Past, Present, And Modern

Reid Duke writes an enjoyable overview of the Modern format. Which decks will be major players? What decks should receive consideration despite getting little press? This format is wide open! Time to explore…

Pro Tour Philadelphia will be the large-scale debut of Modern. We have a brand new, never-before-seen format to sink our teeth into! Getting started is a daunting task, especially with the PT less than three weeks away, but there’s no need to start from scratch. There’s room to play around within the limits of Modern, but we also have eight years worth of deck ideas to learn from.

Aside from the extensive banned list, the single biggest difference between Extended and Modern is the Ravnica shocklands: Temple Garden, Stomping Ground, and the rest. An Arid Mesa can now search for seven different dual lands and produce any color of mana! The interaction between the Ravnica shocks and the Zendikar fetchlands makes mana bases smooth and consistent (for anyone willing to pay the life) for even three-, four-, or five-color decks.

The impact of these lands doesn’t stop at smoothing out mana. Some cards need certain basic land types to be in play, and these will consistently and effortlessly function at full capacity in Modern. Dragonskull Summit can always come into play untapped, or you can play giant Dungrove Elders in your three-color deck if that’s your thing. Personally, what pique my interest are the deadly Wild Nacatl and Tribal Flames.

Zendikar was the newest set when Extended-format PT Austin rolled around in October of 2009. Martin Juza wasted no time (his rounds must have all ended in ten minutes!); he built the fastest possible Zoo deck available and took it to the top eight of the tournament. What Steppe Lynx and Goblin Guide lack in late-game power, they make up for with their ability to unload six or eight damage in the first three turns of the game. If he wanted, Mr. Juza could completely disregard his life total to allow all his lands to come into play untapped and still fire off Tribal Flames or Might of Alara for five on his third turn. Who cares about going down to eleven if your opponent is dead!

The two Umezawa’s Jitte in the sideboard were lost to the wave of bannings, but aside from that, this decklist is completely intact and would be a fine choice, even a full two years after its design. I certainly wouldn’t laugh at anyone who brought this seventy-five (seventy-three) to Pro Tour Philadelphia—or if I did, I’d quiet down real quick after I died without hitting my fourth land drop.

The fact that Umezawa’s Jitte is banned, oddly enough, is a boon for this deck, as the card has always been better against Domain Zoo than it is in Domain Zoo. Martin Juza surely felt it necessary to sideboard them as an answer to opposing Jittes, or to get a leg up in the mirror match. In its absence, the weaker creatures of blue and black have absolutely no hope of keeping pace with the Cats and Apes of Zoo.

Martin Juza, however, was not the winner of Pro Tour Austin.

Brian Kibler had a different take on Zoo, sharing only Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, and some removal spells in common with Martin Juza. His build was slower and more powerful—in a word, bigger. He had a huge edge in the pseudo-mirror, as Baneslayer Angel and Knight of the Reliquary could hold off an entire army if they went unanswered. The Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows combo gave him extra insurance against the weenie creatures of Zoo, Faeries, and Elves, as well as some extra oomph against slow decks when the game went late.

Kibler’s maindeck had a more modest mana base than Martin Juza’s. He opted not to worry about Tribal Flames and Might of Alara but still utilized the fetchland + shockland mana base, in part to make the best use of Knight of the Reliquary. Bant and Naya decks of today’s Extended go to great lengths to accommodate her, but in Modern, any deck can easily fit ten or more fetchlands to make her big and plenty of “Forest” and “Plains” to make her ability reliable. Sticking to three colors helped Mr. Kibler fit Treetop Villages, Ghost Quarters, and, of course, Grove of the Burnwillows. Before anyone goes thinking that his mana base was too boring, though, take a look at the four Meddling Mages in the sideboard of this Naya deck! We’re slaves to colored mana requirements no more!

The Extended season of Pro Tour Austin was fast and brutal. Of the top eight decks of that tournament, Brian Kibler Naya Zoo was the slowest! While Modern will certainly have the potential for turn 4 kill aggro decks, that will be counterbalanced by the crushing power of the format’s late-game decks. For an analogy, let me take you even further back in time:

Now, I would laugh if anyone brought this particular deck to Pro Tour Philadelphia. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a strategy that will have a deep impact on Modern; it only means that the particular cards will have to change.

With the printing of Glimmerpost in Scars of Mirrodin, “Twelve-Post,” so called because it plays four copies each of Cloudpost, Glimmerpost, and Vesuva, has been a fringe deck in Legacy. It’s capable of a number of devastating and mind-boggling plays, not the least of which is hardcasting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The fact that it’s less than dominant in Legacy is no comfort for Modern players, as Legacy is also home to Wasteland, Price of Progress, and a myriad of turn 2 kills, which are absent from the fledgling format.

The insane late-game power of these big mana control decks makes passing each turn a more and more frightening experience for their opponents. Their strength is two-fold in that they have a progressively bigger advantage the longer the game goes but are also capable of nut-draws that end things in short order. The closest things we have in current Standard and Extended are Valakut and Eldrazi Green. The difference is that those decks devote dozens of cards to proactive mana-ramp while Urzatron and Twelve-Post get their big mana from the inherent, passive abilities of their lands. As Adam Yurchick’s list demonstrates, these decks can find room for whatever combination of permission, removal, card draw, and big finishers that their pilots deem necessary.

What the best Modern Twelve-Post deck will look like is a question that I unfortunately feel unable to answer today. A U/W or U/B control shell similar to Adam Yurchick’s Urzatron is one possible way, as Wrath of God and Damnation are appealing cards for creature-light strategies like this one. However, it could be that the proactive plan of ramping mana is powerful enough to stand on its own and only needs cards like Remand and Repeal to buy time. If that’s the case, maybe a monocolor build would be possible. Will these decks play Chalice of the Void? Will they make use of Mox Opal and other artifact mana? Is it written in stone that they even have to be blue?

Perhaps it’s only that I’m afraid of the unknown, but I have to say that this strategy is the one that most worries me going into PT Philadelphia. Anyone who fails to take it seriously or thinks that obvious hate cards like Blood Moon will be enough could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Decks like Twelve-Post make me wish for the Armageddons that I so loved as a child. Unfortunately, that particular card is long gone, probably never to return. The substitutes—Boom / Bust, Thoughts of Ruin, Realm Razer—could be fringe cards, but they’re underpowered and each require a bit too much setup for my liking. However,

Pernicious Deed, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Ravenous Baloth are gone, but the core of this deck remains intact. If the format is defined by Big Zoo and Twelve-Post, Death Cloud Rock could be a great choice. More than being a metagame call, however, Jonathon Sonne’s deck packs hand destruction and a variety of answers to support his powerful endgame. All that while having a more-than-adequate plan B of attacking with Tarmogoyfs and Beasts.

Explore, Maelstrom Pulse, and Kitchen Finks are all possible new options for this deck. In particular, Twilight Mire would be a great addition as it ensures that even hands full of basic Forests and Treetop Villages can cast double-black spells and Death Cloud. It could even allow “greedy” cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir if that’s a direction that someone wanted to go.

Finally, I’d like to warn that, despite the large banned list, combo is not dead. Hypergenesis and Dark Depths are gone, but there are dozens more that will try to take their place. Dedicated combos like Living End and Hive Mind can still go off very quickly. Necrotic Ooze shenanigans and Splinter Twin can provide surprise kills out of seemingly ordinary creature decks. Seismic Swans, Time Sieve, Polymorph are all old Standard options that might still be able to compete, or might gain some new tools from the larger card pool. If there’s one combo that stands out to me, though, it’s Pyromancer Ascension.

While it didn’t put a pilot into the top eight of last year’s Pro Tour Amsterdam (a mixed format PT), Pyromancer Ascension was a big deck that gave no fewer than twelve players records of 6-4 or better in the Extended portion. Compared to Standard, where it’s also a viable deck, players have access to Peek, Cryptic Command, and Punishing Fire, which contribute to the consistency of the deck and provide much needed card advantage. More importantly, Manamorphose and Time Warp provide a true “combo” aspect to the deck so that, rather than simply being a great value card, an active Pyromancer Ascension means that the opponent will die before getting another turn.

Even since last year, Gitaxian Probe has been printed as yet another useful cantrip, and Bitterblossom has been banned, removing one of Pyromancer Ascension’s (and combo’s in general) biggest enemies. I nearly played Pyromancer Ascension in the Extended portion of the World Championships last year, but the one flaw with the deck was its Faeries matchup. After sideboard they could have six one-mana discard spells, and if I didn’t resolve an Ascension turn 2 on the play, I rarely had another chance. Granted, that was without access to the Punishing Fire combo, but either way Ascension players have one less thing to worry about with U/B Faeries out of the picture.

New Cards in Modern

With the exception of Mr. Matignon’s Pyromancer Ascension deck, the lists I’ve offered are all from before Worldwake. It would be foolish to think that Modern is simply a repeat of old Extended, as the card pool is generally bigger, and half a dozen new sets have come out in the meantime!

Dismember: Undeniably a defining card in Standard. To use Brian Kibler words, “It’s Dismember’s world now—we’re just living in it.” In Standard, however, even decks that win by attacking generally need some semblance of board control to execute their game plans, so the cost of four life to cast Dismember in a nonblack deck is often well worth it. Modern will be different; the goal of a one-drop in Zoo is to deal four or six damage anyway, so if you pay life to Dismember it, you haven’t done much except spent a mana and a card! My point is not that Dismember will be unplayable, only that we can’t be frivolous with our life total in Modern between fetchlands, shocklands, and the overall speed of the format.

While life total is certainly important, Dismember is a great tempo card and provides one more answer to Knight of the Reliquary, which absolutely must be answered right away. With an uncertain mix of Punishing Fire, Lightning Bolt, and Dismember certain to be at Pro Tour Philadelphia, it’s hard to know which creatures should make the cut and which are simply too vulnerable. The only sure bets are Old Ghastbark and Rotted Hystrix, which are sure to be format-defining cards.

Hero of Bladehold: At least dodges the burn and also fits the description of “absolutely must be answered right away.” Baneslayer Angel took Brian Kibler to the Pro Tour title two years ago, and Hero of Bladehold is even better for an aggressive deck. It ends the game fast, and costing four mana instead of five can make all the difference.

Green Sun’s Zenith: Ladies and gentlemen, Zenith and Dryad Arbor are together for the first time ever outside of Legacy! Considering how many of Modern’s best cards are green creatures, I’ll certainly be trying out a deck with this card.

Inquisition of Kozilek: After criticizing Dismember, I have to mention Inquisition. Thoughtseize was already great, and tacking “gain two life” onto it is well worth the one time in ten that you’ll want to take their Cryptic Command and can’t.

Arbor Elf: Untaps the green Ravnica dual lands and is therefore a big consideration along with Noble Hierarch, Birds of Paradise, and Green Sun’s Zenith for a midrange deck that wants to ramp from one to three.

And finally, Squadron Hawk: Unplayable, don’t try it! I for one am looking forward to something new in Modern. It’s a chance to bring back some great cards that haven’t had a good home in a while. Let’s make the most of it.