Modern Overview: Summer 2014

With PTQ season heavily upon us, Ari takes a look at the current Modern format and breaks down the top archetypes: why to play them, how to beat them, and what they’re best against.

First, a quick Grand Prix DC wrap-up:

I one-shotted multiple people from over 20 by attacking with two Shipbreaker Leviathans in the sealed portion.

I played the wrong land on turn three versus Dan Musser and punted a game and match in the first draft, but likely would have 2-1ed vs the 3-0 deck of the pod anyways. My deck was awesome, especially the part where I switched colors pack three to move in on the four Scholar of Athreos I expected to wheel.

My second draft was basically what I 3-0ed to Top 8 Toronto with. I mulled to a one-lander game three versus Dave Fulk who ended up winning the pod and kept as I felt a five wouldn’t cut it against U/B. I missed, died, and got the scoop into Gold from Jon Sukenik. This keeps me at X-1 lifetime in getting scoops I needed/really wanted in tournaments.

As I so eloquently put it, I run very well at basically everything.

My focus is now shifting to Standard, but as that testing is obviously for a Pro Tour there isn’t a lot I can say.

Of course, my secondary focus is Modern for Grand Prix Boston-Worcester. I don’t have a lot of time to invest into the format, but I’m going to still do my best to put up a strong result and possibly take home a ticket to Hawaii.

This is my re-familiarizing myself and everyone else with the top tier of the format.


What It Does:

All of the B/G decks in Modern are based around using Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, and Liliana of the Veil to cripple your opponent’s strategy while clocking them with Tarmogoyfs or the card advantage from Dark Confidant.

What Fails Against It:

All-in decks that have problems with Abrupt Decay. Combo decks that have issues with Thoughtseize thanks to low counts on certain critical cards, such as there only being 4 Ad Nauseum in Ad Nauseum. Less grindy creature decks that are low on reach.

What Beats It:

Strong anti-attrition elements to defend against the early rush of interaction. That means redundancy of action in the face of discard. That means not leaning on permanents that are soft to Abrupt Decay to win games, or having ways to evade the card (Spellskite in Twin, Vines of Vastwood in Infect). That means a way to handle Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, typically your own Abrupt Decays, Path to Exiles, or even just your own bodies to fight Goyf plus small damage to handle Bob. That also means a way to not lose to Liliana of the Veil, either by racing it or directing attacks/damage at it.

Beyond this, you need a way to get ahead of them in the attrition game. Powerful engines like Birthing Pod, chip shots like Snapcaster Mage, or the rare single-card swings like Sphinx’s Revelation or Tidings. In the past, Tokens decks have taken advantage of their lack of sweepers with Spectral Procession, and Affinity often gets ahead in the mana game by forcing them to trade two- and three-mana answers for one- and two-mana threats.

Your other option is cutting off one of their lines of interaction with some degenerate deck. For example, only their discard matters against most Burn and Tron lists. With Affinity you have things like Etched Champion that don’t die (see Auriok Champion in some decks).

Play Differences Against Variants:

There are three primary lists: Jund, Black-Green, and Junk.

Jund starts at the lowest life total as it is trying to stretch the mana the most. It also has the most attackable manabase with the oddball land destruction spells in the format, though not necessarily with Blood Moon. In return, it is the best against cheap creature aggro thanks to Lightning Bolt. It also has the most powerful single threat base with options like Prophetic Flamespeaker, Olivia Voldaren and Huntmaster of the Fells, which make it the best in board-heavy midrange mirrors like Pod. The Jund sideboard also tends to be much more flexible thanks to some of the powerful multicolored options like Jund Charm. If I had to play any of the lists against a deck where I didn’t know what my opponent was trying to do, Jund would be it.

B/G is going to have natural access to Tectonic Edge and cheaper manlands (Treetop Village). Their mana also involves less pain due to fewer Ravnica shocklands entering the battlefield. This puts pure control and Burn at more of a disadvantage, but against true aggro the B/G removal suite is a bit worse. Dismember and Disfigure have their own drawbacks that can easily be built around. The B/G sideboard also tends to be a bit less flexible, so being the right oddball deck for that week pays back better dividends if you expect more of this deck. The final thing is that the B/G threat base is a little weaker by virtue of only having two colors of options, which makes Geist of Saint Traft a more attractive line against it as it tends to have cards that are clunkier or easier to break through.

PS: Garruk, Wildspeaker is the truth as the four-drop of choice.

Junk falls much closer to B/G than Jund on the mana side as it is typically trying to splash the white. Note that this doesn’t have to be true, and something like Brimaz, King of Oreskos could be real. In exchange for slightly worse mana, Junk brings two big gains over B/G. The first is Lingering Souls as the “big threat” in the main, which is a breaker in midrange and control mirrors as well as against Delver of Secrets and Affinity. The second is the presence of cheap, hard-to-beat hate cards in the sideboard. While your sideboard is still relatively inflexible compared to Jund, you have things like Stony Silence and Aven Mindcensor that flat-out cold certain archetypes.

In short, Jund has the raw power, B/G has the stability, and Junk has the narrow answers.

UWR Control:

What It Does:

Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, powerful but narrow sideboard options like Sowing Salt and Stony Silence.

What Fails Against It:

Threat-light decks with creatures that die to Bolt, like the Delver variants or Infect. Decks that lose to Electrolyze.

What Beats It:

Combo decks that takes advantage of how bad your counterspells are. Storm can overload you on must-counters spells via Defense Grid and Pyromancer Ascension. Ad Nauseum can exploit your mana with instant-speed kills and Pact of Negation. Scapeshift ignores Mana Leak. Tron ignores everything.

Lots of creatures you can’t fight well with Lightning Bolt. Voice of Resurgence, Kitchen Finks, Thrun, the Last Troll, Tarmogoyf, Restoration Angel. There’s only so many Path to Exiles you can cast.

Play Differences Against Variants:

Again, you have three main lists: Geist/Midrange, Control, and Kiki.

Geist lists have less of a late game but much more early pressure. If you can flood the board and stop Geist of Saint Traft from dealing damage with a bunch of hard-to-kill guys, that works. Otherwise, your best plan is to abuse the fact that Geist is a three-mana sorcery and go hard at them. Never let them get on board and ahead. They also have fewer ways to stabilize the board, as sweepers don’t mesh well with Geist. Note that there are similar builds that might not feature Geist but may have Blade Splicer or similar bodies. That makes things like Kitchen Finks worse, but the rest of the plan applies.

The control lists are the only ones that might not have Restoration Angels. Your plan here should be to keep them on the back foot, but in a slightly different way than versus the Geist lists. They have rectifying interaction like Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation, but it’s reasonably easy to pace good threats to force them into awkward situations with their cards and mana.

The Kiki Control lists play out relatively similar to the midrange lists, only your removal is more necessary and has more specification. Killing a Restoration Angel is no small feat, as evidenced by the fact that it even dodges removal in Vintage. That said, because they have Kiki-Jiki in their deck, you can often capitalize better on them having fewer interactive draws as they have more pseudo-mulligans in the early game.


What It Does:

Puts Splinter Twin on Deceiver Exarch. Barring that, provides mediocre beats.

What Fails Against It:

Less interactive combo decks. Twin typically has too much countermagic for Storm and similar decks to compete.

Combo decks that have to attack such as Goryo’s Vengeance or Infect. Good luck with that through a Deceiver Exarch trigger.

What Beats It:

Fast clocks that interact. In my experience, Burn is very well-positioned here. There are also some oddball options like getting a quick Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite into play with backup that also apply here.

Thoughtseize midrange decks. It’s really hard to combo or beat down anemically through discard and removal.

Basically, clock plus interaction or excessive interaction that covers cards in play as well as the hand or stack.

Play Differences Against Variants:

Again, we see three version of Twin: U/R, UWR, and RUG. Exactly how to handle your removal and how likely you are to die out of nowhere varies drastically by build.

U/R Twin is somewhat the middle ground of randomly dying and is the least specific about removal. If it kills Deceiver Exarch at instant speed, you are good. The latter question is harder to answer. The exact number of combo pieces in U/R Twin varies greatly from event to event. Sometimes it’s as low as eleven (six each of Exarchs/Pestermite, five of Twin/Kikis), sometimes it goes up to fifteen. A lot of this depends on how good the Snapcaster MageLightning Bolt duo is in the format. At Pro Tour Born of the Gods, it was great as Zoo was a thing you needed help against. This may not be true moving forward. If they have Snapcaster Mage, you are likely safe to assume they are lower on combo pieces and are less likely to just have it. Swan Song is the dead giveaway that you should always have respect that they have it.

RUG is the least likely to combo out and the most resilient to removal. Your removal also needs to handle Tarmogoyf and Ooze, but they don’t have more than eleven combo pieces. This list is the most punishing against the attrition strategies, as they can sometimes present one of the green threats in a manner that is awkward for those decks to deal with and have the most single card threats to topdeck or cantrip to post-discard. At the same time, this is the best list for decks like Infect and Tron to play against. While they might have issues with the more combo-inclined list, any game where they get to play a little longer ends much more favorably for them than the person trying to Tarmogoyf against their Oblivion Stones or Blighted Agents.

UWR is probably the scariest of the lists in terms of combo and the most resilient to removal. That first part isn’t necessarily because it is the fastest, but more because it’s the least likely to let you know what is going on before you just die. Oftentimes they look like a normal UWR control or midrange deck until they slam an end-step Exarch while you are tapped out. At that point it’s just too late. Watch for Wall of Omens. It’s also hard to discern the line between the Kiki Control lists of UWR and the UWR Twin decks until it’s too late. This is awkward as it means the difference between Abrupt Decay being needed (Twin) and being mediocre (UWR Kiki). If you see Twin or Exarch it’s easy to figure out, but besides that there isn’t a good way to tell. A UWR Twin list could still just have Electrolyze or Spell Snare even though Tim Rivera didn’t play them at Pro Tour Born of the Gods. If they have Remand and Wall of Omens that’s the giveaway they have some combo, but even then there’s a slight chance they drew their small number of Remand in a hard control list.

That all said, once you know they are UWR Twin or Kiki Control you can make educated guesses and they are still somewhat slower than the purer Twin decks, but that doesn’t mean the game gets any less nerve-wracking without a Thoughtseize to just know what’s up.

I guess once you really boil all this down, UWR is the worst one of these decks to try and be at all reactive against because until you figure out they are comboing it’s hard to position yourself to manage it while not losing if they are just normal UWR. If your plan against both them and normal UWR is to just dead them regardless, then it probably doesn’t matter nearly as much to you.


What It Does:

Uses a large number of powerful tutor effects to find the combo or hate piece that wins a given game. Or just durdles and gains value.

What Fails Against It:

Random midrange garbage. Pod is too strong to go heads up against there.

Combo decks they show up with the card or cards to fight. Good luck beating it plus Spellskite plus interactive spells every post-board game.

Things that lose to Kitchen Finks.

What Beats It:

Whatever deck it isn’t ready for that week. There are only so many slots, and while it doesn’t take much to fight a given thing it’s often hard to find room for all the stuff you need.

Depending on the version, Scapeshift and Tron. These combo decks require a shockingly specific set of cards to interact with, are still resilient to those cards, and are very fast or interactive to top it off.

Play Differences Against Variants:

Kiki-Pod is much more reliant on its mana creatures. This is less because of the color split and more because its curve is much heavier at the four-drop slot, meaning a dead Noble Hierarch is much more of a Time Walk than against the lower-drop-heavy Melira lists. This threat swap also means that stalling the ground matters much less.

Kiki-Pod also dominates games much faster with a Birthing Pod in play. Something like Sun Titan might be able to go heads-up against a Melira player’s Pod, but Kiki-Pod will just win the game on the spot. Kiki-Pod is also much better positioned against Tron and Scapeshift. Part of this is due to the fact that their Pods go big very fast, the other part is that Negate and Avalanche Riders are way better than the Melira equivalent Thoughtseize and Fulminator Mage in that slot. Avalanche Riders is especially brutal, as it often triggers several times thanks to Restoration Angel.

Melira Pod gets to play more Rock elements. You don’t need to expect a maindeck Path to Exile out of Kiki-Pod, but Melira can play Abrupt Decay or Thoughtseize easily. There’s more room there, as there are fewer creatures you feel obligated to play in three colors and you have fewer Pod-chain combo pieces you have to fit in. Melira also gets to board in Lingering Souls, which makes a lot of games significantly easier to win against specific decks like Infect, Affinity, and B/G Midrange.

One big M15 thing to note: Izzet Staticaster defeats Hushwing Gryff. Orzhov Pontiff does not on the enters-the-battlefield trigger, but the haunt trigger with a Viscera Seer can do the trick.


What It Does:

Has the most explosive mana in the format and plays single cards capable of dealing all the damage in one or two hits

What Fails Against It:

Most combo decks. You are just as fast, more resilient, and bring in hate like Thoughtseize that works against both their combo and their hate.

Midrange. Etched Champion and Cranial Plating are fun cards to fight against.

What Beats It:

Stony Silence. All the other hate can be managed, but that card comes down too fast and does too much to beat most of the time they have it

Specific sets of UWR interaction. Spell Snare, Electrolyze, and Supreme Verdict.

Certain configurations of Twin. The difference between this and something like Storm is that their combo pieces also buy them time with their Twiddle triggers. Note that this does not apply to Ad Nauseum because of how soft they are to Thoughtseize and Inkmoth Nexus.

Pod with the right configuration. They can always find their hate card or one-toughness creature sweeper and win quickly.

Play Differences Against Variants:

There really aren’t a lot of differences in Affinity lists. Here’s the general advice on how to handle all of them.

Understand Arcbound Ravager math, especially when Inkmoth Nexus is involved.

Play removal that can kill land creatures.

Know how Cranial Plating’s second activated ability works.

Discard is better than you think because their best cards are so much better than their worst ones.

Etched Champion is often best off being raced. If they have a pump spell for it, you were probably dying to that card anyways.

Anything with flying is good. I left in Glen Elendra Archmage playing Kiki Pod because it had the ability to block.


What It Does:

Makes more mana than you could ever think you want, then spends it all on one card.

What Fails Against It:

Playing fair. You tap three lands and play Courser of Kruphix. They tap three lands and play Karn Liberated. I know who wins this fight.

What Beats It:

Playing unfair. Their deck is extremely light on interaction that costs less than seven. Just don’t lose to Relic of Progenitus or Pyroclasm.

Play Differences Against Variants:

The most prevalent version of Tron is the base-Green ones that typically splash for Pyroclasm and Combust, but there have been a number of Mono-Blue lists popping up on Magic Online.

The G/R lists are extremely linear and reliable in what they do. Hand doesn’t Tron? Ship. Hand Trons? Tron you. You aren’t going to beat them with random garbage. Either your plan beats them or it doesn’t.

The blue lists give you a little more wiggle room. They don’t have twelve ways to tutor up a Tron piece. They just have Expedition Maps and the slow Tolaria West. They will still Wurmcoil Engine you, but you are less likely to face a turn-three Karn. In exchange, they have more powerful card draw in Thirst for Knowledge and actual interaction. I don’t really have a good picture here as I typically just play decks that beat them as they are still soft to just getting them dead, but they are much less likely to stumble against softer hate like Fulminator Mage or Spreading Seas or even hard hate like Sowing Salt.

Either way, Blood Moon is actually not that great against these decks. Even against G/R Tron, you have to be Blood Mooning out of a deck they can’t just fight with Pyroclasm, Oblivion Stone, Relic of Progenitus, and/or Combust. Those decks are few and far between. Don’t Blood Moon Tron out of Affinity. Don’t do it out of Delver. Don’t do it out of Twin. If you are the Blue Moon deck or a Naya Knight of the Reliquary deck, that’s the point I might consider it at.


What It Does:

Assemble the one-card combo (Scapeshift) that is actually an eight or nine card combo (Scapeshift plus seven or eight lands).

What Fails Against It:

Lots of specific disruption. Mana Leak, Inquistion of Kozilek, sometimes Remand, and Dispel all fail to hit the important card.

Non-combo degenerate decks like Tron. A similar issue to Twin exists where you are just combo and counterspells and they can’t do their thing before they die.

What Beats It:

Slightly faster clocks with disruption. Affinity is the big offender here, but Twin and Zoo with counterspells also apply.

Heavy attrition. See Liliana of the Veil

Play Differences Against Variants:

Against all lists, remember the eighteen-life threshold. Being at nineteen saves you from six Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle triggers.

The two different lists are Primeval Titan and Prismatic Omen or Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. Most of the time, you can tell the difference between the two based on how aggressively they find blue mana. If they don’t actively find three Islands for Cryptic Command, they probably just have Remand and Izzet Charm.

The Primeval Titan list is a lot more vulnerable to land destruction as it has fewer ways to stop it, while the Cryptic list is worse against attrition as you don’t have the ability to just quickly Titan someone if you can’t get to seven or eight lands and only have the four Scapeshifts to win with. The other card the Titan list is more vulnerable to is Blood Moon, as they typically are on three or so answers at best to the card instead of Cryptics plus any Nature’s Claim effects. Of course, it’s not like Blood Moon is bad against the Cryptic lists, it’s just the difference between almost unbeatable and good enough with any real backup.

Keep this in mind: Regardless of list, the odds are good post-board they will have access to Obstinate Baloth.

Big Note: I’m ignoring Delver and Merfolk from the Magic Online results. I expect way too many Lightning Bolts and “real decks” in real life to play either, though I can see Merfolk being correct at times.

Now, the big question: Which of these and other decks am I considering playing at Grand Prix Boston-Worcester?

Honestly, I don’t care. Just something fun. Knowing me, that means some linear deck other people hate playing with or against but I love crushing with. Infect, Scapeshift, Tron, Kiki-Pod, and Hexproof are things I have on the docket to test a little with (and possibly record with) over the next few weeks.

I plan to have a lot of fun interacting with people as little as possible.