I have finally figured Modern out.
I had a nice finish years ago at a Modern Grand Prix in Richmond, where I finished 13-2 and missed the elimination rounds on breakers, but since then it has been rough sledding for this control aficionado. I played Azorius Control in that tournament, showcasing the power of Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Jace Beleren, which should give you a window into what Modern was back then. It was the time of Affinity, Golgari Midrange, Burn, and Splinter Twin decks that I had little issue dispatching with the raw power of control. I utilized Logic Knot before it became mainstream, dug deep for a few Baneslayer Angels maindeck, and had the perfect answers for fair, creature-based strategies that made up the format. Tackling current Modern with control decks is much more difficult than it was then.
I finally got the monkey off my back, breaching the Top 8 of Grand Prix Tampa this past weekend.
It was an emotional tournament finish for me on multiple fronts. First, I needed an 11-4 record in order to qualify for the remaining Mythic Championships for the year and renew my Gold Pro status. Finding myself double drawing into the Top 8 was a joyous bonus, because it was the first time I made it on my own (I made it into the elimination rounds at Grand Prix Sao Paulo a few years ago with teammates Brian Braun-Duin and Pascal Maynard). As you undoubtably know, both of my teammates are a tad better at the game than yours truly, but it was still amazing nonetheless. I would have never anticipated my first breakthrough at a Grand Prix would occur in the Modern format, but here we are.
I wrote extensively on the weaknesses of control in the article leading up to my finish in Tampa. Each flaw that existed then is still here today. The importance of this tournament steered me away from working on those issues and I am glad I was able to put the Celestial Colonnade down for a vital tournament, but it's time to pick it right back up. Izzet Phoenix is a busted deck that rewards experienced players, but it is very beatable. The issue has never been beating Izzet Phoenix. The number one concern is making an informed decision to play a different deck, which is very difficult to justify.
Izzet Phoenix doesn't get mana screwed or mana flooded. This is obviously a very bold claim, but the evidence is difficult to refute. In the entire tournament, I was mana screwed exactly one game and it happened in the quarterfinals against Brian DeMars. The timing couldn't have been worse, as it struck me in Game 3 with a fantastic hand on the draw, but I'll take one bad game in a tournament with 30 good ones. To add to that red-hot statistic, I only mulliganed four times total. The deck has obnoxious consistency, a high chance to have a busted Arclight Phoenix draw, and the capability to have game against every deck in Modern. These powerful traits make it difficult to switch off the deck, but I don't believe I will be piloting it at the Mythic Championship in London.
Izzet Phoenix will be the majority of the metagame at the Mythic Championship and I'm not confident that I can outplay the mirror on my way to a high finish. I'm decent with the deck, but the mirror isn't as skill-intensive as other matchups can be. There is a misconception that the deck plays itself; however, that could not be farther from the truth. There are some hands that explode and there's nothing you can do wrong, but it turns out that most games require scrapping and clawing with perfect play to get maximum value out of your cards for those final points of damage. This is especially true for any deck that's Public Enemy No. 1.
We haven't seen a deck this highly played in many years. Eldrazi Winter was short-lived, as the deck was wiped from the face of the planet with a quick ban, but Izzet Phoenix will continue to dominate, since it dodged the Banned and Restricted Announcement that just passed, so expect it to be out in droves in London. With that knowledge being public, it is vital that Modern players either jump on board the Izzet Phoenix train or develop a clean strategy that can handle the best deck in the format, while not losing its integrity towards other matchups. After being behind enemy lines this past weekend, I believe I have the solution to this puzzle with Jeskai Control.
Jeskai Control typically falls short for me when running it through the Modern gauntlet. The removal is conditional, the card draw is suspect, and the win conditions aren't a pile of Jace, the Mind Sculptors. Putting my bias for the mighty planeswalker aside, Jeskai Control is finally at a point where it can do some real damage in this Izzet Phoenix world.
Outside of exactly Aaron Forsythe, no one believes control is in good shape in a healthy Modern format. Luckily for control fans, Modern is in a rough spot until some bannings, unbannings, and/or assistance from Modern Horizons. Due to the inherent problems with Izzet Phoenix, the format has shrunk to a metagame that we can plan for. I wrote about the sideboard issues that control players have had and having access to only fifteen cards to answer the specific threats from twenty viable linear decks is impossible. Izzet Phoenix was 30% of the field in Grand Prix Bilbao last weekend and slightly less in Grand Prix Tampa. That's an absurd amount of one deck for Modern, which usually has a cap in the early teens for the best deck.
Looking at this Jeskai Control sideboard, four copies of Surgical Extraction are a must and help remove the explosive threats that Izzet Phoenix has. After doing quite well with the enemy deck, it can still defeat you without Arclight Phoenix but has a much tougher time against a deck like this. The mass removal and Path to Exile deal with the remaining threats, while Teferi, Hero of Dominaria wraps the game up. Arclight Phoenix and Blood Moon pose the real threats from this matchup and both are answered with the sideboard options you see here.
The next-best deck, Dredge, is hit by the same sideboard cards. These, combined with four copies of Snapcaster Mage, give Jeskai Control the edge in the current metagame. There's still variance that can shatter a control player's dreams because we aren't using sixteen one-mana card draw spells to keep a variety of mediocre opening hands.
Hitting land drops is key for any control player to be successful, which is why I have upped the land count and added four Opt. I championed Opt over Serum Visions when it was printed for Team Control. The real strength of this cantrip is with Snapcaster Mage and Jeskai Control plays the game at instant speed more often than other control variants. The payoff cards for Jeskai Control come in the form of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. These are pricier win conditions than the usual Vendilion Clique or Geist of Saint Traft, but those types of win conditions fit better in the tempo versions of Jeskai.
Jeskai Control must harness the power of Spell Snare to be competitive in today's Modern. Spell Snare is the key counterspell that control decks have not been utilizing to defeat the handful of decks that run the format. Being able to snag a Thing in the Ice or a Cathartic Reunion on the draw is huge and can lead to an easy victory.
All the two-mana threats in Izzet Phoenix are terrifying and that includes Manamorphose. For this reason alone, Spell Snare should be in every control deck moving forward. The other decks that make up of the format also have plenty of targets for the one-cost counterspell. Even decks that do not have many, like Mono-Green Tron with just Sylvan Scrying, still have something for you to target, making it rarely a dead card. It also protects against a Chalice of the Void set to one, which can be tough to beat at times. At this point I have two copies in my Jeskai Control list, but I can easily see upping that number to three and cutting the lone Lightning Bolt.
Lightning Bolt has been on its way out of Modern control decks lately. The extra mana for Lightning Helix is a price we are all willing to pay to up our game against the aggressive decks that will always exist in Modern. Getting paired against that one Burn opponent feels great when you have that many spells that gain life in your maindeck. The rest of the removal is fairly stock, still harnessing the power of Path to Exile and four Snapcaster Mage to buy them all back.
Settle the Wreckage is the new complement to Supreme Verdict. It adds additional chances for the control pilot to exile threats, which is a requirement against the Dredge and Izzet Phoenix opponents. I have always been skeptical of Settle the Wreckage in Azorius Control, but I've been very pleased with its performance here. When much of the deck plays on the opponent's turn, it increases the potency of spells like Settle the Wreckage. Opponents must make that judgment call and either play around spot removal or a potential spell that wipes out their whole team. Most of the time in Modern, players will ignore the possibility of Settle the Wreckage, but that won't be the case for long.
Most Jeskai Control decks play one copy of Field of Ruin, but I am not willing to do that. I am playing the full four in order to have a much better Mono-Green Tron matchup, as well as run my opponents out of basics in conjunction with Path to Exile. I was skeptical with four colorless lands at first; however, it has worked out quite well. Field of Ruin is one of my favorite additions to control decks in Modern because of how good they are against so many different matchups. They are required to have game against big mana decks like Mono-Green Tron and Amulet Titan but do a significant amount of damage to nearly every other deck in the format. Most decks have some specialty lands that carry a heavy workload, making Field of Ruin a required addition to any deck that can effectively use it.
Control may not have the tools in Modern to be Tier 1, but it can defeat a small handful of decks if built properly. This is a rare time we live in, where Modern is dominated by the few, making a specially designed control deck viable. This Jeskai Control deck is fine-tuned to defeat Izzet Phoenix, Azorius Control, and a small group of aggro decks. Dredge is not a terrible matchup, but it isn't great either. Jeskai Control is the favorite in the sideboarded games, which makes it a viable contender. Once a banning takes place to knock Izzet Phoenix off from the top spot, I'm afraid this deck may join it at the bottom.
Control still has systemic issues that need major changes in order to be fixed, but let's get a few wins in while we can.