Long Distance Wrench-Tossing: Modern Bannings & Brewings

Get some ideas for what to play in Modern at the beginning of next month at Grand Prix Richmond as two-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor AJ Sacher shares a bunch of brews!

Alas, Poor Yorick! I Knew Him . . .

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Modern received quite a facelift recently with changes to the banned list. Wild Nacatl and Bitterblossom are legal once again, and format cornerstone Deathrite Shaman received the axe. There is as always a lot of controversy and discussion on the move. I strongly believe that since the birth of the format Modern’s banned list has been different than any other banned list we’ve ever seen in Magic. Its purpose isn’t to simply disallow overpowered and oppressive cards/strategies as we’ve grown accustomed to. Rather Modern’s banned list serves as a tool for Wizards of the Coast to keep the format fun, interesting, and new.

That last one is important: they really wanted Modern to feel new and exciting and to come into its own by having a distinct identity. You’ll note that I referred to the effect of the changes as a “facelift” rather than a “shakeup” or the like; that was a carefully chosen phrasing. When viewing it in those terms, banning Deathrite Shaman makes total and complete sense. The format was starting to feel stale and monotonous, and while Deathrite Shaman may not be “broken” enough to warrant banning, it is certainly above the desired power level of the format and leads to boring metagames.

I would say that one of the most common deckbuilding and metagaming principles that Deathrite Shaman brought to the table was incentivizing skewing decks toward the midrange. Rock strategies have historically been poor choices for tournament Magic, or at the very least high-risk ones. This is because even though you are playing more powerful cards than most opponents it becomes very easy to draw your spells in the wrong order (win conditions first and accelerants last for example) or to draw the wrong half of your deck (like have your discard against aggro or your removal against combo).

Our little Hamlet bridged that gap just a wee bit too well as an accelerant that you didn’t mind drawing later on. He played great defense, decent offense, and even some special teams (disrupting graveyards). Essentially, he [too] greatly lowered the inherent variance one should be forced to tolerate in order to play a “good stuff” Rock type strategy. This inevitably leads to uninspired deckbuilding and dry metagame structures.

Besides Jund being neutered, there are plenty of more nuanced consequences of this banning. They will be discussed as they arise since the ripple permeates throughout the entirety of the format.

The Cat Came Back

The many faces of Zoo have been long-standing pillars of Extended-esque formats, and the kitty that could is a major reason why. It’s hard to describe or quantify just how much better it is than, say, Kird Ape or Loam Lion. At least in the amount of words I have to give in this article. But suffice it to say that the archetype largely lives or dies on the legality of that one extra power.

A lot of the dedicated aggressive strategies had been boxed out of Modern for some time now in no small part due to the existence of Deathrite Shaman, which allowed “bigger” midrange decks to keep up with the aggressive decks through acceleration and closed the door on reach by gaining life.

There is a plethora of ways to build a Zoo strategy. Just look at the Top 8 of Pro Tour Austin and you’ll see four completely distinct takes on the archetype, though some of those cards are no longer legal. That just means we get to start fresh! I would assume that the starting points are Counter Cat, Big Zoo, and Domain Zoo. If you want to get a little saucier, you could play Viashino Slaughtermaster, Boros Swiftblade, and/or Fencing Ace with Might of Alara and Ghor-Clan Rampager. Boros Charm fits nicely, and Tribal Flames plus Lightning Bolt are natural inclusions as well.

If Zoo variants start popping up as they have in the past, then the top of the dog pile has historically been the “biggest.” There’s a balance that must be struck between still being lean and aggressive enough to get underneath the slower archetypes while being bigger than the other Zoo decks. As for going bigger in today’s Modern, Noble Hierarch has increased in value now that it is no longer completely outclassed, and Knight of the Reliquary power is no longer being sapped. With those extra stand-ins for mana sources, Boom // Bust may be worth revisiting even without its cascade combo comrade Bloodbraid Elf. The most powerful sequence is as follows:

Turn 1: Noble Hierarch off of Stomping Ground.

Turn 2: Fetch land, Boom targeting their land and your fetch, which you crack in response by maintaining priority.

You can also target a Forest or Plains of your own, sacrificing it in response to Knight of the Reliquary. And you can use both forms of acceleration to turbo Armageddon, leaving you with a huge Knight (though a tiny kitty).

However you want to build it, Zoo in some form will have a presence going forward. At minimum, as a stand-in until the metagame shakes out. I have a hunch that down the line the format will prove too hostile for a typical Zoo shell, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Infinity Faeries!

For those who didn’t play during its debut, Bitterblossom is the Pack Rat of its day, a one-card game plan that kills quickly if played early, creates inevitability if played late, and is difficult to interact with. Both even follow a Thoughtseize in a nut draw! The question is how it will play out in a format with a deeper card pool. I will say that there is a pretty cool tension between Abrupt Decay being the most natural factor to keep Bitterblossom in check and Deathrite Shaman having been the backbone of Abrupt Decay strategies. It will be pretty interesting to see how that ends up playing out.

It goes without saying that the release of Bitterblossom into the format will likely bring Faeries back with it. However, I doubt the new iteration will be the same as the Faeries of old. What will the new face of Fae look like?

(Aside: If you like Faeries of old, I recently played a grudge match against our very own Cedric Phillips with Pro Tour Kyoto era Standard Faeries against his Top 8 deck of that very tournament. We both streamed our respective sides of the match, and you can find the recording of mine here. Warning: Adult Language and Kithkin Violence.)

For starters, certain cards of the old decks have gone down in value significantly. Mistbind Clique for one seems far less impressive in a format where everything is much cheaper, instant speed, or both. Scion of Oona also seems a bit too low impact for today’s Modern.

As for upgrades, we get Mana Leak and/or Remand over Broken Ambitions, and Snapcaster Mage seems like a natural fit for the flash-speed aggro-control deck. All of this seems pretty straightforward, and I’m sure it will be talked to death, so let’s move on. A fetch and shock mana base makes splashing a real possibility as well. Whether it’s just for Lightning Bolt or something more drastic, this will be a big and interesting space to explore. But for now I’ll leave you with a fairly stock-looking and completely untested list as a jumping off point:

If you’re sticking to two colors, you want to go as painless as possible for the mana base (though I don’t necessarily believe the above to be the correct configuration). I don’t think Liliana of the Veil is what the deck is looking for, as Faeries thrives in high-resource games due to many of its cards having cumulative strength plus the deck really loves to make its land drops. Also, anything over a single mana at sorcery speed had better be named Bitterblossom to earn its slot.

That being said, I wouldn’t mind a piece of Equipment or two. Sword of Feast and Famine is the most natural inclusion for the disclaimer I just stated because the untap clause lets Faeries still do its instant speed thang. Protection from black gets through opposing Bitterblossom swarms, while protection from green blocks giant monsters. Seems like a worthy inclusion.

I’m not the first and nor will I be the last to brainstorm potential Fae decklists, so let’s look at a couple of other homes for Bitterblossom. Just like there was a W/B Tokens deck in Standard (Luis Scott-Vargas, runner-up at Pro Tour Kyoto), there is a W/B Tokens deck in Modern, even before Bitterblossom! It looks something like this in its current form:

You can see how Bitterblossom would fit. Honor of the Pure would likely have to become Intangible Virtue for the black Faerie Rogues, though then it won’t pump your Hero of Bladehold or Brimaz, King of Oreskos, which is another potential addition.

One idea that has half-jokingly been suggested around the interwebz is combining the old with the new and maximizing the non-interactive, auto-win one-two punches:

The list is very rough, but the idea is pretty neat. Equipment is another possible route to take if Abrupt Decay numbers are down. Speaking of which and once again, a fetch and shock mana base makes splashing a simple proposition, and monocolored decks are prime candidates for such a treatment. Abrupt Decay is a card that may very well be worth splashing to combat opposing Bitterblossoms and the like.

There is even a chance that a personal favorite of mine in Polymorph could see some fringe play, though I imagine it is a bit too slow and bit too vulnerable for it to ever become a major player.

Bring On The Gods

It doesn’t look like much from the new set will impact Modern. Brimaz, King of Oreskos may make a small splash as a cheaper Hero of Bladehold that still can’t be hit by the format’s premier removal spell in Lightning Bolt. While Courser of Mul Daya is a sweet card, I don’t think it will make the leap to Modern. Hero of Iroas is not what the Auras deck is looking for. Thassa’s Rebuff, meet Mana Leak. Kiora, the Crashing Wave is likely too expensive and low impact to compete. The only card that I could really see doing anything is Kiora’s Follower. I’m sure many of you have seen this shell that’s been floating around online for a couple of weeks now:

While the blue in Kiora’s Follower makes it awkward with Burning-Tree Emissary, it does fit into the mana engine quite well. The focus would have to shift toward getting more Nykthos activations rather than bigger ones.

Wisp Me Away

A couple of weeks ago, this happened:

Twitch stream regular Akumaker had posted a prospective list, and it reminded me of an old Gerry Thompson article where he posted a bunch of combo brews. I took Aku’s idea and cleaned it up a bit (Tallowisp doesn’t actually find Threads of Disloyalty), played some matches, and tweaked it along the way. While I did 4-0 with the pictured list, there were some changes that came after that Daily Event before I shelved the deck to pursue other nonsensical whimsies (changes due to Celestial Colonnade being Coastal Tower and Curse of Chains wasting a slot).

The deck has a few things going for it despite looking like a pile of random unplayables. Geist of Saint Traft is in fact a Spirit, and Disrupting Shoal is in fact Arcane. It can produce some fairly fast draws, and most of them are quite resilient. A look at a few of the things the deck can do:

Turn 1, Slippery Bogle. Turn 2, Arcanum Wings. Turn 3, use everyone’s favorite keyword ability, Aura Swap, and then annihilate for two while attacking for eleven.

Turn 2, Tallowisp. Turn 3, Geist of Saint Traft finding Unflinching Courage.

Turn 2, Tallowisp, Disrupting Shoal* finding Eldrazi Conscription. Turn 3, Academy Researchers. Trigger?

*One of the cool things about Disrupting Shoal is that it is worded with an “if,” which means that you can target any old spell with X being whatever you want. So in addition to pitching, say, a Slippery Bogle to save Tallowisp from a Lightning Bolt, you can also pitch, say, an Arcanum Wings targeting that same Lightning Bolt. It won’t counter the Bolt, of course, but you will get the Tallowisp trigger. All you need is a spell on the stack to target and a blue card in hand to pitch. If the opponent isn’t cooperating, you can even target your own Academy Researchers on its way down to find the Eldrazi Conscription to put on it when it lands. Pretty nifty if you ask me.

And those are just the turbo draws; the deck has a good amount of midgame play to it. So much so that I don’t have the word count to go into them all, and you’ll just have to try the deck out for yourself to see! Maybe I’ll stream with it soon. That way I can go into some of the eyebrow-raising sideboard choices and the seemingly out of place cards in the main. A couple of quick things:

Jund has one of the better matchups against this deck thanks to Abrupt Decay being quite strong and access to Liliana of the Veil for the hexproof creatures. With that deck greatly neutered (and with the backlash likely being exaggerated in early numbers, with less people playing it than rightfully should), this is a sweet alternative to the high-variance and overly linear hexproof deck.

Zerg Rush

One of the often overlooked special powers of Deathrite Shaman is its mystifying second toughness. Legend has it that R&D knew that Lingering Souls was going to be good—possibly too good—and would need targeted hate. Electrickery, Izzet Staticaster, Golgari Charm, and more were all made for keeping the Spirit tokens in check. But this caused a problem with their newest Birds of Paradise variant. To keep it from suffering from the splash damage, it was given a second toughness to avoid the targeted hate.

That second toughness doesn’t come up all too often unless you’re Cedric Phillips. [Editor’s Note: I play a lot of mediocre/bad decks, so it comes up a lot.] But I can tell you that it got on my nerves more than once when I was playing with this next brew. Now that Deathdaddy is out of the picture, might it be time for the Goblins to run rampant?

Goblin Grenade is truly a forgotten gem. Do you have any idea how much damage five is? Let me tell you, it’s a lot. You use the multi-creature cards with synergies on the front side (Foundry Street Denizen) and the back side (Goblin Bushwhacker and Goblin Chieftain) to push a surprising amount of damage through surprising amounts of resistance. Other inherent advantages of the swarm approach is that you have a good amount of reach through alpha strikes or plenty of time to buy with your chump blockers to dig for true reach.

The splash for discard out of the board is pretty intuitive, what with Auntie’s Hovels being damn near free and all. Splashing for Destructive Revelry in aggressive red decks is a trick I picked up from Zac Hill. It plays the role of the Smash to Smithereens you would typically find in these sideboards, but one that can tag Splinter Twins, Pyromancer’s Ascensions, Daybreak Coronets, and more.

Graveyards Galore!

Another side effect of Deathrite Shaman’s swift exit is that graveyards will for the most part be left unmolested. This means that decks that already use the graveyard, such as Storm and Melira Pod, get a slight boost. It also means that there’s a potential opening in the metagame for some serious abuse of the bin. Without enough time for a graveyard deck to rise to power and be hated out—starting the everlasting tug-of-war that happens in such cases—there’s a sweet spot if someone can get a graveyard-centric deck up and running in time for the Pro Tour. There are a few fringe decks that utilize the graveyard already waiting on the edge of the metagame. Could this be what they needed to break through?

First is a take on the Legacy archetype of Tin Fins, Goryo’s Vengeance Reanimator, that uses Fists of the Suns as a robust plan B. The first time I saw the deck in its current form was in the coverage of Grand Prix Prague piloted by one Jan van der Vegt. He is perhaps better known by his Twitch handle dzyl.

Another graveyard-oriented strategy that may make a splash is a Gifts Ungiven based Reanimator deck. You utilize a rules exploit of its namesake card to use it as a double Entomb for Unburial Rites and a target (usually Griselbrand), failing to find the other two cards (“my entire library is made up of cards named Unburial Rites or Griselbrand, so I can’t find any more cards!”). While the deck used Deathrite Shaman itself in the past, I always felt that it may be better off using two-mana accelerants that can’t be Bolted anyway.

We could also see a resurgence of old-school Martyr of Sands combo with Proclamation of Rebirth and all. None of this Soul Sisters nonsense—a deck that isn’t quite White Weenie or Tokens or Martyr. With Orzhov Charm comboing well with Martyr as well as serving as an efficient removal spell, the deck may end up looking a bit different than its ancestors. All that aside, any time graveyards aren’t being messed with and Zoo is a contender, Martyr will always be at least a reasonable choice. The biggest problem I foresee for the deck is that not everyone is trying to kill with damage in Modern nowadays. Or at least not any less damage than infinity.

As much as I would love to see Aggro Loam back, it doesn’t seem likely with people regularly dying on turn 4 through disruption. However, a Dredgevine deck with plenty of disruption of its own may have a fighting chance. This is an archetype that I simply don’t have enough experience with to give you an educated list sadly. I do hope to work with it soon, however, as I think it may be able to find a soft spot on the underbelly of the format before everyone else can catch up technology-wise. And I have to say that I am really intrigued with the idea of using Varolz, the Scar-Striped to scavenge a Death’s Shadow . . .

The Rest

There are so many more possibilities to discuss, but I’m out of time! I tried a Time Warp combo deck, and while very fun, it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Right now I’m toying with Mono-Blue Delver and a distinct sub-variant created by Greg Hatch that I’m having an absolute blast with. I also want to try a Prison deck as well as a Young Pyromancer tempo deck. I even saw a Norin the Wary combo-control deck! I’ll definitely have to tinker around with that one. So many archetypes, so little time! What are your brews for Modern? What outlandish ideas do you want to be seen through? Or simpler yet, what are you looking to play post-bannings and Born of the Gods?