At Grand Prix Atlanta this past weekend, the Top 8 was stacked with linear, non-interactive decks. Unless you stretch the definition of "interactive" to include the only mostly linear Hollow One and Hardened Scales, there was exactly one fair deck in the Top 8. Only one player hoped to fairly trade cards with the opponent and get involved in some creature combat to win, that being the winner, Peiyuan Zheng, with the relatively new format policeman, Bant Spirits.
If one looks deeper into the Top 32, the trend is just as obvious.
- Hardened Scales
- Mono-Green Tron
The only fair decks to do well were a few copies of Bant Spirits, with a single Humans, single Faeries, and single Mardu Pyromancer deck cracking the Top 32 barrier. We've achieved something like an 80% penetration rate for linear decks in the winner's circle of the metagame, which is astonishing in a contemporary format.
Jeskai Control? Azorius Control? Jund? Golgari Midrange? Nowhere to be found. The unfair decks are just too punishing, too diverse, too powerful, and too consistent to properly fight.
There are only two courses of action to take here, when Modern becomes somewhat slanted in favor of speed and away from interaction: complain about the format being unplayable and unfun (which is a valid strategy) or try to exploit this trend.
I'd like to exploit it for some free win equity, if possible. What can we play?
This is the new best choice in Modern. If your goal is to bash other linear decks, there's nothing like a turn 1 Glistener Elf to embarrass people on Karn Liberated, Scapeshift, or Scrap Trawler. Dredge's new Creeping Chills don't do quite as much work against Infect, either, as the lifegain is irrelevant against the count up to ten poison counters.
I'll be the first to say that Infect is not quite as advantaged in today's mostly-linear format as it has been in past linear-tilted Modern formats, as the loss of Gitaxian Probe and the gains of other decks in terms of interaction does even out the playing field. Think Ironworks with Engineered Explosives and Pyrite Spellbomb, or Hardened Scales playing Walking Ballista. The matchups aren't quite as overwhelming for Infect, but there's a certain strategic edge that comes from being the glassiest cannon of them all.
- Ironworks - Favorable. You goldfish a half-turn faster and pack sideboard disruption.
- Dredge - Favorable. If you draw a Blighted Agent or a Distortion Strike, you will generally win. There's also sideboard disruption.
- Tron - Highly Favorable. You goldfish faster and can just beat their nut draw.
- Hardened Scales - Even. Watch out for Walking Ballista, but without that card you're similarly positioned to Dredge (looking for an Agent or a Distortion Strike to push through a kill).
- Humans - Even. Watch out for Izzet Staticaster, and the disruption is relatively meaningful against you, but you still are playing against a deck with no real removal. Draw a way to push through the blockers and you should be good unless they have disruption to slow you down and a lot of Reflector Mages.
- Bant Spirits - Favorable. There's some disruption, but you can generally get on the battlefield and push through your creatures one way or another.
- TitanShift - Highly Favorable. You've got a faster clock, you've got disruption, you just own them on all fronts.
- Storm - Favorable. You've got a marginally faster clock and a tiny bit of disruption between the maindeck and sideboard, so get ready to race.
- Burn - Unfavorable. Pack some Kitchen Finks if you want to salvage the matchup!
As decks like Jeskai Control fall off the radar, Infect picks up the slack and gets better and better. But it's not the only choice out there and there are some other options that see a bit less play for the true metagame aficionado.
Will Pulliam wrote an impressive, in-depth look at Amulet Titan last week that is well worth a read, and I'm amazed that more folks aren't clambering to try to learn the deck for upcoming Modern events. I, personally, intend to try it as well as Ironworks to learn some of the most intricate and powerful combo decks in the format. Amulet Titan offers a potential turn-2 kill, a significantly more frequent turn-3 or 4 kill, and unparalleled resilience in the face of traditional disruption. It will overpower Jund, Jeskai Control, and other fair midrange decks. It demolishes Dredge with incidental maindeck hate, and (best of all) most people have no idea how to play against it.
It's truly stunning that people have forgotten about Amulet Titan after Summer Bloom was banned because the deck is still incredible when it gets going.
Edgar Magalhaes has been the leading voice on Amulet Titan for over a year now, and I'm finally at the point where I'm ready to sit down and ask him to teach me his secrets. As he puts it, the deck doesn't lose to decks, just the card Blood Moon. It's even beatable with maindeck Reclamation Sage, three basic Forests, and the Summoner's Pacts to go find it. With so much tutoring available, the deck is about as customizable as any big mana deck ever was. There's so much to learn, and so much win equity to pick up!
Ironworks has shown that it's no mere flash-in-the-pan. Despite massive amounts of graveyard hate, the deck just has what it takes to keep going. The innovation of Spine of Ish Sah as a tutorable maindeck answer to problematic permanents like Stony Silence, Rest in Peace, or Leyline of the Void is very impressive, and the deck just continues to demonstrate its staying power in metagames that stop focusing on it for even a single moment.
The combination of Mox Opal for speed, Ancient Stirrings for consistency, and Myr Retriever + Scrap Trawler for resilience is just amazing. If it weren't for a slightly soft Bant Spirits matchup, this deck would be unquestionably the best one in the format.
Fortunately, there was one deck from the Top 32 that impressed me as a potential secret weapon in the goldfish bowl that the Modern metagame has become.
- 1 Walking Ballista
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Devoted Druid
- 4 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Viscera Seer
- 4 Vizier of Remedies
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
- 1 Dryad Arbor
It isn't playing Hall of the Bandit Lord, but this deck has some pretty sweet combo potential anyway. Our own esteemed editor here at StarCityGames.com®, Cedric Phillips, has played similar all-in Devoted Druid decks to blow off steam, and he can attest to the enjoyment inherent in dropping a quick infinite-mana engine the turn before your opponent expects it. Postmortem Lunge is a truly impressive way to take an opponent by surprise and get a hasty Devoted Druid out when their defenses are down.
There's a ton of work to be done in this macro-archetype (creature-based combo decks: Counters Company, Knightfall, Necrotic Ooze Combo, Devoted Druid Combo), and I fully expect someone to break this shell in the not too distant future. The potential is just too great.
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Rattlechains
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 2 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Supreme Phantom
- 1 Geist of Saint Traft
Of course, there's the big fun police deck du jour, Bant Spirits, which is a fairly respectable Fish deck to keep opposing combo decks honest in a format as combo-dominated as this one. It's unsurprising then, that Bant Spirits ended up taking the top spot at the tournament, as it's got maindeck countermagic in Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller as well as sideboard hate cards like Rest in Peace and Stony Silence. The intersection of a clock, countermagic, and hateful permanents puts most combo decks in a real bind, and it would be irresponsible of me not to recommend Bant Spirits as a stellar choice moving forward.
Humans, similarly, is a solid deck with a bit more power than Bant Spirits, just with the drawback of having all its disruption come on the same axis (and at the same converted mana cost, for unfortunate vulnerability to Engineered Explosives). There's no reason to stop playing Humans if you're highly familiar with the deck and its play patterns at this point, but for someone solely focused on maximizing metagame edge (at least as much metagame edge can be gained in a format as diverse as Modern), I'd give Bant the edge for now.
But those aren't the only disruptive aggro decks available to attack this metagame.
Yes, for the Grixis Death's Shadow fans out there, of course there's reason for hope. Despite a healthy amount of graveyard disruption going around the format as of late, there's reason to believe that the time is close for Shadow to regain a seat at the top of the metagame. Should Infect, Ironworks, Amulet Titan, Storm, and Tron be the top linear strategies of the format, with Bant Spirits supplanting Humans as the Noble Hierarch deck of choice, it might provide an opportunity for Grixis Death's Shadow to come roaring back. Hardened Scales is a potential problem matchup, for sure, but with the right mix of disruption it should be salvageable.
Here's the list I'd run given what I'd predict at my next Open:
The Nihil Spellbomb/Leyline of the Void/Rakdos Charm slot is contentious, but Nihil Spellbomb is generally the most consistent, lowest-variance solution. Izzet Staticaster, of course, is an amazing inclusion against Bant Spirits and Dredge, and I'm excited to have it back in the deck. There might be a need for more cheap removal, as the average converted mana cost of the sideboard is incredibly high, but the deck in this form does punish certain linear decks very, very well.
Of course, if the metagame does settle down to a predictable set of five or six potent linear strategies, it might be time to pick up Jeskai or Azorius Control and start figuring out how to target them. Surgical Extraction + Snapcaster Mage is looking awfully tempting right now...
But let's be honest. The Modern metagame never converges for too long, right?