The Modern PTQ season is in full swing, and so far the format looks like a brewer's paradise. Sure, there are the old standbys of Jund, Zoo, Storm, Affinity, and Splinter Twin that we've seen before, but the results over the first month of events have included a huge variety of successful strategies, with new ones popping up seemingly every week. Following the first season's Magic Online Championship Series event this weekend and Grand Prix Lincoln just after Pro Tour Honolulu featuring Modern, even the pros have good reasons to work on the format—we're sure to see some serious exploration from big names in the not-too-distant future.
There's already a lot of brewing going on, however. All of the Magic Online PTQs have been won by different decks, and with the exception of Splinter Twin, none of those decks were on the list of archetypes that one might have expected to put up such a finish at the start of the season. Sure, we've seen a lot of Jund, Storm, and company in the Top 8 results, but the format has been anything but dominated by the so-called “top decks” and appears to be completely wide open—as long as you have a powerful proactive strategy and prepare for the proper metagame. You should probably do something else that starts with a “p,” too.
Let's take a look at some of the interesting and successful PTQ decks to see what we can learn from them. What do they tell us about how to win in the format, and how can we prepare for opponents who decide to try to emulate their success?
This deck won the first online PTQ, showcasing the power of aggression in a format in flux. In the early weeks of the format, I'm sure that many players stuck to the known quantity of Zoo despite the loss of Wild Nacatl. Well, Zoo's painful mana base makes it shockingly vulnerable to opposing aggressive decks, especially those packing a lot of burn. Petr Brozek first made a splash with Boros in Extended about two years ago, showing that Steppe Lynx and friends can translate to higher-powered formats, and Searing Blaze kills Kird Ape and Loam Lion just as dead now as they did to Wild Nacatl then.
This deck has declined a bit in popularity since its initial explosion after the PTQ win, due (I'm sure) in no small part to the rise in Kitchen Finks to combat it and similar decks, but it's still the sort of deck that you need to be prepared for if you're looking to win a PTQ. Cards like Finks and Obstinate Baloth are a good start, but you can't just throw four Finks into your deck and assume they're going to solve all of your problems against aggressive decks. Be wary of your mana base—Conley Woods is not the only person who has killed himself with fetchland damage. Having enough basics to fetch helps protect you against not only Blood Moon, but also death by manabase.
Bitterblossom may be banned, but that's not enough to stop the Fae menace. Instant creatures backed by countermagic are a powerful setup, with Vendilion Clique and Spellstutter Sprite especially potent at dismantling decks like Storm and Splinter Twin that rely on piecing together and protecting a specific combo. Spell Snare, Mana Leak, and Remand give the deck efficient forms of early game interaction against any kind of threat, while Cryptic Command does the heavy lifting later in the game.
This deck's real power card, though, is neither a Faerie nor a counterspell. The real reason to play this deck is Vedalken Shackles. Shackles can absolutely dominate games against any kind of creature-based strategy that can't easily remove it. With eighteen Islands in the deck, Shackles can steal even Tarmogoyfs and the occasional Knight of the Reliquary, which makes Delvers and the like easy prey.
Those same eighteen Islands give the deck the luxury of a pain-free manabase, a big plus in a world with so many aggressive decks running around. Those extra points of life can give you a full extra turn or more against many beatdown decks, which can translate into enough time to get Cryptic Command or Shackles online to turn the game around.
Those same Islands that provide the backbone for so much of the deck's strength, though, are also my favorite weakness to exploit. Did you know that Choke is legal? Go ahead, look—it's in Eighth Edition. I didn't believe it either when someone told me at first, because it hadn't even been on my radar for Pro Tour Philadelphia or Worlds, but now that blue decks are making their presence known, it's an important little card to keep in mind. Sneaking a Choke under this deck's countermagic virtually assures victory if you aren't already way behind.
If Choke isn't your thing, be sure to come prepared to deal with Vedalken Shackles. Qasali Pridemage is a card that I really like in the maindeck these days, since it provides an answer to Shackles, Splinter Twin, Cranial Plating, and more while beating down at the same time. Ancient Grudge is also a fine card if you're into that sort of thing, while Seal of Primordium can help handle Blood Moon and Twin if you want more universal answers from your sideboard slots.
Speaking of artifacts that you really want to kill—this is a sweet Isochron Scepter brew. Scepter was a pet card of mine way back in the day, and thinking about it I'm still pretty disappointed that team underestimated Chalice of the Void at Pro Tour New Orleans and didn't play a bunch of Rack and Ruins in the sideboard of our Isochron Scepter/Oath deck. While this deck doesn't have Accumulated Knowledge, Brainstorm, and Fire/Ice to put on the Scepter, it does get Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix, which aren't nearly as sweet but can keep the board clear of creatures or end the game in short order.
Scepter isn't the only threat in this deck that can end games quickly, though. Delver is an all-star in this deck, with twenty-four hits giving it a good chance of naturally flipping. Alongside Snapcaster, cheap burn, and cheap countermagic, an early Delver gives this deck the ability to put a great deal of pressure on the opponent while disrupting their ability to fight back. This is a great example of a deck that attacks on multiple fronts—if you deal with the Delvers, the Scepters can still get you, and if you shut down both you're still at risk of being burned out thanks to your ultra-painful manabase. Sensing a theme?
The real threat diversity in this deck comes from the sideboard, though. When the opponent sideboards into a configuration full of Ancient Grudges and the like to deal with your Scepters, you board them all out and swap to a Gifts Ungiven reanimation package. For those who don't know how it works, you can actually search for fewer than four cards with Gifts Ungiven thanks to the fact that you're searching a private zone and can “fail to find” even though the card doesn't say “up to four.” What that means is that you can search for Elesh Norn and Unburial Rites, and because your opponent has to choose two of the cards to go to your graveyard, you can just pay the four mana and put a Praetor into play, all thanks to your double Entomb. It's a strange interaction, to be sure, but it's an important one to know since this deck certainly won't be the only one including it this Modern season. The lesson here is to be aware of the possibilities of transformational sideboards. Do your research and hedge your bets—don't get caught unprepared.
Now this is a seriously sweet deck. Wirecat, aka The Ben Seck, made Top 8 of the late night MODO PTQ with this little number before losing to the Isochron Scepter deck we just looked at. The deck is clearly based on the Life from the Loam engine, which has a soft spot in my heart, since it was with a very similar B/G Loam deck that I re-qualified for the Pro Tour a few years back. In those days we still had cycle lands, which made Loam a powerful card drawing engine, but that's been replaced here by Burning Vengeance. Vengeance combines with Raven's Crime to take total control of the board or burn out an opponent rapidly, while the dredge engine helps fill your graveyard with goodies.
Some of those goodies include Haakon, Stromgald Scourge and Nameless Inversion. This combo seems like it might be a bit too cute for me, but it's certainly powerful. Nameless Inversion is a changeling spell, which means it's a Knight, which means with Haakon you can cast it from your graveyard. That means an unending supply of +3/-3 effects, along with a similar number of Burning Vengeance triggers.
The Smallpox/Death Cloud side of the deck seems a little suspect to me, both because the Burning Vengeance part of the deck is very mana-hungry and because Obstinate Baloth is already a popular sideboard card thanks to the prevalence of Jund. Maybe you can't avoid Baloth being good against you if you're relying on Raven's Crime as part of your engine, but Smallpox makes that a problem immediately rather than down the road when you might be better prepared to deal with it.
This is obviously a deck whose potential hasn't been fully explored. I'd certainly want a Worm Harvest in the deck somewhere—that card was incredibly powerful in the old Loam decks. Maybe this deck could try splashing blue for Gifts Ungiven to help set up the graveyard shenanigans, and maybe even try Secrets of the Dead—though I'm doubtful that could end up being better than Burning Vengeance. If the deck does stick with the Smallpox plan, Strangleroot Geist, Gravecrawler, and Geralf's Messenger all seem like cards worth exploring in some capacity to give the deck a bit more of an aggressive punch.
The important lesson to take away from this deck is that Modern is an enormous format and there's sure to be untapped potential somewhere, as crazy as it may look. As a corollary to that, be sure to keep graveyard-based strategies in mind when you're preparing for the field. Between Past in Flames and decks like this one—to say nothing of Unburial Rites, as we discussed before—there are a lot of decks that look to use their graveyard as a resource. Don't leave home without some way to make that difficult for them.
Last, but certainly not least, is this PTQ-winning Caw-Blade deck. The subject of Modern Caw-Blade was perhaps the most popular suggestion for topics in my previous article's comments, so I'd be remiss if I didn't take a look at this deck. Similar builds have had a decent amount of success in recent weeks, but this version is not only the most successful but also the most reminiscent of the dominant Standard deck of yesteryear.
The key features of this deck are cheap interaction spells—Remand, Spell Snare, and Path to Exile—backed by efficient creatures and a toolbox of equipment. Steelshaper's Gift does its best Stoneforge Mystic impression here, acting as a second copy of each of the powerful blades the Hawks might carry. While the Gift can't cheat Batterskull into play quite like Mystic could, the mythic living weapon is still an extremely powerful card at retail price, as are Sword of Feast and Famine and Sword of Fire and Ice—united across a decade at last!
My favorite part of this deck is its sideboard. Look at the flexibility! Suppression Field is a card that is sure to catch on as a powerful combo hoser, since it shuts down both Splinter Twin and Melira forever at the bargain price of two mana. Kitchen Finks, Engineered Explosives, and Wrath of God show respect for aggressive strategies without putting too many eggs into one basket, as it were—diverse answers are far better at handling a diverse metagame than just jamming playsets of individual cards. I'm not quite sure what Gut Shots are for, but I love the old school flavor of Disenchant—at one time the most played card in Pro Tour Top 8s, by the way! The singletons in the sideboard are sweet—a Relic to show respect for graveyard strategies, a Linvala to shut down both Splinter Twin and Noble Hierarch decks, and a Sword of War and Peach against other Squadron Hawk decks. I'm a big fan of all of the choices here. How could I not be? I mean, if Calosso Fuentes can win with it, it's gotta be good, right?
As for my own brews, I haven't delved too seriously into Modern just yet. To the surprise of no one, I've been playing a lot of Noble Hierarch/Knight of the Reliquary decks lately, in large part because they're all I can put together with my collection on Magic Online. Thus far, my favorite of them has been Doran:
- 2 Spellskite
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Treefolk Harbinger
- 3 Doran, the Siege Tower
This is still very much a work in progress, but hopefully you can see the application of the lessons I talked about in the thought process behind building this deck.
Some things to keep in mind:
Treefolk Harbinger, Treetop Village, and two other lands that can cast Doran is a turn 4 kill if unanswered. Turn 1 you play the Harbinger and search for another Harbinger. Turn 2 you play Harbinger and search for Doran, playing Treetop Village. Turn 3 you play Doran and attack for 6, and turn 4 you activate Treetop and attack with everything for 14, which adds up to the full 20.
I'm not sure exactly how good this deck is, but I like the fact that it has solid disruptive elements and the ability to apply a lot of pressure. There's certainly room for tweaking and improvement, but that will have to wait. I have a Standard format to break for Honolulu.
And with that, I'm out.
Until next time,