"I have no idea what's going on."
Those words came from Abe Stein in my first game of the tournament but were echoed by opponents, commentators, and viewers alike over the weekend. During my wild ride towards the finals, I began to utter them myself.
"Did I break it? Was this all a joke? Have I created a monster I can't control?"
The truth is more mundane. Amulet Titan, a deck I've known and loved since the days of Summer Bloom, was well-positioned for the weekend. The matchups and situations I encountered gave the unique features of my build a chance to shine. Like everyone who wins a tournament, I had my share of good luck; and in Worcester, fortune favored the bold.
Wayward Swordtooth may not be here to stay in Modern, but Amulet Titan certainly is. I hope my thoughts will encourage you to leap through the breach or at least to understand why I did.
Although I built this list in Jonathan Rosum's basement hours before the tournament, my first fling with the idea came years ago. In preparing for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, I wanted a replacement for the Summer Blooms that got me there, trying Through the Breach and other failed experiments. Some of the new builds back then were promising, but none seemed strong enough to commit to for a Pro Tour. Eventually, I admitted defeat and gave up Amulet of Vigor for Arcbound Ravager.
The top priority here was to compensate for the speed lost without Summer Bloom. A major strength of Amulet Titan is its inherent strength against any attrition strategy. Anyone who has played with the Ravnica bouncelands in Limited can attest to the power of the "free" mana in longer games, and these are already priced in to Amulet Titan's manabase. Primeval Titan is Squadron Hawk meets Rune-Scarred Demon with a touch of Thragtusk. Meanwhile, the deck features several intersecting toolboxes that ensure the right silver bullet will be in the chamber eventually. With enough time, Amulet Titan can and will create an overwhelming cascade of card advantage and find the perfect tools to lock up the game.
That sounds appealing, so why aren't more people playing bouncelands and six-drops in Modern? Anyone who tried would be swiftly cut down by a volley of Grapeshots, exiled by Karn Liberated, or fed to the Krark-Clan Ironworks. Amulet Titan's ability to keep pace with the degenerate decks of Modern is what keeps it viable; the threat of a quick combo kill distorts your opponents' sequencing and sideboarding in a way that helps you even further in grindy games and places a floor on how bad any matchup can be. Amulet Titan is generally, and understandably, viewed as a combo deck with uncommon lategame potential, but it can help to think of it as a toolbox or ramp deck that's capable of early wins. The sleek and efficient Turn 3 kills enable the elaborate nonsense behind the Turn 10 kills, and vice versa.
This balance should inform how you build and play the deck; less experienced Amulet Titan pilots fill their lists with more clunky threats like Zacama, Primal Calamity that don't serve a clear purpose, or shave copies of crucial enablers like Azusa, Lost but Seeking. The inclusion of Through the Breach is a way to maintain this balance while adding new angles of attack.
Without its first namesake card, the best Amulet Titan can do by Turn 4 is tap out for its second Primeval Titan. If immediate access to a land like Bojuka Bog will win the game, this may be enough; otherwise, you need to mulligan aggressively for Amulet of Vigor to keep up. This requires tipping your hand by exposing Amulet and also leaves you vulnerable to cards like Engineered Explosives or Nature's Claim. Through the Breach into Emrakul, the Aeons Torn gives you a fast way to shut the door in games where you don't already have your best card.
Breach also makes your Amulet draws even more explosive. Previous lists featured Spinerock Knoll to hopefully turn a Titan attack into a permanent Emrakul, but this still took at least one Teetering Peaks to reach the damage threshold for Knoll and required a complete overhaul of the manabase. The realization that Teetering Peaks sets up a lethal damage line by itself while fitting seamlessly into the deck's existing structure justified committing to Through the Breach:
- Through the Breach lets Primeval Titan enter the battlefield with haste.
- The enters-the-battlefield trigger fetches Teetering Peaks and Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion (Primeval Titan is now 8/6).
- The attack trigger fetches Vesuva, copying Teetering Peaks, and either Boros Garrison or Crumbling Vestige (Primeval Titan is now 10/6).
- You now have exactly enough mana (2RRW or 2CRW) to activate Sunhome for exactly twenty damage.
Breach costing five mana also makes the setup with Amulet much easier. Azusa, Lost but Seeking only nets one mana on the turn it arrives if you have Amulet and a bounceland (the two additional land drops make two mana each, and Azusa costs three). Unless you can follow up Turn 1 Amulet with Turn 2 Azusa, reaching six mana requires Azusa living through Turn 4; by that point, most decks have already deployed threats and can hold up removal. Only needing five mana instead for Through the Breach may seem like a small change, but it can make all the difference. If your opponent doesn't know what you can do with five mana, you can steal games when they tap out to develop their battlefield; if they do know, their uncertainty over the texture of your hand can cause them to play too conservatively, allowing the game to last longer and your lategame superiority to kick in. Breach being in the deck makes Azusa - and, by extension, Summoner's Pact - that much better.
Amulet Titan is typically favored against control decks, as Cavern of Souls or Pact of Negation can start a chain of Primeval Titans which puts the game out of reach. One problem with this plan is its reliance on expensive sorcery-speed threats, exploitable by smart opponents who know to take aggressive lines with Snapcaster Mage to end the game quickly. Through the Breach gives you a slightly cheaper, instant-speed threat that can test the waters in their end step and either put a Titan onto the battlefield directly or clear the way for you to resolve Titan on your turn. Even if they have a removal spell, Titan's enters-the-battlefield trigger can find Tolaria West and a bounceland to keep the chain going; and, if your payoff for Breach is Emrakul, the game is over.
Finally, Through the Breach offers insurance against Blood Moon. The Izzet Phoenix matchup is the most important litmus test for a Modern deck right now, and Blood Moon is a valuable tool for Izzet Phoenix in its tougher matchups like Amulet Titan or Grixis Death's Shadow. Blood Moon still shuts off convoluted Breach into Titan kills, but fetching basic Forests allows you to cast further threats and stay in an otherwise unwinnable game.
This Breach plan does take up space in the deck and requires certain sacrifices. However, I believe the main criticism - that it makes the deck inconsistent - is inaccurate, or at least misleading.
This is the most impressive sample hand I've seen in a while.. pic.twitter.com/xt3OHkarog— Autumn Burchett (@AutumnLilyMTG) January 15, 2019
Sometimes you open hands like this and wonder what you signed up for, and it's frustrating when discard breaks up your combo and leaves a Breach or Emrakul stranded in your hand. That said, this package fills the open slots in the deck that were previously used on other ramp spells - whose job I think Breach does better - and more toolbox components; the main Primeval Titan plan remains unscathed. When you do face down discard, you now have additional outs that you can draw at any time to present a threat; it's the combination of discard and other disruption, most often found in Death's Shadow decks, that beats Breach. Against disruption aimed at cutting off mana or specific utility lands, Breach makes your deck more consistent as your goal is lower and Emrakul needs no help to clean up.
In a format as fast and ruthless as Modern, speed also factors into consistency. It's very common to lose a game of Modern with several cards in your hand having made little progress towards your gameplan; it doesn't matter how 'normal' your hand looks if none of it can save you from your fate. It's worth feeling embarrassed about sample hands or helpless against some forms of counterplay if your overall win rate improves.
After Summer Bloom left the stage, a consensus soon formed that Sakura-Tribe Scout was the best replacement. Scout enables the fastest draws in the deck, ramping you past six mana on Turn 3 with Amulet and a bounceland, and using Scout to save a land from Field of Ruin or Fulminator Mage with a bounceland or get the effects of Bojuka Bog and Khalni Garden at a moment's notice makes you much harder to play against. This comes with an obvious downside: the likes of Lightning Bolt - borderline useless against Amulet Bloom in its prime - can now make your draw grind to a halt. This used to be a minor concern as Scout was unlikely to die in matchups where the boost in speed was crucial, but decks like Izzet Phoenix or Hardened Scales can present a formidable clock while whacking your Snakes. Scout also places tight demands on your manabase as it has highly diminishing returns after Turn 1, and between the various bouncelands and utility lands, you only have room for the bare minimum of untapped green sources.
Wayward Swordtooth auditioned for that slot and passed with flying colors. Its strength against Burn in particular is appealing right now, but even against hard removal, you're guaranteed to get at least one land drop out of it. Even though the bouncelands work against achieving the city's blessing, one Primeval Titan resolving usually gets you there, especially if you can replay a Khalni Garden. Swordtooth increases your threat density in longer games and soon becomes a serious problem. I didn't realize until I beat Izzet Phoenix on a mulligan to four this way in the tournament that Swordtooth also makes Through the Breach for Primeval Titan without an Amulet much better: the enters-the-battlefield trigger gets you enough permanents to ascend and the combined attack means that the Swordtooth sticks around as a near-lethal threat after Titan is gone. Several observers were alarmed by the deck's top-heavy mana curve without Sakura-Tribe Scout, but the two cards serve the same purpose -- ramping you towards Primeval Titan -- and Scout is only faster if you play it on Turn 1 and find an Amulet on Turn 2, which admittedly is a common role of Ancient Stirrings.
If I'm happy for my wayward son to carry on, why is there a Coalition Relic? A common mode of failure for Amulet Titan is drawing a surplus of ramp effects but not the lands to use with them; Coalition Relic satisfies the basic requirement of jumping to six mana on Turn 4 by itself while also fixing your mana for Primeval Titan through Blood Moon and making it easier to support Tolaria West, Slayers' Stronghold/Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion, and sideboard cards across the color pie in your mono-green deck.
Crucially, Relic is another ramp card to find with Ancient Stirrings. Stirrings in this deck can be the game-changer it is elsewhere, delivering the Amulet or bounceland you need at the perfect time, or just more of the same in a hand missing crucial ingredients. The frequent hands with Stirrings but no ramp would be much more tempting if Stirrings could find acceleration beyond just Amulet; a single Coalition Relic isn't enough to move that needle, but it's a good start. Although there are only two copies of Emrakul in the deck, Stirrings finding a colorless combo piece makes that whole package more stable; I suspect this is part of why recent Amulet Titan lists lean so hard on Engineered Explosives in their sideboard as their all-purpose answer of choice. Stirrings is still great even in a 'bad Stirrings deck,' but any improvement is welcome.
Sadly, it's hard to justify running more Relics as they get caught in the crossfire aimed at Amulet of Vigor. Amulet accounts for your quickest and flashiest wins and gives the deck its name, so many opponents reach for cards like Ancient Grudge and Ceremonious Rejection with too much enthusiasm. One Relic is the ideal number to exploit its strengths in the first game while keeping a sufficient density of ramp in the deck if your artifacts are under attack.
All these card choices are intentional deviations from the stock list, but 'stock' has less meaning here than for almost any other archetype. To a new Modern player, this list would look bizarre and confusing but no more so than the list that Edgar Magalhaes, Matthew Dilks, and Daryl Ayers all took to the Top 4 of the Team Modern Open at SCG Columbus. Amulet is conceptually unique and hard even for its devotees to fully understand, so there may be more variations with unexplored potential. Even the stock list has changed dramatically since Will Pulliam won SCG Charlotte a few months ago, as Edgar and friends swap the sideboard color seemingly every week in a manner reminiscent of Gerry Thompson's iteration on Caw-Blade many moons ago. Not every innovation is guaranteed to succeed, but I'd hope and expect the Amulet community to keep an open mind.
Here's where I would begin if I returned to the deck:
This maindeck is identical to the one I ran in Worcester, and I wouldn't deviate much from this starting 60. I often consider switching the second Emrakul with the sideboard Worldspine Wurm as another high-impact card to send Through the Breach that can be found by Summoner's Pact when Primeval Titan won't do the job. Worldspine Wurm is weak to common fixtures of Modern, notably Path to Exile and fliers. Additionally, the main purpose of Through the Breach is to shift races in your favor by becoming a turn faster; unless you can expect the first hit for fifteen to be lethal, all this does is give your Wurm tokens the best seat in the house to whatever show your opponent puts on. It doesn't help that many of those decks have easy access to clean answers for the tokens: Engineered Explosives in Ironworks and Amulet Titan, or Oblivion Stone and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in Tron. It shines in matchups like Dredge, Golgari-based Midrange, and Burn, but it can go if space is a concern.
Chameleon Colossus returns to the sideboard as Grixis Death's Shadow is on the rise again. Dismember steps in for Rending Volley for the same reason, but also because an interactive card that effectively costs a single colorless mana is highly valuable in a deck with such a messy manabase. Firespout felt like a necessary evil against Bant Spirits, but Edgar Magalhaes and his team were confident in the Spirits matchup with their shell, and emulating them with Trinket Mages and more Walking Ballistas or Engineered Explosives may be a better approach as it lets you mimic their configuration where those lists are better and get the best of both worlds.
My justification for Courser of Kruphix was that it was the best card for grinding out midrange or control decks as it stops them from going underneath you while keeping a steady flow of lands to let you cast your more expensive threats. It also pulls its weight against decks like Dredge and Burn that put pressure on your life total. With extra Exploration effects in Wayward Swordtooth, Courser lets you churn through your library at an alarming rate.
Ironworks' median goldfish is still faster than yours, but Breach gives you a good shot in Game 1, and you improve more than they do in sideboarding. A skilled Ironworks player can shrug off Abrade and Relic of Progenitus unless you have other ways to poke a hole in their draw, and diluting your deck with weak reactive cards gives the opponent more time and tools to play around them.
VS Grixis Death's Shadow
This is the matchup that suffers most from the move to Through the Breach, and the decision over which version to play will depend heavily on how much Shadow you expect to face. Cutting a land with no application in the matchup is a common sideboarding tactic; note that Teetering Peaks can be that land when Through the Breach leaves the deck. Pact of Negation is weak against discard and will often burn a hole in your hand, but some draws will struggle to beat Stubborn Denial or Disdainful Stroke without it.
VS Bant Spirits
Through the Breach is a high variance card in this matchup. Its weakness to Mausoleum Wanderer can be fatal, but its strength against Spell Queller can be crucial. Breach into Emrakul is often the only line that can save you in Game 1, but the attack is rarely lethal, and the annihilator trigger is at its worst against their abundance of flash threats and Collected Company.
A weird dynamic occurs after sideboarding as Burn has access to high-impact but conditional answers like Deflecting Palm or even Smash to Smithereens which make it hard to judge how much danger you're in -- your opponent can have four cards in hand to your six life but not actually have you dead. I suspect the matchup would be harder if they simply presented their maindeck, but since people love to bring in these cards, you must beware of them. If you suspect Ensnaring Bridge, leave in Engineered Explosives or find room for a Reclamation Sage.
VS Amulet Titan
VS Izzet Phoenix
Among the top decks of Modern, this is the matchup that most demands flexible sideboarding.
In my finals match against friend and teammate, Tariq Patel, I knew I didn't have to worry about Blood Moon, that he had Spell Pierce and Dispel, and that there we no cards like Monastery Swiftspear that force the game into a race. I decided to cut the Breach package, focus on disrupting his early threats, and let the rest of my deck do its thing. By contrast, my semifinals opponent, Jake Mondello, had more countermagic that could interact with Breach but also had Blood Moon and Path to Exile for the Primeval Titan plan, so for Game 3 I would have considered sideboarding back into Breach and trying to steal an early win. I had the full information needed to make these plans, but in the early rounds of a tournament you'll have to make educated guesses. Do your homework and notice what the subtle variations in lists mean. For example, Breeding Pool suggests Eli Kassis' list, which had two copies of Blood Moon but no countermagic for Breach.
There's no better feeling in Magic than winning a tournament by taking the whole room by surprise. I don't expect this list to take over the format as Amulet Bloom did, but I hope to see many of you receive the city's blessing.