The final Open Weekend of the 2018 SCG Tour® will soon be upon us, and right on its heels lies the Season Two Invitational. While the season may be soon coming to a close for the year, the Modern arms race is just starting to heat up.
At this point in the year, there have been two events that ended up being major catalysts for change in the Modern format in 2018. The first was the high profile unbannings of two of Magic's most infamous powerhouses to ever see print:
The February 12, 2018 Banned and Restricted announcement from Wizards of the Coast was, by their explanation, an acknowledgement of the power level increase of Modern and the fact that Jace and Bloodbraid Elf were now "on par" with the rest of the format in that regard.
This assessment, to their credit, ended up being spot on. SCG Indianapolis, the first SCG Tour® event following the unban, was won by the deck that terrorized the Modern format for most of 2017 and neither unbanned card was to be found in the list:
It wouldn't take long for one of the two to win an Open, however, as Andrew Wolbers was able to utilize Bloodbraid Elf as a value card in Gruul Land Destruction to take down SCG Dallas not a month later:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 3 Inferno Titan
- 4 Tireless Tracker
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Over the course of the next six months, the format took on a much different look than it had in 2017:
- Humans became the premier deck of the format, due to its fast clock and powerful disruption. The printing of Militia Bugler in Core Set 2019 helped by giving the deck more consistency and a reasonable card advantage engine.
- Eldrazi decks like Eldrazi Tron and Bant Eldrazi, which spent a large amount of time as a powerhouse of Modern due to their positive Death's Shadow matchups, all but vanished from the format.
- Bloodbraid Elf gave Jund a shot in the arm to an extent, but ultimately failed to help the deck remain as a consistent top tier competitor.
- Matt Nass introduced two more reasons why Ancient Stirrings is probably too powerful for Modern in the form of the Ironworks and Hardened Scales.
- The printing of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria gave Jace, The Mind Sculptor a run for his money for title of most powerful Planeswalker in Modern. Eventually, the two started showing up side by side in Jeskai Control decks before Jeskai became supplanted by Azorius Control as the best control deck in the format.
A lot has happened this year, but another shakeup to the format was brought to Modern by this crew of incredibly powerful cards:
While the list here isn't that large, the impact of these Guilds off Ravnica cards certainly is. Guilds of Ravnica is yet another lesson in how brand-new sets can have an impact on Magic's non-rotating formats:
- Creeping Chill gave Modern Dredge its first new toy since Prized Amalgam was printed. The deck fell off the map after Golgari Grave-Troll was put back in jail for its crimes against the format, but Creeping Chill gives the deck a new angle of attack that the format has yet to figure out how to beat outside of ham-fisted graveyard hate. Right now, the deck has been one of, if not the most consistent and winningest strategies in Modern.
- Knight of Autumn did wonders for creature decks in the format, like Bant Spirits and Humans, as a sideboard option that covers multiple matchups. Flexibility is as valuable in Modern as power level, especially when it comes sideboard options. This card does it all.
- Assassin's Trophy, much like Bloodbraid Elf, hasn't quite done enough to bring Golgari-based decks to the tippiy-top tier of Modern decks, but it certainly helped. The powerful successor to Abrupt Decay has done much to help Golgari-based decks have a fighting chance against its historically challenging matchups like Tron. Additionally, the card has made its mark as a great sideboard option for decks like Dredge as "anti-hate," since it's such a clean answer to, well, anything.
- Last, but not least, Standard all-stars Runaway Steam-Kin and Arclight Phoenix have been slowly finding their way into Modern decks. Arclight Phoenix is yet another card just waiting to be abused by Faithless Looting, and Runaway Steam-Kin combines with Desperate and Pyretic Ritual to generate a lot of red mana with very little setup.
As SCG Baltimore looms on the horizon, there's a lot to examine on where the format is going, what to prepare for in the coming weeks, and what decks should be on your radar as you prepare for Modern tournaments through the rest of this year. To begin, it's important to recognize that these are your current pillars of the Modern format:
Modern's top tier consists of strategies containing these three cards. If you're not playing a deck containing one of these cards, you best be playing a strategy that's at least close to as linear, powerful, and resilient as the decks that utilize them, because "close" is as good as it'll get.
Faithless Looting, Ancient Stirrings, and Aether Vial all push the envelope on strategies that play them because they give Magic decks everything they're looking for: incredibly high consistency without having to give up power or efficiency to do so.
Now that we've established the cards you should be playing in Modern, let's go over Modern's top tier, breaking them down by the three cards above:
The Faithless Looting Decks
Dredge is the biggest winner coming out of the release of Guilds of Ravnica. Creeping Chill filled the void Golgari Grave-Troll left and Assassin's Trophy gave the deck the deck one of the most flexible permanent-removal spells in Magic's 25-year history. Dredge's weaknesses in previous iterations, other than graveyard hate, usually involved being unable to race the faster aggressive decks in the format, like Burn. Creeping Chill completely turns that on its head, leaving only faster combo decks as its only natural predator in Modern.
Weak Against: Storm, Ironworks, Scapeshift, Amulet Titan, Tron
Mardu Pyromancer, originally popularized by Gerry Thompson at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, sat alongside Hollow One as the strongest Faithless Looting decks for most of the year, prior to Dredge's re-introduction to Modern. Christian Keeth's innovation to the deck includes the addition of Arclight Phoenix. It's likely that Arclight Phoenix adds a much more aggressive slant to the deck and allows it to close games faster than Young Pyromancer typically can. I was the victim of his deck firing on all cylinders at SCG Las Vegas as he marched towards the top 8 with his team, and even one Phoenix went a long way towards closing the game before I could mount any sort of offense.
Strong Against: Humans, Bant Spirits, Jund, Hardened Scales, Infect, Amulet Titan, Titanshift
Weak Against: Tron, Dredge, Azorius Control, Storm, Burn, Ironworks
- 4 Hollow One
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Flameblade Adept
- 4 Flamewake Phoenix
- 3 Gurmag Angler
- 4 Street Wraith
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Hollow One has seen a fall from grace since it's rise to popularity earlier this year. This was in part due to how abysmal the Humans matchup was. Regardless, the deck still follows the cardinal rule of Modern, which is to be a proactive deck that does a really good job at beating up interactive decks and ignoring what the opponent is doing. That means the deck is always able to hang in some capacity and if you have an above average amount of Goblin Lores and Burning Inquiries go your way over a long tournament, anything can happen. Additionally, Hollow One is another deck currently getting the Arclight Phoenix experiment treatment, as it's a bit better than Bloodghast at attacking and is better against Reflector Mage than the delve threats, like Tasigur and Gurmag Angler. This is especially important now that both Humans and Bant Spirits both play the card in large numbers maindeck.
Strong Against: Tron, Burn, Jund, Storm, Infect
Weak Against: Humans, Bant Spirits, Dredge, Hardened Scales, Ironworks, Grixis Death's Shadow
The Ancient Stirrings Decks
Mono-Green Tron used to live in a world of its own as the best Ancient Stirrings decks in the format. The ability for Stirrings to find the missing Urza land or to help keep the enormous threats like Karn Liberated and Wurmcoil Engine coming make the deck unbelievably consistent, and Tron has remained as one of the most powerful mainstays of the format.
Strong Against: Humans, Bant Spirits, Dredge, Azorius Control, Jund
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Arcbound Worker
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Walking Ballista
Hardened Scales is one of two of Matt Nass's brainchildren to take over Modern this year. While both this deck and Ironworks utilize Ancient Stirrings to do powerful things, Hardened Scales attacks, literally and figuratively, on a very different angle. Scales' power comes from the fact that it supercharges a group of creatures that are already strong enough on their own, namely Arcbound Ravager. The deck is arguably harder to play against than it is to play with, which, for now, gives the deck a lot of free percentage points. It boasts very strong matchups against many of the creature decks in the format, and, like Dredge, only truly suffers against the fastest combo decks in the format.
Strong Against: Humans, Tron, Grixis Death's Shadow, Infect, Burn, Jund
Weak Against: Storm, Dredge, Titanshift, Azorius Control, Ironworks, Bant Spirits
The other brainchild of Matt Nass and most recently iterated on by Piotr Glogowski (AKA Kanister), Ironworks offers an incredibly resilient and fast combo deck with a variety of ways to infinitely draw your deck, destroy your opponents' permanents, or blast them in the face with Pyrite Spellbombs. Engineered Explosives and Spine of Ish Sah help deal with problematic permanents that get like Stony Silence after game 1.
Strong Against: Humans, Jund, Golgari Midrange, Titanshift, Tron, Dredge, Burn
Weak Against: Bant Spirits, Azorius Control, Storm, Infect, Grixis Death's Shadow
The Aether Vial Decks
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 3 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Supreme Phantom
The printing of Supreme Phantom in Core Set 2019 helped address Bant Spirits' greatest problem: it could not present a reasonable clock. The addition of a second lord to complement Drogskol Captain gave the deck that extra power it needed to go toe-to-toe with Humans on the battlefield, as well as make sure the opponent was dead before they were able to crawl out from some of the fantastic sideboard options Spirits has access to. The combination of being advantaged in the pseudo-mirror against Humans, as well as being able to play Stony Silence and Rest in Peace in the sideboard, gives the deck a slight advantage over Humans in the Aether Vial Decks category. Those white enchantments are very strong in a format where the threat of Dredge is always looming. Spirits is a less powerful, less proactive deck than Humans, but with the way the format is currently shaping up, the tools it has access to line up better than what Humans has access to.
Strong Against: Humans, Ironworks, Storm, Hardened Scales, Infect, Titanshift, Amulet Titan, Burn
Weak Against: Tron, Azorius Control, Dredge, Jund, Grixis Death's Shadow
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 2 Militia Bugler
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Humans has gone from the undisputed best deck in Modern to just another mainstay of the format. It's a good place to be when you get downgraded from "best deck" to "one of the best decks," but it doesn't change the fact that the format is changing in a way that hurts Humans' ability to totally dominate. As I mentioned above, Spirits is right now the better of the two Aether Vial-based creature decks due to how they each line up against the rest of the format. The above list is what I would recommend playing moving forward, should you prefer the Humans playstyle. The sideboard is designed to help tackle the other top decks in the format, and Militia Bugler helps you find those cards with increased consistency.
Weak Against: Bant Spirits, Tron, Ironworks, Jeskai Control, Mardu Pyromancer
The Honorable Mentions
The following decks are parts of the Modern format and should be considered at all times since they're currently still popular enough that you should expect to play against them 1-2 times per fifteen-round tournament. They are also still reasonable options to play outside of the ones I discussed in depths above.
My Recommendations for SCG Baltimore
Now that I've covered the past, present, and future of Modern for 2018 and laid out the groundwork for what's winning the most in the format, it's up to you to decide what will be your weapon of choice to try and win the trophy in Baltimore this weekend. As for me, my top five recommendations would be (in no particular order):
- Bant Spirits
- Hardened Scales
I'll probably be using Baltimore as my last live testing ground to try something new before the Season Two Invitational, but if I can't find anything I really want to try, I'll probably default to old faithful.
What are you thinking about sleeving up for Baltimore? What decks have you been finding success with that weren't covered here?