Playing (Semi)Fair In Modern

Ari writes about the G/R Tron deck he played in the MOCS, tells you how he did, goes over what he learned from it, and talks about a couple other decks he considered playing.

I played in a MOCS for the first time since Zendikar block this past weekend and promptly went 0-2 drop. Happens to everyone. I admittedly slacked in my preparation because the event didn’t mean much to me.

The important thing: Grand Prix Detroit is rapidly approaching and is 100% the same format (Modern). What can I learn from this?

What I Played

Why This Deck Was Good

See discussion last week. Tron beats everything that isn’t pure combo fairly handily. The Josh Utter-Leyton B/G deck is better than most fair decks against it, but that’s not counting for much.

It also mulligans extremely well. I think the odds of winning off a mull to four in my experience are somewhere around 40%, and the one game I’ve played off three cards I won. It does mulligan more than most decks, but in general resilience to mulligans is a big plus over a long event.

I also expected an all-time low of non-Twin combo. U/R counterspell decks are at an all-time high, including Twin being the most played combo deck. With seven board cards, I was not concerned about the Twin matchup, and presumably few Storm players would make it through a relatively spiteful metagame.

Why I Did Poorly

I lost a mirror where I got Karned first. Happens.

The other match I lost was against the enemy. No, not U/W/R. I’m talking about the deck that has had a huge surge in popularity online: Jeff Hoogland U/R Delver.

This deck has become a big anti-combo enforcer in the metagame. Any deck that can’t kill a Delver of Secrets just gets Remanded a couple times then Bolted out.

The reason I lost was an incorrect mulligan decision for the matchup. Game 3 on the play I saw Expedition Map, two Sylvan Scryings, two Grove of the Burnwillows, Pyroclasm, and Relic of Progenitus. Under normal conditions, this hand is terrible under the rule of no Tron, no keep, but against Delver all you need to do is kill their first guy. They can Remand you into next Tuesday as long as they aren’t dealing damage to you every turn. If the game keeps going, they will run out of counters (or permanents to sacrifice to annihilator 6); you just need to make sure they don’t kill you.

So I shipped, drew up a hand that was Tron and a threat, and died to a bunch of Remands and a Delver. Lesson learned.

Aside: Blood Moon is just straight-up bad against Tron out of a lot of decks. I think I’ve won four of the last five games my opponent has Blood Mooned me. U/R Delver and Affinity are the two biggest offenders. Your manlands are your biggest edge when my plan is to run you out of threats—thanks for the help! Tron is perfectly capable of casting Pyroclasm, activating Oblivion Stone, and casting Wurmcoil Engine with Mountains. Seriously, Stone Rain might just be better (or Molten Rain if you can afford the double red).

I would play Tron again 100%. I have no regrets about my deck choice. That said, I had some sick back up options.

Let’s start with the R/G Aggro list I actually put time into:

Reasons This Deck Is Good

This is not actually a “fair” deck. You goldfish on turn 4 basically every game. Your cards are all completely redundant, so unlike true combo you don’t really “fizzle” and don’t have games revolve around a single reactive card.

There are hate cards for this deck, but no one currently plays them. Firespout is overshadowed by Pyroclasm most of the time, and I haven’t seen an Engineered Explosives since 2012. The four-mana sweepers are just too slow most of the time, and Hallowed Burial is laughable.

Things I Didn’t Try

More / less lands: The original list of this deck that Gabe Carleton-Barnes won a PTQ with almost half a year ago had 21 lands, including a Teetering Peaks. I could see going down to eighteen as well. As is, I didn’t have many issues with nineteen and don’t think any colorless or come-into-play tapped value lands are worth it. The deck’s strength is being super linear, and compromising that for flexibility isn’t where it’s at.

Vexing Devil: I’m pretty sure I’ve made this rant before, but Vexing Devil is basically a bad Rakdos Cackler. If they pay life for it, you probably could have hit them at least twice with Cackler. The most common example of this is turn 1. If they don’t, Cackler wouldn’t have hit them twice. There’s these very weird windows where Devil is better, like needing to kill in one turn when they are at three or four or when playing into a sweeper on turn 2 or 3, but I just want the best turn 1 play. Experiment One counters are cute but not much more.

Cutting Burning-Tree Emissary: Cutting Frogmite from Affinity was 100% correct. This isn’t Affinity, but a random 2/2 body can feel very marginal at times. I wouldn’t do it if I had a real event tomorrow, but it’s on the list of things to try.

Things I Did Try

Mutagenic Growth: It doesn’t kill Tarmogoyf. It doesn’t do a lot of damage to them. Honestly, it really does about nothing. Yes, you are a bit more vulnerable to Pyroclasm in this configuration with Rakdos Cackler, but is trading a card to save a guy rather better than just playing another guy?

Predator’s Strike: I’ve spent a lot of time debating whether +3/+3 is better than the +4/+2 from Colossal Might. Strike is better when your 2/2 meets their 4/5 Tarmogoyf or Loxodon Smiter or whatever 4/x you decide to list; Might is better all the other times. Feel free to spend more time debating this.

Rancor: This isn’t a creature. It makes you think it is, but it’s not. Lots of decks hope to beat you by trading one for one with your guys until you run out. If your last guy is Rancor, it doesn’t attack.

Dryad Militant: I wanted to minimize the impact of Electrolyze, so Rakdos Cackler came out ahead here. If you played one of these as the seventeenth one-drop or maybe even two cutting a Cackler, I wouldn’t fault you, but any more and you risk dying to 1UR three for ones.

Dryad Sophisticate: Dryads really don’t like Izzet electricity. As your one allowable x/1, this card is kind of awesome since it’s actually unblockable in this format, but it’s also a two-drop and fourteen is about the maximum there.

Frenzied Goblin: I went deep on the seventeenth one-drop. Really deep.

Scavenging Ooze: Spoiler alert, but the Grim Lavamancer is pretty bad. You want to use all of your mana to cast spells, and if the game keeps going past that point, you should have already won or lost. In order to make the game end in this time frame, you need your cards to hit hard. So in the battle of the two-drops, Tarmogoyf wins out over the Ooze. Tarmogoyf also helps boost Experiment One, and unlike Vexing Devil this is actually relevant since it’s another reason to play an already good card.

Cards that cost more than two: The goal is to have a hand that somehow adds up to them dead on turn 4. Keeping things cheap gives you more permutations of cards that add up to “good curves.” Three drops are just less flexible in this regard. Also, your best three-drop option is basically the same card as Flinthoof Boar.

Cards I’m Playing

Building a linear deck: Every card in the deck does one of three things. It’s a creature that hits hard and fast, it beats a Tarmogoyf, or it’s Lightning Bolt. You cannot play more than ten cards that don’t attack or you will run out of things to attack with against removal.

Rakdos Cackler: Twelve one-drops is not enough. You want one on turn 1 every single game. Rakdos Cackler is the next best option and is quite a good one.

Dismember: There is only one Dismember because it doesn’t deal damage to your opponent. Instead of a second, there is a Colossal Might since that does damage to your opponent. There are not two Colossal Mights because Dismember is a better card and five removal spells just seemed right (and more than five pump spells seemed wrong).

Strangleroot Geist: This card seemed terrible on paper but has been awesome. You want more things with haste against sweepers or just in general because haste is a powerful ability if you are trying to attack people to death on turn 4. Strangleroot Geist is not only a thing with haste but the front side plays well against sweepers. You can’t play more than two since you can’t cast it off Burning-Tree Emissary.

The Sideboard

This looks like something you might find on a page of middle school math notes and look back on fondly as “My First Sideboard.” 3-3-3-3-3, all combo hate, and it’s right.

Against the other fair decks, what are you actually trying to accomplish with a sideboard card?

If your answer is kill Tarmogoyf, Dismember has you covered.

If your answer is stop removal spells, come up with an option that trades your one card for more than their one card. Otherwise it may as well just be another dude.

If your answer is stop them from playing Magic, let me know when you find that card. It’s not Blood Moon.

What about the 3-3-3-3-3 split? Do you really want to draw multiple hate cards against any of the combo decks? You want to be attacking them, so you need to draw creatures, and most of these decks have some kind of plan B that dodges your hate. There’s also enough overlap with these cards to let you board five cards in the matchups you want to do that in.

3 Dismember: This kills Tarmogoyfs and Deceiver Exarchs and Restoration Angels.

3 Leyline of the Void: You aren’t messing around with hate cards or digging for them. This is the most powerful anti-graveyard card in the format and unlike Tormod’s Crypt absolutely shuts off Pyromancer Ascension with no decisions involved.

3 Molten Rain: Scapeshift, Tron. I’ve tried it against U/W/R to mixed results, and on the play against Twin and Living End, it does some good Time Walk work. Also, see the above “why Blood Moon is bad” segment. This card does damage; that one doesn’t.

3 Back to Nature: You cannot beat Daybreak Coronet.

2 Deglamer, 1 Tin Street Hooligan: See previous note, only you also can’t beat Wurmcoil Engine. The Tin Street Hooligan is a little random, but I felt that boarding Molten Rains and Deglamers versus Tron would make my deck a little threat light and I wanted my last hate card to be a creature. Tin Street costs two; the other options I found cost three.

Why I Didn’t Play R/G Aggro

This is very much a numbers deck. You win X% of the time based on die rolls and other completely random factors, and to win a MOCS-sized event you would need to run very well. Unlike some other “numbers” decks, you simply don’t have the necessary game-to-game edge across the board required. If I had to run a ton of Magic Online Daily Events, I would have no problem turning a profit with R/G and felt like I was at least a marginal favorite in almost any given matchup, but to spike a single event I would look elsewhere.

Finally, the 1:52 PM brew the day of the MOCS. I realized I was looking for a deck that beat up on fair decks and Tron and wanted to utilize Scavenging Ooze. There wasn’t enough time for me to assemble the cards for this, but if I had there is a good chance I would have just jammed it.

Yes, this is deck where I “had the least fun winning that I can ever remember.” If it wins, I’m not going to argue.

The big issue with this deck was that it had to play crappy two-drops relative to Tarmogoyf and Lightning Bolt and late-game topdecks, Qasali Pridemage being the worst offender. Lotus Cobra wasn’t the worst back when Kibler made Top 8 of a Grand Prix with this deck, but with Electrolyze in the format I don’t want it. Voice of Resurgence was part of the solution, but Scavenging Ooze is the real one.

The sideboard isn’t finely tuned and mostly extrapolated from what I played the last time around in a list I have since lost. Back to Nature has been added, and more Blood Moon room has been made given the fact I’m not maindecking two anymore. The cuts from the board were mostly anti-Storm cards. If they show up with that or Living End, congrats, they got me.

Aside: If there is a deck Blood Moon is good in, it might be this one. It’s light on manlands and your threats tend to not die to Lightning Bolt or Pyroclasm. Even then, it might still be terrible or worse than Boom // Bust.

The utility land mix is the thing I am least sure about. There are only three in the maindeck. Don’t let Glenn Jones lie to you; Tectonic Edge is necessary for killing Celestial Colonnades. I’m just not sure if it or Ghost Quarter is better or if you need both in the 75. Treetop Village versus Stirring Wildwood and Raging Ravine is another point of contention, and I could see wanting a Bojuka Bog or Arena. Even Seijiri Steppe could be good in the right matchup. There’s a lot of room for development; just be aware you have a very limited number of slots to work with. This isn’t the old four Knights, four GSZs for Knight deck. You have to play a large number of your games without that card, and when it does get active it’s just a bonus angle of attack.

Melira Pod ended up winning the event. Do I feel bad about abandoning Pod? Not one bit. I felt I was gaining a bigger edge against the expected metagame by playing something else. I can’t say that will be the case in a few weeks, but I plan on spending some time learning the fair decks to assess their strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses.

See you in Detroit.

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter