Hello everyone, and welcome to a first of a three-part series this month, "The Modern Compendium." The goal of the Modern Compendium is to be a reference guide to the Modern format for people who are new to the format and are trying to choose a deck to play, or for people who are trying to learn more about the various decks of the format and what their goals are. I'm going to split this into three parts, with the first about midrange decks, the second about control and big mana decks, and the last about aggro and combo decks. While midrange will be the shortest of the three parts, I'm starting with it because the other decks of the format all take what's happening with the midrange decks into consideration when built. Some decks try to go under, some try to go over, but the other strategies all have midrange as a target.
A very common question I get these days when people ask about Modern is, "What deck should I be playing?" My answer is always the same: anything can win as long as you can pilot it well. The difference between whatever deck is known as the "best" at the time and the fifteenth-best is fairly negligible. Having intimate knowledge of both your deck and your opponent's deck is invaluable in Modern and a more important asset than playing the best 75.
To this end, I'm putting together a primer on all of the most popular Modern archetypes for you to get familiar with, whether you're a seasoned Modern player or just entering the format. For each deck I'm going to write about the general strategy of the deck as well as a short matchup guide. This should help you know the strategy your opponent is most likely trying to execute when you play against other decks.
Grixis Death's Shadow
There's no better place to start this list than with the most talked-about deck of 2017, Grixis Death's Shadow. Grixis Death's Shadow is different from many midrange decks in that it really wants to do the same thing every game, and that is to stick a large, undercosted threat and ride it to victory, backed by disruption and protection spells. These large, undercosted threats do come at a cost, with Death's Shadow requiring you to be at a low life total and Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler requiring you to have cards in your graveyard to delve. Either way, the threats can often cost one mana but aren't usually able to be cast on Turn 1, and therefore the early turns are spent using discard spells to clear the way for your threats or cantrips to sculpt your hand.
Each threat Grixis Death's Shadow presents is usually the largest on the battlefield and needs to be answered right away, which often puts the opposing deck on the defensive. The abundance of cantrips also allows Grixis Death's Shadow to reliably find a good amount of their eight threats every game, and the low land count helps prevent the deck from getting flooded compared to other midrange strategies.
Aggro decks struggle with Grixis Death's Shadow mostly because of the namesake card of the deck. The more damage you deal, the larger Death's Shadow becomes, which makes the Grixis Death's Shadow pilot's job easier. Therefore, you can use the aggro player to help get you under the thirteen-life threshold and then use your resources to help protect you from dying while you quickly finish the job. Because of this, Death's Shadow is your most important threat, more so than any other matchup. Stubborn Denial is also at a premium to help protect you from topdecked burn spells, since you'll be at a low life total.
Grixis Death's Shadow is right at home against other midrange or control decks, because while the games will tend to go long as both players trade off resources, playing eighteen lands instead of 24 will give your deck some inevitability with your opponent drawing more lands than you. Also, there's always the chance that Grixis Death's Shadow comes out of the gate early with an unanswered threat that ends the game quickly, while other midrange decks have a much smaller chance of winning similar games. Young Pyromancer and the planeswalkers from the sideboard also offer other angles of attack that must be taken into account, especially against control decks that are too focused on Death's Shadow itself. Overall, all other midrange and control decks struggle with the speed and consistency Grixis Death's Shadow provides.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
Most midrange decks are known for the abundance of removal that they play maindeck, allowing combo and big mana decks to blank them, but as you can see in Dylan Donegan's list, here there are only six removal spells. Instead, Grixis Death's Shadow is able to play maindeck countermagic to go along with hand disruption and a fast clock, giving it a good Game 1 plan against the traditional midrange killers. Temur Battle Rage pairs with Stubborn Denial as another angle to lock up the game when you're ahead, and post-sideboard you get access to more copies of each.
Jund and Abzan
The quintessential midrange decks, these two are so similar that I'm putting them together in the same guide, because otherwise I would repeat myself too often. These two decks have the same Plan A as Grixis Death's Shadow, which is to stick a cheap threat and use discard and removal spells to ride it to victory. However, these two decks are much better at adapting towards alternate gameplans with various card advantage engines that help them win the late-game. Jund uses Dark Confidant to try to get ahead on spells, while Abzan uses Grim Flayer for card selection and Lingering Souls to go wide. Liliana of the Veil also allows these decks to do a good job denying their opponents resources as well, but for the most part it's all about controlling the small decks with removal spell after removal spell.
The more the aggressive deck relies on creatures, the better for Jund and Abzan, as each deck can interact favorably with creatures but struggles with burn spells. Collective Brutality is an absolute all-star in these matchups, letting Jund and Abzan make use out of excess cards that would have been stuck in hand. Both decks have a powerful four-drop option, either Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet or Siege Rhino, which they are trying to stay alive long enough to land. Like in most matchups, Tarmogoyf is the best threat for closing the door quickly.
Basically every other midrange and control deck has been built with Jund and Abzan in mind, as they are the baseline of what you need to be able to beat in order to compete in Modern. To this end, Jund and Abzan can struggle with other midrange matchups such as Grixis Death's Shadow. These are the matchups where you want to bring in your planeswalkers or card advantage threats such as Tireless Tracker in hopes of getting ahead and staying ahead. Both players trade resources one for one, so much so that Fulminator Mage is a reasonable threat because your opponent has to remove it, and when they do, you can sacrifice it to destroy a land, maybe a creature-land. Games go long and you want plenty of cards that are good when you draw them off the top in the late-game.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
Depending on the type of deck, you could either have a favorable or an awful matchup. You have access to removal for the decks that rely on creatures. You have plenty of graveyard hate, especially with Scavenging Ooze maindeck, for decks that rely on the graveyard. You even have discard and Liliana of the Veil to deny resources to decks you wouldn't otherwise interact with, so in theory you have the tools to beat anything. The problem is having everything line up correctly. Decks that play well off the top of their deck after your discard spells are a big problem, which makes a deck like Tron very hard for Jund and Abzan to beat. You need more land destruction, with a couple of Fulminator Mages most likely not enough. Besides your interaction needing to line up, you also have to end the game in a relatively quick fashion, so with these matchups you really want to start with Tarmogoyf on Turn 2 as well.
This is one of the newest kids on the block in Modern and has seen much more success so far on Magic Online than in paper tournaments. This is basically a Burn deck that takes advantage of Bedlam Reveler to have an amazing late-game. Bedlam Reveler forces you to discard your hand when it enters the battlefield but rewards you with drawing three cards after, which puts an emphasis on using burn spells as removal. Besides Bedlam Reveler and burn spells, you also have the ability to go wide with help from Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls, which can be a nightmare for the other black-based midrange decks. Many numbers in this list look odd, but Selfeisek has been playing it for months to an astounding amount of success, so much so that I think this deck is poised for a breakout in paper soon.
You're the control deck, using your discard and removal to help stay alive, but you also need to use your threats to quickly end the game. Some games won't line up well, such as when you have a bunch of Young Pyromancers and Lingering Souls to their burn spells, but overall you have enough cheap interaction and a fast enough clock to get the job done. Dragon's Claw is an amazing sideboard card against Burn, while small creature decks will have trouble with removal backed by Bedlam Reveler.
Other midrange matchups are most likely among the best you can face, while hard control decks with an abundance of counterspells will be tough to beat. Against other midrange decks you have the most built-in card advantage between Faithless Looting, Lingering Souls, and Bedlam Reveler, and you can also get free wins with Blood Moon. Against Grixis Death's Shadow you get to use Lingering Souls and Young Pyromancer to create plenty of chump blockers while finishing the game off with burn spells. The sideboard doesn't offer much for these matchups, since they are already favorable.
Heavily blue-based control, such as U/W Control, that isn't weak to Blood Moon is going to be tough for you. The go-wide plan doesn't work against sweepers and Bedlam Reveler has to resolve in order to reload your hand. The best plan is to act as a Burn deck while trading other resources, but it's tough.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
Besides your discard spells, Blood Moon is your key card at keeping these decks in check. However, some decks such as U/R Through the Breach don't struggle with Blood Moon and don't have creatures to kill, and that's not what you want to face. I'm also not sure who is favored when you play against Tron, but I'm not sold it's a good matchup for you. However, when you have burn and discard spells, then you have the chance to win any matchup.
B/W Eldrazi Taxes
- 4 Tidehollow Sculler
- 1 Blade Splicer
- 4 Eldrazi Displacer
- 4 Flickerwisp
- 4 Leonin Arbiter
- 4 Thought-Knot Seer
- 3 Wasteland Strangler
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
This is a resource denial deck that uses various synergistic creatures to overwhelm the opponent. Leonin Arbiter and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben make it difficult for your opponents to cast their spells. You use cards that temporarily exile something of your opponent's, such as Tidehollow Sculler and Flickerwisp, and then Wasteland Strangler to put that card in their graveyard for good while also removing a creature. And around all of this, you have access to two extremely powerful Eldrazi with Thought-Knot Seer and Eldrazi Displacer. Put this together and you have a deck that forces opponents to have their best hands and punishes anything and everything that stumbles.
Most likely some of your stronger matchups, as Wasteland Strangler is at its best against aggro, even though Eldrazi Displacer is most likely too slow. You also have a good sideboard here, with Grafdigger's Cage helping out against the Collected Company variants and Blessed Alliance and Burrenton Forge-Tender as nice upgrades against Burn. Aether Vial and Stony Silence don't play well together, but there isn't a better card for Affinity.
These matchups are going to be tough overall, but you always have the ability to win games before they even start with Leonin Arbiter and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Besides the games where you run out ahead right away, the goal is to try to create a battlefield stall where either Flickerwisp can win through the air or Eldrazi Displacer simply takes over the game. Although Mirran Crusader is the perfect threat against the B/G decks as well as Grixis Death's Shadow, it isn't nearly as threatening against blue control decks, which is why there is also a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the sideboard. Even so, hard control decks will be a tough matchup unless you can pair Tidehollow Sculler and Thought-Knot Seer together to take their key spells.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
The more the big mana deck relies on searching their library, such as TitanShift, the more important Leonin Arbiter will be, as well as Aven Mindcensor in the sideboard. Unfortunately, they are also vulnerable to every removal spell in the book, but it's the best chance to get free wins. Besides that, you're relying on the different Thalias and Tidehollow Sculler and Thought-Knot Seer again, as the sideboard has little to no other help. An ideal spot to end up against the big mana decks is being able to blink Thought-Knot Seer with Eldrazi Displacer each turn during their draw step, taking the best card from their hand and allowing you to end the game. Many combo decks will be favorable matchups with the different types of disruption available here, and make sure you learn all the things Aether Vial and Flickerwisp can do to your opponent!
G/R Land Destruction
- 2 Platinum Emperion
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 2 Stormbreath Dragon
- 1 Thragtusk
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
The bane of big mana decks everywhere, G/R Land Destruction is looking to slow down opponents by doing exactly that, destroying lands, and finishing the game with whatever your favorite mythic rare from Standard over the past five years was. This is a deck that hasn't gotten the due it deserves this year and has quietly put up results. Some people like to add in the Madcap Experiment / Platinum Emperion combo like Wolftap Boy here, and others like to play four Tireless Tracker for a card advantage angle. Turn 2 is the important turn, where you want to land a Blood Moon or a Stone Rain to cripple the opponent and snowball your advantage from there. Overall this deck struggles with others that have many cheap spells that can overcome the land destruction.
These will be your toughest matchups, as your deck is filled with expensive sorcery-speed spells, not all of which even affect the battlefield. The best of these will be a deck like Affinity, where not only Bonfire of the Damned can shine, but also Ancient Grudge and Shatterstorm from the sideboard. They even have valuable lands to destroy! Burn, however, is pretty miserable overall, but at least this version does run four automatic-win cards in the maindeck with the Madcap Experiments.
These matchups will vary pretty greatly from deck to deck and even match to match. G/R Land Destruction doesn't play many close games one way or the other against other midrange decks. Either it shuts the opponent down right away and uses expensive mythics to pull way ahead, or the other deck has enough disruption and a fast enough clock to keep you from getting started. This makes a deck like Grixis Death's Shadow with plenty of discard, countermagic, and a fast clock a very tough matchup. Counterspells in general are very effective against you, and therefore I'm a fan of the one Choke in the sideboard as well as the three Thrun, the Last Troll in the 75, although that may be a bit much.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
Well, considering you're a land destruction deck, it should come as no surprise that big mana decks are exactly what you want to play against. The combo matchups will vary greatly by how much they prioritize having large amounts of mana and how soft they are to Blood Moon. For example, U/R Gifts Storm as well as Devoted Druid decks are incredibly bad matchups, with them being able to easily combo on Turn 3 even with a land or two destroyed. Ad Nauseam, on the other hand, can be greatly slowed down by each land destruction spell you cast, especially if they don't draw Lotus Bloom.
8-Rack is the epitome of resource denial, so much so that you should almost always choose to be on the draw when playing with or against it. That's harder than it sounds, especially when playing Magic Online. I'll frequently tell my stream that I want to be on the draw with 8-Rack, but when the opportunity presents itself, I click "play" from habit! Anyway, it doesn't matter what you're playing against; your only goal is to strip your opponents of every resource. No hand, no creatures, and no lands to cast their topdecks. It's not an easy task, but thankfully most Modern decks aren't built with this archetype in mind and fall victim to Raven's Crime.
Make them discard their cards ASAP! Well, that's about it. The beauty of 8-Rack is that your gameplan is incredibly linear and puts the onus on the opponent to play perfectly, whether that means deploying the right threats at the right time or keeping the right amount of cards in their hand. You want to cast your discard spells right away, before The Rack or Shrieking Affliction, as disrupting the opponent is the number one goal. Make sure your deck has graveyard hate in it for decks like Dredge that enjoy you having them discard!
One of the hardest cards for 8-Rack to beat. Even though The Rack and Shrieking Affliction both get around Leyline of Sanctity, making them discard enough cards is the problem. Liliana of the Veil's plus ability can do some work, but Tom Ross would play Delirium Skeins in his sideboard for this card alone.
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Ramunap Excavator
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
And what better place to finish the midrange decks with than with my favorite deck, G/W Company? This deck is basically the opposite of Eldrazi Taxes, as instead of using synergistic creatures to deny your opponent resources, you are instead using synergistic creatures to gain as many resources as possible. You want to hit plenty of land drops, so many that you overwhelm your opponent from Clue tokens or Ghost Quarter activations. This is a defensive deck that wants to outlast other decks, using Courser of Kruphix to gain the knowledge of what the next card you draw will be and fetchlands and Knight of the Reliquary to reset your library for card selection. When the pieces come together, the things the deck can do are incredibly powerful, from destroying all your opponent's lands to gaining a dozen or more life a turn while thinning ten-plus cards from the deck. There is no better deck in Modern at winning battlefield stalls than this one.
Aggro matchups are all about Courser of Kruphix, and the more you can get on the battlefield, the better. You'll frequently have to Ghost Quarter yourself to gain that little bit of extra life you need to get out of burn range. Voice of Resurgence is another key card at slowing down the aggressive decks that are attacking with creatures. Affinity is a polarizing matchup where Game 1 is almost impossible to win but Games 2 and 3 are incredibly favorable after all the sideboard cards come in.
No other midrange deck, not even Mardu Pyromancer, has the late-game power to compete with G/W Company, meaning all your opponents need to be on the offensive. Therefore, you need to do what you can to stay alive as long as possible and find as many copies of Path to Exile and Collected Company as possible to help turn the corner. Knight of the Reliquary is frequently the largest creature on the battlefield but still stays back on defense, allowing you to activate on end step to help gain more advantage. Control decks with sweepers pose a problem, though, because although you have an incredible late-game thanks to Courser of Kruphix, sweepers like Supreme Verdict are difficult to beat in multiples. After the first one you should still have some ammunition, but the second or even third sweeper is a back-breaker, which is why I actually sideboard in Surgical Extraction against decks like U/W Control to cut down on their sweeper count.
Against Combo/Big Mana:
Conventional thinking would say you have a tough time beating combo decks, since you're a deck full of three-mana value creatures, but I'm not so sure. You attack the decks at a different angle from any other creature deck, one they aren't built for. Maindeck Aven Mindcensor and Eidolon of Rhetoric in the sideboard do plenty of work against various combo decks, and they don't usually slow down your Azusa, Lost but Seeking plan. Big mana strategies are all about Ghost Quarter: how many and how quickly do you have them? It's a lot easier to disrupt Tron than Valakut decks with Ghost Quarter, making the former a better matchup than the latter.
I only covered seven midrange decks this week, but the fact is, midrange has, for the most part, dried up in Modern. Grixis Death's Shadow has pushed out other midrange decks, because playing fair against it is a difficult proposition. Next week I'm going to cover the control and big mana decks that are trying to go over the top of these midrange strategies, and after that I'll examine the aggro and combo decks, which will be the largest installment of The Modern Compendium.