One Step Ahead – Modern

Gerry Thompson playtested for the Pro Tour with famed magicians like Michael Jacob and Patrick Chapin, and shares the many brews that were considered, including Spellweaver Helix, Oriss Lockdown, and what he ended up playing…

My testing for Pro Tour Philadelphia started with an email list consisting of Gabriel Nassif, Patrick Chapin, Paul Rietzl, and Matt Sperling. Ideas were thrown around, and Patrick tested us all by asking, “If you could have any seven-drop creature in play on turn two, what would it be?”

He was clearly talking about Birthing Pod, but what was the missing piece? It was scenarios like this, involving the forgotten Salvage Titan, that made me glad to have Patrick on my team. He was doing plenty of legwork, digging up gems that most players wouldn’t even think were viable. Treasure Mage for Salvage Titan, Birthing Pod up a Protean Hulk, kill you with Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and some Memnites? Completely insane.

I started with this deck:

The goal is to get Fauna Shaman and Oriss into play, and lock them out of the game. You have Squee to get a free Oriss every turn, a Scryb Ranger to use the Shaman multiple times per turn cycle, and a Kozilek to reshuffle all of the used Orisses. Eventually, you find Teferi for the full lock, which is castable via Hierarchs and Birds, Aether Vial, or by Knight-ing up the Flooded Grove.

There are some subtle interactions, such as Eiganjo Castle with Oriss, Aether Vial with Dryad Arbor, and fetchland into Dryad Arbor with Scryb Ranger and Fauna Shaman in play. Overall, a very cool deck to play.

I was immediately attracted to this list that Sperling posted. Zero creatures, lots of cool blue spells, and a combo kill are all things that I like. Zoo was a difficult matchup based on the initial testing Sperling did, but I wasn’t sure that was enough to dissuade me.

The comparison to Pyromancer Ascension was apt, but I liked Helix more than I liked Ascension. For one, Helix rewarded you for playing out your draw spells before the Helix, whereas Ascension likes it when you land an Ascension first. That was always the tough part of playing Ascension. Sometimes you would chain draw spells in order to find your namesake enchantment, only to be out of gas at that point.

It ended up being poor against Zoo, but once we realized that Zoo wasn’t actually good, as it lost handily to most combo decks, it meant that this would lose to other combo decks as well.

Sperling posted this one next.

I tried finding Blazing Shoals on MTGO to speculate, as this was a clear turn two or three kill deck, but they were all gone! Apparently Greg Hatch plays one way, and one way only…

We played over ten games with Larry Swasey Pyromancer Ascension deck against his updated Infect deck. Removal plus blue cards was a good strategy against it, but I didn’t foresee many people attempting to interact in the Pro Tour. Infect was likely a good choice.

Meanwhile, Sperling and Brian DeMars were also working on big Naya Zoo, which I would much rather play than normal Zoo. It was essentially a G/W midrange deck with some Punishing Fires and Boom / Busts, not the typical Wild Nacatl affair. I could see playing that type of deck, but I wanted some serious help against combo in game one.

The format was shaping up to be Cloudpost decks and decks that beat Cloudpost, which meant combo. At that point, I wanted a combo deck that was faster than the rest, a Cloudpost deck that beat the mirror and combo, or a control deck that did it all.

Patrick and I spoke on the phone as I was heading into Pittsburgh, and he hit me with a wave of control technology. Shadow of Doubt was his answer to the format, and it seemed very reasonable to me. Mono-Green Cloudpost almost always ran a Green Sun’s Zenith into it, as they had no choice. If nothing else, it allowed you to Doom Blade a Primeval Titan without letting them get value.

“But, Patrick, how do you kill them?” I asked.

“Would you play Grave Titan or Wurmcoil Engine in this format?” he enquired.

“Hmm, not sure. Can it be neither?”

“What if it was both, in one card?”

“Go on…”

Apparently, Stoneforge Mystic isn’t completely banned. There’s still Godo, Bandit Warlord that can fetch up Batterskull. You get the multiple creature angle of Grave Titan, but with some of the lifelink aspect from Wurmcoil as well. If the format was slow enough that we needed a six-drop to close, I was on board.

We had Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas decks, Blood Moon control decks, Teachings decks, R/U/G control decks, you name it. Godo was in all of them. However, as Zoo started to decline as a deck to beat, things like Godo no longer mattered.

Patrick’s control decks would Thoughtseize, Spell Snare, or Logic Knot an early spell; he’d Shadow of Doubt Cloudpost’s big threat, draw some cards, and eventually lose to their inevitability. Disruption into Bribery was a solid plan, but he was already playing Mystical Teachings and Esper Charm, so why not jam Isochron Scepter and Silence into the deck? Teferi completed the lock, much like it did in the Oriss deck, and it seemed like a combo kill was necessary.

We played a game; he locked me out with it; and despite drawing a Beast Within, I knew he still had a Logic Knot. I waited, but eventually he played Teferi, and I was kold. The Scepters seemed like a much better plan than Baneslayer Angel, Grave Titan, or White Sun’s Zenith, especially since Glimmerpost was a real problem. However, Patrick didn’t like how unclean it felt. I couldn’t blame him there, but it felt like we needed a combo kill.

Eventually I built a Faerie deck that splashed the Splinter Twin combo, which wasn’t a very well-constructed deck. This led Patrick to go on a Mistbind Clique love affair, where he dabbled in various versions of Faeries.

In the background, Sperling was jamming games with a mono-green Amulet of Vigor Scapeshift deck, and we eventually decided to add blue to the deck for Trinket Mage and Compulsive Research. The deck was clunky and inconsistent, but was capable of some very convincing turn two kills. It was clear that what was happening on Magic Online was not a clear indicator of the things possible in Modern.

I didn’t like any of our decks, but knew they were all good. Naya wasn’t my style. I hate that feeling where you cast a Knight, it dies, and you’re out of gas. Boom / Bust and Kavu Predator were great against Cloudpost, but despite Cloudpost being the number one deck, I didn’t want to beat just that. We still had the Cloudpost hating combo decks to worry about, and Naya just didn’t do it for me.

The Amulet deck was very cool but wasn’t consistent enough. Infect was another one of those super-fast, inconsistent decks; although this one probably lost hard to Zoo. Chapin’s control decks were all good at what they were, but they required getting the right pairings. I figured, if I’m going to play a deck that I need to aim for the stars with, it should be an overpowered, degenerate combo deck.

I consulted Michael Jacob. He was not having the best of years, so he was easy to sway to my side. We both needed to spike the tournament, not grind out a min-cash, as we were both low on pro points. He was on board with playing a high variance deck, so we ran through the options.

I believe my thought process went through something like this:

“The Amulet deck needs to play a bunch of Eldrazi so that it can cast them the turn it Scapeshifts, but having them in hand sucks. I guess we could play Through the Breach to make them not rot in our hand, derf derf.”

“Through the Breach-ing a Primeval Titan isn’t bad…”

“Holy crap MJ, you’re right; let’s go build this.”

Over the next 24 hours, we tore through several iterations of R/G Cloudpost, mostly keeping the same shell. We recognized that Amulet of Vigor was necessary at keeping the deck on the same level, speed-wise, as the rest of the format. In order to make Amulet speed you up, you wanted Scapeshift. In order for Scapeshift to do anything, you had to be able to cast a fattie that turn, which made you want to play a bunch of them. Ancient Stirrings found both pieces, and Through the Breach was an additional way to power up your Eldrazi.

It wasn’t like our deck was this linear storm combo deck; it was just a pile of cards that happened to interact well with each other, but with no ultimate goal. In that vein, it was similar to Dark Depths in that Vampire Hexmage and Thopter Foundry had no synergy with each other, but they both worked with Muddle the Mixture.

We needed to tune.

I was, perhaps, a little detrimental to this whole process, as I wanted Summer Bloom to work badly, yet wasn’t willing to play multiple copies of Scapeshift, despite them having similar functions. It was another card that turned on our Amulets (in combination with Gruul Turf) and was something that I wanted to play ever since a Summer Bloom deck got ninth at German Nationals a few years back.

For some reason, I just like putting extra lands into play. Azusa, Lost but Seeking and Exploration are a couple of my favorite cards, and I don’t really know why.

Michael Jacob and Jason Ford, two of the most level-headed people I know, frequently pointed out that Summer Bloom did mostly nothing in the games that they watched me play, but there was always that allure of the turn two kill…

Eventually, they convinced me to trim it down to one, as drawing one was almost always fine.

We settled on an R/G list the night before the Pro Tour, while Patrick was firmly in the Splinter Twin camp, for lack of better options. Sperling and Brian DeMars were on Naya, and I would have been as well had six pro points meant anything to me. It felt difficult to actually win the tournament with it though.

The morning of the player meeting, I suggested adding Knight of the Reliquary to the deck, but MJ was skeptical. He really liked Knight in his version of Cloudpost that he built week one, as did I, but splicing the two together at the last second didn’t please him. When I suggested adding Arena to our sideboard (that Sperling just added to his Naya deck), it turned out to be just enough spice to convince MJ to brew with me.

With fifteen minutes to go, we revamped the mana, sideboard, and got to cut some of the sketchier cards from the maindeck, like Ancient Stirrings and Summer Bloom. I purchased two foil Arenas, grabbed an ugly M11 Plains from the basic land station, and registered this beast:

“Is your deck highlander? How do you fit all these cards?” —More than one of my opponents.

Amulet of Vigor was amazing and had me wishing I had more copies somehow, either with Ancient Stirrings or Trinket Mage instead of Knights. Knight was good for MJ, but often too slow for me. Several of my matches, especially those in day two, would have been easy wins for me if I had Amulet.

Arena may seem suspect, but it was actually awesome. Against Splinter Twin, it’s a surprise way to stop their combo. You can even cast Primeval Titan with Amulet in play, and search for Cloudpost and Arena, which basically locks them out of the game.

Our major breakthrough was when we realized that you don’t actually need twelve Posts to be optimal. Glimmerpost is actually the worst card in the mirror match, and thankfully we were able to side all of ours out.

Round One: Elves

I killed him game one, and then mulliganed to four and five in the next games. In the third, I had Firespout, but my third land was Eye of Ugin, and he killed me on his turn three.

Round Two: Mono-Green Cloudpost

I needed to peel an Eldrazi in both games, and managed to do just that.

Round Three: Mono-Green Amulet Cloudpost

He messed up by not Beast Within-ing my Amulet, combo-ed me game two, and I combo-ed him game three.

Round Four: Splinter Twin


After this round, I ran up to MJ to tell him that I just took Deceiver Exarch into the Arena. He cackled and told me the same. I informed him that I also Eye of Ugin-ed for Spellskite, and he replied “Me too!”

He followed that up with more cackling.

At first, MJ was in a salty mood, thinking that we were going to crash and burn together, but now he was in one of the best moods I had ever seen him. It was perfect.

Round Five: R/G Through the Breach Cloudpost

He won the die roll and was able to Beast Within my land before I could cast Through the Breach on turn three. I won a close game two, and then he cast Primeval Titan on turn three, which put me behind. I went through a bunch of cards looking for an Amulet so I could combo him out with a Scapeshift, but missed.

Round Twelve: Affinity

I cast Firespout on turn three rather than Knight of the Reliquary, which would have encouraged him to overcommit and given me a chance to Ghost Quarter his Blinkmoth Nexus. After that, I got crushed.

Round Thirteen: Splinter Twin

He crushed me, even through hate.

Round Fourteen: U/G Cloudpost

Game one was easy. Second game, I started with Scapeshift on turn three, which he Remanded. Turn four, I should have attacked for one with Dryad Arbor, then Scapeshift, but decided that I should play Scapeshift first, and play around Condescend for one. He Remanded it again, and I drew Through the Breach, which I cast on his next end of turn step.

He Condescended it. Ding!

I was able to resolve Scapeshift, careful to not give him enough mana to Emrakul me. He could Ulamog, which I was fine with, and he did. I took a hit, and he annihilated most of my permanents. End of his turn I cast another Through the Breach, which was also Condescended, but the one on my turn resolved, and he was eaten by a larger alien.

Round Fifteen: G/W Hate Bears

I cast turn three Primeval Titan, but he Pathed it and slammed down Aven Mindcensor. My first Zenith for six whiffed, but my second found another Titan. I tried to race, but that was failing because he had a Sword of Fire and Ice. I drew an embarrassing Firespout and conceded.

Our game two was close, but he played around everything. Once he Mana Tithed my Primeval Titan, I was too far behind to come back.

Round Sixteen: Infect

Somehow, I won game one. Game two, he mulliganed to five, and I went to six. I had no hate and tapped out for a Knight, and he killed me.

In the final game, he went for a Blazing Shoal, but I had the Combust. He rebuilt with another Blighted Agent, tapping out to do so, so I went for the kill with Through the Breach/Emrakul. He cast Pact of Negation.


On his turn, he Trickbinded the trigger and killed me.

A fitting way to end my Pro Tour.

Despite the diversity, I don’t feel like Modern is a healthy format. As many others have put it, it’s a field of Belcher decks, some stable combo decks like Splinter Twin, and some Zoo decks. I can’t imagine many people wanting to slug through PTQs against turn-three storm kills. WotC probably wants Modern to function as a real format, but that seems impossible if someone gets turn three-ed on a semi regular basis.

My suggested ban list would be:

Through the Breach
Cloudpost (although maybe Glimmerpost is enough, as the Cloudpost decks are fine if they can’t win races against Zoo)
Rite of Flame
Amulet of Vigor
Blazing Shoal

Lotus Bloom could deserve the axe past that, but like Jace, at least you can interact with it. Turn four combo decks are easy to disrupt and race, and that doesn’t get any easier for them once their Lotuses are getting Grudged.

After that, Eggs seems like the fastest deck, so maybe something would need to be banned from there. Second Sunrise kills the entire thing, so that’s probably the best bet.

Manamorphose is also an egregious offender, mostly in combination with Pyromancer Ascension or other storm decks. I’d keep a careful eye on that one as well.

Unbanning a blue card seems necessary in order to make those decks competitive. I’ve heard range from Stoneforge Mystic, Bitterblossom, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, to Ancestral Vision. Granted, Mystic and Blossom aren’t exactly blue cards, but we all know what types of decks they’d go in.

Jace or Ancestral are necessary to give blue a viable engine, and a way to win. While Jace provides an actual win condition, Ancestral decks typically have inevitability as long as they can keep the cards flowing. Of those two, I feel like Jace is the safest, since you can actually interact with it, whereas there’s almost nothing you can do vs. Ancestral.

Umezawa’s Jitte is likely a fine card to unban as well, even though I know it falls in the camp of “obnoxious things we’ve already had to play against.”

All of these cards have something in common: they make more mana than they cost, or provide an effect that is cheaper than it should be. From past experiences, we know that those types of cards are dangerous, and I don’t think that Modern can survive if this is what the format looks like.

Yes, it’s diverse, but the diversity is all about which turn three kill deck you want to use. Drew Levin said that it’s similar to what Legacy would look like without Wasteland and Force of Will, and I agree.