Pro Tour 25th Anniversary is officially in the books and I teamed with Gerry Thompson and Josh Cho for this one. I'm not going to go into detail about our record, or how we did relative to Shaheen Soorani, or anything like that. That's really not important. Instead I'm here to talk about the Modern deck we should have played.
- 3 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Bloodghast
- 4 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 1 Greater Gargadon
- 4 Insolent Neonate
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 4 Vengevine
- 3 Viscera Seer
The release of Core Set 2019 and the introduction of Stitcher's Supplier opened new doors for graveyard strategies in Modern. Stitcher's Supplier doesn't just allow you to fill your graveyard and trigger Vengevine's ability on the cheap. It's also a Zombie for Gravecrawler, which complements both Vengevine and Bridge from Below. R/B Vengevine had already gotten some attention in the last few weeks, but the Pro Tour put it into the spotlight.
R/B Vengevine is an aggressive graveyard-centric deck that attempts to generate at least four power on the battlefield on turn 1 or 2, and then tries to push that advantage even further while the opponent is still playing catch up. It does this either by using the deck's namesake card, Vengevine, or by creating an army of Zombies with Bridge from Below, along with multiple zero- or one-mana creatures to enable them. These two threats also happen to be fairly resilient to disruption, at least in game 1.
In practice, R/B Vengevine exists somewhere in the space between Hollow One and Dredge. It's more reliant on the graveyard than Hollow One, and without the reach provided by Conflagrate, it gives up some of the mid-lategame inevitability of Dredge. In exchange, it's able to very quickly and consistently produce a huge battlefield advantage on turn 2 or 3.
R/B Vengevine is capable of creating some completely absurd gamestates, especially in the early turns…
This is a turn 2 kill.
A casual ten power on turn 1.
You might want to give R/B Vengevine a try.
The best starts generally involve either Faithless Looting or Insolent Neonate along with Vengevine or Bridge from Below. The power of Faithless Looting has already been on display in Modern for some time, but the Neonate-enabled draws are also impressive, since Neonate + Vengevine or Bridge + any zero-mana creature gives you at least four power on the battlefield on turn 1.
Games generally play out slightly differently depending on the type of threat you produce. Games with Bridge from Below often start out a little slower than those with Vengevine, but they give you a stronger and more resilient threat engine. With Viscera Seer, Greater Gargadon, Gravecrawler, and Bloodghast, even a single Bridge from Below can let you quickly generate an army of Zombies. With two Bridges, you can do some truly disgusting things.
This is turn 4.
If the eight Zombie tokens on the battlefield aren't enough, note that I can just spend a single black mana to make two more Zombies, and I can do this as many times as I'd like. I even get a scry out of it, although the only card I'm even remotely interested in at this point is Goblin Bushwhacker. Here, I obviously don't need it, but just a note that in general, Bushwhacker has been really impressive with Bridge and usually ends the game on the spot.
If you're reanimating Vengevine, you're usually going to be better at ending the game quickly than if you're making Zombies with Bridge from Below. Since you can typically expect your Vengevine to die at least once, you'll want to refrain from casting your last one or two creatures right away. With these draws, you'll generally be spending turns 3 and beyond finding more Vengevines and Bridges just in case your opponent survives the initial assault.
Different Ways to Build
The archetype is relatively new and a consensus on the best build hasn't been reached just yet. From the iterations we do have, the core of the deck is something like:
8 Graveyard Payoffs
8 Premium Discard Enablers
6-7 Zero Mana Creatures
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 3 Hangerback Walker
4-5 Sacrifice Outlets
6 Recursive Sacrifice Fodder
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 3-4 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 17 Lands
That leaves us only a little room to play around. In my experience, the most common failure mode is lack of a discard outlet, since you want something to help you get Vengevines and Bridges into your graveyard. Initial builds were running Corpse Churn, but I wasn't impressed when I played them. Self-mill is not reliable when you're trying to plan out your turns, and two mana is significantly more than one. It does return a creature from the graveyard, so it helps you set up your engine for future turns, but with this deck I'm just looking to kill quickly and the Viscera Seer/Greater Gargadon + Gravecrawler/Bloodghast already gives you a powerful engine with which to grind.
Looting effects are also better than self-mill in sideboard games as they help you find your sideboard cards and allow you to ditch useless cards like Leyline of the Void. They also let you discard Vengevine and Bridge from Below in the face of an opposing Leyline. The deck is weak to graveyard hate and any way to mitigate that in sideboard games is welcome.
The most popular option for an additional discard outlet is Cathartic Reunion. Two mana is a huge downgrade compared to one, but it still gets the job done. Lightning Axe is an alternative, but since it requires that there be a creature on the battlefield before you can cast it, Cathartic Reunion gets the nod. You don't want to play something like Burning Inquiry or Goblin Lore here since they don't reliably accomplish what you're looking for.
This last weekend, Eric Severson showed up with Bloodrage Brawler in this spot, which seems like a great way to accomplish what we want while at the same time giving us a 4/3 body for some insurance against graveyard hate. Bomat Courier is another option, as it has a high ceiling in terms of power level and it triggers Vengevine itself, but the cost of discarding your entire hand is steep. After you put a Vengevine into the graveyard, you'll still need some way to trigger it, which means that, unless we have Gravecrawler, we'll probably need to put at least a few cards under Bomat Courier to give us a chance of drawing a cheap creature. If what we really want is an inexpensive and fast discard enabler, Bomat Courier doesn't really get the job done.
Collective Brutality also sometimes shows up here. This seems more like a metagame-dependent call, since it's less effective at setting up your engine. Depending on what you expect to face, it might be right, but for the moment I'm keeping mine in the sideboard.
The standard configuration for zero-mana creatures includes Walking Ballista and Hangarback Walker. Most of the time, their text doesn't matter since you'll just be casting them for zero mana to trigger Vengevine or Bridge from Below. At first, I was tempted to play the fourth Hangarback Walker before I added the first Walking Ballista. Walker can be extremely good against grindy strategies without access to Path to Exile, whereas Walking Ballista has less of an impact in the matchups where it's good. It's better against Affinity, as well as decks that rely on Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch. Ultimately though, Ballista is the better of the two, since it doesn't require the graveyard to function.
Nathan Holiday played Endless One at the Pro Tour, and although I haven't had a chance to try it yet, it seems great. Your opponents will occasionally keep otherwise anemic hands that include Leyline or Rest in Peace, so a 4/4 on turn 4 can occasionally cause trouble and since it's not an artifact, it won't power up opposing Tarmogoyfs. Additionally, in the mirror your opponents might sideboard some number of Destructive Revelry, and Endless One is immune.
Jacob Nagro eschewed Viscera Seer entirely in favor of four copies of Greater Gargadon. Although Gargadon doesn't help trigger Vengevine, it's a real threat in and of itself and can give you a way to win without using the graveyard. It's not great in multiples though, so for now I'm sticking with the split.
The biggest variation among sideboards is whether you want to try to fight Leyline of the Void directly. To do that, you need to play green. You can play Destructive Revelry or Nature's Claim, though I think that Revelry is the best choice since your opponent's life total is relevant enough that the extra mana is worth it, especially since sideboard games tend to be slower than game 1.
The cost to adding green isn't that high, as it's just a single Stomping Ground over a Blood Crypt. I tried adding a second Stomping Ground so that I could just cast Vengevine, but so far, I'm not happy with that change. Drawing Stomping Ground isn't ideal, and you often want multiple black mana early in the game. That means that you'll have to spend multiple turns fetching later in the game when you could be discarding those lands to try to find a Revelry.
Tips, Tricks, Notes, and General Guidelines
You'll often be asked to choose between either cashing in your zero-mana creatures for Zombies right away or waiting a turn to see if you can get a second Bridge from Below into the graveyard. Unless I already have second Bridge in my hand with another way to discard it and I have the ability to make at least two Zombies anyway, I default to making the Zombies immediately. R/B Vengevine plays as less of a combo deck and more of an aggressive deck with the potential for absurd starts. I just want to get some power onto the battlefield and start clocking my opponent, and then figure out how to go bigger on my next turn.
You maybe have to choose between creating one Vengevine or two Zombies, for example, with this hand:
In the dark, I go for the Zombies. A single Vengevine is softer to Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile, and getting Bridge from Below into your hard can help you set up a stronger engine going forward. For instance, if I draw Viscera Seer or Greater Gargadon, I'll be happy I went with the Bridge.
Remember that if you have access to a sacrifice outlet and an active Bridge from Below, you should probably be sacrificing your Bloodghasts at the end of your opponent's turn. This way, the Zombie that you create will not be summoning sick on your next turn, so if you need to play a land before combat, then you can get more value out of your Bloodghast.
If you have a sacrifice outlet available and an active Bridge from Below, you have the option to attack with an army of Zombies and sacrifice anything that might kill an opposing creature to preserve your Bridge. Additionally, if you have Bloodghast or Gravecrawler, there's little downside in attacking into a larger creature.
If you, once again, have a sacrifice outlet and an active Bridge from Below, you can cast Goblin Bushwhacker with kicker, then in response to the Bushwhacker's enters the battlefield trigger, you can sacrifice the Bushwhacker to create a Zombie. The trigger will resolve after the Zombie is created, netting you an extra point of damage. This will usually be unnecessary, but it's still valuable for extra rub-ins and helps to show off how smart you are.
If your list includes Bomat Courier, remember that the "discard your hand" portion of its ability is a cost, and not part of the effect. This means that if you have two copies on the battlefield, you can sacrifice the first, hold priority, and then sacrifice the second in response to keep all of the cards underneath both. You can also cast Cathartic Reunion or activate Insolent Neonate and then respond by sacrificing Bomat Courier to get maximum value.
It's going to be interesting to see where things go from here. A looming question is how this deck compares to Hollow One. Both decks occupy a similar space in Modern, so depending on how the format develops you might see one overtake some portion of the other's metagame share. There's no way to know for sure what will happen. The best we can do is try to figure out when it's right to play one over the other.
R/B Vengevine gives us a faster clock with a higher potential for absurd turns in the midgame. Bridge from Below allows us to go wide, which means that unlike Hollow One, we can often ignore our opponent's gameplan since we won't get bricked by a Gurmag Angler or 5/6 Tarmogoyf as often. In addition, our threats are more resilient than Hollow One's. If Modern were a complete vacuum devoid of a metagame, I would play R/B Vengevine over Hollow One.
The main benefit of Hollow One is that it's more resilient to graveyard hate. It uses the graveyard, but part of its plan A is just casting Hollow One anyway. It also has a bit of maindeck disruption of its own in the form of Burning Inquiry and Lighting Bolt gives it some interaction. If I expect to see a lot of Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace, I'd play Hollow One before I sleeved up R/B Vengevine.