Hating Modern (And Loving It)

Pro Tour Dark Ascension champion Brian Kibler tells you all about the G/W Hate Bears deck that he piloted to a 14th place finish at the Modern Grand Prix in Chicago this past weekend.

I’m always thinking about decks. I can’t turn it off. When I show up to a Constructed tournament and things don’t work out how I’d hoped, I’m already thinking about what I could have done better before the tournament is over. At Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, once I realized we’d misjudged the field, I started building in my head the deck that I wish I’d played in the event. As soon as I got home, I started playing it on Magic Online. Flash forward a few months to the Magic World Cup and it’s the only deck anyone played in the format.

After round 5 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, I was not in the best mood. I’d gone 2-3 in the Constructed rounds, and I was frustrated. I felt like my preparation had been solid and liked my deck, but things just hadn’t come together for me. I’d built my deck with a similar shell to Jund but with white instead of red, primarily for Lingering Souls, which had proven to be an incredibly powerful card against any of the fair decks in the format. After five rounds of play at the Pro Tour, I’d drawn Lingering Souls a total of four times, and one of those was a Dark Confidant flip that killed me.

I’d gone 1-2 against Jund, the matchup for which I’d primarily tuned my deck, seeing my Knight of the Reliquary, Kitchen Finks, and friends fall to Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize, and Liliana alike. I was sitting at a table commiserating with Martin Juza, who’d had a similarly unimpressive start, and told him, “I wish I’d just played G/W little kid with Loxodon Smiter, Wilt-Leaf Liege, and a bunch of hate cards.” He thought for a moment and said “You know, that actually sounds like a really good idea.”

I’d much rather get things right the first time and do well at the Pro Tour, of course, but the challenge of solving the ever-changing problem that is Magic is the real reason I play. While I left Seattle disappointed by my performance and down on the Modern format in general, the gears were still turning upstairs. I couldn’t help myself. A wise man once said that the problem with Modern is that card text matters either too little or too much—that is, that games are determined either by efficiency of raw resource exchange (thanks to cards like Inquisition and Thoughtseize effectively ignoring opposing cards’ text) or by individually backbreaking hate cards. I wanted to figure out if I could build a deck that ended up on the right side of both of these problems.

The goal was to build a deck that could go toe-to-toe with Jund in a fair fight while playing enough hate to handle the rest of the field. I already knew my basic plan: build a creature deck that leans on Loxodon Smiter and Wilt-Leaf Liege as major features in an attempt to lower the effectiveness of one of Jund’s major strengths, its discard. While having Lingering Souls to help combat Thoughtseize and Liliana was a step in the right direction for my Pro Tour deck, I didn’t take it to the necessary extreme. In order to effectively neuter Jund’s discard, you can’t just make it slightly less efficient—you want to make it actively bad.

While you’ll usually have other options for your opponent to take with their Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek, they’re frequently going to really wish they could take your Smiter or Liege. Jund relies fairly heavily on its discard to give it the flexibility it needs to handle a wide range of situations. If you look at a typical Jund list, you’ll generally only find a few Terminates, Abrupt Decays, and Maelstrom Pulses that can actually kill larger creatures. Without the ability to use their discard on your creatures, Jund is in a much worse position to actually handle your threats.

My earliest lists of the deck were straight G/W with no fetchlands and Leonin Arbiters to minimize the effectiveness of opposing Deathrite Shamans. I was doing very well with these early versions—which were particularly fun to play against Scapeshift—but I ultimately felt like Lingering Souls was too good to pass up. The rise in popularity of Infect, Affinity, and U/W Control in the wake of the Pro Tour made the card even more contextually powerful than it was in Seattle, and it was already the best card in my deck there. Much of the strength of Affinity and Infect lies in their ability to sneak damage through with evasive creatures like Plague Stinger, Signal Pest, and Inkmoth Nexus, but Lingering Souls just embarrasses all of them.

Martin was going to play a version of the deck at Grand Prix Lyon, but Nassif convinced him at the last minute to play Affinity. Martin instead gave the deck to Lukas Blohon, who posted a reasonable but unexciting finish. The decklist made it into the coverage anyway, much to Martin’s dismay, as we’d hoped our deck would remain under the radar for Grand Prix Chicago. The deck didn’t seem to get all that much attention, although it was amusing to get messages from people on Twitter asking me if I’d seen that new G/W deck without Knight of the Reliquary.

I was testing and tuning the deck up until the Grand Prix, including lugging my massive mobile computer that can barely be called a laptop with me. I managed to get about an hour and a half of Magic Online in on the flight before my battery died just as I was about to cast a Baneslayer Angel . After recharging at my hotel and playing a few more games that night, this is the list I settled on:

Let’s go through the key parts of the deck:

The Mana Creatures

There are probably few people alive who love mana creatures more than me. The first deck I ever built was a stack of nothing but Llanowar Elves, Wild Growths, Forests, and Craw Wurms. I’ve been accelerating into fat creatures since before most of you had even heard of Magic. Lately, though, I’ve been pretty down on mana creatures in Modern. The sheer quantity and efficiency of the removal makes playing mana creatures a dangerous proposition in many decks because so many of the games in the format end up coming down to attrition and you can’t afford to draw a Noble Hierarch when you really need a higher impact card. My very first version of the deck had only Hierarchs alongside Dryad Militant at the one-mana slot, but the more I played the more I recognized that I needed more mana creatures to be able to make the deck fast enough.

I also learned is that this deck has all of the tools necessary to keep mana creatures from being too much of a liability. Lingering Souls helps make up so much ground in attrition fights that it can help mitigate the inclusion of lower impact cards, but the real superstar is Gavony Township. I’ve been a huge advocate of Township across formats for a while, and this deck probably takes better advantage of it than any other deck I’ve played. Not only is Township absolutely bonkers with Lingering Souls, but it can turn mana creatures into real threats as well as make Wilt-Leaf Liege and Loxodon Smiter bigger than even oversized Tarmogoyfs.

Martin’s version of the deck that he gave to Lukas for Lyon had Avacyn’s Pilgrim, but I’m absolutely positive that Birds of Paradise is better. Not only does Birds produce black mana, which is relevant for your Lingering Souls flashback and saving life on your Dismembers, but it also flies. In a deck with seven exalted creatures plus Gavony Township, flying is a very powerful ability that can help you break through stalemates. Birds can also be important as a flying blocker. It didn’t take longer than a few games against Infect for me to realize that having Birds as a green flier is important to ensure my opponent can’t kill me through my Lingering Souls with Apostle’s Blessing on white. It’s the little things that sometimes matter the most.

The Hate

The coverage called my deck “G/W Hate Bears,” but that’s something of a misnomer. “Hate Bears” is a popular term for two-power two-drops with abilities that tend to hose certain strategies, and Gaddock Teeg and Thalia are the only real hate bears in the deck since Pridemage is more a utility bear than anything. But a central feature of this deck is its ability to bring hate to bear (GET IT?!) in certain matchups. Both Aven Mindcensor and Linvala can effectively shut down entire decks in game 1 while also providing incidental value against fetchlands, Deathrite Shamans, Steel Overseers, and Arcbound Ravagers.

The real hate is in the sideboard, where such things typically live. As I described it at the event, my sideboard contains two Dismembers and thirteen cards that singlehandedly defeat opponents. Let’s go through them:

Chalice of the Void

This is the card in the sideboard that I was happiest to discover. I was going through Modern cards looking for anything that might jump out at me when I came across Chalice. At the time, I was sideboarding a pair of Melira against Infect, but I wasn’t a huge fan of them since I knew all of my Infect opponents would be bringing in Dismembers. As soon as I saw Chalice, I realized I had what I was looking for. Virtually all of the cards in the Infect decks cost one mana, which makes it incredibly difficult for them to beat a Chalice on one unless they’re already way ahead.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Chalice gives me some overlap in other matchups where I can use the help, like Storm and Burn. Against Storm, a Chalice on two shuts down most of their deck and isn’t at all unrealistic to play before they go off in a deck with eight mana creatures. Against Burn, a Chalice on one can leave them with a fistful of dead Lava Spikes in their hand. Every time I played Chalice in the tournament, it got the same despondent reaction from my opponent, and every time I won the game.

Rule of Law

Some people play Ethersworn Canonist because it’s faster and provides a body as well, but we’re not looking for half measures here. Every Storm deck sideboards Lightning Bolts, so Ethersworn Canonist just buys time. Most Storm decks don’t sideboard Echoing Truth, so they’re just dead to Rule of Law. Playing eight mana creatures makes it much more realistic that you can play a three-cost spell before they go off.

Rest in Peace / Relic of Progenitus

If dedicated graveyard decks were more of a thing in Modern, this would be a full set of Rest in Peace, but there are a lot of semi-graveyard decks in the format against which you don’t want to always expend a full card to nuke graveyards from orbit. Jund, for instance, makes heavy use of its graveyard between Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman, even more so now that some of them are adopting Lingering Souls. Relic of Progenitus is an excellent card at keeping Goyfs small and Shamans out of business. Keep in mind that Deathrite Shaman is a targeted ability that checks on resolution, so if your opponent tries to Shaman something in your graveyard you can just Relic yourself and choose to exile it, and in a pinch you can exile the Relic to stop an activation on their own graveyard.

Creeping Corrosion / Stony Silence

Because people like their toy robots and they’re the kind of thing that you need to absolutely nuke from orbit in order to keep them down. If Affinity drops in popularity (and it might in the face of the new Jund lists proving much more difficult for them to beat), I could see shaving these numbers, but I wouldn’t go to zero of either. Stony Silence is the better card overall, but Creeping Corrosion is important to deal with the truly explosive draws with Master of Etherium and Etched Champion that Stony Silence just can’t do anything about.

The Land

As I mentioned before, Gavony Township is incredibly important to the deck’s ability to function with so many mana creatures. With eight mana creatures and 23 land, mana flood is a huge potential issue with this deck, which is why many of the decisions with the mana base were made with that in mind. Martin’s version of the deck played many more fetchlands, but I felt like I could get by with a minimal amount of black mana, with five fetches for two dual lands alongside my Birds of Paradise.

That left me much more room for utility lands. One of my early versions of the deck had four copies of Stirring Wildwood, but as I went up on mana creatures I went down on Wildwoods since coming into play tapped is a big drawback when you’re trying to accelerate into higher cost spells. I was happy with the two copies of Stirring Wildwood that I played, though it’s possible they should be Treetop Village instead. Wildwood can block fliers like Delver of Secrets and Vendilion Clique and also gets double boosted by Liege, but a lower cost to activate plus trample may put Treetop Village over the edge.

Either way, I definitely want to play more Horizon Canopy the next time I play this deck. I’m not sure if I can afford the full four copies, but bare minimum I want to get rid of my Misty Rainforest for another Canopy. As I just mentioned, one of the major issues this deck suffers from is a propensity to mana flood, and Horizon Canopy helps mitigate that better than anything else. Manlands are good at providing extra value from your lands, but when you’re flooding you frequently need to find higher impact cards than Treetop Village or Stirring Wildwood.

The Rest

Everything else in the deck is either removal or a powerful and efficient body. I already addressed Smiter and Liege, so I suppose the last creature to discuss is Baneslayer Angel. What can I say about Baneslayer that I haven’t said already? Baneslayer is the sort of card that can absolutely dominate a game if left unchecked, and many decks in Modern right now aren’t well equipped to deal with her.

Jund typically has at most a pair of Terminates and a single Maelstrom Pulse that can kill her outside of Liliana, which is laughable as removal against a Smiter/Liege/Lingering Souls deck. I even won a game against Infect with Baneslayer at the Grand Prix simply because my opponent wasn’t able to attack into it profitably with anything, even with a Giant Growth effect! This deck has enough creatures that your opponent is pressured to use their removal on, like Smiters and Lieges, that frequently the coast is clear by the time you play Baneslayer, and she quickly takes over the game.

Cards I Didn’t Play

And now for some cards I didn’t play:

Knight of the Reliquary

This one pains me since Knight is my actual favorite card in all of Magic. To be perfectly honest, I think the biggest flaw in my Pro Tour deck was the fact that I wasn’t able to get away from Knight. Knight is a powerful card if it stays in play, but it dies to every removal spell people are playing and has no resilience against discard like Loxodon Smiter.

The popularity of Deathrite Shaman makes it extremely difficult to actually build up Knights to the point that they’re the board dominating threats like they used to be, and there isn’t a big enough variety of utility lands you want to fetch that it’s worth the deckbuilding costs and vulnerabilities that come along with playing Knight. Maybe Knight will have her day in the sun in Modern again, but it’s certainly not while Deathrite Shaman is among the most played cards in the format.

Deathrite Shaman

Speaking of Deathrite Shaman, why don’t I play it myself? Mostly because this deck makes heavy use of its mana creatures and can’t afford to play an accelerator that sometimes doesn’t work. Deathrite Shaman is many things, but a consistent ramp effect it is not. I don’t want to have to worry about dueling Shamans against opposing Jund decks or running out of fetchlands to fuel them. I want to know that my mana creatures are going to add mana when I need them, so I’m playing actual mana creatures like Hierarch and Birds along with Township and company to ensure that they’re high enough impact later in the game.

Kitchen Finks

I had Kitchen Finks in the straight G/W version of the deck, but it’s simply outclassed by Lingering Souls. You can only play so many three-drops, and Smiter, Souls, and Mindcensor are all more important than Finks. If you play in an area with a lot of Burn decks, I’d certainly consider including Finks at least in your sideboard, but it’s just not as strong as the other options available.

Overall, I loved this deck and had a blast playing it. I’m almost certainly going to continue working on the deck for future Modern events. I’m not sure what changes I’d make in the wake of the Grand Prix other than those I’ve already mentioned, but I imagine the rest of the format is going to move toward being more prepared for Lingering Souls, so it’ll be important to react to that shift. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a card like Night of Souls’ Betrayal become much more popular given its effectiveness against Lingering Souls, not to mention Affinity and Infect. We’ll just have to see how things shake up—that’s half the fun.

Until next time,