Don’t Call It A Comeback (Although At This Point It Probably Is): The Best Modern Deck You Aren’t Playing

Need a deck to play in an upcoming PTQ? Zac Hill tells you about his Grixis Delver list and why he thinks it’s one of the best decks in Modern right now.

It feels like 2005 again. Richard Feldman, wherefore art thou?

As I’m writing these words, Drew Levin is playing in the finals of the Wisconsin PTQ with a day-old version of the deck I’m about to post. I just scooped (the legendary) Luis Neiman into what I thought was going to be the Top 8 of the Brooklyn PTQ and then beat him anyway for value to finish 6-1-1 on the day. I defeated Kiki Pod, Goryo’s/Breach, Zoo, Melira Pod, W/U/R, and Aether Vial Control, drew against W/U/R, and lost to W/U/R (punt!). Against 80% of my opponents I feel as though I’m playing a different format, and against the other 20% I merely feel as though I have a big edge.

I’m not saying this is the best deck in Modern, but it’s certainly very, very good.

Drew’s deck didn’t have the updates I made this morning, so it featured +1 Misty Rainforest, +1 Watery Grave, +1 Gitaxian Probe, and -3 Creeping Tar Pit. That’s unfortunate because Creeping Tar Pit is completely, unbelievably bananas and I can’t imagine it’s correct to play fewer than two.


Alright. I am known to use hyperbole. And yet here I am implying the 1x Spell Snare / Pillar of Flame / Countersquall / Electrolyze deck might be the best deck in the format for the week of 2/23/2013.

I’m not going to look you in the eyes and say something ludicrous (e.g., “After careful testing, 6723 games showed definitively that exactly one copy of Jace Beleren proved most effective across the set of all possible universes.”) Rather, I mean the following two things:

1) The core engine of the deck is almost certainly the most powerful thing you can do in Modern, and

2) Once you get that settled, you just need to generate the largest total number of value-added destructive interactions that you possibly can relative to the set of cards you expect to face over the course of the tournament.

What is the core engine of the deck?

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Dark Confidant
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Serum Visions
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
2 Thoughtseize
3 Cryptic Command

Basically, all of these cards are absurd, and they happen to all be really absurd in tandem with one another.

The only card that isn’t obviously absurd is Serum Visions, but I’ll go ahead and remind you that if you simply reverse the order of the abilities on the card, it’s good enough to get banned. Over the last three or so years, it has become more and more increasingly evident that Ponder / Preordain / Serum Visions / Sleight of Hand and their ilk are all just really, really powerful and only get better the more we play with them. There are many reasons this is so, but I would say the three most salient are:

a) You get to play a lower land count while still hitting all your land drops. Everyone sort of knows this on an intellectual level, and it’s been true since Alan Comer brought us Turbo Xerox. However, I also don’t think people appreciate as frequently how resilient this makes us to discard and how many seven-card rather than six-card hands we get to keep because of this kind of thing.

b) You’re more likely to spend all your mana every turn.

c) Your deck is just so much better than your opponents’ decks after sideboarding. This is probably the least-appreciated reason why marginal-variance reduction is so powerful, but it’s hands-down the most important. You get to have a more relevant sideboard in more matchups because you don’t have to play as many copies of your matchup-specific bombs, and at the same time you don’t have to dilute the hell out of your core strategy to accommodate all that real estate.

So yeah. That’s Serum Visions. Thoughtseize / Inquisition of Kozilek are insane because they allow you to ignore value-generating text on your opponents’ cards while simultaneously allowing you to easily trade a card and one mana for a card and two or more mana. The drawback of drawing these in the mid-to-late game is mitigated by playing three copies each of Remand and Cryptic Command, which can set up your discard very well even later on. Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, and Delver of Secrets hardly need explaining, and neither does Lightning Bolt. Deathrite Shaman shouldn’t, but I’m going to spend a paragraph on him because for whatever reason when I looked around the room only like a fourth of people there were playing this card.

Deathrite Shaman is very, very obviously the best card in Modern, and I can’t think of a single reason to show up to a tournament without the maximum number of copies in a deck.

What doesn’t this card do? Even as a Birds of Paradise for B that singlehandedly manages Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary, he’d be totally absurd because green decks tend to be normalized against the power curve of Birds of Paradise while black decks do not. On top of that, though, this guy also fights Top 10 Card In The Format Contenders Snapcaster Mage and Kitchen Finks while clocking for two a turn in either direction.

So he’s one of the best cards you can play, but in case other people disagree with you and decide to build their deck around their other options, he just kolds those for you at zero opportunity cost.

Oh, and he’s a 1/2 for some reason, so he resists Electrolyze and can double-block Geist of Saint Traft in concert with a pal.

Anyway, most of these cards should be familiar because of Jund. Unfortunately, Jund had one of its most powerful components banned from the format, so we have to really make some sacrifices and cast Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command instead while getting to play like five fewer lands.

Really got the short end of that deal, seems like.

Unfortunately, that core only comprises 32 cards. Your curve is insanely low, however, and you play a lot of cantrips, so you have to start filling in the rest. To do that, you have to take a look at what you expect to see in the format.

The first choices are very easy in my opinion. You’re playing Delver and Snapcaster, who both want you to play a lot of instants. Modern is a wide-open format, so having on the order of four generic two-mana counterspells is probably not a bad idea so you can deal with what whatever your opponents decide to throw at you. Now, the removal of Bloodbraid Elf strongly suggests an overall shift towards blue since a) cascade is really good against countermagic and b) people are going to need to pay U rather than RG to get ahead on cards.

These factors make Remand an absolute all-star; it’s unbelievable in blue mirror matches because you can target your own spells, and it’s quite effective against Snapcaster Mage as well. It doesn’t hurt either that good players at the PTQ level also really like blue decks. All of that says to me that I want between three and four of those. I tend to value threat diversity in a deck with Snapcaster Mage, so I opted for three Remand and one Mana Leak to keep my opponents guessing.

I’m also comfortable playing one fewer land with three Remands, which contributes to what for lack of a better term I’ll call “fundamentally-sound advantage.” It’s the same reason I like Llanowar Elf decks with Swords, Jittes, or Gavony Townships: I want to be able to keep more seven-card hands without sacrificing access to better draws in the mid/late game.

So we’ve got between four and five slots left. I went with Vendilion Clique, Pillar of Flame, Electrolyze, and Spell Snare to fill those slots. Basically, I knew I wanted to deal with the following problems: Deathrite Shaman, Dark Confidant, Geist of Saint Traft, Tarmogoyf, Birthing Pod, Kitchen Finks, Restoration Angel, and Snapcaster Mage. This assortment of cards gave me the best solutions I could think of to the bulk of those problems while remaining not embarrassing against the rest of the format.

Pillar is probably the most questionable inclusion, but it was very important to me to have more answers to a turn 1 Deathrite Shaman than my opponent had to mine. I was also tired of having zero good cards to draw against a resolved Finks, Murderous Redcap, or Glen Elendra Archmage. The set of four is a little bit light to Geist and Pod, so I made a note to address those weaknesses in the sideboard.

All Together Now

I’ve explained the card choices, but tackling them individually doesn’t really answer what does the deck do?

That’s a great question. First, though, I’ll ask you to draw an opening hand of seven cards.

People keep asking me what to call this deck. That’s a hard question to answer. You’re not really aggro; you’re not really midrange; you’re certainly not control. The best way I can describe it is your opening hand tells you a story and you’ve got to figure out how that story ends.

This is not an easy deck to play correctly. You win a lot of games by attacking for exactly lethal. Sometimes, you’ll do that quicker than others—those times typically involve an early flipped Delver. Other times, you’ve got to plot out a sequence that looks something like attack with Bob ? Deathrite ? Bolt ? Snapcaster Bolt ? untap ? Deathrite ? activate Tar Pit ? attack with the team, which ends the game very quickly even though it’s mono-nickels + dimes. You’re not going to play the deck correctly if you look at the 75-card list and try to intuit what’s correct. Again, you’ve got to path out your hand and figure out how the first several turns are going to go. You can be the aggro and the control in many matchups, which is why the deck is as powerful as it is.

The downside is that when you misassign your role, you’re going to lose handily. The reason is that your cards only generate value for you under certain conditions; it’s your job as a player to ensure those conditions arise. That takes work.

Some general pointers:

-The most common way you lose is because you just jam a Bob out there on turn 2 for no reason. There are a million different answers to a Bob in this format, and there are also a lot of very solid turn 2 or turn 3 threats that can catch you with your pants down. You can’t have the fear of stalling on land with this deck because none of your spells cost very much. Instead, be patient with your discard spells and countermagic and look for a window to ensure Bob sticks. Even one additional card is so incredible with a deck that only has seventeen “blank” cards, eight of which thin themselves out of the deck quite quickly (deck thinning isn’t usually a thing, but it is when you look at as many cards over the course of a given game as this deck does).

-You’re going to want to start getting in damage with Deathrite Shaman quickly. Most people I had try this deck played it too conservatively—you’ve got to present damage quickly in order to get the most value out of Cryptic Command. For this reason, it’s usually correct to Snapcaster + one-mana spell on turn 3 if you can. You want that clock on the table.

-Delver’s interaction with fetchlands is incredibly important. If you peek and don’t want to draw the card, remember to crack a fetch before your draw step to get a reroll.

-You start the game “up cards” against most of the format. The reason is that every draw step produces a greater-than-average number of potential interactions due to a combination of your extremely high card power, your comparatively low land count, and your three copies of Creeping Tar Pit. What that means is that you should be looking to do everything you can to trade one-for-one with your opponent. The other thing it means is that you have to prioritize very highly cards that aren’t going to allow your opponent to say “whatever” to your plan to one-for-one them into oblivion and then react accordingly to those cards. For example, an unchecked Geist of Saint Traft is going to undue your incremental-advantage progress in short order, so you need to make sure you’re in a position to race and/or block successfully.

An aside on the Worldwake creature lands: These cards are unreal, and everyone undervalues how unreal they are. I myself almost didn’t play them today until I went through the ritual I always undergo where I draw a bunch of opening hands (like 100 or so) and see how screwed/flooded I get. Usually what happens is that I’ve done too many adorable things and need to get back to the fundamentals by adjusting cards here and there to be more fundamentally sound.

The Worldwake duals essentially exchange “When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 2 life. If you do, untap CARDNAME” for “NCD: CARDNAME does something every turn.” Yet everybody recognizes the Ravnica duals to be a pillar of the format, whereas for some reason people feel as though the Worldwake duals aren’t. Any time you trade your land for a spell, you’ve essentially cantripped. If you aren’t trading in this way, you’re killing your opponent. That isn’t too bad either.

-Pay attention to the sequence of your lands. If you do it even slightly wrong, you’re going to wind up with the wrong amount of access to the wrong colors on the wrong turn and will lose a game you have no business losing.

But OMG You Can’t Beat Tarmogoyf or Electrolyze

This is what I heard umpteen times about this deck.

Look. Tarmogoyf and Electrolyze are good against you. However, you have the advantage of knowing that and playing accordingly. People often talk to me as though some mystical force is compelling them to do things: “Well, I know I walked right into his Restoration Angel, but I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.” Yes, you certainly could! If you think your opponent has Electrolyze, play in a way to minimize the damage. Moreover, you have countermagic and discard spells, so you’re not just drawing dead.

It’s the same with Goyf—it’s pretty easy to hit Goyf with a Bolt if you just Bolt them first and then Snapcaster your Bolt so when it deals three to Goyf it exiles itself. It’s more difficult later in the game obviously, but it also tends to be easier to race in that situation because of Cryptic Command and active Deathrite Shamans + Tar Pits.

A few people laughed at the 1x Spell Snare—”Ah, I see, that’s how you deal with Goyf”—but that’s also true to an extent. Sometimes, the card is in your hand. When it is, it deals with Goyf.

I feel like these explanations don’t sound good, but they’re the real explanations. Look, if your opponent has dealt with your turn 1 Delver and you can’t counterspell/discard spell the Goyf and you don’t have the Snare and you can’t get it with Bolt or chump + Bolt and you can’t race it with Deathrite Shaman and you haven’t sideboarded, you’re probably going to lose to the Goyf. Sometimes, you lose games.

Most importantly, you play best two-out-of-three matches. And you’re going to be better post-board than anyone you’re up against because you’re just interacting destructively and gaining card advantage.

For what it’s worth, I feel like the actual biggest threat to the 75 I played against today is Lingering Souls.


The only card I would change out of this board is the second Spell Pierce, which I would make either a Thragtusk or a Liliana of the Veil. Everything else was awesome and won me at least one game.

I think sideboarding guides are awful because that isn’t how you sideboard (even though I know they radically increase hits—sorry, Lauren). The real strength of this deck is that you always present a cohesive deck during games 2 and 3, whereas your opponents don’t. Your sideboard is intentionally diverse such that you may not have the narrowest approach ever but are always making meaningful, incremental improvements.

Generally speaking:

a) Spellskite is for Splinter Twin, that dumb Slippery Bogle deck, and any deck with Lightning Bolt / Lightning Helix.

b) Threads is for Shaman / Delver / Deathrite / Goyf. This is your narrowest answer because it’s your most serious problem. Unlike when you play Threads out of control decks, you’re not going to lose because they’re able to slowroll their Goyf—they don’t have time because you’re killing them. It’s also insane to take even a card like a Kird Ape. This card is totally amazing, but I’d never want three.

c) Geth’s Verdict is for Geist and in general any midrange creatures. You bring it in when your plan is just to kill every one of your opponent’s guys too.

d) Thoughtseize comes in when people are trying to assemble either i) narrow combinations of specific cards or ii) midrange threats that don’t get taken by Inquisition. You almost always post-board want to be either 3x Inquisition or 3x Thoughtseize; the only exceptions are against Pod when you want 3x Seize 1x Kozilek or against pure combo or control (whatever that might look like) when you want all six.

e) Clique comes in against basically everything that has four-mana threats, as well as against Zoo because you have to start clocking them.

f) Ancient Grudge is for Affinity, but I also like one copy against Aether Vial decks, Pod decks, and Spellskite decks.

g) Extraction is for duh. One is basically the correct number of these.

h) Throat is for whenever my Bolts are unlikely to get the job done. It’s also awesome at killing Colonnade.

i) Countersquall is for combo and Cryptic Command, though you’ll usually want it against Birthing Pod as well. This deck is all about accruing a few points of damage here and there until your opponent loses, so the two life matters a lot.

j) Jace comes in against everything post-board because drawing cards in post-sideboarded games is just a lot more important. Against aggro, he supports the grind-you-out-by-killing-all-your-guys-then-casting Divination plan. Against control, he sneaks onto the board and wins you the game by himself (not by ultimating them, but by drawing four or so cards).

k) Spell Pierce is for cards like Through the Breach, Scapeshift, Pyromancer Ascension, etc. This was a bigger deal when Seething Song was a thing, and I probably should have only played one.

I’m pretty confident that you’re going to want:

1 Spellskite
2 Geth’s Verdict
1 Go for the Throat
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Jace Beleren
1 Vendilion Clique

The rest of the slots are flexible. As mentioned earlier, I think one Thragtusk would shore up your aggro and tempo-control matchups nicely. Tarmogoyf is also a real option—and might be even more of an option in the maindeck to be honest. I just don’t like when my creatures don’t generate value. Spell Snare, Back to Nature, Combust, Electrostatic Bolt, Electrolyze, Izzet Staticaster, the third Threads, Phantasmal Image, Flashfreeze, Forked Bolt, Pithing Needle, Cremate, Liliana of the Veil, Flame Slash, and Tribute to Hunger are all respectable choices to me as well, in addition of course to the cards I actually played.  

Having said all of that and with the requisite caveats, there are some general sideboarding trends you’ll see happen:

a) Bolt is the card you board out the most, in concert with Pillar of Flame and to a lesser extent Electrolyze. Usually you’ll want at least the two Geth’s Verdicts and the Go for the Throat when you do this, but not always. When Bolt is Lava Spike, take it out.

b) Against something like Kiki Pod—decks with four Wall of Roots + some number of  Kitchen Finks—it’s totally okay to cut Snapcaster. You’re getting your card advantage with Bobs and Cryptics, and the 2/1 is just going to blank itself while opening you up to graveyard hate.

c) Thoughtseize gets cut whenever you’re not taking cards that generate the opponent card advantage or when the two life isn’t worth it. Inquisition gets cut when the cards you care about cost more than three.

d) Bob comes out against decks with burn only when the 2/1 body isn’t going to trade with anything.

e) It has been argued to me that Delver should come out against Electrolyze decks. I am not sold on this (particularly with 2x Spell Pierce), but I could buy some variant of this.

f) Remands come out when you can’t Remand your own spell, Remand a flashed back spell, or Remand cards that cost three or more mana with any frequency.

I think with that to go by that you can figure out the rest.

In closing, this deck is sweet. Modern is sweet. People who act like they can’t beat Geist of Saint Traft aren’t trying hard enough. People who act like you can’t innovate aren’t thinking hard enough.

Then again, I feel like a lot of the conversations I have with people about Constructed provide evidence that they’re thinking too hard. “Interactions X, Y, and Z mean that whenever my opponent draws P and Q, I just lose.” I promise you it’s possible to play a deck that doesn’t “just lose” to some dumb card.

Moreover, I promise that you’d “just lose” a lot less if you played good cards instead of Slippery Bogles or Viscera Seers or whatever in a format with Duress, Inquisition, Mana Leak, Spell Snare, Lightning Bolt, and Thoughtseize. This is not a “synergy” format. If you are going to try to put two and two together to make You’re Dead, I recommend doing what Grant, Miles, and Ivan were doing in Brooklyn and just casting a bunch of Impulses until you resolve either turn 3 Blood Moon or some kind of Kiki/Twin combo.

Along similar lines, I hate sideboards that are like “3x Torpor Orb, 3x Rest in Peace, 3x Stony Silence.” Not only are you going to get destroyed when you draw those cards in multiples, you’re just acting like you have a better idea of the metagame than you do in my opinion. I’d rather have seven-ish cards to “upgrade” in every matchup than three really, really, really insane cards for five of my twenty-plus possible matchups—because you don’t need the extra help, you know?  

If you present a better deck than your opponent, you have an advantage, period.

Good luck in your PTQs. Let me know if this deck gets you somewhere.