This week, I decided to do a little something different. I’ve looked at some spicy meatballs lately —the W/R Twin deck Martin Juza took to the Grand Prix and the Zur the Enchanter deck on Magic Online are both really cool, and I’d love to talk about them later, after I’ve had the opportunity to familiarize myself with those decks.
Rather than go over an interesting new deck from MTGO or brew up something new, I decided a retrospective was in order this week. We’ve strung together a few Modern Grand Prix in recent months, which have provided a mostly redundant picture of the format for most players. Each Top Eight has appeared vaguely similar, with a different winner each time.
That’s actually pretty refreshing, considering the dominance Melira Pod showed early in the year. Leaving the World Championships, I was optimistic about the state of Modern. Sure, the World Championship had featured basically a three-deck format — Jund, B/G, and U/W/R Control — but everyone seemed content with the idea that Pod was very beatable. After all, with thousands of dollars on the line and plenty of Pro Points, each of these players had… not played Pod.
Josh McClain gave us a scare in Detroit, but the next two Grand Prix saw new decks taking trophies home and the format appeared to be tightening up. However, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees — especially in Magic. The results of a single tournament tend to have a big mental impact on players’ biases and deck selection. I vastly prefer to compare the results of tournaments together over time, allowing the most successful decks to help paint me a picture of the Modern metagame.
To that end, I like to start by examining recent results. Often, I might build spreadsheets using MTGO Daily Events, but for this week I’m just using Top 16 decklists from the Grand Prix in Detroit, Brisbane, and Antwerp.
Thoughtseize Midrange: 17
Jund + W: 2
B/G Rock: 2
Birthing Pod Combo: 8
Melira Pod: 5
Kiki Pod: 2
Naya Pod: 1
Splinter Twin Combo: 4
U/R Splinter Twin: 3
U/W/R Twin: 1
G/R Tron: 3
Living End: 3
Naya Midrange: 2
U/W/R Midrange: 1
W/G Midrange: 1
Winners: Melira Pod, Affinity, and U/R Twin
I’ve grouped these up a bit to better parse the information. Let’s break them down!
Clearly, the most popular archetypes are the Thoughtseize Midrange decks, which are all vaguely similar in nature. Of the 48 available slots in these three events, this category accounts for over a third of the population. Does that mean these decks are the most successful? That’s more debatable — after all, if half the field is playing them and they only account for a third of the successful finishes, then that’s a pretty dismal showing.
In Detroit, over 40 of about 180 players were playing these decks on Day 2, while the best guess in Antwerp is about 40 of 200. I don’t have any numbers for Brisbane, but if I assume the numbers were mostly consistent, these archetypes are overperforming the expectations based on representation by a reasonable margin.
The differences between the decks — additional colors, specific threat selection — are only really relevant as the metagame or player preference fluctuates. I’m not seeking to discount player skill; the Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Willy Edel finishes in Grand Prix Detroit certainly weren’t just because Thoughtseize is a good Magic card, as these players have demonstrated a knack for consistent success in this format. That said, it’s not like I could design a very reasonable way to account for that addition, so let’s just leave it at “Magic is a game of skill.”
The B/G Rock deck took off quite a bit following the World Championship, but it has since cooled significantly. I can’t really imagine any incentive to play it over the other three variants… Regular ol’ Jund is the most popular of these decks, of course, but I’d much rather be playing one of the Junk decks or splashing white into the Jund deck right now. Stony Silence is a very valuable weapon against Affinity and Tron decks, especially in conjunction with Fulminator Mage. Pairing these cards together is a recipe for success, and Big Fulms is also a massive beating against random control decks.
If I was casting Thoughtseize in Modern, I’d be playing something very close to the deck Lucas Siow played to the Top 16 at Grand Prix Detroit. In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing for months, and it has made me a tidy profit on Magic Online.
I’ve been very impressed by the Sword of Light and Shadow, and am currently playing two copies. The Blood Baron never really made sense or worked out for me, so consider that my grain of salt.
Birthing Pod Combo
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about Birthing Pod, as it has been done to death. The deck is very good, but I’ve never been interested in playing it due to the difficulty level and the amount of practice required to become incredibly proficient.
Birthing Pod’s power level comes from its ability to play like a competent midrange deck while threatening a brutal combo kill. In some ways, the deck is kind of like Legacy Elves. When you don’t respect the creatures, you get beaten to death, and when you can’t beat the engine — whether it’s Glimpse of Nature and Natural Order or Birthing Pod — you will die to something unfair instead.
Two things are worth pointing out. First, Pod has actually been underplayed at a few of these Grand Prix, considering its success — part boredom, part difficulty level, and part metagame shifts, I’m sure. Second, for all the people that played Melira Pod and Kiki Pod, it’s not so surprising to see the deck spiking Top 16s. Not many players are sleeving up Naya Pod, however… so this deck might be worth working into your playtesting. It certainly looks sweet!
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Cunning Sparkmage
- 1 Fauna Shaman
- 1 Molten-Tail Masticore
- 1 Spellskite
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
Theoretically, the Naya Midrange deck championed by Brian Kibler is actually fine against Jund — it has been in my experience — so applying a lot of those concepts to a Pod deck creates a new kind of midrange monstrosity. Keep in mind that Brisbane was a very small Grand Prix, so its results are worth considering a little differently, but this is the sort of Pod deck I could actually see myself playing.
At least once all this Living End nonsense cools off… Spoiler alert!
I don’t like Affinity.
It has been a very successful Modern deck lately, and remains one of the most popular both because it’s the best pure aggressive deck and one of the more affordable decks in the format by no small margin. That said, it’s as vulnerable as its opponents want to make it, and that’s a big turnoff for me. I have a lot of friends who swear by it, but I just can’t stomach the idea of putting myself at the mercy of a lot of cards that I personally think are worth playing, even when the community is apparently willing to inexplicably eschew them.
The deck is not a simple creature, and if you want to join the ranks of the artifact lovers, I won’t blame you — but it takes practice, practice, and more practice. Especially sideboarded games, where you need to mulligan more purposefully depending on the opponent.
It’s no accident that the deck is doing well, but it’s mostly a byproduct of the choices players have been making against rather than its inherent strength.
Splinter Twin Combo
A lot of people thought Abrupt Decay spelled death for Splinter Twin. Well, Decay is one of the most heavily-played removal spells in the format… and Splinter Twin just crushed a massive Grand Prix in Belgium. It’s safe to say that Twin is a force to be reckoned with, and here to stay.
This deck is another one I consider “too hard for Glenn Jones.” If Magic was a one-game format, I’d probably play exclusively Twin in Modern… but sideboarding is hard! I’m never sure how to optimize the deck in post-board games, and I’ve never found a great guide to it either. That’s especially relevant here, because Twin possesses some of the more polarized matchups in Modern. It makes Twin a great deck if you can hit the right matchups and predict the right field, but a much worse one when you guess wrong. My other favorite aspect of Twin is what I like to consider the constant bonus for playing combo decks.
See, when you make a mistake against Jund, they generate value; against Affinity, they get in extra damage. You might be able to still win. When you make a mistake against Twin… you usually take infinite damage!
As much as I like U/W/R Twin, I can’t advocate playing it. The Jund matchup for that deck is just too loose, and as we’ve already discussed… Jund is a helluva deck. Stick to U/R, and keep an eye on David Caplan for the latest lists.
Tron is such a Modern spoiler. I mostly blame Tron for my inability to play all my sweet decks, as its big-mana strategy gives control decks fits while stuff like maindeck Relic of Progenitus is really obnoxious for all of my cool Bloodghast fun. I just want to play with graveyards, I’m not even trying to do broken stuff!
These decks do some awesome things in Modern, and they’re very impressive… when they’re working. When they aren’t, it’s an embarrassment. I don’t like that aspect of the deck, and it honestly isn’t that hard to battle Tron if you really want to. The deck has held onto a pretty small sliver of the metagame for some time, and it hasn’t won a Grand Prix despite posting positive matchups against the two biggest decks.
Like Twin, Tron’s matchups are pretty polarized. When Tron’s bad, it’s usually very bad. It’s tough to dodge matches where you’re a massive dog all tournament, and it’s also easy to get caught by someone who over-sideboards, or by your deck being a big jerk and refusing to cough up the Karns. Modern magicians have gotten better and better at figuring out how to beat Tron, and the deck may be taking up permanent residence in Tier 2 of the metagame without something to turn the tide.
It’s interesting that G/R has remained the go-to Tron deck, because Mono-Blue Tron caught on in a big way during the PTQ season. That deck has since died out, but I’m not precisely sure why. I gather that the blue Tron decks are generally even better against control decks, which means that the “death” of Modern control may have removed too much of their prey from this ecosystem.
It’s tempting to fantasize that blue Tron’s counters and interaction help to reverse its disadvantages against combo decks, but that’s not actually true. Those cards all suck, and they’re not hard to beat for experienced combo players.
One of the most deceptive decks in Modern, it’s easy to see a gimmicky deck like Living End and assume that you’ve got enough to fight it. Graveyard deck? I have Deathrite Shaman and Scavenging Ooze, lolz!
You’re usually wrong.
This deck can sequence its threats aggressively or conservatively, and it can also play a hilariously good game of fair Magic. Sure, Monstrous Carabid and his ilk aren’t even passable on the Modern playability scale, but when the opponent is wrapped up in defending themselves from an instant speed Plague Wind with an army attached, you’d be surprised how often random big monsters go unchecked. Modern decks are tight on mana with specific suites of removal spells — they don’t like to fight two wars at once, and they like creatures to cost less than four or die to Lightning Bolt.
What’s fun to me about Living End is that I very much doubt we’ve even exhausted all of its possibilities. You can sideboard a transformation with stuff like Boom/Bust or Thoughtseize, you can jam a bunch of Swords and go weirdo beatdown — it’s a surprisingly wide-open world as long as you build with the cascade mechanic always in mind.
Living End had its strongest showing in Antwerp just this weekend — no doubt a product of the clear bend toward creature-based strategies on the rise in recent Modern metagames, with many of the other combo decks on the decline. I doubt Living End will ever take Tier 1 by storm, but it will always remain a predator, waiting in the wings for unwary metagames upon which to pounce.
The remaining decks are mostly just beauty pageant contestants.
“You guys look great, good job. Now if you could arrange yourselves off to the side while we read the votes…”
I’m not saying these decks are unplayable, I’m just saying there are better decks. Most of them exhibit glaring weaknesses that other decks are just better at accounting for, or they’re decks that simply aren’t positioned correctly against the majority of the Modern format. They do, however, offer a lesson.
I love me a Burn deck, but deciding to cast Bump in the Night in a format where many people think Martyr of Sands is a Magic card? Granted, these Martyr people are pretty crazy, but it’s even more insane to walk into that fight. Just play a deck with more range! Modern is a format with a lot of power, and you’re already going to lose games because your opponents drew more powerful sequences. You don’t need to handicap yourself further by playing cards so heavily dependent on synergy that you automatically lose when you flood.
A lot of players are learning exactly how this works in Standard right now, thanks to the introduction of Thoughtseize to that format. We’ve had it for years — it’s nothing new to the Modern format. You beat attrition by playing many cards that are good on their own, or by sidestepping the issue with redundancy and defenses.
When I’m examining decks in this format, I run through its potential like a checklist. I examine its ability to fight through Thoughtseize, to disrupt Pod, to defend against Affinity, and to race Twin — and then I start looking for cards that are good against the pillars of the format. In fact, that’s the biggest reason I got so enthusiastic about Master of Waves a few weeks ago, and why I was very happy to hear Raphael Levy championed Merfolk in Antwerp.
- 2 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Silvergill Adept
- 3 Cursecatcher
- 2 Coralhelm Commander
- 4 Master of the Pearl Trident
- 2 Thassa, God of the Sea
- 4 Master of Waves
- 16 Island
- 4 Mutavault
- 2 Tectonic Edge
For the record, I don’t know if Master even needs to be in a Merfolk deck. The sweetest thing I can picture doing is curving Kira, Great Glass-Spinner into Master, and any base-blue aggressive deck could offer that option… even some kind of hybrid Twin deck!
But that, my friends, is an article for another day.
No matter how many times we look at it, Modern always seems to be just a little more than meets the eye — and that’s my favorite part.