Modern From The Baltimore Frontlines

Ari Lax has spent a lot of columns watching coverage and providing rundown insights. No longer! He was in Baltimore to battle Modern this past weekend, and these are all the lessons he wants to pass on to you for SCG CON this weekend!

This last weekend I participated in the StarCityGames Baltimore Open, with
a very medium 62nd place finish, including four games of me getting
horribly demolished on camera. Not great, not terrible, all Hardened

This was just practice for SCG CON. The practice for this event was
practice for SCG CON. It’s a long session and one weekend is a great
opportunity to learn for the next. My Modern style is trying everything and
seeing what hits, which is a style that has only been bolstered by years of
doing exactly this.

With my scope of everything, here is what I have found out so far:

Counters Company: The Big Lesson

I promise you, this section is not just here to make fun of my good friend
Jarvis Yu for playing this deck and putting up a very mediocre finish with
the deck. I played Counters Company for two matches then dropped from the
Magic Online League I was in. The deck was bad, and the reason it was bad
tells you a ton about Modern right now.

There are a ton of very powerful proactive decks in Modern. Even more than
in the past, which is odd to say for a format where answers being bad and
threats being good has been a mantra for years. You need to go beyond being
a linearly powerful deck these days. The only decks that could possibly
crack the threshold on raw linear power would be decks on the level of
banned decks like Rite of Flame Storm or Blazing Shoal Infect with reliable
turn 3, possible turn 2 kills.

Many decks choose to go beyond linearity by being solidly interactive.
Dredge buries creatures with Darkblast or Conflagrate, or dredging Ancient
Grudge out of the sideboard. Ironworks has Engineered Explosives. The
various Arclight Phoenix decks are full of Lightning Bolt and Gut Shot.
Counters Company just isn’t that. Even Burn can Searing Blaze something for
damage and disruption.

What Counters Company has is resilience, but it is just bad at that these
days. Its resiliency comes in mediocre beats or expensive two-for-one loops
via Eternal Witness. Resiliency is just free these days. Hardened Scales is
resilient to removal with Hangarback Walker and modular. Ironworks is
resilient via Scrap Trawler and Buried Ruin, which is basically free once
you activate Krark-Clan Ironworks. Why would I spend mana for these effects
when the rest of the format doesn’t have to.

This is also a big part of why Tron is bad now. The linear aspect of it
isn’t the threats but the lands. It isn’t interactive until you have all
three pieces, and while it is resilient that costs turns of land drops and
mana to cast more Sylvan Scrying. It isn’t free in the slightest. Tron is
now an exploit deck for when land hate drops, fair decks rise, and Oblivion
Stone is a game ender.

Jeskai, Still Terrible

This isn’t quite from testing, but I guess I’ll address the mini-elephant
in the room. Seth Manfield and Brad Nelson finished in the Top 8 of the
StarCityGames.com Baltimore Open with Jeskai Control.

The deck still sucks.

Two things had to happen for a good Jeskai tournament: a bad weekend for
Faithless Looting and a bad weekend for Urza’s Tower or Amulet of Vigor.
The first one was locked in due to how much graveyard hate peppered the
event, including maindeck Rest in Peace Azorius Control lists. The second
was locked in before the event started, even beyond my previously mentioned
issues. So many linear decks is not a good time for Tron, especially since
Dredge has pulled things close with the Creeping Chill reach. And as for
Amulet Titan, congrats to the five people who assembled the cards to play
it when it wasn’t an obvious Dredge-hating choice.

Jeskai still has all the problems it has had in past iterations. If
Snapcaster Mage on Electrolyze is good, the deck is good. If your opponent
just decides to not lose to Lightning Bolt on a creature, it’s a garbage
fire. Don’t add your tournament entry to the pyre.

The one thing I do like about this latest list, which I was told by Brad to
attribute to Ben Nikolich, is that it doesn’t mess around with the hate
cards. Rest in Peace and Stony Silence are just the best white cards in
Modern. Only Terminus is close. The old Jeskai lists didn’t play them,
which was fundamentally offensive to me, and I expect Brad and Seth won a
lot of matches by fixing this oversight.

Burn, Big Nopes

I said my pick of Burn was speculative
. After a few more matches I realized my speculation was a bust.

The big issue for Burn is a flip in popularity of the Faithless Looting and
Aether Vial sectors of the metagame. Even with Knight of Autumn, Burn is in
a great spot against Humans and Spirits. Against Faithless Looting decks,
things aren’t so rosy. Hollow One and Arclight Phoenix decks are dicey, but
the real issue is that Dredge is an unwinnable matchup.

Any game where Creeping Chill triggers is just over. Maybe you can dream of
lining up a Skullcrack, but when they just Shriekhorn one up turn 1 or
dredge it up on turn 2 that’s not possible.

You can play graveyard hate, but Dredge is built to break that
post-sideboard. Burn also isn’t built to really support Rest in Peace on
the draw, where you might need to clear six to eight power they made off a
Cathartic Reunion. You have to play some cheaper hate to hold them off, and
that doesn’t stop Creeping Chill. Maybe with seven total cards you could be
a favorite, and that might be doable because you can cut Path to Exile
which mainly covers Gurmag Angler and Hollow One now, but that is a big

Even if the Dredge downward spiral continues, a jump in Jeskai popularity
isn’t good for Burn. Azorius Control is fine, but Snapcaster Mage plus
Lightning Helix just isn’t. Burn is just going to be an average, flawed
choice for the near future.

Ironworks, Toppled Tyrant

Let’s get a big one out of the way. I have a league with Ironworks stalled
on Magic Online that I’m dreading finishing.

Years ago, I used to play Legacy Storm in an era where the other decks just
weren’t good and it was unstoppable. Then the other decks slowly improved
and you just felt bad playing it. Your control over losing a game just
trickled away, and your opponents’ long shot outs to stop you became the

That’s what Ironworks has felt like. Too many Leyline of the Voids backed
by discard and counters, too many other proactive decks with hate that you
are pushing close to even against, too many games where you just don’t have
Sai, Master Thopterist for their hate or just not enough artifacts for it.

If you want to play a powerful maindeck with a hope and see attitude to
sideboard hate, play Dredge instead.

Hardened Scales, King Medium

I elected to play Hardened Scales at the Baltimore Open by default. Given
my fallback plan of Mox Opal, Ironworks wasn’t great and I had no clue how
to play Prison, so Hardened Scales it was. Also, Arcbound Ravager math just
makes me feel warm and fuzzy holiday feelings in the tier just behind
casting Winter Orb in Legacy Cube. I enjoy other people’s misery a little
too much.

I still stand by my statement that the deck is not great
, but it’s also not bad. Its pure medium, a true C+ grade. Your nut draws
aren’t that much nuttier than your average draws, and it honestly feels
like you win most games because your opponent elected not to produce
anything that amazing. I made people try to beat me. Some did, most didn’t.
Whatever, the deck isn’t exciting.

Bant Spirits, Queen Medium

Bant Spirits is also a pretty medium beatdown deck, just a bit more pointed
than Hardened Scales. It has actually no nut draws, but some decks can’t
beat Mausoleum Wanderer or Spell Queller regardless of what they do. I
probably would have gotten bounced from the event by all my opponents with
Blood Crypt and Lightning Bolt if I played Spirits, but it may have been
objectively better against the field than Hardened Scales. Either way, this
is me arguing about which Not Great, Not Bad deck was best for a 10-5

There’s some hidden second level effects of Spirits I want to explore. It
is way better against the sweepers that were good against Humans due to
Selfless Spirit, Collected Company, and Spell Queller. I think that if
people adjust to beat Spirits it opens up room for decks like Elves or
Bushwhacker Goblins. It’s a bit dicey if people are also moving back
towards Snapcaster Mage plus Lightning Bolt, and I know Reid Duke had a
pretty sub-par Modern Classic finish with Elves, but it’s an angle that
might work if things shift the right way.

Dredge, Court Jester

My experience with Dredge was more limited than other decks, largely
playing against it and goldfishing. I probably like Dredge more now than I
have any time since the deck could play Dread Return over a decade ago, but
it still has classic Dredge issues.

Sometimes, Dredge is great and you just Faithless Looting into Cathartic
Reunion, much like my second round opponent did. Sometimes your top cards
just flip in an offensive order and you drain them for six, make two 1/1
fliers, and wonder where your life went wrong on turn 5. As much as the
ever increasing number of good self-mill active cards implies, you aren’t a
lock to do something amazing with your life when you open up a Dredge hand.

Have you seen a Narcomoeba in a set of six cards before? It isn’t a good

I don’t think Dredge is bad, I just want to make sure you are mentally
prepared for the part that no one talks about. Losing to Leyline of the
Void is obviously something you have to accept, debating keeping the
following opening seven is not.

Shriekhorn Shriekhorn Narcomoeba

Prized Amalgam Creeping Chill Golgari Thug Mana Confluence

Hollow Phoenix, Garbage Pile

This Hollow One/Arclight Phoenix hybrid deck is really bad in a way that
really offends me. We did this dance two months ago with Vengevine and
Bridge from Below–why are we getting caught in the same trap? You have
built a graveyard deck that is significantly less consistent than the
existing graveyard decks, and unlike Bridgevine, you don’t get any turn 1
free wins.

The Arclight Phoenix part of this deck is extremely unreliable. It isn’t
even the random discard; it’s that you have four Arclight Phoenix compared
to eight total Flamewake Phoenix and Bloodghast. The random discard is its
own issue where you have to slow your sequences down to maximize Arclight
Phoenix odds. At that point what are you even accomplishing? Are you just
hoping to draw and randomly discard multiple Arclight Phoenix every game?

I don’t love Jeffery Carr’s deck for the same reasons. If I was playing
Arclight Phoenix, I would read my next section and go from there.

Thing in the Ice, True Hero

I bet everyone expects me to talk about Ross Merriam’s winning Arclight
Phoenix deck here, but I’m going to dip around that. I want to instead talk
about how the real champion of that deck is Thing in the Ice by showing off
another list with the card.

What happened? Even though this card made the semifinals of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, it has seen very little Modern play. Why is it
all of the sudden so good in the format?

It literally has to do with a single card: Fatal Push. For almost a year,
Fatal Push was the single most important card in the Modern format. That’s
how long it took for Death’s Shadow to really be pushed out after it won
Grand Prix Vancouver in February of 2017. The entire arc of that deck was
backed by the raw power of Fatal Push, and even as people moved to cut the
creatures that died to it they failed to present decks that actually beat a
Fatal Push deck. It was only the advent of Hollow One’s weird mana costs,
Humans’ sheer volume of threats, and who knows what else that made other
options reasonable again. During this entire period, playing a two mana 0/4
creature was stupid. You would sink three spells of effort into Thing in
the Ice, it would get Fatal Pushed, and you would die.

Phase two was a dominance of non-creature decks. A slow 7/8 isn’t that
good; it’s the Evacuation trigger that puts Thing in the Ice over the edge.
This spring and summer was a story of Ironworks and Azorius Control taking
over Modern, and Thing in the Ice wanted nothing to do with those.

Creatures are now “the in-crowd,” and Fatal Push isn’t that good against
the ones people are playing. At least for the moment, Thing in the Ice is
one of the most powerful threats you can play in Modern.

As for the perfect shell for it, I’m still undecided. Ross did win and
that’s a big deal, but his deck is a lot of air and not a ton of
interaction. The more midrange lists, Blood Moon or not, have issues
producing a flow of cardboard and can’t load up on Faithless Looting, which
is a problem. The Truth (copyright Gerry Thompson 2018) is out there and we
are getting closer to it every day, but Ross wasn’t 100% there this weekend
even if he has the trophy to show for it.

What Else?

Blue cards really excite me moving forward. Whenever things start getting
really funky and aggressive, that feels like the first place to turn. I
think there’s a ton of ways to build a proactive blue deck that is good
against graveyards and artifacts, but also isn’t bad against graveyard
hate. Death’s Shadow is a natural fit for this role, but you have this
awful choice of bad against Rest in Peace in the Traverse the Ulvenwald
lists and unstable in the Grixis lists with so few threats.

Blue combo decks exist, and those are worth looking at. I really like
Amulet Titan if people start trending towards these Top 8 decks, but if the
broad metagame skew doesn’t shift a ton, it’s a less reliable, slightly
slower linear deck than the field. Storm is fine, but the format is
unforgiving to it. There’s a very exploitable choke point and the sheer
number of cards it takes to set up is way too high relative to the field.
It also requires the graveyard for its absolute kills, which isn’t a great
spot right now.

I tried the Tom Ross Martyr deck for one match.
It is extremely favored in the pseudo-mirror against Soul Sisters. I don’t
mean this as relevant info, but as a piece of evidence that I am well on my
way to actually trying every reasonable or semi-reasonable deck in Modern.

I’m over Mox Opal. I don’t think Ironworks or Hardened Scales is good now,
and I’m fairly sure Prison isn’t either after watching it a bit more. It
can’t beat a fair deck, and I expect people to try and do that a lot more
this week. I don’t love Aether Vial decks either, so it’s just a hard time
for artifact mana all around.

Dredge is fine if you like graveyards. I can see Hollow One being great
because a good Flameblade Adept deck shrugs off graveyard hate, but I think
you need to reconsider your exact answer base. Thing in the Ice is a real
problem if you decide to let it be one.

From a point where I felt like everything was trash last week and defaulted
to barely passing grade deck, I’m back to being excited about potential
decks that feel good. There’s really a wide swath of reasonable decks to
play right now in Modern, and it feels like a complete different set than
what was good a few weeks ago. No new deck is totally dominant, but new
cards are making their presence known.