My Latest Modern Excursions

With the calendar serving up seemingly nonstop Modern events for a while, Ari Lax is getting back into the groove! Get his survey of the Modern metagame, but be warned: he’s hardly unbiased…

Oh boy. Time for me to write about all the awesome and exciting things I’ve been doing in Magic lately!

Ooh, that sounds exciting. How has the preparation been going?

Well, that’s not too bad. You don’t always start every format with back-to-back 3-0 records and an innate understanding of everything the way I just got Hour of Devastation. Still, you have to be improving over time. Plus, we are now back to non-cycling Magic where your Limited games sometimes just end. It’s not your fault you draw seven lands and five two-drops one game and three lands and six five-drops another game. Okay, maybe the latter is a bit my fault, but five drops are so awesome.

How have my last few drafts gone?

Let’s focus on something more fun. What about Standard? How’s the metagame looking there?

Prior to jumping into Pro Tour Ixalan testing, I was playing a lot of Modern. Technically it was Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan preparation, but come on I don’t really need an excuse to play the format. Plus, plenty of people I know are still trying to win their Modern RPTQ. While my first reactions were “What’s an RPTQ?” and “Jarvis, if I’m able to hit Gold, what’s your excuse?” I caved and have kept up with the format.

But, like I said, it’s time to talk about things that are more fun. I’m not going to tell you all about Eldrazi Tron, except to insult it ruthlessly and laugh at anyone who thinks “Urza’s Mine, Wastes, Ghost Quarter, and some five-drops” is a fine average hand to draw. I’m not going to talk about Dredge, both because I have no idea how anyone wins games with it and because I’m pretty sure the Magic Tournament Rules say you aren’t allowed to play non-Magic games to decide sanctioned matches.

These are the decks I’ve actually been playing and how good they are. Simple 1-10 scale, with 1 being that time I didn’t play Skullclamp for an entire Standard season and 10 being that time I got to play Stoneforge Mystic and Splinter Twin in my Standard deck.

As is obvious from my rating references, there’s a fair amount of personal bias involved here. To show that bias, I’m also including how comfortable I am with the deck and how much I enjoy playing it. A 1 on comfort is anything attempting to use the Dredge mechanic and a 10 is Thoughtseize and combo or counters, while a 1 on enjoyment is also anything with the Dredge mechanic and a 10 is resolving Mind’s Desire. Comfort level likely increases how accurate my opinion is but also polarizes it, and I can’t tell if my enjoyment of a deck biases my opinion of it or is so correlated to me winning with it that it doesn’t matter that much.

Living End

Comfort Level: 7/10

I wrote a lot about this deck when Amonkhet was released, and I played a lot of it around the same time. I used to really just not get Living End, mostly from a “why would anyone opt to register this for a tournament” standpoint, but the introduction of a bunch of hard-hitting one-mana cyclers made it just another easy mode combo deck with the upside of not investing a lot into “going off” and having an oddly solid backup plan of casting cycling creatures.

Enjoyment: 7/10

I derive a lot of joy out of beating people to death with vanilla Limited commons in Limited. It’s significantly more fun in Constructed. Demonic Dread as mini-Falter is only bonus points.

Playability: 2/10

Most popular winning deck in Modern: maindeck Chalice of the Void and Relic of Progenitus.

Second most popular: counterspells, discard, fast clocks, and Street Wraiths.

Third most popular: Storm. Five years ago Cedric Phillips still cared enough to try to fight this battle. The best he had was “Thorn of Amethyst and pray,” which is countered by today’s plan of “cast a second Goblin Electromancer, nice job sideboarding out Living End.”

Fourth most popular: Arcbound Ravager.

You can afford to lose to the “best deck” in Modern because the format cycles pretty quickly and is fairly random. Maybe even the “best two” is excusable if the format lines up. If you are digging this deep to find a matchup that is just bad and not horrifically bad…

Restore Balance

Comfort Level: 6/10

I haven’t tried any of the Metalwork Colossus nonsense, but I’ve tried about everything else, Baral’s Expertise included. That said, this deck is weird as can be and I would be lying if I said I 100% grasped what the true goal was at every point playing it.

Enjoyment: 8/10

“You can’t talk if you don’t control permanents” was one of the finer rules instituted during my college playtesting years, second only to the “you block, you drink” draft that ended with everyone sober because it was Zendikar.

Playability: 2/10

Everything I said about Living End applies here, and then some. Dredge isn’t even that big, so you aren’t dodging graveyard hate by playing this deck.

Do not try this at home. No list being included is deliberate.

Ad Nauseam

Comfort Level: 6/10

A lot of generic combo skills transfer well to this deck, but some of the finer points of when to Pact of Negation and burn an Angel’s Grace or how to line up my scry and mana setups could use some work. Also, just general sideboard construction, as I’m only just moving on from the stock lists. Don’t ask me about Godhead of Awe; I don’t get it either.

Enjoyment: 6/10

Combo is still combo, but the Ad Nauseam combo itself takes way too many clicks on Magic Online. I deliberately try to kill with Laboratory Maniac most games to avoid Lightning Storm ever being on the stack. That said, the backdoor Laboratory ManiacSpoils of the Vault kills are pretty awesome, as are any Leyline of Sanctity freerolls.

Playability: 4/10

There was a brief period of time where I literally couldn’t lose most of my matches with Ad Nauseam. This was around when I recommended that people should play Burn. I promise this wasn’t intentional. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t moderately amusing.

Since then people have stopped playing quite as many byes. I’ve lost…more. Okay, a lot more.

I understand why many good players get trapped by this deck. When things line up your way, you literally win your matches in ten minutes and in overkill fashion. It isn’t even draw-dependent; they literally can’t beat your combo deck with weird incidental unkillability. Of course, the rest of the time your deck has a bunch of vulnerabilities that show up. Your artifact mana gets Stony Silenced, you get Thoughtseized one too many times, or they just have an Infect creature and everything sucks.

I guess I’ll have this deck sitting on my reality check sheet, where before every event I just confirm the conditions aren’t perfect for some random set of decks and move on; knowing when it’s time to pull the trigger on one of them will be super-obvious.

Grixis Death’s Shadow

Comfort Level: 8/10

Discard, tempo, life management. Been there, done that. As far as I’m concerned, if a deck has Thoughtseize, it automatically becomes easy mode. I think I need to get a little better at knowing when to Ambush Viper beatdown with my Snapcaster Mages, but that’s about it.

Enjoyment: 7/10

If you gave me four Thoughtseize and a deck of Uno cards it would probably be fun.

Playability: 7/10

Yeah, Death’s Shadow is great. You need to flex a bit, though, so let’s go over that.

Opt or Serum Visions? Play both. Ten is about how many cantrips I would want, especially with shaving a Street Wraith being commonplace.

Temur Battle Rage has been pretty nice, mostly against me as I’ve tried all sorts of nonsense. I don’t know if it’s time for the second copy, but my sideboard would definitely have one.

Put some thought into what countermagic you are showing up with. Flashfreeze is my latest kick, as it is pretty sweet if you want a counterspell against Collected Company decks that doesn’t suck if they just play creatures, but Dispel hits their best cards while being a bit better against the Gifts Ungiven part of Storm.

Play Izzet Staticaster. The card is just dumb.

Young Pyromancer seems like it fails at its goal of being a threat that spills over if you can pierce a hole in control answers, now that so many of those decks have Geist of Saint Traft. The Chameleon Colossus fad also has started fading away, reducing the need for 1/1 red Elemental tokens.

Just play more Liliana of the Veil, beat Eldrazi Tron with it too, and don’t complain.

Humans, Company, and Stuff in the Middle

Comfort Level: 7/10 with Knightfall variants, 4/10 with other Humans decks

I’ve played enough with Modern creature combo to get Knightfall, but the Humans-only lists are weird. Applying weak beats with good disruption is one thing I know how to do. Let me know when the Modern disruption is good enough to count.

Enjoyability: 7/10 with Knightfall, 2/10 with other Humans decks

Knightfall is sweet and I like Spell Queller, but the other Humans decks are just not fun. As I have ranted about before, half their cards are blanks.

Playability: 8/10 with Knightfall, 3/10 but growing on other Humans

Knightfall is great and has been comically underrepresented for the last year or so. If you want to win at Modern right now, just play it.

For a Dinosaurs and Pirates tribal set, Ixalan was oddly kind to Humans. I talked about the deck having bad interaction, but there’s a chance that has all changed. Kitesail Freebooter might not seem like an upgrade to Sin Collector, but the ability to take artifacts and enchantments is a real game-changer against Modern’s slew of random combo decks, as is just costing two instead of a million.

Unclaimed Territory also lets you get more aggressive with your early-drop cost splits. You weren’t beating Blood Moon anyway, and another four any-color lands mean you will die less to fetch damage, have fewer “I drew a basic and a shock” failures, and be able to just play weirdly costed two-drops easily without worrying about your Noble Hierarch dying. Meddling Mage is the card I am most interested in, partly because of the synergy with Kitesail Freebooter’s hand peek and partly because it just crushes combo. Unclaimed Territory might actually be a reason to not build your manabase to support Knight of the Reliquary.


Comfort Level: A really rusty 9/10, so 4/10

Affinity was the first Modern deck I played for a long time, all the way back when the format first started. Something about Arcbound Ravager math just doesn’t disappear over time, which is good, because figuring that out is probably the hardest technical play aspect of Modern.

Enjoyment: 3/10

I loved Affinity back when 1/1 flier aggro was good enough to win games, but that is no longer really a thing that happens. The current deck is stuck between nut draws no one ever beats and mulligans because so many of your hands are unplayable. Sitting down with a deck that mulligans a lot and mulligans poorly is probably one of my least favorite things in Magic. Playing against Stony Silence is probably something I dislike even more.

Playability: 4/10

I asked Alex Majlaton for an Affinity list. He gave me one and told me not to play it. It’s possible he has to retire his physical Arcbound Ravagers as they have literally split in half from overshuffling, but besides that, I can’t think of a reason he wouldn’t play Affinity besides it not being good. Some of the issues have cleared up a bit, like a shift from Elves and other aggressive Collected Company decks to slower ones and a bit more ability to focus sideboard slots on Storm, so I am willing to be wrong here, but Affinity is definitely not easy mode right now.


Comfort Level: 7/10

There is only so far I can fall on this scale if the deck has Thoughtseize and a dedicated plan to apply it. In this case, Thoughtseize exists to line up with their potential two-for-ones to enable the rest of your attrition plan.

Enjoyment: 7/10

Figuring out how to quickly empty their hand is a pretty nice puzzle to solve. If I got bored of that, I would have serious concerns about what I was doing playing Magic.

Playability: 5/10

These kinds of decks fall in and out of favor pretty quickly. I think the score is an aggregate of 3/10 if you miss a bit, 7/10 if you hit. If you have the pulse of the format perfectly called for the week and know if you should be playing planeswalkers and Lingering Souls or Ensnaring Bridge or Night of Soul’s Betrayal or just all-in Shrieking Afflictions go ahead, but if you brick, it’s not going to end great.

Amulet Titan

Comfort Level: 7/10

This deck is oddly easy. There are only so many end results of casting Primeval Titan and which one you want to go for is also pretty straightforward. Without Summer Bloom and weird double Bloom turns, the math is also pretty easy aside from the multiple Amulet cases, and then the math simplifies down to “they are dead.” It’s just counting. The weird part has to do with planning your Azusa, Lost but Seeking and Sakura-Tribe Scout uses in the face of interaction.

Enjoyment: 9/10

I knew after a game or two that any opinion I had about this deck would end up biased. This is pure nostalgia to my days of Legacy Storm. You had your cards, the potential end-games, and the knowledge there is probably some way to route between the two with tons of small steps between. Good luck, have fun.

Playability: ?/10

I won a fair amount when I played this deck, but it felt like my opponents were one good draw away from me being completely unable to play the game. You don’t have very many free wins like the old Amulet deck had, just a lot of Turn 4 Primeval Titans that are unbeatable in ways that Scapeshift can’t offer.

Is that good enough? I don’t know. What if they had just cast a Turn 2 Baral, Chief of Compliance into Turn 3 Gifts Ungiven? I have no idea, but they sure didn’t before getting Pact of Negation Titan’ed out of the game.

I do want to try Mortuary Mire when I go back to the deck, but I have no idea if that is just overkill. If you are chaining off Primeval Titans against removal, is “virtual infinite via bounce lands” significantly different from four? Is there a way to make each consecutive Mortuary Mire-bounce land loop better than just making a Primeval Titan in case you are facing an engine that outpaces that?

This might actually be the hard part. You have access to multiple levels of tutoring. Using them effectively in a massive format requires a lot of time down in the Gatherer trenches. The conflicting actual win rate versus how much the deck feels like it should win make me hesitant to spend the time here, but if that doesn’t bother you, dive into all of the lands, zero-cost spells, and green creatures you can stomach.

Everything Else

So, what’s left? Clearly my goal here was breadth over depth, and there are a lot of options to cover. What is left in the queue to clear starting post-Pro Tour in November?

Lantern Control is next on the docket. I want to try a lot of the weird new stuff people are doing, from Mishra’s Bauble counts to whatever Whir of Invention is trying to do.

I finally saw a Blue Tron list somewhere that looked remotely playable. And by that I mean someone put countermagic in Eldrazi Tron.

A Mardu Burn list with Bedlam Reveler has floated around for the last few months. While I hate the old Kiln Fiend decks and how vulnerable they are to removal, I want to see how far Bedlam Reveler can be pushed and this is a good start.

I’m sure the next month will only add more to this list. There’s always a ton going on in Modern, and missing something now often means not remembering it exists a year later when it is awesome.

Who knows? I might even play some rounds with Kumena’s Speaker, though I have an idea of how that will go.