Modern: Check Your Facts

Look out! Ari Lax is coming through and he’s holding hot takes! Join him for a strong and unflinching look at SCG Richmond’s metagame this weekend!

With Pro Tour Hour of Devastation in the books, I can now take a break from Standard. Other people can figure out what I care about for Grand Prix DC (hosted by StarCityGames.com!) in a month at the next couple of Grand Prix.

The updated Pro Tour schedule, on the other hand, means I can’t take a break from Modern, nor would I want to. I plan on playing it at both Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan in February and at the Team Constructed Pro Tour in August.

While those are a long ways off, there’s no reason to delay. Pure, long-term mastery of the format is the best way to be ready for whatever turns Modern takes from now to then, and I’ve spent a few weeks away.

What better way to get tied back into the format than fire off all my hot takes? Sorry, I meant “genuine assessments of the state of the format.”

Claim #1: G/W Company Is Great!

Verdict: Half-Truth

We have been long overdue for a rework of Collected Company decks. Ever since Amonkhet, everyone has been jamming these Devoted Druid lists and getting wrecked because the metagame is exceptionally hostile. Flooding your deck with crappy creatures that make a combo is not going to beat Death’s Shadow’s bountiful removal or Dredge’s Conflagrates. You just have a bunch of cards that die easily and unprofitably to removal, extra focus on cards like Chord of Calling or Eldritch Evolution that make you super-soft to Grafdigger’s Cage floating around for Dredge, and really no way to win if your combo doesn’t go off.

Todd Stevens is blazing the right trail. Almost of his creatures stand to gain immediate card advantage against removal or are semi-resilient to one-mana answers. One of the ways you get there is four toughness against Lightning Bolt; the other is a converted mana cost of three against Fatal Push. Sure, they can have a fetchland to bridge the revolt gap, but their window before Knight of the Reliquary goes off is not long.

I think Todd is off on his assessment of the right extra layer to add. Azusa, Lost but Seeking just isn’t a good card. It has no impact without additional help, doesn’t add pressure, and is super-fragile. Even if you “go off” with Ramunap Excavator, it isn’t assured the card does anything. You end up with a deck with two blanks that is “pre-sideboarded” against Tron, except it isn’t, because you still only have four Ghost Quarters and four Knight of the Reliquary that matter.

What you want to be doing is playing blue cards. Have you tried casting Spell Queller? It is one of the most underrated cards in Modern. It lets you interact with combo decks and opposing Collected Companies, is a flying attacker and blocker in midrange mirrors and versus Affinity, and holds off sweepers. Reflector Mage also plays an important role in balancing your Company hit density with the need for more interaction.

While the default assumption is Knightfall, I don’t think that’s the locked-in best option. For starters, I’m not sure I even want maindeck Retreat to Coralhelm, and in the sideboard Meddling Mage might be more effective against many combo decks. Knight of the Reliquary is a must-kill card whether it just starts chaining value lands or if it threatens a combo kill. Just flood the Death’s Shadow decks with action and let normal blue cards carry you against combo.

The other card that interests me is Geist of Saint Traft. Death’s Shadow really struggled to beat this card in the context of other flying pressure. A recent Invitational Qualifier in Oklahoma City featured a finals playoff between two flavors of Bant Company featuring this card, so take a look and start down whatever road interests you more. I assure you, both are equally promising.

Just please don’t play the Humans deck. “Gains immediate card advantage or is resilient to one-mana removal” describes zero of your cards. You literally can’t beat a Snapcaster Mage / Fatal Push strategy.

Claim #2: Eldrazi Tron Beats Death’s Shadow.

Verdict: False

This is kinda old news, but it hasn’t been repeatedly documented. I don’t think Death’s Shadow is a significant favorite in the matchup, but Eldrazi Tron is really at the mercy of its draw steps against Grixis Death’s Shadow.

Eldrazi Tron “beat” Grixis Death’s Shadow based on them having a couple too many bad cards in their deck. They would end up ahead a threat regularly because Death’s Shadow was one piece of relevant cardboard behind. That just isn’t true anymore. It took maybe a two- or three-card shift to ensure Grixis maintains parity, at which point it has the best threat, fewer built-in failures, and draw fixing.

The problem for Eldrazi Tron is that all of the good cards against it are the best cards in Grixis Death’s Shadow mirrors. Maybe not Death’s Shadow mirrors overall (Lingering Souls is kinda the best), but as long as Grixis remains the best option against the field, mirrors are determined by Terminates and Liliana of the Veils that kill Gurmag Angler and incidentally Reality Smasher.

I want to take an extra moment to sing the praises of Liliana of the Veil. Having worked with Daniel Fournier for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, he is amazing when it comes to optimizing the best deck. His making the finals of the Invitational is no mistake, and maindeck Liliana of the Veil was a big part of that.

On the flip side, if you are playing any other deck, you had better be absolutely sure you aren’t cold to a Liliana. Blade Splicer and Voice of Resurgence have won recent events for good reasons.

Claim #3: Death’s Shadow Is the Best Deck.

Verdict: True

A million people have said this, so I’ll keep it simple.

Have you cast a Thoughtseize in your life? Until Grand Prix Vegas, I hadn’t done so since the card was Standard-legal, which makes me really dumb. I learned a lot over the last two years on the Pro Tour, but one of my biggest lessons is “play more Thoughtseize.” I don’t regret my Modern Grand Prix deck decisions because Abzan Company and Eldrazi were busted and Restore Balance was a blast, but the fact that a Thoughtseize deck was never strongly considered was heinous.

The only other potential contender is Affinity. The deck has been extremely powerful for half a decade and still is great. It operates on a different level from the other “cold to hate” decks. It is just faster to the extent nothing has free wins against it without hate, and even then it sometimes just steals games against the wrong kind of interaction. The format is definitely on the spiteful side right now, but Affinity can still pummel through to wins.

Claim #4: Combo Is Bad Due to Grixis Death’s Shadow.

Verdict: False

Modern operates on a weird pendulum, swinging from “narrowing down and reacting to a powerful deck” to spreading back out as people find narrow ways to attack the small metagame. We are definitely in the latter portion of this cycle. As good as Blade Splicer is as pulling two-for-one shenanigans, have you tried casting it against combo? Sure, your Death’s Shadow matchup isn’t great, but you can always mise them out, especially if you attack for an angle they aren’t prepared to play against. Playing your pet combo deck is as good now as it has been in a long time.

While you don’t necessarily have flex in what your pet deck is at this point, being good against Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a big plus. Storm is shockingly good, as each Goblin Electromancer is a negative Thalia. Ad Nauseam is okay but has the mana to push through in non-Stony Silence games. Amulet is awesome against both potential Thalias, but your mileage may vary against Leonin Arbiter, and there’s also literally your own deck being a complicated mess.

But really, the point is that, if you like a combo deck, you do you. The metagame odds aren’t skewed towards or against you. Fire away, and see if things line up right on that day.

Claim #5: Dredge… Uhh….

Verdict: I literally don’t even know what the claim I’m trying to make is, only that there should be one.

I hate Dredge and Dredge hates me. It has been that way for years. All of the inconsistency possible surfaces when I play the deck. So take my opinions with that context in mind.

Dredge has been doing badly lately. Really badly. There isn’t an overabundance of hate, but everyone has some to cover all the other graveyard shenanigans occurring. Eldrazi Tron is even pushing a trend of maindeck hate. Every round is a potential land mine.

This Dredge deck also isn’t even good. There’s no Cabal Therapy to nicely cut off many potential angles of attack. There’s just Conflagrate.

I want to bash it, to tell everyone it’s a pile, except…

Things are somehow creeping in the right direction for it. I think if I played Grixis Death’s Shadow this weekend, I would be cutting graveyard hate. People are playing cards like Ramunap Excavator and Blade Splicer that are jokes against your Conflagrates.

If you play Dredge, there’s a strong chance you will be miserable, not because Dredge is inherently miserable to play, but because you could easily be run out of the event without really having played most of your games. But there’s also some chance everyone else forgets and you… well, I wouldn’t describe it as getting to play games, but you do win.

I think I figured out the takeaway: either cut Dredge hate one weekend before everyone else does or leave it in your sideboard one weekend longer.

Claim #6: A Midrange Deck That Isn’t Shadow Is a Good Choice.

Verdict: True if you want to go home early.

Calling U/W/x Control a joke isn’t even right because it’s never actually amusing. At least something like Puresteel Paladin is about as good as a bad pun that gets a chortle every so often (even if it is your own). Control doesn’t actually beat a Death’s Shadow pilot who knows how to plan their discard spells and plays Snapcaster Mage properly. Or maybe it can if you just make your deck non-functional against anything that plays relevant noncreature spells.

Other Thoughtseize decks are almost more offensive. They are all literally the same deck as Death’s Shadow but with creatures that cost two or three or four instead of one. A lot the time, the Death’s Shadow player just does the same thing but better! Or just plays seventeen lands and four Sleight of Hands, and crushes you while you while you draw fewer spells. Nice job playing cards that cost mana.

Even if you are somewhat ahead against Death’s Shadow, what are you accomplishing? What are your good matchups besides Death’s Shadow? Everyone else is trying to show up with something that beats that deck and is doing so by trying to beat attrition strategies. Shockingly, the cards that are good against one discard-and-threats deck are good against the other one. Same applies to Snapcaster Mage and answers as a category. Congrats, you are a 5% favorite against 5% of the field. Sounds like a great 2-4-drop finish is incoming. At least you beat the rush to dinner.


If you want to come anywhere close to the Death’s Shadow gameplans, drastically diverge where you can. W/B Pox falls into this category, though I would go even further than my last list and play Ensnaring Bridge maindeck this weekend because there is actual zero chance you beat Kitchen Finks otherwise. Lantern Control is another fine example, though a risky one due to Affinity having a target on its back. Maybe if you want to play Snapcaster Mage, you should look at…. I have no idea, because all the hybrid combo-control decks get mashed by Death’s Shadow. See past cases of Splinter Twin losing to Jund or Delver.

So Where Are We?

Overall, it feels like Modern is moving towards a much more open field than has been advertised over the last six months since Death’s Shadow dominated Grand Prix Vancouver. We’ve seen multiple cracks in the “best deck” stranglehold with Death and Taxes winning the Invitational, G/W Company winning #SCGATL, and Grand Prix Vegas being crushed by Affinity. I don’t know if I could have said “you do you” about deck selection previously, and I said it about multiple decks this week.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to be welcomed back into the format. This is definitely not the Modern I remember from Grand Prix Vegas testing, but it’s definitely the one I remember from the years before that.