This last weekend I participated in the StarCityGames Baltimore Open, with a very medium 62nd place finish, including four games of me getting horribly demolished on camera. Not great, not terrible, all Hardened Scales.
This was just practice for SCG CON. The practice for this event was practice for SCG CON. It's a long session and one weekend is a great opportunity to learn for the next. My Modern style is trying everything and seeing what hits, which is a style that has only been bolstered by years of doing exactly this.
With my scope of everything, here is what I have found out so far:
Counters Company: The Big Lesson
- 1 Walking Ballista
- 3 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Devoted Druid
- 3 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Knight of Autumn
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 4 Vizier of Remedies
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
I promise you, this section is not just here to make fun of my good friend Jarvis Yu for playing this deck and putting up a very mediocre finish with the deck. I played Counters Company for two matches then dropped from the Magic Online League I was in. The deck was bad, and the reason it was bad tells you a ton about Modern right now.
There are a ton of very powerful proactive decks in Modern. Even more than in the past, which is odd to say for a format where answers being bad and threats being good has been a mantra for years. You need to go beyond being a linearly powerful deck these days. The only decks that could possibly crack the threshold on raw linear power would be decks on the level of banned decks like Rite of Flame Storm or Blazing Shoal Infect with reliable turn 3, possible turn 2 kills.
Many decks choose to go beyond linearity by being solidly interactive. Dredge buries creatures with Darkblast or Conflagrate, or dredging Ancient Grudge out of the sideboard. Ironworks has Engineered Explosives. The various Arclight Phoenix decks are full of Lightning Bolt and Gut Shot. Counters Company just isn't that. Even Burn can Searing Blaze something for damage and disruption.
What Counters Company has is resilience, but it is just bad at that these days. Its resiliency comes in mediocre beats or expensive two-for-one loops via Eternal Witness. Resiliency is just free these days. Hardened Scales is resilient to removal with Hangarback Walker and modular. Ironworks is resilient via Scrap Trawler and Buried Ruin, which is basically free once you activate Krark-Clan Ironworks. Why would I spend mana for these effects when the rest of the format doesn't have to.
This is also a big part of why Tron is bad now. The linear aspect of it isn't the threats but the lands. It isn't interactive until you have all three pieces, and while it is resilient that costs turns of land drops and mana to cast more Sylvan Scrying. It isn't free in the slightest. Tron is now an exploit deck for when land hate drops, fair decks rise, and Oblivion Stone is a game ender.
Jeskai, Still Terrible
This isn't quite from testing, but I guess I'll address the mini-elephant in the room. Seth Manfield and Brad Nelson finished in the Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com® Baltimore Open with Jeskai Control.
The deck still sucks.
Two things had to happen for a good Jeskai tournament: a bad weekend for Faithless Looting and a bad weekend for Urza's Tower or Amulet of Vigor. The first one was locked in due to how much graveyard hate peppered the event, including maindeck Rest in Peace Azorius Control lists. The second was locked in before the event started, even beyond my previously mentioned issues. So many linear decks is not a good time for Tron, especially since Dredge has pulled things close with the Creeping Chill reach. And as for Amulet Titan, congrats to the five people who assembled the cards to play it when it wasn't an obvious Dredge-hating choice.
Jeskai still has all the problems it has had in past iterations. If Snapcaster Mage on Electrolyze is good, the deck is good. If your opponent just decides to not lose to Lightning Bolt on a creature, it's a garbage fire. Don't add your tournament entry to the pyre.
The one thing I do like about this latest list, which I was told by Brad to attribute to Ben Nikolich, is that it doesn't mess around with the hate cards. Rest in Peace and Stony Silence are just the best white cards in Modern. Only Terminus is close. The old Jeskai lists didn't play them, which was fundamentally offensive to me, and I expect Brad and Seth won a lot of matches by fixing this oversight.
Burn, Big Nopes
I said my pick of Burn was speculative . After a few more matches I realized my speculation was a bust.
The big issue for Burn is a flip in popularity of the Faithless Looting and Aether Vial sectors of the metagame. Even with Knight of Autumn, Burn is in a great spot against Humans and Spirits. Against Faithless Looting decks, things aren't so rosy. Hollow One and Arclight Phoenix decks are dicey, but the real issue is that Dredge is an unwinnable matchup.
You can play graveyard hate, but Dredge is built to break that post-sideboard. Burn also isn't built to really support Rest in Peace on the draw, where you might need to clear six to eight power they made off a Cathartic Reunion. You have to play some cheaper hate to hold them off, and that doesn't stop Creeping Chill. Maybe with seven total cards you could be a favorite, and that might be doable because you can cut Path to Exile which mainly covers Gurmag Angler and Hollow One now, but that is a big hit.
Even if the Dredge downward spiral continues, a jump in Jeskai popularity isn't good for Burn. Azorius Control is fine, but Snapcaster Mage plus Lightning Helix just isn't. Burn is just going to be an average, flawed choice for the near future.
Ironworks, Toppled Tyrant
Let's get a big one out of the way. I have a league with Ironworks stalled on Magic Online that I'm dreading finishing.
Years ago, I used to play Legacy Storm in an era where the other decks just weren't good and it was unstoppable. Then the other decks slowly improved and you just felt bad playing it. Your control over losing a game just trickled away, and your opponents' long shot outs to stop you became the norm.
That's what Ironworks has felt like. Too many Leyline of the Voids backed by discard and counters, too many other proactive decks with hate that you are pushing close to even against, too many games where you just don't have Sai, Master Thopterist for their hate or just not enough artifacts for it.
If you want to play a powerful maindeck with a hope and see attitude to sideboard hate, play Dredge instead.
Hardened Scales, King Medium
I elected to play Hardened Scales at the Baltimore Open by default. Given my fallback plan of Mox Opal, Ironworks wasn't great and I had no clue how to play Prison, so Hardened Scales it was. Also, Arcbound Ravager math just makes me feel warm and fuzzy holiday feelings in the tier just behind casting Winter Orb in Legacy Cube. I enjoy other people's misery a little too much.
I still stand by my statement that the deck is not great , but it's also not bad. Its pure medium, a true C+ grade. Your nut draws aren't that much nuttier than your average draws, and it honestly feels like you win most games because your opponent elected not to produce anything that amazing. I made people try to beat me. Some did, most didn't. Whatever, the deck isn't exciting.
Bant Spirits, Queen Medium
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Rattlechains
- 3 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Supreme Phantom
- 2 Geist of Saint Traft
Bant Spirits is also a pretty medium beatdown deck, just a bit more pointed than Hardened Scales. It has actually no nut draws, but some decks can't beat Mausoleum Wanderer or Spell Queller regardless of what they do. I probably would have gotten bounced from the event by all my opponents with Blood Crypt and Lightning Bolt if I played Spirits, but it may have been objectively better against the field than Hardened Scales. Either way, this is me arguing about which Not Great, Not Bad deck was best for a 10-5 finish.
There's some hidden second level effects of Spirits I want to explore. It is way better against the sweepers that were good against Humans due to Selfless Spirit, Collected Company, and Spell Queller. I think that if people adjust to beat Spirits it opens up room for decks like Elves or Bushwhacker Goblins. It's a bit dicey if people are also moving back towards Snapcaster Mage plus Lightning Bolt, and I know Reid Duke had a pretty sub-par Modern Classic finish with Elves, but it's an angle that might work if things shift the right way.
Dredge, Court Jester
My experience with Dredge was more limited than other decks, largely playing against it and goldfishing. I probably like Dredge more now than I have any time since the deck could play Dread Return over a decade ago, but it still has classic Dredge issues.
Sometimes, Dredge is great and you just Faithless Looting into Cathartic Reunion, much like my second round opponent did. Sometimes your top cards just flip in an offensive order and you drain them for six, make two 1/1 fliers, and wonder where your life went wrong on turn 5. As much as the ever increasing number of good self-mill active cards implies, you aren't a lock to do something amazing with your life when you open up a Dredge hand.
Have you seen a Narcomoeba in a set of six cards before? It isn't a good feeling.
I don't think Dredge is bad, I just want to make sure you are mentally prepared for the part that no one talks about. Losing to Leyline of the Void is obviously something you have to accept, debating keeping the following opening seven is not.
Hollow Phoenix, Garbage Pile
This Hollow One/Arclight Phoenix hybrid deck is really bad in a way that really offends me. We did this dance two months ago with Vengevine and Bridge from Below--why are we getting caught in the same trap? You have built a graveyard deck that is significantly less consistent than the existing graveyard decks, and unlike Bridgevine, you don't get any turn 1 free wins.
The Arclight Phoenix part of this deck is extremely unreliable. It isn't even the random discard; it's that you have four Arclight Phoenix compared to eight total Flamewake Phoenix and Bloodghast. The random discard is its own issue where you have to slow your sequences down to maximize Arclight Phoenix odds. At that point what are you even accomplishing? Are you just hoping to draw and randomly discard multiple Arclight Phoenix every game? Gross.
I don't love Jeffery Carr's deck for the same reasons. If I was playing Arclight Phoenix, I would read my next section and go from there.
Thing in the Ice, True Hero
I bet everyone expects me to talk about Ross Merriam's winning Arclight Phoenix deck here, but I'm going to dip around that. I want to instead talk about how the real champion of that deck is Thing in the Ice by showing off another list with the card.
What happened? Even though this card made the semifinals of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, it has seen very little Modern play. Why is it all of the sudden so good in the format?
It literally has to do with a single card: Fatal Push. For almost a year, Fatal Push was the single most important card in the Modern format. That's how long it took for Death's Shadow to really be pushed out after it won Grand Prix Vancouver in February of 2017. The entire arc of that deck was backed by the raw power of Fatal Push, and even as people moved to cut the creatures that died to it they failed to present decks that actually beat a Fatal Push deck. It was only the advent of Hollow One's weird mana costs, Humans' sheer volume of threats, and who knows what else that made other options reasonable again. During this entire period, playing a two mana 0/4 creature was stupid. You would sink three spells of effort into Thing in the Ice, it would get Fatal Pushed, and you would die.
Phase two was a dominance of non-creature decks. A slow 7/8 isn't that good; it's the Evacuation trigger that puts Thing in the Ice over the edge. This spring and summer was a story of Ironworks and Azorius Control taking over Modern, and Thing in the Ice wanted nothing to do with those.
Creatures are now "the in-crowd," and Fatal Push isn't that good against the ones people are playing. At least for the moment, Thing in the Ice is one of the most powerful threats you can play in Modern.
As for the perfect shell for it, I'm still undecided. Ross did win and that's a big deal, but his deck is a lot of air and not a ton of interaction. The more midrange lists, Blood Moon or not, have issues producing a flow of cardboard and can't load up on Faithless Looting, which is a problem. The Truth (copyright Gerry Thompson 2018) is out there and we are getting closer to it every day, but Ross wasn't 100% there this weekend even if he has the trophy to show for it.
Blue cards really excite me moving forward. Whenever things start getting really funky and aggressive, that feels like the first place to turn. I think there's a ton of ways to build a proactive blue deck that is good against graveyards and artifacts, but also isn't bad against graveyard hate. Death's Shadow is a natural fit for this role, but you have this awful choice of bad against Rest in Peace in the Traverse the Ulvenwald lists and unstable in the Grixis lists with so few threats.
Blue combo decks exist, and those are worth looking at. I really like Amulet Titan if people start trending towards these Top 8 decks, but if the broad metagame skew doesn't shift a ton, it's a less reliable, slightly slower linear deck than the field. Storm is fine, but the format is unforgiving to it. There's a very exploitable choke point and the sheer number of cards it takes to set up is way too high relative to the field. It also requires the graveyard for its absolute kills, which isn't a great spot right now.
I tried the Tom Ross Martyr deck for one match. It is extremely favored in the pseudo-mirror against Soul Sisters. I don't mean this as relevant info, but as a piece of evidence that I am well on my way to actually trying every reasonable or semi-reasonable deck in Modern.
I'm over Mox Opal. I don't think Ironworks or Hardened Scales is good now, and I'm fairly sure Prison isn't either after watching it a bit more. It can't beat a fair deck, and I expect people to try and do that a lot more this week. I don't love Aether Vial decks either, so it's just a hard time for artifact mana all around.
Dredge is fine if you like graveyards. I can see Hollow One being great because a good Flameblade Adept deck shrugs off graveyard hate, but I think you need to reconsider your exact answer base. Thing in the Ice is a real problem if you decide to let it be one.
From a point where I felt like everything was trash last week and defaulted to barely passing grade deck, I'm back to being excited about potential decks that feel good. There's really a wide swath of reasonable decks to play right now in Modern, and it feels like a complete different set than what was good a few weeks ago. No new deck is totally dominant, but new cards are making their presence known.