Modern Musings

Chris has been hankering to work on Modern, and he has a few ideas floating around suggesting he work on them – one of which has infected his imagination and sent his brewing off on a crusade!

Modern is such a Catch-22 format for me. On the one hand, the size of the card pool is big enough to encourage brewing from multiple angles while Standard often only lets you brew to beat the metagame. It’s also not so diverse that brewing is almost impossible, like with Legacy. On the other hand, Modern presents a huge problem in that a lot of the more innovative strategies get trumped by common sideboard hate that renders your entire deck inert. I’ve put up a fair few decklists for the format in my relatively short time here at SCG, but all of them fall prey to relatively common sideboard cards.

That’s not to say though that we cannot brew for Modern. Oh heavens no. If anything, it just encourages me to work harder on finding a fun brew that is also competitive. One of the best ways I have found to do that is to go through the format and find powerful cards or strategies that aren’t being played, see if I can figure out why, and if I can’t find an obvious reason then perhaps I should be building the deck. For example, Protean Hulk was half of one of the most degenerate combos in Magic’s history but sees no play in Modern. That’s because it needs Flash or some other cheating card to make the engine run. Disciple of the Vault is a card that people tend to think is banned in Modern, but it’s absolutely legal. His old running buddy Arcbound Ravager is even around for all your sacrificial needs. Sadly the artifact lands (well, five of them) are not around, relegating the Disciple to the sidelines until Open the Vaults becomes playable.

For The Crusade!

Phyrexian CrusaderTezzeret, Agent of Bolas. Mystical Teachings. Primeval Titan. The list of powerful cards that are standouts in other formats but not seeing much Modern play is a long one. I’ve toyed with most of these (Teachings is a puzzle I feel distinctly unqualified to attempt, let alone solve) but the one I really want to talk about today is Phyrexian Crusader. Though mildly successful in Standard in its day, Crusader is far better positioned in Modern because the majority of removal being played is red, white or both. Even some of the ones that aren’t, like Victim of Night and Slaughter Pact, can’t kill a Crusader. Abrupt Decay, Maelstrom Pulse and Dismember are basically the extent of it unless we go way off the rails. Yes he dies to Murder, but that’s a risk I am more than willing to take.

OK so we’re starting with Phyrexian Crusader. Then what? Well, we have a couple of options. We’ll start with a slightly controlling list based on the old Mono-Black Infect decks from Scars-Innistrad Standard. The base for this deck is part 8-Rack and part Rock, playing heavy on the removal and discard to clear the way for our Crusader to win, hopefully in one swing. As we’ll probably be light on actual creatures we also get the luxury of playing Damnation and possibly Black Sun’s Zenith, both of which ensure we don’t get run over.

Modern being the format it is, playing one threat is a great way to ensure you die with no win conditions left in your deck. The best option here is Inkmoth Nexus, I believe. It’s immune to Abrupt Decay and Go for the Throat (two pieces of removal that can kill Crusader and so might still be in the deck after sideboarding) and can’t be countered. We may end up needing one more way to win the game, but for now we’ll stick with these two.

So what does the rest of the deck look like? I envision us sticking to Mono-Black as much as possible, but we’re dipping into green for one spell and one finisher: Abrupt Decay and Kessig Wolf Run. Decay is just way too good to ignore, allowing us to stop Splinter Twin decks and destroy things like Ensnaring Bridge that make it hard for us to win. It’s hands down the most versatile removal spell in Modern. Kessig Wolf Run is another uncounterable way to push through damage, whether it’s on the first-striking Crusader or the evasive Inkmoth. We might be lacking the abusive ramp that the Wolf Run Ramp decks of Standard enjoyed, but we don’t need to do too much of it to get to where we want to go. Especially if the rest of my plan holds out.

But surely I am not relying on just Wolf Run to pump our infect creatures to lethal levels? Indeed not, good reader. Again I am sending us off into the depths of our binders to find cards you forgot existed, cards that you might have played in Standard and then forgot all about. First of these is Runechanter’s Pike, which is going to be able to add large amounts of damage when we are filling our graveyard with discard and removal spells. The first strike is unfortunately redundant on the Crusader but will help out the already-evasive Inkmoth Nexus immensely. It’s also the reason we’re not running Become Immense in the list: I want to stretch their Abrupt Decays as much as possible, and a lasting threat is more important to me than the one-shot value of Become Immense. We could try both, but they are rather at cross-purposes.

Our other pump ability is coming from Liliana of the Dark Realms. I have been trying to push this card into decks since it came out, and in fact had a good Standard list with it that I really enjoyed. With cards like Dreadbore and Hero’s Downfall yet to crack into Modern, four-mana planeswalkers are in a sweet spot in the format where they can only really die to damage. We’re going to mitigate that naturally by playing a lot of creature removal, but the biggest upside is in the fact that you are guaranteed one use of her -3 ability. Sometimes we can use it to get rid of a threat but more often we will be pumping a creature and attacking for lethal. It’s highly unlikely we would ever hit the ultimate in this deck, but if we do we will be pumping the living hell out of a Wolf Run!

Another seldom-seen card I really want to play in this deck is Beseech the Queen. The cards we want to find cost 3, 2, 0 and 0 respectively, so if we are able to cast Beseech we can find what we need. Even if we need to find some removal or discard, we’ll be able to handle that. Essentially then we’re playing a Demonic Tutor for 3 instead of 2. I accept these terms. We also get the benefit of our opponent having to read the card, which is always fun.

The sideboard needs work but if your metagame is heavy on red and white strategies, this might be a good build to try.

Scars and Stripes Forever!

Since we are apparently running with a subtheme of underplayed and under-appreciated cards this week, why not pair Phyrexian Crusader with Varolz, the Scar-Striped? Everyone’s favourite gold troll has a lot going for him in Modern, not least of which is built-in resilience to a lot of the same removal that Phyrexian Crusader dodges. Of course we wouldn’t be interested in a 2/2 regenerator for 1GB, but it’s the scavenge ability is really attracting us.

Varolz, the Scar-StripedAlthough our goal with this deck is the same as with the one above (load up a Phyrexian Crusader), the addition of Varolz leaves us wanting to play a different game. We’ll want to be heavy on creatures, for one thing. Although there’s something to be said for a removal- and discard-heavy strategy in a Modern format centered around combo and card advantage, we can’t really run that route when we’re looking to play around in the graveyard with creatures. Instead we’re looking for a few things: some cheap and evasive threats, some ways to get creatures in our graveyard, and some creatures with a high ratio of power to mana cost.

In addition to Phyrexian Crusader and Inkmoth Nexus, I see two excellent possibilities for our evasive threats: Lotleth Troll and Den Protector. The Troll has the added bonus of filling up our graveyard for us, and has trample to boot. Oh, and it regenerates. So yes, Lotleth Troll is basically the perfect card here. While Den Protector isn’t as resilient, she does enable us to recur a dead creature and is going to be almost impossible to block once we start scavenging on to her. She has no built-in protection, however, so this may turn out to be an inferior choice to something like Troll Ascetic or Silhana Ledgewalker, for example.

So what exactly are we scavenging? A quick search of Gatherer reveals that we can’t do any better than Death’s Shadow, which I probably could have figured out by myself. Thirteen power for one mana? I’m in. After that though, it gets a little tricky. Hidden Horror is our next best, but I have no interest in giving my opponent any blockers. Force of Savagery and Phyrexian Soulgorger are next up. Soulgorger is easier to cast, easier to scavenge and at worst can be a blocker for a turn before going to the graveyard to be scavenged. Advantage: artifact. If only it had trample, it could help us out two ways. Nyxathid would be my next choice, but we may not need it although it has the best shot of being cast and staying alive. I did consider Desecration Elemental as both a relatively cheap way to get counters onto something and a fairly good attacker with evasion, and I may end up coming back to it, but even I have a jank limit.

What a motley crew

Lotleth Troll will be our preferred way to fill up the graveyard, but is obviously not enough on its own. Death’s Shadow and Phyrexian Soulgorger can get themselves into the graveyard, but what if we need to find them? That’s where Fauna Shaman comes in. Survival of the Fittest was a pretty good card in its day, and although Fauna Shaman is not fit to carry Survival’s discarded sweaty gym towel it IS the best we have for the job we want done. Be aware that it’s also a removal magnet and as such is very likely not to survive long. Of course that means fewer removal spells for our real threats…

One last thing I want to try is another infect source, and one that can’t be Abrupt Decayed at that. I considered Phyrexian Vatmother here but I’m a bit concerned about needing more evasion. Enter Limited standout Flesh-Eater Imp, whose grinning visage, leathery wings and converted mana cost of four are just what the brewer ordered. It even has a nice built-in way to pump itself without using the graveyard. Neat! Put the lot together and we arrive at something like this:

We are heavier on the Inquisitions because the scariest cards for us are all taken by it: removal, Scavenging Ooze, Rest in Peace. The Den Protectors will also let us recur our utility spells as needed, keeping the opponent off-balance until we are ready to win. We’re not all-in on infect here as Lotleth Troll is a potent and viable threat, but I would really like to find one more multi-purpose creature to put in here. Perhaps one of you fine folks will have a suggestion or five. Our sideboard plan gives us some flexibility against a variety of decks but as always, season according to your local metagame.

This could be Phyrexian Crusader’s time to shine. These might not be the greatest shells possible for the card, but they have proven to be solid in the limited testing I’ve managed. Troll Ascetic is starting to sound really good in the second deck for sure, but the first deck feels really slick.

Thanks for stopping by folks and until next time… Brew On!