Modern With And Without Bans

Ben Friedman checks in with Standard, but quickly moves to all the Modern we saw at SCG CON! Should there be more NBL events? Where was Skullclamp? Is Infect back? Is Humans falling?

SCG CON, from where I saw it, looked like a blast. Standard showed (some)
signs of resistance against our chained overlord, Modern had a diverse
field capped off by a Tom Ross disciple in Aaron Barich winning with
Infect, and the various Open and Classic fields all had something cool to
show off with innovation in every sanctioned (and some that technically
aren’t really sanctioned yet…cough…NBL Modern…cough).

I’ve said enough about Standard, and I still firmly believe that Goblin
Chainwhirler is way more bannable than Rampaging Ferocidon, but there’s
still hope that with enough black removal, the midrange decks can overpower
the format-warping three-drop. When skilled players like Gerry Thompson and
Jadine Klomparens opt to play B/U Midrange, it’s a heartening sign. Gifted
Aetherborn is a healthy card to have combatting the offensively overpowered
aggro decks. The 7-1 or better decks from the Invitational were littered
with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, so don’t count control out yet! When
everyone comes gunning for red mirrors, there’s a lot of free equity to be
gained from playing the deck without a target on its back.

The one secret achievement that seems like it went way under the radar this
weekend, though, is Raja Sulaiman’s unbelievable performance with B/W
Midrange. After a Top 16 in the Invitational on the back of a 7-1 Standard
record with the deck, he went ahead and won the Standard Classic with
nearly the same exact list the next day! Such a dominating performance is
enough to make even a jaded and cynical analyst like me sit up and take
notice. My best Pro Tour finish ever was on the back of B/W Midrange, so it
wouldn’t be out of the question for me to pick up Raja’s deck and run with
it for GP Pittsburgh in a few weeks. At the very least, it seems like a
heck of a lot of fun.

I’d start with his list from the Classic, as it stands to reason that the
few changes he did make were improvements to the deck based on his
experience in the Invitational.

If Lay Bare the Heart is the fake fifth Duress and we need to stoop down to
use to combat control, so be it. I like the way this deck operates! Now if
only we had Temple of Silence instead of the “poverty lands” like Forsaken
Sanctuary, I’d be chomping at the bit to get started with this beauty. I
might even Esperize the deck, since I have a strong affinity for The Scarab
God and a lot of disdain for Lyra Dawnbringer. Luke Purcell’s list from the
same 7-1 decklist dump would be the place to start that process. And
speaking of ” The Process“, soon
enough, it’ll be time to start optimizing your midrange deck for midrange
mirrors, and it’ll be a format where proper Vraska’s Contempt timing is

Now that’s a process I can trust!

But enough about Standard. There’s a double Grand Prix in my backyard this
weekend, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sin City won by a quartet of
Sin Collectors (in the sideboard of Humans, of course). My esteemed editor
has sung the praises of “Modern People,” as I’ve taken to calling it, and
the deck has an unquestionable pedigree backing it up.

The only problem? Aaron Barich just dusted off a big win with a deck that
most Humans pilots would rightfully say is not a terribly good matchup.
Keep your Izzet Staticasters close and pray that your opponent doesn’t draw
their Blighted Agents! And despite Cedric’s pronouncements, Jeskai Control
is a popular deck that can, with the right draw, tear Humans a new one.
There’s no question that the disruptive aggro deck has a great expected win
percentage, but the matchups are slowly shifting towards decks that
actually have angles against it. My preferred Death’s Shadow list is even
packing Grim Lavamancers and Abrades in the sideboard, so you know the hate
is real.

With the biggest decks in Modern being Jeskai Control, Humans, Affinity,
Mardu Pyromancer, U/W Control, Hollow One, and a smattering of Storm, Tron,
Hexproof, and Burn, there’s not an obvious way to get an edge in the
format. Despite Aaron’s huge win this past weekend, I don’t love Infect
against the massive amount of control, though Geist of Saint Traft is a
nice touch. Settle the Wreckage is a complete and total rout, and the
Supreme Verdicts make Shaper’s Sanctuary look a little awkward. It’s
possible that I’m underrating the deck because of personal bias based on
experience playing against it with Grixis Death’s Shadow and that matchup
is awfully close to a complete and total rout. The less-interactive decks
are practically byes in Infect’s favor (think Tron, Storm, Ironworks, and
Hexproof) and that kind of free equity is hard to turn down.

I could be convinced that an Esper or Grixis Control deck might have what
it takes to beat the semi-mirrors (via discard spells, Lingering Souls, or
Kolaghan’s Command chains), but those decks have their own problems, and
I’m not quite confident enough in my own brewmaster abilities to make an
optimized version of those decks. Shaheen Soorani or Corey Burkhart are the
better champions of those archetypes, and Shaheen is busy off campaigning
for a Stoneforge Mystic unban in Modern, so it may not be time for Esper to
shine. Grixis has some issues with holes in the removal suite, since it has
no access to Path to Exile, but it’s one of the grindiest decks ever
created. It’d probably do just fine against Jeskai Control, U/W Control,
Humans, and Affinity. Mardu Pyromancer (and really any deck with Lingering
Souls) is a tougher matchup, but with a few copies of Electrolyze or Pia
and Kiran Nalaar, it can be beaten.

No, the list that impressed me the most from the tournament was the
third-place Mardu Hollow One deck, in the hands of Michael Hamilton, which
adds resilience to the numerous Path to Exiles that come from Jeskai
Control. Bloodghast, Flamewake Phoenix, and Lingering Souls can chip-shot
control decks all the way down, especially when Faithless Looting makes
sure that excess lands get turned into real Magic cards. The three Grim
Lavamancers in the sideboard are excellent additions to fight Affinity,
Humans, and Infect (although clearly they weren’t enough to actually get
the win in the semifinals). Generally, I like Grixis Death’s Shadow’s
positioning against Hollow One, but with these changes (alongside the
now-standard Big Game Hunters in the sideboard) it seems like Hollow One
has a decided edge.

Aside from Hollow One, Ironworks Combo continues to demonstrate its
incredible power in the hands of those who are experienced enough to wield
it. This deck is awfully reminiscent of Storm, with a similarly high power
level and a few alternative game plans to attack the hate cards that come
in for games two and three. Where Storm can turn into a pseudo-control deck
with Lightning Bolts, Pieces of the Puzzle, and an endgame of a large Empty
the Warrens kill, Ironworks sideboards into Wurmcoil Engine and Ghirapur
Aether Grid to completely invalidate any number of Stony Silence or Rest in
Peace. With five maindeck answers to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or
Meddling Mage, it is significantly less constricted against Humans compared
to Storm, and its card selection and velocity is unparalleled. It’s a
stellar choice for those who can pilot it competently.

Unfortunately, I’m no Matt Nass, so I’ll be sticking with Grixis Death’s
Shadow with Faithless Looting for the upcoming GP. It’s as strong as it
ever was, so I’m excited to play something close to the same list from over
a month ago:

Not much is changing. The fourth Snapcaster Mage will probably make it in
over the fourth Stubborn Denial, which will go into the sideboard to
replace an Engineered Explosives, but other than that there’s little to
change if you want the best that Grixis Death’s Shadow has to offer. Serum
Visions is certainly playable, but the higher percentage of fast Gurmag
Anglers has me convinced that Faithless Looting and Mishra’s Bauble are
where we want to be. If Infect won the Invitational, Grixis Death’s Shadow
should be as Infect-like as possible, and that means having a low mana
curve with the ability to one-shot opponents early and often.

Now it’s time to talk about the coolest format I’ve seen in many years, No
Banned List Modern.

You can have these Dark Depths when you pry them from my cold, dead

It’s not often that we see such an underexplored format showcased at a
large tournament, but NBL Modern gave us a look into one of the infinite
possibilities for tournament Magic formats. Magic is just such a
customizable game, that by adding twenty-odd cards to a format you can
suddenly change everything. And the craziest thing is, this format is still basically untouched. There’s a ton of exploration left to be
done, what with nary a peep from Skullclamp decks in this event.

We saw the rise of Eldrazi in a big way, and it’s not surprising. After
all, Colorless Eldrazi in Modern is awfully close to Colorless Eldrazi in
Legacy, which means that A) it’s a solid starting point for a deck that
people know can get wins easily and B) it’s an easily ported deck into a
format where very few people actually had any preparation for building a
physical 75. After Eldrazi, one of the biggest decks was (no surprise)
Turbo Depths, another easy port from Legacy with a powerful pedigree and
relatively easy access to the cards.

It’s a bit harder to assemble, let alone perfect Skullclamp Affinity,
Skullclamp Elves, Skullclamp Goblins (now with Skirk Prospector!), Blazing
Shoal Infect, various Counterbalance shells, and the like. After all, this
was a one-of event (though I hope and pray that there will be more!) with
poor access to cards and no huge incentive to break the format. People
played the easy port-overs, and no one had much of an idea of what was
going on.

I’d still love to see Blue Moon with Counter-Top (and possibly the Splinter
Twin combo), and I suspect that Skullclamp Affinity with oodles of fast
mana (Chrome Mox and Mox Opal?!) is still kind of broken. There are several
incredibly good combo decks out there waiting for an exploitable metagame
(think Dredge, Storm, Infect, and the like) and White Eldrazi seems amazing
against Depths and Colorless Eldrazi. With Cavern of Souls to break up the
Counterbalance lock, Eldrazi Displacer to slam dunk on Endless One and
Marit Lage, and potential access to Stoneforge Mystic for Umezawa’s Jitte
action, there’s a lot to be said for white in this format.

If I were to pick up No Banned List Modern, I’d probably start with White
(or U/W) Eldrazi to exploit Chalice of the Void and naturally strong
matchups against the two easily built top decks, but I’d quickly be seduced
by the possibility of dumping my Affinity hand on the table on turn one or
Storming off on turn two. Rather than looking for the deck that’s as close
to a Legacy deck as possible, I think the real solution is to look for the
cards that are also banned in Legacy and try to use those. Treasure Cruise
and Skullclamp are the primary offenders, with Mental Misstep kind of weak
when half the format is Colorless Eldrazi. Chrome Mox, Green Sun’s Zenith,
and Skullclamp in Elves are incredible, and with enough Reclamation Sages
there is reason to believe that you can’t power through hate cards like
Chalice of the Void. Who needs Elvish Visionary and Wirewood Symbiote when
you can draw two cards for one mana!?

I sincerely hope that there are more opportunities to play exciting new
formats in the future, and it certainly seems like that is the direction
Magic is heading. Pauper, No Banned List Modern, and a healthy mix of
multiplayer formats are all heartening developments in this infinitely
complex game. Whatever your preferred format, SCG CON gave you something to
sink your teeth into, and I am eagerly looking forward to the next one!