Building A Glass Cannon

Find out how two-time Grand Prix winner Gerry Thompson and the rest of Team SCG Blue decided on and tuned their Elemental Combo deck for Modern at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and what happened at the tournament.

"Can your deck kill on turn 1?"

"No, I don’t think so."

"Good, because you’re not getting a turn 2."

It all started with a Facebook message from Bryan Gottlieb, aka BRYang, with this decklist:

It didn’t look tuned, but it looked powerful. While I thought I could make it a little better, I was definitely out of my element. Normally when I look at a decklist, I can tell if it has too much removal, needs work on the mana base, or if something is glaringly wrong.

However, when I saw this list, I was stumped. I could infer a couple things, like eight creatures wasn’t enough and Pact of Negation wasn’t going to work because they’d just kill your guy on their turn, but I needed to try it first. For the time being, I planned on it being a pet project and nothing more.

Then a few things happened:

  1. Initial testing proved that the deck was a contender. Better yet, decks like Scapeshift couldn’t realistically beat it. In fact, most combo decks just rolled over and died, as the Elemental deck killed a full turn or two faster.
  2. A quick Gatherer search turned up two useful pieces: Flamekin Harbinger and Clout of the Dominus. Harbinger was particularly exciting as it meant you could play more creatures and therefore mulligan less. The other creature options, Death’s Shadow and Immolating Souleater, weren’t particularly good.
  3. After a quick five-game set with me playing Elementals against Brad playing Jund, he was on board as well. With virtually everyone wanting to see how far we could take the deck, it was easy to forget every other deck and put everything into working on Elementals.

As we tested a little more, we realized the Jund matchup was terrible. Decks with removal or hand disruption were easy enough to beat, but decks with both were difficult. Why, then, did we play Elementals in a field expected to be full of Jund?

The Numbers Game

Initially, we expected Jund to be 15% of the metagame, but we thought that it could fluctuate by 5% up or down. For every Modern and Extended Pro Tour before Return to Ravnica, no deck had ever been more than 25% of a metagame, even during Zoo’s heyday, so we had no reason to expect Jund to have a bigger showing than that.

On top of that, the perfect storm seemed to happen. Valakut was unbanned, and from my experience, people both love that deck and it performs admirably against Jund. If anything, we thought people would shy away from Jund.

Regardless, even if Jund were 20%, we expected it to have a win rate like it actually did at the Pro Tour, which is not a great one. As we went deeper into the tournament, the likelihood of playing against Jund should have decreased. Even if we got paired against Jund, we weren’t drawing dead. We could also afford at least three, maybe four losses if we wanted to make Top 8.

Owling Mine at Pro Tour Honolulu is a good example of why we thought this strategy might work. Obviously, there were a few things different in our situation. First of all, the tournament is now half Constructed and half Limited, but we thought that would work for us. Between the real life drafts, Grand Prix San Jose, and Magic Online, we were more than ready to tackle the Return to Ravnica Limited format.

Secondly, Jund just won the last big Modern event, and Pro Tour players are notoriously lazy. While they might put in a lot of effort, they don’t have time to cover the entire format. It’s not surprising that well-known teams seem to just show up with the best version of the best deck in most formats, especially ones as wide open as Modern.

Obviously, we could have just played Jund like everyone else, but are you better off flipping the 50/50 coin or the 70/30 coin? What if you need to win a lot of flips in a row to make any money? In my mind, the 70/30 coin gives me the higher chance to win the Pro Tour.

Tuning the Deck

Spoils of the Vault was a card we never actually tried. All of the Phyrexian mana spells combined with the fetch/shockland mana base made us think that it would kill us a large amount of the time. Having that one casting cost Tutor effect would have been awesome, but it didn’t seem realistic.

While Simian Spirit Guide made for some awesome turn 1 Kiln Fiends or allowed us to tap out and still protect our guy with Apostle’s Blessing, it was a dead card most of the time. The singleton Gemstone Caverns I used during most of testing was fine, but I’d made the mistake of playing that card at one Pro Tour already.

We tried a number of plans for the Jund matchup. Bryan’s plan was overloading on threats to eventually run them out of removal. Dark Confidant mostly just turned on their Lightning Bolts, and Death’s Shadow didn’t come online fast enough, although obviously we could have changed that if we wanted. In the end, we decided that focusing on the actual combo kill was better. That plan wasn’t even good, but it was better than additional creatures.

Overloading on Blood Moon effects was the second plan. While it worked for the most part, it also required using our entire sideboard to fit Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon, and the requisite Rituals to allow us to cast it on turn 2. We also didn’t take into account the fact that they could use Deathrite Shaman to power through it (using their earlier fetchlands or ours), which could have been disastrous. Using Mutagenic Growth to protect Magus of the Moon from Lightning Bolt was pretty awesome though.

The next thing we tried was playing a Dryad Arbor maindeck (with green fetchlands alongside some Stomping Ground) and Leyline of Sanctity in the sideboard. Those, along with Flamekin Harbinger, allowed us to fight Liliana of the Veil reasonably well. Leyline also doubled as insurance against discard spells. Combined with the Clout of Dominus we were going to sideboard for removal heavy decks, we were able to win about 40% of the time post-board.

As the tournament got closer and closer, we eventually decided that the Leylines weren’t worth it and we’d be better off using those slots for something else. I could not regret that decision enough.

This is the list we eventually settled on:

You can watch my deck tech here.

The First Constructed Portion

I started off well with a win over Affinity. The second round was when they decided to put Brad and me in the feature match area, both against Jund. Brad lost to Ochoa quickly, and the camera cut to me exactly as my entire team was getting slaughtered.

My third round was against Junk, but that’s a functional Jund deck. Instead of Lightning Bolt they have relevant removal in Path to Exile, so it’s probably even worse! I beat a U/W Control deck, and then I lost to Jund again. In game 3 after mulliganing to five, I could have drawn literally any spell in my deck to win, but I whiffed.

The Limited Portion

Zac Hill once wrote a fantastic article about some basics of Limited here. His second bullet point (players frequently fail to prioritize their removal properly) was very important for its time. Zac’s point was that your removal should only used on something that is literally causing you to lose the game, either by killing you or stopping you from winning.

That article is incredibly dated.

I’d go far as to say that Murder is pretty close to unplayable in Limited these days. Rather than using your removal as a safety net against certain creatures, most games are now dictated by tempo. That means you’re better off using your removal spell to get in some extra damage.

Also, the best removal spells tend to be the versatile ones. Stab Wound, while not impressing anyone with its -2/-2, can actually kill someone. Annihilating Fire is the same way. Meanwhile, something like Augur Spree will typically perform worse than Spatter Thug regardless of what the rest of your deck looks like.

It’s jarring to me that removal, for the most part, is pretty bad right now. Many creatures do something when they enter the battlefield, leave the battlefield, or are so cheap compared to your expensive removal spell that you’re getting a terrible bargain.

My Rakdos decks typically perform better the better my three-drop creatures are. Whether I have removal is less important than if I can make my opponent’s creatures irrelevant. Cards like Deviant Glee or Pursuit of Flight, while they might seem risky, will win you a lot of games.

Augur Spree might clear a blocker and Stab Wound might kill someone, but most of that is unnecessary if your creatures are good enough. There are also enough scrappy tricks in the format to make up for lacking removal.

My main point here is that despite feeling that the above paragraphs are completely true, I did not draft in that style at the Pro Tour. In the first draft, I chickened out and took Augur Spree over Splatter Thug twice and immediately regretted it both times.

My old school Rakdos deck with lots of removal, fatties, and eighteen lands would have loved to draw first and play the attrition game. The only problem is that type of deck can’t really win in this format. You can’t sit and wait, kill some things, and eventually win with a fatty. All the creatures are better than the spells, and you certainly don’t have enough removal to kill every creature. Top that off with the fact that I had minimal two- and three-drops and I was lucky to escape the first draft with a 2-1 record.

In the second draft, I took Hellhole Flayer, a blue card, a white card, and then a Grove of the Guardian fourth. For the most part, I was looking to see what was open and then just move into the open guild. I have a solid grasp on what each deck needs, and Grove of the Guardian is a welcome addition to any Selesnya deck, populate or no.

I ended up in the Chapin-style aggressive Selesnya deck but was a little short on playables. I started out with a win over Rakdos, but I then lost to Angel of Serenity and a different deck with a bunch of Guildmages. Overall, I did some things right but a lot of things wrong, so I wasn’t very pleased with myself.

The Second Constructed Portion

I was almost certainly dead to make money, but I wanted to annihilate some people regardless. My first three rounds were easy wins over Second Sunrise Combo, U/W Control, and Storm. After that, I got Junded twice, which was a fitting way to close out this Pro Tour.

The Backlash

Man, there are a lot of haters out there.

There was also another tweet I couldn’t find again, but it mostly called me stupid and wished me bad luck. Everyone is so quick to criticize, but once you’re in my place and don’t win the tournament, I’ll be sure to message you telling you all the things you did wrong in hindsight as well.


Would I play the deck again knowing what I know now? Of course not. However, I don’t regret playing the deck with the information that we had. Part of me knew that I would regret not playing with and tuning Scapeshift, but I knew I only had this one chance to play a sweet deck that no one else knew about it. There will be other Modern events, such as Grand Prix Chicago, to flex my Scapeshift muscle. On top of that, there’s always the Modern PT next year, and I don’t expect much to change. If anything, Scapeshift will be better by Chicago because most of the Scapeshift decks people played in Seattle were very bad.

I learned how to live and die by the matchup, which is typically a useful skill to have. You can’t always beat everything, so sometimes you just have to let go and accept it. However, we certainly could have tried harder against Jund. Most of my games felt close, but I couldn’t quite eek them out.

If nothing else, I have something to terrorize Magic Online with.

Next time: Reanimator in Standard!


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