way for them to beat you, and keeping them in check is an important thing to keep an eye out for.
Let's talk for a second about the different unfair things they have access to. The two main sources of power that the deck has access to are Bridge From Below and Vengevine, with Bloodghast and Gravecrawler providing lesser amounts of graveyard-fueled power. Bridge From Below is by far the most important to us as black midrange players. Typically, we can handle a Vengevine. A 4/3 isn't a super troubling body, and if we kill it a few times they will eventually run out of creatures to keep bringing it back. Bridge from Below is a whole different story.
What this means is you should rarely ever use any of your graveyard hate after sideboard if they don't have a Bridge in the graveyard. You can deal with Vengevine in other ways. Narrow your focus to Bridge From Below, and only consider using Nihil Spellbomb on graveyards without Bridge if your opponent's resources are very low and you think you can close out the game before they refill.
For this reason, I'll often bring Fulminator Mage in after sideboard in this matchup. The card is very unimpressive and quite slow, but it's a turn 3 way to get rid of the Bridges in their graveyard without losing any creatures that are actually contributing to my battlefield. Again, breadth of interaction is what we're going for, not depth.
You always need to be thinking about this card when playing against B/R Vengevine. Its ability to add a bunch of damage out of nowhere should always be at the forefront of your mind and needs to be respected. It can be tempting to try and turn the corner when the battlefield looks stable, but if that puts you in a tight spot against a potential Goblin Bushwhacker, you should probably think again.
This matchup is bad for you as a black midrange player, but it's rise as the premier graveyard deck is good for us. Dredge is too slow for the format, but a much worse matchup for us as we can't ever hope to out grind Dredge in a long game. Against B/R Vengevine, if you can survive the initial onslaught and interact with the Bridge From Below, you can very easily manage a win.