Have you ever looked over a decklist and casually remarked to yourself "I'm nowhere near good enough to play this"? For me, this used to be a common experience. I spent the early years of my competitive Magic "career" avoiding control decks at higher-level events, telling myself I wasn't good enough to win mirrors, even though I both enjoyed and succeeded with control decks on Magic Online. For a long time, I wouldn't play Force of Will decks in Legacy, having convinced myself I just didn't have enough reps to beat the superstars of the format that populated the strong Northeast Legacy scene.
I don't think my problem was particularly unique in the Magic community. If you're a long-time listener of The GAM Podcast, you may recall a story Gerry Thompson told about a Hall of Fame-inducted teammate who passed on playing their team's innovative Dimir Control deck at Worlds 2017, with the justification that he didn't want to play control mirrors against the best in the world - seemingly forgetting he himself belonged in that "best in the world" category! I've heard Gerry himself repeatedly say he's "too stupid" for certain archetypes. Even the best Magic players create comfort zones for themselves, and they all will look for any excuse to stay within them.
In my case, time passed, and after enough encouragement and smaller successes, I finally moved past my own fears. I got to the point where I had true, unshakable belief in my skill and preparation. I felt confident bringing any deck on the planet into battle against any player. If people asked me to define my range, I'd often say "I'll play whatever the best deck is." And then a pair of linear Modern decks made me realize that while my comfort zone may have expanded, I was not the fearless paragon of deck diversity I was pretending to be.
Ironworks and Amulet Titan had me repeating all the same excuses I had made years ago. I was telling myself that I was too far behind to catch up in skill level to masters like Matt Nass and Edgar Magalhaes. I started convincing myself that these decks were either not that great or, in the case of Ironworks, too good and soon to be banned anyway. I even went to that old standby - I didn't own some of the cards.
In truth, these were just excuses. In my heart, I knew these decks to be key pieces of the Modern format, and ones that I absolutely had to learn if I wanted to give myself the greatest chance at success. I was just scared of looking like a fool while I punted away game after game. But I also knew that I could be better than that, both as a person and Magic player. I've talked at length about how important making and learning from mistakes is to the developmental process. I've spent years working to avoid seeking validation from others, blocking out the internal monologues which sought so desperately to convince me that somewhere someone I barely knew was judging my performance and thinking less of me. Avoiding Ironworks and Amulet Titan was a refutation of years' worth of personal growth. This did not sit well with me.
So, I got to making changes. Over the last six weeks, my Modern focus has been almost entirely on Ironworks and Amulet Titan. I'm happy to report that I feel comfortable playing both archetypes, and when it comes to Amulet Titan, I'm confident that technology I've been advocating (along with several other Amulet Titan aficionados) is going to ultimately move Amulet Titan from a fringe deck to a Tier 1 archetype.
I want to talk about how I reached this point of comfort and share a system that you can use to learn these two decks, as well as others. This system is designed to quickly bring you to a point of competency, not mastery. This is a very important distinction, and something that I feel a lot of other content glosses over. True mastery can only be gained from lots of experience and seeing the vast variety of situations that a game of Magic can potentially present. While a master might have experienced a situation where it was useful to understand exactly how to make an infinite number of Spine of Ish Sah triggers with only the Spine, two Scrap Trawlers, a Krark-Clan Ironworks, a Mox Opal, and an Engineered Explosives, this isn't going to be useful information for you when you're first picking up the deck. Focusing on esoteric loops or brain-bending Amulet of Vigor puzzles will only stunt your development. Lay the foundation first and let the puzzles come later.
My exploration of both decks hinged on three distinct chapters. I will define these chapters and then go into some detail about specific applications for both Ironworks and Amulet Titan.
While we have no interest in exhaustive explorations of every possible combo our deck can produce, we do need to understand what we're capable of at our best. Establish your best case scenario and know it inside and out. Do this yourself! If you're letting a guide walk you through your steps, you may not be internalizing them to the degree necessary for true understanding. There's a difference between doing and parroting.
Hierarchy of Goals
What's the primary thing you're attempting to achieve once your game has started? How about your secondary goal? Tertiary? The more simply and clearly you can state these, the better your goalposts will be in your first few games and the less painful the mistakes you will have to make.
Identify your Strategic Principles
Strategic Principles are a concept I talked about in a past article . I would define a deck's Strategic Principle as the method by which it imposes its will on an opponent and ultimately ends the game. At first blush, this may seem similar to the Hierarchy of Goals, and it can be; however, your Hierarchy of Goals should be a roadmap to the steps you will take to reach your end game. Your Strategic Principle should be broader and shape exactly what that end game should be. If the distinction doesn't resonate right now, that's okay. I will explain further when we begin discussing the specific decks.
My recommended list:
My first efforts to understand Ironworks were comprised of a review of the numerous articles that have been written on the archetype. I had explanations of loops and sideboard guides and strategy, and absolutely none of it was making me feel like I had a grasp of anything that was going to make me a competent Ironworks player. I just had a long list of things that felt impossible to remember. This all changed when I just put these six cards in front of me.
Do the same and then figure out how to draw a card, make a mana, and get back to the same gamestate. Don't look elsewhere, just work through it.
Good, you're mechanically proficient enough to begin playing Ironworks. Once you have your deck in your hand, you can leave out Chromatic Star from the loop and make infinite mana. With infinite mana, you can replace Chromatic Star with Pyrite Spellbomb, and congrats, you've won!
You've no doubt heard of all kinds of overpayment-based tricks abusing timing rules and weird Spine of Ish Sah loops. These matter so rarely that you can put them off until you've reached a point of comfort with the deck. Let's look at the cards that comprise some of the other loops:
- Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriver + Krark-Clan Ironworks + Mox Opal
- Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriver + Scrap Trawler + one-drop (or zero-drop + two-drop)
- Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriver + Chromatic Star + Mox Opal
- Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriver + one-drop on the battlefield + one-drop in hand + zero-drop
- Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriver + Chromatic Star or Terrarion on the battlefield: + one-drop in hand
These loops are so similar in composition to your most basic loop that it's exceedingly rare that you'll have access to one of these without access to the most basic version. Simplify. If you find yourself playing a game and fizzling from one of these positions, then I give you permission to start working out more complex loops. I feel similarly about Spine of Ish Sah loops. If you have successfully set up Krark-Clan Ironworks + Scrap Trawler and cast your seven-drop, how often do you think you're in a vulnerable position?
The answer is very rarely.
The majority of Spine of Ish Sah loops come from double Scrap Trawler battlefield, and the first time you have two Scrap Trawlers and a KCI, you'll understand why I'm not super concerned about how you're winning from there. If you feel like you just need to have one Spine of Ish Sah loop in your pocket, figure out how to put together this one which doesn't rely on double Scrap Trawler. It should be fairly intuitive.
Finally, I do think it behooves you to consider how you're going to arrange your battlefield. For me, I keep my lowest converted mana cost cards on the left side of the battlefield and increase in CMC as I move right. If something else works for you, do it, but I found a lot of value in keeping things consistent and patently obvious. As far as graveyard organization, I've found that things generally sort themselves out naturally, and the cards you're returning repeatedly end up at the top of your graveyard. If you need to do something else, establish it now, and make it a habit. You don't want to be wasting mental energy on this aspect of the game in the future.
Hierarchy of Goals
Here's where you start to give yourself some guidelines for how you will be playing your deck. This is the step where I finally realized just how foolish my fear of the Ironworks archetype was. Look at those listed loops. Notice anything similar about them? Every broken thing your deck does relies on having Krark-Clan Ironworks, Scrap Trawler, and some stuff to sacrifice. Our primary goal should be clear: Get these things on the battlefield and keep them there.
While this may be reductive, if you make every decision with this goal in mind, in general, you'll be on the right path to successful play. This goal creates so many of the tendencies of top Ironworks players: judicious use of Chromatic pieces, prioritizing access to Buried Ruin and Inventors' Fair, willingness to crack Turn 1 Chromatics to find acceleration… all these hallmarks of proper play are just derived from a focus on one primary goal.
Secondary goals for the deck involve prolonging the game in order to give you a better chance at fulfilling your primary goal. Recognizing when this focus has to shift and Engineered Explosives has to be deployed will be another skill that you will have the opportunity to develop along the way. For the time being, lean towards your primary goal and figure out when that proves to be a mistake.
Modern is interesting, in that many linear decks will dramatically shift primary goals in sideboard games. This is certainly true of Ironworks. Based on your opponent's interaction, you may have to switch to a Sai, Master Thopterist-based weirdo control deck. This won't be a difficult determination for you to make, as when your opponent has deployed Stony Silence and Rest in Peace and you're without answers, you won't have much of an option anyway. If you have Nature's Claims, you'll get back to a position where you're attempting to achieve your original primary goal.
In game 1 configurations, Ironworks seeks to impose its will in two ways:
- It will punish an opponent attempting to race and end the game while they commit resources to improving their clock.
- It will use its incredible redundancy and resiliency to continually present battlefields containing its key combo pieces. At some point, those pieces will stick and quickly draw into a full-fledged kill.
There aren't many decks in Modern that can achieve both modes of play, and this speaks to why Ironworks is such an incredibly special deck. Identifying which of these games you're playing as soon as possible will serve to inform your decisions, particularly regarding how aggressively you should be using resources to look for other combo pieces.
In sideboard games, you have access to a third Strategic Principle.
- Use Engineered Explosives and sideboarded removal to control an opponent's battlefield, while either assembling Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler, or relying on Sai, Master Thopterist to generate an unbeatable army.
Ironworks benefits from just how well these two paths to victory interact with one another, as resources generated by both plans also pay dividends to the other. I.e., Krark-Clan Ironworks will happily sacrifice Thopters, and Sai loves seeing Scrap Trawler returning even more cards from the graveyard.
Is it really this easy to pick up a deck which even some of the best players on the planet have avoided due to competency fears? In short, yes. Ironworks rewards all the fundamental Magic you've been developing throughout your time with the game. Timing, gameplanning, baiting, understanding roles-you've done this all before. Ironworks is just doing these things behind an intimidating facade. Tear the facade down and you'll see that your first games are no different than the first few you played with Golgari or Humans.
I played the following to an uninspiring 7-4 record at Grand Prix Portland, but it was one of those tournaments where it felt like if things just broke a little differently, I would have been putting together a Top 8 run.
- 1 Walking Ballista
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Sakura-Tribe Scout
- 2 Skyshroud Ranger
- 2 Trinket Mage
- 4 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
Zero Explore is the future of Amulet Titan, and builds like this mark a distinct improvement over stock versions of the deck from a month or so ago. I'm happy that the Amulet Titan community seems to be coming to the same conclusions: Trinket Mage and Skyshroud Ranger are the way to go. On to actually playing the deck.
I do think that Amulet Titan has a higher skill cap than Ironworks, but it makes up for this by having much easier default modes. First, you need to understand how bouncelands interact with your permanents which allow you to make extra land drops. With an Amulet of Vigor on the battlefield, each bounceland you play becomes a +2 mana boost. It's important not to be too reliant on this interaction, since you do benefit from having access to large amounts of mana. Bounce your bouncelands as much as you need to for your present goals, but don't be afraid to leave them on the battlefield at the end of a chain.
Next on the agenda is understanding what a Primeval Titan is capable of with an Amulet of Vigor or two on the battlefield. I recommend working through the following battlefields. Assume Primeval Titan has just entered the battlefield and its trigger is on the stack. Listed lands are untapped.
How you approach each of these setups will change dramatically based on what your opponent is currently doing, but understanding the optimal output is a fine step one. If you feel like you have a handle on these, start adding copies of Vesuva; Slayers' Stronghold; Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion; and Boros Garrison to your hand. Add and subtract an untapped Sakura-Tribe Scout to your battlefield. After some time working with these battlefields, you should get a sense of what you're capable of at varying levels of strength.
Hierarchy of Goals
One of the points of ease when it comes to Amulet Titan is that your primary goal is almost always crystal clear: cast Primeval Titan. This is how your deck best plays offense and defense. In very rare instances, your primary goal will shift to casting Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. With your primary goal locked at six mana, you must be selective with hands you keep. You can't rely on a Turn 6 Primeval Titan to turn things around. Due to your usage of bouncelands, your deck can mulligan surprisingly well. Amulet Titan is not a critical mass deck. It's a one-card combo deck. Keep this in mind and mulligan aggressively.
Secondary goals will occasionally involve finding Engineered Explosives or Walking Ballista when these cards can be at their absolute most effective, but in most instances, you would rather use Primeval Titan to either end the game or eventually set up even more effective X-spells.
While the primary goal may be simple, the real rub is what to do once we get there. For this, we turn to Strategic Principles.
Amulet Titan's end game may be based on Primeval Titan, but the way in which it will assert its dominance will change based on a host of factors. The first check you must make anytime you cast a Primeval Titan should be "can I kill my opponent?" The answer to the question is usually obvious if you have only one Amulet of Vigor, but any time you have two Amulets on the battlefield, you should be willing to go deep into the tank to see if you can produce a kill. Sometimes this is going to involve bouncing and transmuting Tolaria Wests to make additional Primeval Titans, other times it's just going to be a single Primeval Titan loaded up with Slayers' Stronghold and Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion triggers. If this is the part of Amulet Titan that scares you, I've got some pretty good news for you. If you're in a position where you have a potential kill and you botch things up, there's a good chance you have left yourself with a completely unassailable gamestate anyway. Getting the kill feels good, and is surely optimal, but it's rare that your mistake is going to go as far as to cost you a game.
The next way a resolved Primeval Titan can transition in to an effective end game is by producing a surplus of answers or value. The form of this approach depends on how your opponent is seeking to pressure you. There are essentially three forms of pressure you can face:
An opponent attempting to run us out of resources is generally not going to be pleased with their result. Every resolved Titan has the capability to protect, produce, and pave the way for additional Titans. Tolaria West plus bounceland lets us grab either of our Pacts, or if we already have more Titans, we just put a Cavern of Souls onto the battlefield to assure they resolve. If we were fortunate enough to resolve a Titan on a turn where a hasty attack was an option, Slayers' Stronghold can start making Khalni Garden's Plants into meaningful attackers, and a string of bouncelands assures that answering Plants one-for-one will be a losing proposition.
- Life total
Life total pressure can be answered with Radiant Fountain/Vesuva/bounceland or a transmuted Tolaria West can become a Walking Ballista or Engineered Explosives. In sideboard games, Titan will occasionally set up Academy Ruins plus these two artifacts, locking an opponent out of the game in many situations. With a little extra time, you may look to set up Tolaria West into Summoner's Pact for Hornet Queen.
Synergistic pressure can be harder to Titan up effective answers to. Ghost Quarters can stunt fellow big mana decks, and when Ramunap Excavator gets into the mix, you'll often look for setups to lock your opponents out of mana for the rest of the game. Graveyard-based decks are effectively targeted by Bojuka Bog, and in combination with enough Sakura-Tribe Scouts, sideboarded Tormod's Crypt, Relic of Progenitus, and Academy Ruins, you may be able to completely lock out this path to victory as well.
Again, once you transition past challenging logic puzzle kills, Amulet Titan becomes a deck about understanding your role in each matchup and formulating and executing a gameplan. Approaching these challenging decks with this three-chapter framework allows us to get to the essence of the game of Magic being played. Absent all the sizzle and distraction (which often is inconsequential), these decks are just tools designed to accomplish some very clearly defined goals. When you work harder on understanding those goals and stop worrying about rote memorization and logic puzzles, you give yourself the opportunity to gain mastery over time and escape the fear that plagues us all now and again.