In my Magic career, I've had some moments of wild elation and some of utter despair. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Competitive Magic's emotional roller coaster has changed me as a person. It has "lowered the emotional volume" of the rest of my life, so to speak, to the point where I find it hard to be truly ecstatic or truly despondent outside of the tournament hall. A high-pressure match can sit with you for days, and mundane events like birthdays, weddings, vacations, or holidays seem emotionally muted in comparison. It's important to remember that one's anxiety and excitement surrounding Magic often feels inflated, relative to its actual importance in the grand scheme of life.
I remind myself of this to give a healthy dose of perspective and a little self-awareness reality check, because this past weekend was one of the larger disappointments of my Magic career. After starting the Legacy portion of GP Shizuoka 11-2, I took two heartbreaking back-to-back losses to miss Platinum. There's still one more shot left at GP Portland this weekend before the Sisyphean boulder of the cycles rolls back down another fifteen points, but this was a demoralizing defeat for me. Watching the game slip away through a series of incredible draws from my opponent was nearly an out of body experience. It's been a couple of restless nights, waking up with a pounding heart as I replay the match in my head over and over again, but the immediacy of the defeat has dissipated and it's time to pick up the pieces and move forward.
That being said, it's rare that I have three well-tuned decks that excite me for all three major Constructed formats: Standard, Modern, and Legacy. Thus, as a pre-SCG CON Winter gift to you, these are the best choices for either the Legacy Winter Championship, the Invitational, or any other tournament you might find yourself playing this weekend. They are: Dimir Death's Shadow (the exact list I played at GP Shizuoka), Izzet Phoenixless Drakes (the list I would have registered for the Standard GP at Shizuoka, had I not been doing well in the Legacy GP), and Grixis Death's Shadow (which I intend to play at GP Portland this weekend, and which I would have played at SCGCON had I locked Platinum this past weekend).
Let's talk Standard first. Gerry Thompson wrote last week that Niv-Mizzet was the best card in Standard. Pascal Vieren wrote that he was "blocking with Phoenix" for his 10-0 finish at the Pro Tour in Constructed. I wrote last week that I had been looking for ways to use mana acceleration like Search for Azcanta (the blue Rampant Growth) to power out Niv-Mizzet in a Drakes shell prior to the PT. We've also seen Arclight Phoenix itself be fairly underwhelming in the Izzet semi-mirrors, as it simply doesn't matter when the important pieces in the matchup are the Drakes and Niv-Mizzet.
The elegant solution here shows a way to harness the consistency of a two-color manabase with the powerful flying threats that are the eight Drakes and top it off with the unbeatable Niv-Mizzet + Dive Down combo. We're playing a heck of a lot of one-mana spells, which makes sense, as I've advocated for lots of one-mana spells since this Standard format began. We're playing underrated and unexpected cards like Raptor Hatchling and Spell Pierce to blow out opponents. And we're playing five two-mana permanents that offer an immediate and incredible advantage if they hit the battlefield against control early, in Search for Azcanta and Treasure Map. This is the next evolution of Adrian Sullivan's Jeskai Control, a way to go lower to the ground and be less reliant on sweepers to catch up from an early tempo differential.
The sideboard plan with the deck is quite impressive as well.
VS Jeskai Control
VS Izzet Drakes
VS Boros Aggro/Mono-White Aggro
Golgari Midrange is a more complex beast, as the lists have varying flavors, but, generally speaking, Disdainful Stroke is better than Spell Pierce, Ral is great, Shivan Fire is better than Shock, and Beacon Bolt is strong. Sometimes you want to bring in one or two Raptor Hatchling as insurance if your opponent has Plaguecrafter or The Eldest Reborn, but this is infrequent. Use the Dispersal half of the split card if you can afford to wait and if you have one of your two black-producing lands, as it is one of your answers to Carnage Tyrant (other than trading a Drake, of course).
As for Modern, Grixis Death's Shadow has improved its positioning tremendously in the past few weeks. Bant Spirits has supplanted Humans as the aggro deck of choice, which is a small tick in favor of Shadow. Their creatures are smaller and a bit less constraining to our gameplan, and it's harder to get raced out by Mantis Riders. Ironworks has become an important part of the metagame, one billed as a "broken deck" by several advocates, and it's likely that it will be a large portion of the Modern field at upcoming events. This, too, is beneficial for Shadow, as the matchup is favorable (especially with graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void to really put a nail in the coffin).
Dredge got harder with the inclusion of Creeping Chill, but then Shadow started packing sideboard Leyline of the Void, which means that the matchup is likely favorable over three games. The fact that Dredge has diminished its consistency with the inclusion of a moderate payoff card (that does nothing as an enabler) also makes a difference when we get down to matchup percentages.
The rise of Azorius Control was initially problematic for Shadow, but the inclusion of two Disdainful Strokes is great news for both that matchup and the ever-present Tron. And, of course, various Golgari Midrange decks are simply good matchups when Grixis transforms into a Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler control deck after sideboard. I'm a fan of the matchup overall.
There are several different tweaks one can make to the list. The cantrip mix is highly debated, with a combination of somewhere around ten copies of Thought Scour, Mishra's Bauble, Serum Visions, and Faithless Looting in various versions. I've seen three Scour, three Bauble, three Visions, and one Looting as the consensus among various MTGO grinders like Ben Jones and Brandon Dollaway, but I chose to cut the Looting for a spicy Izzet Charm and cut a Serum Visions for the fourth maindeck Snapcaster Mage in this list. Snapcaster will always have my heart, but the Izzet Charm is worth a second look.
Basically, the rationale of "bad removal spell versus Spirits (but one that kills more of their relevant creatures and counters Collected Company)" plus "bad Spell Pierce against Azorius (but one that still counters Teferi or hardcast Terminus)" plus "bad Looting (but you don't often get two separate turns to cast and flashback your Looting anyway)" has given me some hope that this is a fine singleton to include. Hopefully testing this week bears out that theory.
As for the sideboard, four Leyline of the Void could be turned into three Surgical Extraction/Nihil Spellbomb/Rakdos Charm in a pinch, which would add a sideboard spot at the expense of raw power. Leyline also exposes us to Nature's Claim, which many Ironworks, Dredge, and Hardened Scales players are sideboarding in anyway just as a precautionary measure. This is a close call, and in the end, it will probably come down to instinct as to the best solution for these matchups. Leaving these opponents with dead Nature's Claims is a dream come true and landing an uncontested Leyline of the Void is similarly game over. This game of sideboard chicken is always interesting to see unfold, and you can choose how you'd like to attack it. Regardless, Shadow is a Legacy deck in Modern, and you know you can never go too wrong with one-mana 5/5 (or larger) creatures.
But what about a Modern deck in Legacy?
Dimir Death's Shadow in Legacy is a recent entrant to the format, but there's still innovation to be done to improve it for the metagame. If you're playing in the Legacy Championship this weekend, I highly recommend Delver-less Dimir Death's Shadow. Adding Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and the third sideboard Liliana, the Last Hope means that Grixis Control's Baleful Strixes are ineffective against us. Having four Hymn to Tourach and three Stubborn Denial in the 75 means that combo decks don't stand a chance, and both inclusions also improve the matchups against Miracles and Grixis.Chalice of the Void, others want to cast Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge, others want to cast Counterbalance and Back to Basics, others want to cast Mother of Runes and Aether Vial, and others just want to make eighteen Goblins on turn 2. And maindeck Reanimate means that sometimes you get to live the dream and steal cards like Griselbrand, True-Name Nemesis, Snapcaster Mage, Monastery Mentor, or Leovold, Emissary of Trest. I've even seen a player steal an opposing Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger out of the Big Eldrazi deck (also called Eldrazi Post as opposed to regular Colorless Eldrazi). That was a fun one to watch.
The weakness here is against Grixis Delver or the burn-heavy Izzet Delver, which is because I've chosen not to include any Fatal Pushes. Dismember is so much better against Gurmag Angler and so much better as a pump spell for Death's Shadow in non-interactive matchups (because you can cast it on your own 2/2 or larger Shadow to turn it into a 6/6 for the next turn) that I vastly prefer it in this metagame. The ability to pump Death's Shadow while removing an opposing threat is completely broken against all but the most aggressive elements in Legacy. Should Grixis Delver make a roaring comeback, it may be time to investigate Fatal Push as an inclusion, but for now I'll stick with the Dismembers.
Three Diabolic Edict is a nod to the fact that Golgari Depths is a rising part of the metagame, and even though the current builds run Dark Confidants and Sylvan Safekeepers to insulate against this effect, our three copies of Liliana, the Last Hope often turn those cards into liabilities more than anything.
The third Surgical Extraction is cuttable, should one wish to hedge more against Death and Taxes or Delver with Fatal Push or Marsh Casualties. We're already well-suited to fight Reanimator with maindeck Reanimates to steal their creature and Lands/Dredge are both relatively unpopular at the moment.
All three of these decks are skill-testing, all offer exciting, interactive games, and all offer a high level of control over the pacing and direction of the match. They're all incidentally very powerful, and I've got no reservations about recommending them for this weekend's tournaments. Of course, my nerves are high, higher than normal when approaching a big tournament, but I'm confident that these are the right choices going into the capstone weekend for an excellent year of competitive Magic.