I spent weeks and weeks in the countries of Delver and U/W Midrange and Geist of Saint Traft was constantly on my mind. I couldn't get a restful sleep or a moment of peaceful thought without thinking about the power of the card and its ability to dominate games.
When it came time I was relieved to be on my way. Blue in modern had a lot to offer—not the least of which is the Geist himself—but I couldn't help thinking that there had to be more out there. Little did I know that even when I was as far as possible from U/W the specter of Geist of Saint Traft would still haunt me and change the very landscape on which I stood.
As stock as Yuuya Watanabe's winning decklist is the one thing you'll notice about it is the respect it gives to Geist of Saint Traft. In addition to his impressive suite of discard spells Mr. Watanabe sports five after-the-fact answers to Geist in his maindeck (four Liliana of the Veil and Jund Charm) in addition to three more in the sideboard (two Pyroclasm and Jund Charm). The beauty of this decklist—and indeed of Jund in general—is the way it can play cards that are both widely applicable and pinpoint targeted.
- Jund plays discard spells and efficient removal instead of situational permission and tempo cards. Your cards are equally good whether you're on the play or the draw offensive or defensive. You can make safe and optimal plays without having to guess what your opponent has in their hand in the early turns of the game. (You may have to in later turns but by then you'll have a certain amount of concrete information to inform your decisions).
- Jund plays manlands (six in Yuuya Watanabe's list). A higher land count reduces the chances of mana screw while manlands and powerful spells mitigate the damage from mana flood.
Beyond that Jund has the remarkable ability to play as either a control deck by grinding out more aggressive opponents or an aggro deck by closing games fast when ready. This ability to change gears means you'll rarely run into a truly horrible matchup because you have the tools to handle nearly anything and the means to just go for the throat if you ever can't.
While Jund has so many of the qualities I look for in a deck there are also concrete reasons why it can't claim the title of best Modern deck. First and foremost is its horrendous matchup against U/W Midrange. It would take me a separate article to fully describe the matchup but in a nutshell U/W simply has too many backbreaking topdecks in Snapcaster Mage Cryptic Command and Restoration Angel. It also has four copies of the single best card against Jund: Celestial Colonnade.
Geist of Saint Traft while Yuuya and his team certain came prepared for it can still steal games when things play out in a certain way. It's an annoying fact that as good as Liliana of the Veil is against Geist as a card she's very easy for the U/W player to handle with their manlands Kitchen Finks and flash creatures.
The term "horrendous" of course is relative (I'd call the matchup about 35%-65%); you can win but you're squarely at a disadvantage. By the standards of the 50-50 Modern format this is an uncomfortably lopsided matchup and with the small margins Jund operates on it would need to be advantaged against nearly every other deck in the format to make up for it.
In my opinion Jund is even or favored against all of the other top decks in the format. However there are two fringe strategies—Tron and white-based aggro—that give Jund a hard time. Jund is slow enough that Tron usually has ample time to set up and go over the top with backbreaking spells like Wurmcoil Engine. White-based aggro can create situations where single spells like token generators Squadron Hawks or Rangers of Eos either dominate the game entirely or require Jund to make unfavorable trade after unfavorable trade.
In short Jund's goal is to bring the game down to topdecks. Against a normal deck manlands Bloodbraid Elves Lilianas and Kitchen Finks are enough to make Jund a considerable favorite from such a position. However against those few decks that play off the top even better than Jund does a lot has to go right for you to win.
Next my adventures brought me to a stormy land. Storm is the fastest and most brutal deck in Modern. Past in Flames in a deck full of Rituals and cantrips serves as a one-card win combo. Typically all you need to do is cast it with two mana floating to start flashing back Rituals and Manamorphoses and the rest is academic. The archetype is strengthened by the presence of alternative game plans like Pyromancer Ascension Empty the Warrens Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin and a handful of more obscure ones that I encountered along my way. Playing against Storm is a frightening experience as you often won't be completely sure what they're up to until it's too late.
Since every Storm player seems to take a slightly different approach all I can really offer is my personal insights into the deck based on somewhat extensive experience.
The game 1 plan should always be Past in Flames + Grapeshot. It's the most resilient plan and can't get "accidentally" hated out. There's nothing like playing Empty the Warrens for fourteen only to lose to your Tron opponent's Pyroclasm which they put in their deck for Geist of Saint Traft without even thinking about Storm!
The single greatest thing about Past in Flames is its resilience to discard. As mentioned above it's a one-card combo and can even be cast from the graveyard! There's no crucial piece that a discard player will be able to strip from your hand; the best they can usually do is to take a Ritual.
The post-board plan can be a number of different things but it cannot lean heavily on the graveyard. Every single opponent will be packing Grafdigger's Cage or other graveyard hate anyway and every single opponent will bring it in against you. There's no easy way to fight through these cards so you really need to circumvent them by changing your strategy.
The biggest threat in game 1 comes from Delver decks. Cheap threats backed up by cheap permission can compete with Storm by bottlenecking its mana on the crucial turns. Since Delver can put on a respectable clock the Storm player cannot always wait until they have lots of lands and lots of rituals before trying to combo off. Countering the first or second Ritual can often shut the Storm player down and force them to try again next turn (if they get a next turn).
The biggest threat in post-board games comes from the dangerous combination of discard and graveyard hate. As mentioned above Past in Flames is remarkably resilient to discard; Storm's alternative game plans are not. What's worse Jund (the most popular discard deck) has answers to Empty the Warrens in Jund Charm and Maelstrom Pulse and answers to Deceiver Exarch in Terminate. A Jund player with a good sideboard can pose a real challenge for Storm.
In the end Storm is playable but not broken. The people I met in Storm country were a special breed and I can't say that I'd be happy living there myself. Though it puts up solid statistics to most Storm will be a little too fragile and a little too inconsistent to stomach. If someone decides they really want to beat you they will probably beat you. If someone doesn't put in any effort they might just beat you anyway! Yes Storm is a deck that once in a while simply trips over itself and dies on turn 5 or 6 without doing anything relevant. The turning point in my Storm testing was losing to a White Weenie deck with no hate cards simply because I couldn't find the combo pieces I needed!
Of course there are also the Gifts Ungiven builds of Storm that have had sporadic success over the format's history. Gifts Ungiven is a powerful set-up card and corrects the problem mentioned above of being unable to find your combo pieces. However I feel that these builds are slower and less powerful to the point that it defeats the purpose of playing Storm in the first place.
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Cunning Sparkmage
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 1 Village Bell-Ringer
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 4 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
When you play Birthing Pod you get the feeling that you're playing the most powerful deck in Modern. It has an infinite damage combo in Restoration Angel + Kiki Jiki Mirror Breaker; it has a card capable of dominating a game all on its own in Birthing Pod; and beyond that it's chock full of powerful cards and interactions. Between Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling you get to play the game with your entire deck instead of just the cards in your hand and because of that you rarely flood out in the late game.
Birthing Pod has the widest range in terms of how powerful its opening hands can be which can be viewed as either an advantage or a disadvantage. Those games where you start with a mana dork and a quick Birthing Pod on the play most opponents will not be able to come back. On the other hand you might look at a hand with a good mix of land and spells but you're overloaded with expensive creatures and have no early action. Knowing how to mulligan is important.
The unfortunate thing about Pod is that it's a bit of a one-trick pony. Between a single-minded game plan and a large shell of necessary engine cards and Tutor targets it's not easy for the Pod deck to play removal disruption or other answers. It has a hard time stopping the opponent from executing their strategy and can struggle when problem creatures like Grim Lavamancer and Dark Confidant begin to dominate the game.
On the bright side because of its ability to flood the board with creatures Pod has a built-in defense against Geist of Saint Traft and does not need play special answers to it like other decks do.
In the end Birthing Pod is a powerful strategy but from a metagame perspective it's easier for other decks to adapt to Pod than it is for Pod to adapt to other decks. It would struggle for it to ever be the format's "top deck" for any extended period of time.
Needless to say I'm not an expert on this deck. Before the Players Championship I'd never encountered an Aether Vial in all my time exploring Modern. Someday I hope to find the trail that took Shouta Yasooka to this awesome deck.
I never fully understood the potential of Aether Vial which is likely among the most underexplored card in the format. Seeing this deck in action though I realize how big a mistake I had made in dismissing it. Not only does it allow you to circumvent permission (Spell Snare is played with the express purpose of countering Snapcaster Mage in mind) but it generates a colossal mana advantage in any game that goes past the early turns. With so many Spell Pierces Mana Leaks and Remands flying back and forth in Modern the fact that Vial allows you to keep all of your lands available to fight counter battles gives you a huge advantage.
Last but not least is the fact that Aether Vial allows you to operate at instant speed. For obvious reasons this is a big deal in blue mirrors but it also frustrates sorcery speed removal like Maelstrom Pulse Oblivion Ring and Tribal Flames. It allows Eternal Witness to function as extra Snapcaster Mages (which conveniently do not exile your spell) and it allows Glen Elendra Archmage to flash in as a surprise counterspell. One of the most interesting and devastating plays I saw out of this deck was Vialing in a Huntmaster of the Fells passing the turn and flipping him immediately.
If there's a weakness in this particular decklist it could be fast beatdown strategies that threaten to end the game before RUG's engine can become fully operational. There are only four Lightning Bolts as good answers to a turn 1 Steppe Lynx and many games you'll simply fail to draw them. However just like RUG Delver this deck is in the most flexible colors in Modern and certainly has room to adapt and evolve to meet whatever challenges present themselves.
My long journey finally came to an end when I found alongside Owen Turtenwald Domain Zoo. Zoo is not among the more powerful strategies in Modern in a raw sense and is easy to beat if you want to beat it. Perhaps Wild Nacatl will someday come back to us but until then Zoo will never be Modern's best deck. I would not recommend it for a large tournament with a diverse field.
To make a long story short we played Zoo because we predicted the metagame incorrectly. Zoo would have been good for the very specific metagame we were expecting to encounter but it was not to be. The decks we were most concerned with in our testing were RUG Delver U/W/R Delver U/W Midrange Birthing Pod and Storm all of which were close but favorable matchups.
Jund is a bad matchup for Zoo but we had a specific reason to not expect Jund (a story for another day). We also had no reason to think that another team might independently settle on Zoo and be more prepared for the mirror match than we were.
Metagame aside I was at the very least proud of the decklist Owen and I settled on. Our goal was to have the best chance of beating those cards which people traditionally turn to for beating aggro. Spell Snare and Threads of Disloyalty weren't great against us. Path to Exile would often have to hit a one-drop creature. Blood Moon couldn't shut us down because nearly everything in the deck could be played for white or red mana. Playing Geist of Saint Traft ourselves simultaneously gave us resilience to spot removal ways to steal games and an answer to opposing Geists.
In the end though Zoo simply ended up being a bad choice for this particular tournament and I regretted not playing something with a little more raw power like Birthing Pod or Jund. Moving forward we should keep Zoo in mind if the Modern metagame turns in a certain direction but we should keep it on the shelf as long as Jund is popular and cheap removal is so prevalent.
So there you have it: the not-so-brief story of my adventures in Modern. I saw some wild things and learned a lot but I found no answer to the most important question: "What deck should we play?" However maybe there are some aspiring explorers reading this who can use my experiences as a starting point and find a satisfying answer somewhere out there for themselves.
Magic Online: reiderrabbit