Midrange In Modern

Learn how Reid Duke turned the tides of his testing preparation and found a deck for Pro Tour Philadelphia.

Modern is an unfamiliar format, but it’s full of familiar cards. There are new combos, new strategies, and new demands, so it was naturally overwhelming when Wizards announced, on short notice, that Pro Tour Philadelphia would be changed from Extended to Modern. It was overwhelming, but not unmanageable. When formats rotate, hundreds of new cards can be introduced all at once. This time, though, the pieces were already in place for the new format. Much of Modern had already been explored, if not fully charted, by previous Extended and Standard formats, and even Legacy.

Since all the cards of Modern had already seen extensive tournament play, the first thing to look for were the most generally powerful cards, by which I mean the ones that had been successful in other formats. In Standard, the most powerful cards are things like Consecrated Sphinx, Gideon Jura, and the Titans—cards that require their controllers to slow things down and make sure the game goes long.

In Modern, thanks to the extensive banned list, the cards that stood out were the aggro and midrange green creatures. After all, Wild Nacatl, Noble Hierarch, Green Sun’s Zenith, Tarmogoyf, and Knight of the Reliquary are all major players in Legacy while the pillars of other strategies—Swords to Plowshares; Stoneforge Mystic; Dark Ritual; Brainstorm; Jace, the Mind Sculptor—are all absent.

The relative strength of green midrange, combined with my own affinity for the archetype and the time restraints imposed on me, made me commit early on to playing it at the Pro Tour. I knew my deck would contain: Green Sun’s Zenith, Dryad Arbor, Noble Hierarch, and Knight of the Reliquary. My starting point was Tomoharu Saito’s Bant Charm Zoo from the 2009 World Championships which, as it turned out, closely resembled the deck that Josh Utter-Leyton and half a dozen others piloted to top finishes at the Pro Tour.

A huge benefit of the blue splash is the sideboard options it grants. However, the primary reason that Mr. Saito originally chose this color combination was to have access to both Path to Exile and Bant Charm. The Extended format of December 2009 was terrorized by two combos: Vampire Hexmage/Dark Depths and Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek, both of which Bant Charm could stop dead. Perhaps equally important, the trend among savvy Zoo players at the time was to play Baneslayer Angel for an edge in creature mirrors. No matter what the decklists looked like, a simple way for any Zoo vs. Zoo matchup to be decided was for one player to stick a Knight of the Reliquary or Baneslayer Angel while the other couldn’t.

Bant Charm is a generally great card, but not a staple for Modern in the same way that it was for old Extended. Dark Depths and Sword of the Meek are both banned. There was also nothing to indicate that Baneslayer Angel would be anything more than a fringe card in Philadelphia, nor is it likely to break out in the Pro Tour’s wake. The general speed and lack of interaction in the format discourages people from playing a defensive five-drop, and Green Sun’s Zenith provides a late-game mana sink anyway, without clogging up opening hands like Baneslayer Angel does.

I felt that I could get away with omitting Bant Charm from my deck, so I decided to see what I could do within the Naya colors. Having the discipline to not splash for Bant Charm or Tribal Flames would mean taking less damage from shocklands, being resilient to Blood Moon, and having more “value” lands for Knight of the Reliquary. In creature mirrors where both players have a plethora of burn and other removal, flooding out means death while something as simple as an extra Stirring Wildwood can determine the game.

This deck has a consistent and reliable mana base and gets enough value from its lands that flooding—one of the easiest ways for a Zoo deck to lose—is rare. It makes great use of Knight of the Reliquary without overdoing it with lands that are clunky to draw like Sejiri Steppe and Arena. Generally speaking, it’s a well-balanced deck that makes great use the format’s best cards.

Green Sun’s Zenith is my favorite Magic card. I knew it would be great from playing with it in Legacy, since searching for Dryad Arbor is a great way to start a game, and extra copies of Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary are exactly what a midrange creature deck wants as the game goes on. In testing this deck, it exceeded all my expectations. Casting Zenith for Gaddock Teeg or Qasali Pridemage shut many decks down completely and was a great play whenever I didn’t know exactly what my opponent was up to.

As Modern develops, Zenith for Gaddock Teeg will become a format-warping interaction. It’s such a huge part of this deck’s game plan that I quickly cut Elspeth, Knight-Errant, which was otherwise a card that I was very happy with. In fact, I was surprised that Josh Utter-Leyton and his team didn’t reach the same conclusion, particularly after how well her replacement performed.

Hero of Bladehold is a great curve-topper for a Zenith Zoo deck. It plays a similar role that Baneslayer Angel used to, while putting on a much faster clock and being a full mana less to cast. It’s worse when you’re losing badly to another Zoo deck, but in the context of a good hand, she’ll immediately turn the tables on even the fastest opponents. In the matchups that are purely races (there are plenty in Modern), Hero is the best big drop available, as a mediocre draw from a combo deck will just die if she comes down on turn 3.

In the early stages of my Modern testing, I expected I’d be playing Naya Zoo at the Pro Tour, and I was thrilled at the prospect. I knew I was slower than other Zoo decks, and that would hurt my matchup against combo, but Green Sun’s Zenith for Gaddock Teeg and Qasali Pridemage gave me at least a little disruption in game one, which other Zoo builds didn’t have. Besides, it was easy to sideboard against combo, but the strength that I naturally had in creature mirrors was hard for Fast Zoo to match, no matter how much they sideboarded.

After a few weeks, Modern came out on Magic Online and my opinions began to change. At this stage, Wall of Roots became an important card in my testing. Most of the Cloudpost decks featured it, and I also expected that Birthing Pod decks like Project Melira, while few and far between on MTGO, could break out on the Pro Tour if one team or another was able to fine-tune a decklist. I still liked the Green Sun’s Zenith + Knight of the Reliquary shell, but I was no longer happy attacking with Wild Nacatl and Tarmogoyf.

I played Mythic at Pro Tour Philadelphia to a 3-2 record. I liked the deck and couldn’t wait to play it on day two but narrowly missed the cut with a 1-2 draft. I need to extend a special thanks to Dan Jordan for convincing me to play the deck (and then switching to Cloudpost himself).

Mythic makes even better use of Green Sun’s Zenith than Zoo does. Extra mana is easy to come by, and it has Lotus Cobra as an extra target. Gaddock Teeg can be a harder lock against combo because Knight of the Reliquary can protect him with Sejiri Steppe. Zenith is even a finisher as it can search for Primeval Titan.

One of the cards that makes this deck work smoothly is Mosswort Bridge, as it can be searched up with Knight of the Reliquary or Primeval Titan and often leads to a win shortly thereafter. For anyone who hasn’t played with Knight of the Reliquary in Modern, it typically comes into play as a 4/4 and is well above 10/10 within two turns. That’s not even to mention the fact that you’ll have other creatures in play! Many decks play Horizon Canopy to search for with Knight, but Mosswort Bridge compares favorably. Canopy draws a card, but Mosswort Bridge Impulses. Canopy dies when you use it, but Bridge remains in play. What’s more, the Bridge can give you a six- or eight-drop for the price of one mana, and at instant speed. Any Knight of the Reliquary deck could hypothetically play Mosswort Bridge, but it’s at its best in Mythic because of the sheer number of game-winning spells it can find to hideaway.

Compared to old Standard Mythic, this deck is far more consistent. Green Sun’s Zenith provides more first-turn acceleration without making you flood out in the late game. Shocklands allow you to play as many fetchlands as your heart desires, which in turn makes Lotus Cobra unbelievably good. The nut-draw of turn 2 Cobra + fetchland + Knight happens far more often with this deck then it did in Standard.

My complaint about Mythic is the break in the mana curve between three and six. Something intermediate like Hero of Bladehold or Baneslayer Angel would be nice, but there’s simply nothing that’s good enough. Any four or five mana Zenith target would be worse than Knight of the Reliquary anyway, and nothing short of six mana has what it takes to win the game on its own. What’s more, it would be painful to devote two slots to Eldrazi Conscription without playing the full four Sovereigns. As it stands, I don’t see any way to smooth out the mana curve without destroying the frame of the deck.

In regard to the actual card Sovereigns of Lost Alara, I could take it or leave it. It was necessary as a win condition, and it was nice to be able to ignore Wall of Roots and other blockers. Believe me when I say that it was also made for some nice nut-draws! However, the real strength of the deck was the W/G mana creatures, Knight of the Reliquary, Zenith shell.

My quest from here out is to take that frame and find the best way to fill out the rest of the deck. Naya and Mythic are both equally good, and can be great depending on the metagame, but perhaps there’s still something better out there!