A Short Guide To Volcanic Activity

If you’re looking for a deck to play at your next Modern PTQ, Valeriy has an updated RUG Scapeshift list complete with sideboarding tips.

Despite all the Prismatic Omens, the end of the world didn’t happen on Friday, so it’s time to help the world collapse—or at least your PTQ opponent’s. My favorite is Shivan Meteor, depicted by Jenna Helland on the mothership here. Unfortunately, it’s far from competitive Magic, so the most realistic way to end your opponent’s world looks like this:

"The Last Day of Pompeii" by Karl Bryullov

Or like this:

Ploskiy Tolbachik, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, December 2012

Modern players have many ways to prevent volcanic eruptions, but Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is still one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, able to Scapeshift prosperous cities into scorched deserts. The primary question is if the lava eruption is faster than the opponent or if certain measures are necessary to ensure that there will be no escape. The straightforward G/R version, one of "small Extended’s" favorites, is unquestionably bad in Modern because any other combo deck can outrace it—they are much better at non-interactive kills and have more ways to protect their combos.

The addition of black or white transforms the deck into worse versions of Jund with a slow combo kill not solving any problems. So blue in Valakut is nearly inevitable, especially if your set of win conditions is limited and must be augmented with search and card drawing. Further evolution of the list is mostly determined by dedicated hate, as general playability is. There are many versatile cards that are useful against Valakut, and even some hate that says, "Oops, you’re dead," so you should just avoid the deck at some certain times. However, it’s extremely rewarding when opponents are not prepared to beat it, and it has a great matchup against Jund.

Unfortunately, Jund has access to all the best hate for Valakut (except for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben): Liliana of the Veil, Molten Rain, Fulminator Mage, and, most importantly, Sowing Salt and Slaughter Games. There’s also another land-based Modern deck, G/R Tron, and both decks define the popularity of hate, so it’s harder to be unexpected and punish unprepared opponents. Both Slaughter Games and Sowing Salt completely shut down our primary game plan, but the former is better against Scapeshift while the latter is more powerful against Urza’s Mine (as there are typically just two Valakuts in the deck and some ways to win without Steam Vents exist). Jund players usually have both spells, spending three to four slots, but if one of them becomes more popular, it would affect our card choices.

In the case of Sowing Salt, the best build is a conventional two Valakut version updated by the eleventh Mountain to overcome Salt into Steam Vents. However, a quick scouting of sideboards in Magic Online Daily Events showed that the most popular hate package is three one-shot land destruction spells (Molten Rain or Fulminator Mage) and a pair of Slaughter Games. In this case, Paul Rietzl ‘s recent deck with four Valakuts, two Prismatic Omens, and even Primeval Titans looks very reasonable. I’d even add a third Omen, but Primeval Titan is four-of…

The excessive win conditions in Paul’s deck are four Primeval Titan, two (more) Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, and two Prismatic Omen. Lee Shi Tian’s deck from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica contained four Serum Visions and four Telling Time instead. The ability to dig for Scapeshift is fine, but when you’re forced to search for lands, something is wrong—especially if you keep a two-land hand and can’t reach four mana on turn 3. That’s why I dislike playing the otherwise great Peer Through Depths in 24-land Valakut decks—you can’t hit a land you need, and you have no mana to cast Farseek, Scapeshift, and any kind of protection in one turn.

Modern is a format where tapping out or comboing off without protection is dangerous; that’s twice as important for non-winning spells like Primeval Titan. He’s great but doesn’t win immediately, so I see him in the sideboard alongside nice cards like Rude Awakening, Wurmcoil Engine, and Meloku, the Clouded Mirror. They all are great against "fair" decks but not so much against combo. However, looking at the Top 8 of the Premier Event won by Rietzl, we see Affinity and six decks vulnerable to Primeval Titan. In this case, the straightforward deck with enough win conditions to ignore the opponent’s disruption is the right choice.

I totally agree with the increased land count, 26 for two more Valakuts or 25 for the eleventh Mountain in the two Valakut version. Eight digging spells isn’t what I need, as many real cards should be in the deck instead. From the other point of view, I have nothing against some digging cards because many games are lost because the Scapeshift player couldn’t find the deck’s namesake in a few turns. Among potential options, See Beyond is an interesting singleton able to put a Mountain back into the deck, but the choice is between two-mana instants and one-mana sorceries.

Scapeshift doesn’t have many turn 1 plays (aside from Valakut itself, a tapped shockland, and Search for Tomorrow), but it usually has a clear 2-4-6 mana curve, which fits two-mana instants much better. Digging is also more relevant in the midgame, where it’s better to dig deeper regardless of mana cost. So I prefer Peer Through Depths for the deck with Scapeshift as the only win condition and Telling Time for mixed deck. Sleight of Hand gives you one of two right now, while Serums Visions gives a random card—which is worse when you have to find Scapeshift immediately or die. Augur of Bolas, while being able to block, is worse version of Peer Through Depths, so I recommend avoiding him since he isn’t close to a problem for any aggro deck in this format.

An important note about hate and alternative win conditions: the best generic card Jund has against you is Liliana of the Veil, who is devastating and hard to deal with. Therefore, Obstinate Baloth or Vendilion Clique is necessary, even if you use Wurmcoil Engine, Rude Awakening, or something else. The two best from other decks are Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Aven Mindcensor, so cheap removal is welcome too. Izzet Charm seems to be the best option as it also useful against combo decks, but some sweepers are fine too. I suggest a split between Pyroclasm and Volcanic Fallout, while the latter, being to slow against Affinity on the draw, is useful against the nasty Bird and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.

My last few words before the updated decklist concern the Valakut versus Tron matchup. It’s in Scapeshift’s favor, but Tron players recognize that and take it into consideration. Their best card (Karn Liberated) is too slow to deal with the Scapeshift player, so Tron usually tries to buy time to execute their own game plan. The most common answers are Spellskite (very reasonable as long as they are able to keep you from having eight lands or destroy one of your two Valakuts) and Stone Rain, but I’ve encountered weird splashes for Slaughter Games or Aven Mindcensor. A frightened opponent is the most dangerous due to unpredictable decisions, so be ready and don’t allow them to take free wins.

This list, like Paul’s, doesn’t contain Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command— the two best blue cards in the format. This is because it’s impossible to cast Cryptic Command without Flooded Grove or Cascade Bluffs, as fourteen of our 26 lands don’t tap for blue mana. Prismatic Omen helps, but, in my opinion, still doesn’t justify playing a card that costs 1UUU. Cryptic Command is a great and versatile card, but it’s too slow against fast aggressive decks and is almost useless against the second most popular deck, U/R Splinter Twin. It’s impossible to force a counter war during the opponent’s turn, while tapping for command during your own is close to an auto-concede. That’s why I put six uncounterable spells in the sideboard—I want to just say "no" to some cards.

Snapcaster Mage is also bad against Splinter Twin as it consumes too much mana to be useful and falls to Deathrite Shaman in the Jund matchup, where he can’t be an additional copy of a crucial spell anymore. I’d put one or two Snapcasters in the Scapeshift only deck anyway, but Prismatic Omen and Primeval Titan do the same job, so Tiago should go, at least for now.

The generic sideboarding plan against Jund is the following:

-2 Farseek
-1 Pyroclasm
-2 Telling Time

+1 Vendilion Clique
+2 Obstinate Baloth
+2 Shadow of Doubt

Two acceleration spells are sided out in nearly every matchup as I generally prefer having only ten of them (that’s why Khalani Heart Expedition didn’t make my version), but different spells are bad in different matchups and it’s fine to be fast pre-board. So Farseek is sided out against Jund, Search for Tomorrow against Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (too expensive in either mode), Sakura-Tribe Elder is the weakest against Storm, etc. The exception where all acceleration stays in the deck post-board is the mirror match (for obvious reasons).

Shadow of Doubt is fine against both Sowing Salt and Slaughter Games despite not saving cards in your hand. It’s not as good at winning as Vendilion Clique is, but its cheaper cost matters. If the opponent plays Sowing Salt, it’s fine to swap one copy of Prismatic Omen for Wipe Away. Generally, your goals in this matchup are to prevent Slaughter Games / Sowing Salt, take care of Liliana of the Veil, and only after that deal with their creatures. It’s not always easy to do it all simultaneously, but some experience will help you beat Jund consistently.

Splinter Twin’s primary plan is stopping you with Blood Moon and then forcing their combo through the few counterspells you can play under the mighty enchantment. Another problem is that they have so many Deceiver Exarches and Pestermites that it’s very hard to prevent them from coming to the battlefield later in the game when your Remands are close to useless. However, this version of the deck has a fine way to beat Blood Moon: Prismatic Omen. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle will not trigger if both enchantments are in play, but their effects are of the same layer, so if you play Omen after Blood Moon, the opponent’s nonbasic lands will be Mountains while yours will have five basic land types.

+3 Counterflux
+1 Vendilion Clique
+1 Wipe Away
+2 Krosan Grip

-1 Pyroclasm
-2 Telling Time
-2 Primeval Titan
-2 Farseek

Primeval Titan is unplayable in this matchup because he never resolves and even if he does you’re most likely going to lose right after. Krosan Grip and Wipe Away are ways to beat both Blood Moon and combo. I also prefer keeping Volcanic Fallout since it beats about two thirds of Twin’s combos (all not involving Deceiver Exarch plus Splinter Twin). Counterflux deserves few more words. It’s great against Storm (obviously) and certainly helps in Splinter Twin matchup, allowing you to escape counter wars (which you’re going to lose in most cases). It’s also useful against any blue deck, including mirror match, so I’m totally fine with three copies, especially as my list lacks Cryptic Command (which is bad in most situations where Counterflux is good).

The Splinter Twin matchup is relatively tough ("unpleasant 50-50") and, in combination with Jund’s overhate and fringe decks like Martyr of Sands, defines the reason to abandon Scapeshift. However, Prismatic Omen means that you don’t auto-scoop to Martyr of Sands or Slaughter Games, so I generally have a positive attitude about deck’s prospects. Nobody promises it will be a pleasure trip, but no deck in this format can just come, see, and conquer a PTQ.

My last words are to prevent the inevitable questions about Wargate. The card is otherwise fine, but it’s just a three-mana acceleration spell (unplayable) or a five mana sorcery speed Peer Through Depths. (Danger! Approximation! Don’t take literally!). Scapeshift must stay the primary win condition as you must be able to win on the spot to beat combo and since Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse are popular enough (the second one is for the Jund mirror against Lingering Souls). So there is no reason to rely on Wargate—it’s even not the first white card you may want! Leyline of Sanctity is definitely more useful because it helps beat Slaughter Games (alongside Storm and various kinds of discard), but, unfortunately, generic RUG Scapeshift has no way to cast Leyline and is vulnerable to deep mulliganing, so I recommend staying away from this card.

The last news for today is that the very first Modern PTQ (Dortmund, Germany) was won by Helmut Summersberger with RUG Scapeshift. His decklist is unavailable for some reason, so I’ll leave you face to face with another volcano eruption video instead. Good luck!

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, 2010

Valeriy Shunkov