Last January, I spent about two weeks gleefully putting as many Siege Rhinos into play as possible with Birthing Pod, defeating the U/R Delver decks that had been dominating Modern ever since Treasure Cruise was printed the previous fall. My beloved Pod deck would not only still be viable, but perhaps excellent were Treasure Cruise to pull off a miracle and avoid the banhammer. And if Cruise were banned as expected, I had the classic Birthing Pod deck to fall back on as a great option, leaving me to focus my efforts on the Limited portion of the Pro Tour.
That didn’t end so well.
With Pod banned, I was forced to enter the scary, wide-open Modern format and find a second deck that I both enjoyed and could win with. It was a daunting process but I ultimately emerged with U/R Twin, and leading up to this Pro Tour it was a heavy favorite to be my deck of choice.
Now I’m 0-for-2. Thanks, Wizards.
So once again, I am forced to delve into the vast tapestry of decks that make up the Modern format and emerge with a new champion. Without Twin, a mainstay of the format since its inception, this Modern tournament is sure to look like no other, and my deck choice will be heavily dependent on the expected field.
To that end, I intend to sanity check myself by organizing my thoughts on the metagame for this weekend on paper, and I’ll give them to you so you can have a better idea of what to expect this weekend as well as get a glimpse into my thought process when analyzing new metagames. So without further ado, here is my expectation for #PTOGW.
Group One: The Degenerates
Twin, in addition to being a Tier 1 deck, had been thought of as the fun police of the format. The combination of countermagic and a potential turn 4 combo kill was potent against those looking to play unfair Magic. It also helped that it had access to the best possible card against the previously most played unfair deck, Amulet Bloom, in Blood Moon. Without Twin around to keep these guys in check, it is certainly possible that they run roughshod through the field, leaving a pile of stunned mages in their wake.
In my estimation, Infect and Grishoalbrand are the most promising of these combo decks, as both have the potential to kill as early as turn 2 while frequently winning by turn 4. If players allow themselves to go too deep thinking that Twin will not be there to keep them in line, they are going to be disappointed.
The most alarming aspect of this pair is that you fight them in vastly different ways. Infect requires you to interact with small creatures and cheap spells, while Grishoalbrand kills with large creatures and is vulnerable to graveyard hate. That these decks force you to interact so quickly means that skimping on either is a recipe for disaster, which means this group of decks serves as a very important reminder during the testing process:
It is quite easy to fall victim to the midrange trap because those decks always look great on paper. All their cards are great and they have a hammer for every nail. But those decks often stumble, especially if they are untuned. These decks are the first test of my gauntlet, and any deck that folds to them needs some significant extenuating circumstances to stay out of the trash.
Group Two: The Obvious Winners
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Ornithopter
- 2 Master of Etherium
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 2 Memnite
- 1 Etched Champion
- 4 Signal Pest
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Vault Skirge
- 2 Hangarback Walker
These two decks have the reputation of being kept in check by Twin while sporting a favorable matchup against the various flavors of B/G midrange decks that formed the other half of the “fair deck” end of the spectrum. Without Twin keeping them down, they are seemingly free to take over as the top decks in Modern.
I have heard that line of reasoning, especially regarding Tron, many times since the bans were announced. However, I find such reasoning to be shortsighted in most instances, as it occurs rather frequently in the Magic community. The most hyped decks are always the ones that seem to gain immediately from the removal of another deck from the metagame, whether by banning or rotation. But thinking this way requires an implicit assumption that the rest of the metagame does not respond to the change, which of course it does.
The key to figuring out what will happen after any bannings, in which some decks are simply excised without changing the overall look of the format, is to look at the less immediate ramifications. Sure, it could be that Affinity and Tron take over as the best decks, but it could also be that the removal of Twin and Amulet Bloom allow the Group One decks to dominate, which would be awful for these decks, especially Tron.
This is an exercise in leveled thinking. Affinity and Tron are Level 1. They represent the most obvious consequence of the bans. Our task is to determine what Level 2, 3, 4, and so on are, and then make a judgment as to which level most people in the field will reach, at which point our response will be obvious.
Affinity and Tron are both powerful decks and I certainly expect them to show up, but I also expect Stony Silence to be impossible to find the day before, so buyer beware.
Group Three: Light ‘Em Up
- 4 Kird Ape
- 2 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Experiment One
- 2 Ghor-Clan Rampager
Without Twin around, many are forecasting a decline in Lightning Bolts. That is the level that this group is depending on. Not only is Lightning Bolt the cleanest answer to a first-turn Wild Nacatl or Goblin Guide, these decks both feature four copies of the iconic burn spell to take advantage of those who ignore it.
Burn is certainly the more popular of the two, as it was among the best-performing decks in last year’s Modern Pro Tour and has been a staple of the format since the printing of Eidolon of the Great Revel. But if Lightning Bolt sees a steep decline, the more creature-heavy version could be better. Burning-Tree Emissary is capable of generating some degenerate starts and Zoo’s creatures always trump those that appear in other decks that may emerge in Lightning Bolt’s absence, such as Merfolk and Elves.
If instead of focusing on creatures, the format turns to degeneracy, then the value of Eidolon skyrockets, making Burn better. Either way these decks form another litmus test for the format, since you they are consistent enough that you have to be prepared to fight from turn 1. I noted Stony Silence as a great sideboard card earlier, but white also sports a number of great cards against these decks, from Timely Reinforcements to Kor Firewalker.
What is it about white having so many good sideboard cards?
Group Four: Thoughtseize You
These are the dark horses of the format. For years the black and green midrange decks have served as a foil to Twin, featuring a wealth of hand disruption and removal capped off by Abrupt Decay. The loss of Twin, coupled with the expected rise of G/R Tron, means these decks are poised to fall off dramatically, which would leave the format devoid of a benchmark fair deck.
Such a judgment seems hasty to me, since the Modern metagame seems particularly weak to Inquisition of Kozilek and, to a lesser extent, Thoughtseize. Obviously the discard spells are great against various combo decks, but they are also incredible against Group 3, either stripping their turn 1 play to buy you time to set up some defenses, or by trading for a burn spell and acting as a pseudo-lifegain spell.
Modern remaining relatively constant through the years has caused these decks to look much less malleable than they actually are. Thoughtseize and Tarmogoyf can be surrounded by plenty of different cards and still form a highly successful deck. Finding the right build will be difficult but the reward is having a well-oiled machine that can tear apart any strategy and win any matchup.
Without Twin in the format, these decks are not required to win attrition wars as frequently, while many of the remaining decks require you to interact early and often. This may mean a seventh discard spell in the main or a cheaper removal suite that eschews something like Kolaghan’s Command or Maelstrom Pulse.
Jund has Lightning Bolt against Infect, Affinity, Burn, and Zoo, while Abzan gets access to white sideboard cards. These differences are small, but the choice could mean success or failure and you should be grappling with that question rather than dismissing the archetypes because of their obvious demerits.
These decks are the fun police. Anyone who thinks they can just find the most degenerate deck out there and clean up all the aggro and slower combo decks will find their glass cannon shattered into a million pieces. There is a required level of resilience for combo decks this weekend that many may be overlooking.
Group Five: The Wild Card
- 2 Oblivion Sower
- 4 Blight Herder
- 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
- 4 Wasteland Strangler
- 2 Reality Smasher
- 4 Thought-Knot Seer
The newcomer has received plenty of hype over the last month without putting up the results to feed the excited hive. However, as the deck that stands to gain the most from Oath of the Gatewatch, the many flavors of Eldrazi decks are poised to break out at the Pro Tour. That is, if anyone can figure out exactly what the deck is supposed to look like.
Is it a ramp deck focused on powering out Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger? Is it an aggro deck that uses Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin to play its threats much sooner than Wizards intended? Or is it a midrange deck that blends elements of both with the best disruption spells in Modern?
“Is Eldrazi good?” is the $64,000 question right now and I am sure every team is hard at work trying to figure out the answer. If you find the right list, you could be looking at the next Caw-Blade; if you miss the right list, you will be way behind much of the field.
But it’s not all upside on the quest for the holy grail of PT decks. Every hour put into making this deck work is a resource you take away from tuning a different deck, and with the higher-than-normal likelihood of failure, the consequences could be dire. A disciplined team could be rewarded for giving up on this deck early while keeping it in mind when tuning something else, while another team is left without a deck on Thursday night when they realize all their eggs were in a basket with a flimsy bottom.
This is the “proceed with caution” deck. You are obligated to look into it, but do not feel compelled to keep going if it does not show promise. We all want to hit the home run, but at the end of the day it is more important to not make an out.
Group Six: The Rest
I have considered the most popular Modern decks in this article and there are dozens more that will show up in small percentages. While it would be ideal to have a well-conceived plan against all of these archetypes, it is practically impossible in most cases. So how do we prepare for them without actually preparing?
Two steps. First, be powerful. When you build your deck around a bunch of sweet internal synergies the potential is high, but when things do not come together you will lose to anything and everything. By keeping your floor as high as possible, you insulate yourself from running into something unexpected that keeps your game plan from materializing. Inquisition of Kozilek into Dark Confidant always plays.
The second step is to be proactive. There is a reason we have yet to see a strong control deck emerge in Modern. There is simply too diverse a range of threats for you to cover them all. The aggro and combo decks in the format are also powerful and resilient enough that, given enough time, they will fight through a seemingly infinite amount of disruption. That is why Splinter Twin was so successful: you could attrition your opponent out when possible and also win a game where you gain a small advantage early and then immediately win the game during the small window when you maintain control.
I fully intend to follow these two steps in my deck selection for the Pro Tour and I imagine most of the field will too. But these lessons are more universal than that. In any metagame with a high degree of uncertainty, you should aim to be powerful and proactive. To many players this means playing aggro, but the truth is more nuanced.
The real key is to not overreact to a small portion of the metagame, and the easiest way to do that is to play cards that are good against everyone. Such cards are naturally proactive. You should be pressuring your opponent, but you do not necessarily have to do so with cheap creatures and burn spells.
The best rule of thumb is that if you are the one who makes them “have it,” you are in good shape. It is easy to remember the times you get blown out, but more often than not, your opponent just scoops up their cards while looking through their deck to see how far down their out was.
Having to fade the top of the deck is stressful, but the value generated from those opponents who come wholly unprepared is worth the sweat. Swallow your fears, embrace the sweat, and you will be rewarded.
So after taking all this in…
What is the solution? The panacea to all my Pro Tour woes? It’s only a few days out and I wish I had the answer. The truth is, such an answer rarely even exists. Everyone goes into testing with the goal of “breaking it” and that often causes even the best of us to veer off on a quixotic journey. Especially in a format as wide as Modern, expecting to beat everything is foolish. The goal is to find a well-tuned list of a good deck and hope the pairings and your draws break well.
That is not to say that tournament Magic is a game of mostly chance, because it is not. Having those things break your way is in sizable part under your control, and that is where analyses such as what I’ve attempted today are useful. With a detailed map of the format, you can focus on determining where you believe most people will land and react accordingly.
If I wake up on Monday and can honestly tell myself that I gave myself the best possible chance, then the weekend was a success.