It was a rough day at the office in Richmond last weekend.
After starting out with an 8-1 record Day 1, we proceeded to finish Day 2 with a 10-5 record. The last round was a win-and-in for team Braun-Duin, Ingram, and Soorani, but we were unable to successfully close. It was frustrating; however, a quick trip to Buffalo Wild Wings afterwards took most of the pain away.
Being a competitive Magic player can be mentally taxing. As you perform better, your personal expectations continue to increase in difficulty. This is one of the more challenging aspects of the grind, and one that I had to take a step back from after a few final-round losses that left me de-sideboarding, slowly and alone. Fortunately for me, my personal expectations have changed drastically in my golden years of tournament play.
I want nothing more than to hoist a trophy with my trusty control deck by my side, but I've made that a soft goal instead of a hard expectation. I judiciously prepare for most events I attend and play to the best of my ability. Tilting off and getting down is a thing of the past for me, which has helped my overall mental health. This article will not focus on the emotional side of competitive Magic, but I wanted to give some words of wisdom to those grinders who read my work on a regular basis.
Understand that you will play thousands of matches in your lifetime, with unlimited future opportunities for success. As someone who has lost dozens of win-and-ins in his tournament history and is still running strong, there will be more chances. After I enjoyed the last traditional chicken wing on Sunday, I trekked back home to begin preparing for the next tournament on the docket. This happens to be another team event in Indianapolis with Eli Kassis and Corey Baumeister, a week after the SCG Tour® hits Dallas. Both events are Modern, which means preparing for a new format after the upcoming Banned and Restricted Announcement.
It may seem tough to prepare for a tournament when we have no idea what's going to get the axe. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that has played competitive Modern recently that Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis has no chance of survival. With that being a virtually guaranteed ban, we need to discuss the future of Modern and what decks are best-positioned to take it on. This article will focus on the Hogaak-free world we will be living in shortly, with a quick nod to a few other possible changes that may take place on Monday.
If Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is the only fatality, there will be a few decks returning to Tier 1 status. Izzet Phoenix, Mono-Green Tron, Four-Color Urza, and Humans will be the toughest decks to defeat at the top of the format. There will be plenty of Tier 1.5 decks to compete with them, notably Azorius Control, Amulet Titan, Eldrazi Tron, and Mono-Red Phoenix. All these decks are quite capable of toppling those at the top with some minor adjustments. The attractive thing about Modern is the adaptation of premier decks, and how any powerful deck can be built to defeat the newest threat to the format. This occurs when the format is relatively healthy, which hasn't been the case since the release of Modern Horizons.
Modern will even flood with the usual suspect Tier 2 decks that have taken down tournaments at one point or another. These include Dredge, Infect, Affinity variants, Death's Shadow variants, and Burn in a distant last place.
I tend to dog Burn more than others and it isn't because of my inherent bias against that strategy. I have always found it to be the weakest of the mainstream decks and often overrepresented in live play. It may be the oldest deck in the format with the least amount of competitive success. You'll rarely see it perform well at a Grand Prix, Open, or Invitational, because it lacks the raw power that similar fast decks exhibit. Infect and Hardened Scales kill more consistently and are resilient to hate, whereas one Timely Reinforcements from a struggling Azorius mage is usually enough to slam the door shut on a Burn player's chance for victory. There's some buzz about Burn being one of the top decks after bans, but I can confidently tell you that will not be the case from a historical perspective.
Any of these Tier 2, Tier 1.5, or Tier 1 decks can take down a tournament once the graveyard debacle is under control. There are other decks that will see some play, such as the Golgari-based midrange decks, but they're in the same boat as Burn. It's tough to choose a midrange deck that can handle Mono-Green Tron, fight off control, and have enough removal to not get swarmed by aggro. Azorius has been capable of answering that call with the arrival of Field of Ruin, but without that beautiful land, control would be dead in the water to a possible rise of big mana decks. It's a free inclusion that takes very little crafting room and has splash damage against the various threatening lands that exist around the format. Jund and Golgari do not have the same luxury and shriek at the sight of a Turn 1 Urza's Tower.
It's important for all these competitive decks to remember the speed of old Modern. Even with Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis gone, the format still has the inherent flaw of speed discrepancy. This issue has shut down multiple strategies before they could start and threatens to continue neutering innovative deckbuilding. The release of Modern Horizons gave us a boom in creativity, and that will be showcased further, with Four-Color Urza possibly becoming Public Enemy No. 1. It has the burst of a combo with the fallback of a prison deck. It shares some characteristics with Azorius Control, which is more of a prison deck now than a traditional control deck.
Instead of slowly taking control of the battlefield and winning with a powerful haymaker, Azorius Control uses the power of new planeswalkers to lock opponents out of instant-speed capability; drawing additional cards; controlling their draw step with Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and having a variety of answers to everything that falls between. We have left the world of Celestial Colonnade and now have entered a planeswalker control one.
Once this announcement passes, Azorius Control will not look much different from this. This decklist, outside of the Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the sideboard, will be where I am if there aren't additional bannings. I am always a huge fan of at least one Stony Silence in the sideboard, but that number will be two to start off. With the popularity of Four-Color Urza, Stony Silence is a must-have. It isn't a lights-out card like it was against Ironworks; however, it does make life difficult for them. Stony Silence also throws a wrench in Mono-Green Tron's plan, leaving them with a handful of worthless artifacts that can't be cycled through. When the graveyard is less threatening, the artifacts rise, because both try to engage in unfair tactics. The speed of Mox Opal is no joke and that card will continue to rise in stock as changes to the format are forced.
The common consensus is that only Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis will be banned, and no other changes will take place. I think that this will not be the case. More changes should take place to promote the format's health and to allow for new strategies to thrive. This means deleting Faithless Looting from existence and having the design space to make graveyard decks more balanced. With Faithless Looting in the format, there can never be sweet reanimation cards crafted, the keyword dredge must be forgotten, and exciting recursion creatures better not come across anyone's desk at Research & Development. Not only does it inhibit future design, but it also will plague us in the short term.
The existence of Faithless Looting leaves Izzet/Mono-Red Phoenix as dominant forces and a clear favorite over similar options. There's little reason to play Burn because Mono-Red Phoenix does the same thing but has an unfair element. Burn has the nut draw Turn 1 Goblin Guide, Turn 2 Monastery Swiftspear and a Lightning Bolt. Mono-Red Phoenix puts a pile of hasted, three-power flyers onto the battlefield while having their Turn 1 Monastery Swiftspear attack for five. The same logic applies for Dredge, Hollow One, or whatever the next silly Bloodghast deck will be, as there's absolutely no reason to pay for a bunch of aggressive creatures when you can lift them from the graveyard for free. This isn't an issue if the spells are balanced, but having a Careful Study that flashes back has worn out its welcome.
Modern will return to normal after the banning next week, but it could be so much better with a few tweaks. In my article before the last banning, I mentioned that removing just one piece from the Bridgevine decks wouldn't be enough and there is no doubt in my mind that this banning will rectify that error. The concern I have is the powers that be do not want to rock the boat after powering through this much turbulence already. After they slay the Gaak, they will want to sit back and make sure the format status quo remains intact. In the small chance they take the gloves off and make some outrageous changes to really shake things up, we will be ready.
Stoneforge Mystic is the missing piece to the Azorius Control and Aether Vial aggro deck puzzle. It's an easily answered but powerful option that would balance the format in a way that we haven't seen in quite some time. The missing Umezawa's Jitte would force Equipment enthusiasts to either double up on Batterskull or select a Sword from the extensive weapon rack. There is an ability to answer any format pressure, so the deck building piece would be very interesting. I'm leaning toward Sword of Feast and Famine because of its former glory in Legacy, but Sword of Fire and Ice is always calling my name. I'm not sure if having them in the maindeck is better than a backup Batterskull, but even brainstorming this future list brings joy to my heart and I wouldn't do it if I didn't think changes were coming.
Stoneforge Mystic would also save white-based aggro across the format. The missing link has been utility, providing a must-answer creature for any opponent. Many aggressive opponents cannot beat a Batterskull and a control opponent will get chopped down by the Sword of their choosing. Without this diverse threat, the deck is reduced to Humans only, which can fold to the opposition when the wrong side of the deck is drawn. Stoneforge Mystic would not only boost Humans, but also make Modern Death and Taxes a viable option.
Although there isn't a great chance Stoneforge Mystic gets unbanned next week, it will be released soon. Aaron Forsythe is a smart guy with a strong team, and that is indicative of the product that has been released over the years. I have had my gripes with Organized Play, but the development squad has been producing the goods nearly error-free for the last few years. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis was an oopsie; however, there was bound to be an error when crafting a set to be only used in the most volatile of formats. Once Wizards of the Coast gathers its bearings, there will be additional cards unbanned. Stoneforge Mystic is the least risky of the options, but plenty more will enhance the fast format. Most cards on the Banned List never had a chance and soon we will see some fun staples introduced to Modern for the first time.