Modern Gifts Are Given

Modern is yet again a new format with the banning of Punishing Fire and Wild Nacatl. Valeriy is on the ball, with a number of decklists that you may want to look at for the PTQ season.

Merry Christmas! I almost wrote an article about Standard when Modern bannings were announced. I wasn’t very interested in Modern before (just because my nearest Modern PTQ is scheduled for the end of January), but when I read WotC’s Christmas gift announcement, my mind was stormed by thoughts and ideas, so I decided to put Standard aside and share my insight on Modern’s future. I’m writing this article on Tuesday; you’re reading it on Thursday—and you’ve probably already read some articles on this subject—so I definitely need something beyond the obvious to make your read worthwhile.

But first of all I’d like to say three things not directly related to Modern.

First, the new rules changes seem very strange to me. Really confusing. I need some official clarification from WotC (hope you’ll already have it by the time this article is posted), and I feel that I should reread all rules before my next significant tournament. Dura Lex, but ignorance of the law is no excuse, so if these new rules confuse us, we must learn them backward and forward.

Second, despite this article being fully devoted to Modern, I feel really sad because additional bannings are still needed to revitalize the format from a gangrenous corpse. I thought that deeper formats were not meant to capitalize on people’s nostalgia for “the good old times,” but the most nostalgic cards are usually most unfair ones. It was right to save us from Jitte wars, but if you don’t want to use players’ nostalgia as the format’s driver, it would be good to make sure that the format will be interesting before announcing it.

Third, the truth is most players wouldn’t even come close to touching Modern if it were not for the PTQ season. Sad to say, but even after all these experiments in the last years, Extended and its variations still look stillborn (no pun intended). Extended, New Extended, Modern, whatever it will be called next year—the thing is, no one is interested in playing the format beyond these three winter months. And, at the very same time, Innistrad is one of the most interesting Block Constructed formats, even with only one set available. I’d be really happy to play Dark Ascension PTQs in two-set Block Constructed instead of Modern (especially because the third set, Avacyn Restored, will be drafted separately, so it will likely have different mechanics). Pro Tour Philly showed us that last-minute format changes are perfectly possible, so I ask anybody who can make this decision to make it.

Now, as we still have Modern as a PTQ format, let’s go through my four-turn outlook on the “turn-four format.”

First Turn

The very first reaction is the thing beloved by psychologists. Such emotions should be short, so the best way to look at them is via Twitter. (BTW, if you have Twitter and somehow don’t follow these people, just do it.)

The first wave is tweets is pure emotion:

(Pat Cox) @wildestnacatl Pretty sure any non-mtg friends who read my Facebook wall will think my actual cat died. (And also that I had a cat.)

(Travis Woo) @travisdwoo Wild Nacatl was too good. Punishing Fire was no fun.

(John Dale Beety) So long, Wild Nacatl. In the spirit of Monsters Inc., “Kitty has to go…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJfXgFjsDjk

The second wave of tweets focus on new possibilities:

(Sam Stoddard) @samstod Card most helped by the banning of Nacatl and Punishing Fire? Probably Geist, though Lotus Cobra, Noble, Bob and Mutavault all get a bump

(Tom Reeve) @TomReeve: @samstod Is it can be Zektar Shrine tiem nao?

(Brian Kibler) @bmkibler It’s kind of funny that the B/R changes make the deck I’ve been brewing for Modern a LOT better, even if I’m not convinced they’re necessary

(Russell Tassicker) @rtassicker: So, merfolk?

And the last one is just a fatality:

(Aaron Forsythe) @mtgaaron I guess I can’t make fun of the old-school DCI people that banned Kird Ape in Extended anymore.

All joking aside, if WotC wants the format to revolve around the fourth turn, they will eventually ban everything until Grizzly Bears becomes playable, then ban Grizzly Bears. But we still have Loam Lion and Kird Ape—and when Tarmogoyf is banned, I’ll just play Watchwolf instead. People will play Zoo. Moreover, many people will play Zoo. And if the Zoo mirror isn’t a very expected matchup, Steppe Lynx and Goblin Guide will join the army of Wild Nacatl substitutes. So, if your deck has significant problems with Zoo, this matchup will stay relatively bad for you in a semi-vacuum metagame.

One more important thing to note about Zoo is that the second best one-mana creature is not Kird Ape. It is Noble Hierarch. Doran, the Siege Tower decks aside, there were Zoo variants that didn’t use Wild Nacatl at all; these heavy Zoo decks didn’t lose anything (and their best matchup—fast Zoo—became even better). These decks often used Punishing Fire, true, but I don’t think that it is necessary or even was necessary for them to be good. Prior to PT Philly, I wrote an article on Greater Gargadon Naya, and that deck seems like a good example of a Zoo deck untouched by the recent bannings. My old list did include Green Sun’s Zenith, so an update is needed. However, there was a second version of Gargadon Naya in that article that stays perfectly the same, as it utilized Bloodbraid Elf instead of Zenith. It’s very likely that complicated manabases will be well represented in Modern (hello, four-colored Gifts Ungiven), so Boom / Bust and Molten Rain still seem like cards certain Zoo builds could appreciate.

What we have here is an old Boom / Bust decklist build way before PT Philly. Old is the new new, eh? What’s important, this deck didn’t become worse with all those post-Philly bans. I think it’s a good direction for Zoo decks to move in. One of them, at least.

Let’s also remember another interesting Naya variation, the heavy Zoo with Kavu Predator and Fiery Justice, built by SCG’s own Brian DeMars and his team. They didn’t use Wild Nacatl, while using Punishing Fire and Green Sun’s Zenith. Even with Kavu Predator in the deck, you probably can’t justify playing Grove of the Burnwillows, which in turn makes Kavu itself weaker, but playing Predator still gives you a way to “overcome” GSZ’s ban and have more cheap and big beaters than your opponent. Oust (better than Path to Exile in a land destruction deck) and the omnipresent Kitchen Finks will help you grow your Kavus.

I will not post additional decklists for this turn—just because the sixteen hours I have to finish this article on time are just not enough to test every idea I have. I’ll definitely write more about Modern when I have more testing data and tech. For now, my short list of Zoo ideas consists of: Kavu Predator and (opponents’) Kitchen Finks, Snapcaster Mage and Molten Rain, Boom / Bust deck. And, as always, the “rumors about the death of Domain Zoo are exaggerated” (ohhh, let me stroke my little preciousssss Tribal Flames).

Second Turn

All these bans are meant to do two things. First, they are meant to make Zoo weaker (read: “to balance the rock-paper-scissors nature of the format”). Second, they are meant to make non-Zoo aggression playable (read: “make the format more diverse”). “Put all the best creatures together” strategies rarely work in thin formats like Block and Standard—just because synergy should normally be a more profitable plan than raw power, and a five-colored manabase is normally a problem, so you can’t just cram all the good cards regardless of their color and hope to get away with it.

As a quick aside, here is an example of Zoo-esque deck from a Block Constructed format. All the best creatures are put together, and the manabase, despite being insane, allows you to play them all. Ladies and gentlemen, Conley Woods‘ deck from the Top 8 of PT Honolulu.

My aside was intended to show why formats with great manabases available tend to stagnate and become a stupid armaments race at the expense of careful design. Compare Cruel Control decks and Gerry T’s recent five-colored creation. He even plays Pacifism! If you talked about Pacifism in five-colored control to Patrick Chapin, he’d laugh in your face, then cast Cruel Ultimatum right after Cloudthresher. WotC chose to give us a shockland-fetchland manabase instead of the relatively good mana of “short Extended,” so they just had no other way than to start banning good creatures in order to contain the degeneracy of the format.

As I said earlier, I think that people will continue to play Zoo, and for good reason. But these bans have definitely given non-Zoo aggression a chance to shine. As I see it, blue aggro-control are decks that profit from these bans the most. But, really, the list of decks that become better after the banning of Punishing Fire is long: Snapcaster Mage decks, Sword of Smth and Smth decks, Merfolk, White Weenee decks, Boros (read “Zektar Shrine Expedition”), etc., etc. Well, Kithkin is still bad, but I can survive it, and hopefully Cedric Phillips can too.

The most interesting question is: did Delver of Secrets become playable in Modern? Delver is another one-mana three-power creature, providing you with a very fast clock if you find a way to flip him. If you can manage to do it consistently, you could have nearly as good a deck as Legacy RUG. Serum Visions is oh-not-even-close to doing a good Brainstorm impersonation, but there are other possibilities. No one considered Illusions in Standard as a real deck until Todd Anderson polished it to perfection, and plays like “put Lightning Bolt on the top of my deck with Noxious Revival” are available in Modern. The following decklist is very rough (as it actually includes Noxious Revival); let’s use it merely to evaluate the idea itself (and don’t forget that a pure U/R Delver variant with no Tarmogoyfs is also a possibility).

The more real blue aggro-control deck I want to think about is Ninjas. I‘ve been toying with this deck just since PT Philly, when the metagame was mostly combo. The deck had significant problems with Punishing Fire (it was blown up by this recurring nightmare), but when facing any combo or control, Ninjas were nearly unbeatable. So, if Zoo declines and both midrange and control strategies rise, we can consider Ninjas as a real deck choice. A bit rogue, but real. My current list is as follows:

The green splash may look counterintuitive, but Engineered Explosives solve many problems, and Krosan Grip is a good bonus. I’m not sure if packing the full playsets of both Spellstutter Sprite and Snapcaster Mage is the right decision (Gatekeeper of Malakir may deserve a place in the maindeck as a two-of), but I like the idea overall, and I’ll definitely sleeve this deck if various control strategies become popular. One of my friends had proposed to go more aggro by giving my Snapcaster Mages Psionic Blast to flash back, but I think such a card should be used carefully, and right now, I have no good understanding of how to use it to its full potential. Guess it’s not the right deck for it. Maybe some Snapcasting Bant Rock is.

Before going to the fourth turn, I should also mention Affinity and two red decks—Burn and Boros. Affinity was strongly harassed by Punishing Fire, so the ban could help, and maybe non-all-in (read “non-red”) versions would become playable. I like Affinity very much (yes, I didn’t play Magic when it was Standard-legal, but Affinity was my deck of choice for the only big tournament I’ve actually won), so I really hope this deck will see play.

Ultra-aggressive Boros (Petr Brozek style, with Zektar Shrine Expedition and Ghost Quarter to smash our own Flagstones of Trokair) can repeatedly punish opponents for keeping bad hands and just being slow in general. I don’t really like such decks, but it would be wrong to underestimate them.

Moving forward, more classic-style Burn seems also viable, as it can capitalize on a slower format. Oh and it received one more Lava Spike, Bump in the Night. Max Sjoblom had posted a 5-1 record at Worlds with this deck:

Volcanic Hammer! Looks crazy, but not crazier than Pacifism in 5cc, so let’s go to the next turn.

Third Turn

I don’t have many words to say about Control and Combo in Modern—just because combo wasn’t rewarded by new spells, and control should have answers for the existing metagame. Splinter Twin was nearly the worst possible choice for Worlds, and decks like Ad Nauseam and Pyromancer Ascension were too fragile to survive over Zoo. The last bannings are again aiming to give post-Preordain combo decks a chance, but the lack of good cantrips is so frustrating that I almost started to test Boros Splinter Twin (with Village Bell-Ringer) and compare it with the U/R version. If R/W ends up being comparable to U/R, the only way to play combo in Modern is to find the deck that will work without any cantrips.

There are some possibilities to build such a deck. First, Melira, Sylvok Outcast. She has had some attention since PT Philly, so I will not write more about it, after noticing a fact that Melira should be very carefully tuned for the existing metagame. Overall, I like the Czech build from Worlds, but I would play a second Fulminator Mage instead of something, etc., etc.

Another possible combo deck with zero cantrips is Dredge. Yes, Dredge. I’ve tried hard to make it a real deck before Worlds, but without significant success—it was too slow. Now this situation can become good enough to try to make the deck playable again. I will not post any decklist—just because all these bad options still don’t fit into a playable seventy-five. Still, I have some thoughts to share to help you build your own version. I would be glad if you’d share yours in the comments, too, and I’ll post my list in upcoming articles (if the deck will actually work).

First, it is not the Dredge we knew. Just accept it. A graveyard-focused deck would be more Dredgevine-style than Ichorid-style. There is no Dread Return, so we have no strong combo like reanimating Iona, Shield of Emeria. The consequence of the previous statement is that Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba (which are not banned) may be not good enough to see play.

The next point is enablers. Hedron Crab is not a question, but all the others are not good enough to be auto-includes. Merfolk Looter, Magus of the Bazaar, Drowned Rusalka, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Tome Scour, Fauna Shaman—these cards may be good in one version and bad in another. Enabling is the most complicated part of the whole Modern-graveyard-deck idea, and it will be a source of significant problems. If you solve this issue, you will have a good deck to play.

And, the last, Renegade Doppelganger copying Civilized Scholar can dredge your entire deck on turn three. I don’t know if this fact is useful, but any indefinite effect is worth trying to exploit.

Dredge cards we are willing to use are 4 Golgari Thug, 4 Stinkweed Imp, 2-3 Life from the Loam, and 1-2 Dakmor Salvage. Sorcery and land help Hedron Crab, and Life from the Loam can bring back Crypt of Agadeem (that is very likely to be used in such lists). The most interesting thing about dredge cards is, as I found during tests (weee! I actually tested this crap! It’s very funny), that Golgari Thug and Stinkweed Imp are actually good on the battlefield! Surprise, I know.

Two possible win conditions we have are Vengevine and Extractor Demon. I don’t like the mythic vegetable because it deals exactly four damage less than needed, and you can have no additional turn to repeat the alpha strike or to attack with Bloodghast or something similar. Extractor Demon costs three mana to unearth, so at least twelve is needed. Tap Crypt of Agadeem with blue mana in the pool and X black mana. Unearth Fatestitcher, untap Crypt of Agadeem, add X more mana. Amounts from twelve to twenty can be realistically obtained from this procedure. So, if you have additional creatures to unearth, you can mill your opponent out of the game even if attacking with four 5/5 flying creatures is not enough. I’ve also tested Viscera Dragger (very good) and Dregscape Zombie (which was relatively good, but I’m not sure if I would use it instead of Bloodghast) to some success. Renegade Doppelganger is also interesting, but I didn’t find the right shell for him (her? it?).

The main problem with Crypt of Agadeem is that you need three other lands to activate it twice—and turn-four comboing off is, to be fair, a rare occasion. The main advantage is that you need to resolve just one enabler on the first turn to (possibly) win, making all those Mana Leaks and Spell Snares completely useless.

Overall, this deck probably has the same power level as Hive Mind or something like that (read: “the deck is crap”), but I would feel better playing and tuning a mediocre deck than trying to reanimate the corpse that was killed while extracting Preordain from it.

Fourth Turn

The format is fresh, again, meaning that control decks seem almost nonexistent at the moment, again, because there is no metagame right now, and trying to answer literally everything is suicidal. Second reason why this article will be short of good blue decklists is that a rough control deck is usually far worse than a rough aggressive decklist. So, I expect to see cards like Gifts Ungiven or Solar Gifts (grabbing Unburial Rites plus Iona, Shield of Emeria), Cruel Ultimatum, Urza’s Mine, and Esper Charm as industry standards, and cards like Tezzeret the Seeker and Isochron Scepter powering metagame solution rogue brews.

Check out the recent article of Ali Aintrazi, to find some examples of a control approach. Shuuhei Nakamura’s Gifts Ungiven from Worlds seems like a fine starting point too (though I definitely want to see Worm Harvest added to the list alongside Rites-Iona combo). However, let’s stress it again: I don’t recommend going deep into control brewing before the first PTQs.

But what if you really want to brew something interesting, unexpected, and non-combo / non-aggression? The banning of Punishing Fire left possible midrange strategies without a great win condition, but if the format becomes slower and more diverse, the format will reach the point where midrange will be given enough time to stabilize and to take control over the game. I’m going to evaluate some random strategy with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kitchen Finks—maybe Death Cloud, maybe Naya-colored Loam-Assault duo, maybe even four-colored Gifts Ungiven. Moreover, Reid Duke recently won the MOCS with a midrange Jund deck and reintroduced Smallpox to Legacy, with great success too. I’m not sure if a resource denial deck would be actually good in Modern—because the resource count used to be higher in this format—but The Rack and Nyxathid are waiting for somebody who will take them for a spin.

That’s all for today. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it this weekend!*

Valeriy Shunkov


* My Russian readers will be congratulated separately in the next article)