Prison, Hate, & Modern!

With Grand Prix Richmond just 24 hours away, four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Patrick Chapin brews in Modern and shares the deck he would choose if he were playing in it.

GP Richmond

The biggest Magic tournament ever held.

$150,000 worth of playmats, with absolutely no one missing out.

$175,000 worth of Batterskull just for signing up.

The highest cash purse of any Grand Prix ever.

An estimated 21 Pro Tour invites up for grabs.

. . .

Grand Prix Richmond is obviously the Magic event of the year, but for those of us that are not merely content to be there, to be a part of it, the question is this: how do we get an edge over the largest field ever conceived of?

Modern is a format defined by combo decks, and Monday we touched on all of the major combo decks in the format, how to win with them, and how to get an edge against them. Wednesday we turned to the non-combo decks, studying how they interact with the plethora of unfair decks in the format and how we can utilize that technology in whatever deck we play. There has been no shortage of Modern discussion this week, so today I’d like to take a look at some new deck concepts that show different perspectives on the format.

This is a format where it’s very reasonable to take an existing deck, practice with it, tune it, and play it. Of course, there is no shortage of support for such an approach. What if we actually want to build our own? What if we already built our own? What if we have a concept that is sort of similar to an existing strategy but different enough to be considered a new archetype, such as Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze in Splinter Twin?

So starting from scratch, here’s my take on Modern at the moment. It’s a turn 4 kill format right off the top. There are numerous combo decks that regularly kill you on turn 4, and many of the beatdown strategies are very capable of it. Of course, we will have to employ cheap cards and interaction unless we are also a turn 4 kill deck.

One of the great challenges to the format is that there is such a diversity of combo decks that interacting with them all is quite challenging. That Zoo and Affinity also exist is particularly tough since they often require very different cards to interact with them than you would use against most combo decks. What is the solution?

My gut says that there is a good chance the solution is that you can’t beat them and you must join them. However, that path is well worn and well understood. If I were to decide to go that path, I would play either Storm for being the most broken or Esper Gifts for being the combo deck that I have been tuning to how I want to approach the format. In order to determine if either of those is the path I want to be on, I’d like to consider the opposite.

Gabriel Nassif spent some time in testing for Pro Tour Born of the Gods working on Mono-White Hate decks. G/W Hate Bears has been a frequent request from readers here as a path to pursue. There is an obvious niche for a hate deck if we can find the right hate cards that cut a wide enough path, if we can find the patterns between the various proactive decks that can be exploited.

For instance, Twin and Infect are vulnerable to the same sort of spot removal Zoo and Affinity are. Storm, Living End, and Gifts exploit the graveyard. Many of the combo decks only have one card that can actually realistically kill you game 1.

The first path to consider is that of G/W Hate Bears, so named for the two-power two-drops in the deck with disruptive abilities that punish various combo decks. In testing for PT Born of the Gods, I tried such a deck, using a bunch of disruptive two-drops and a Wilt-Leaf Liege angle to try to win the “fair games.”

The problem with this path was that it had serious problems with Zoo. Very quickly a Wild Nacatl or Tarmogoyf would make attacking impossible, and Zoo has so many cheap ways to gain tempo on us. At the end of the day, why aren’t we playing Wild Nacatl and Lightning Bolt ourselves?

One possible approach is to just build a big Naya deck, putting the hate in the sideboard. Owen Turtenwald’s Big Zoo deck is an excellent example of this:

Game 1 he has just Scavenging Ooze and spot removal to try to interact, but a quick clock gives him a realistic plan against everyone. Then he gains access to a sideboard literally jam-packed with hate cards. Every single one of them is a stone-cold killer hate card, with the exception of the one Batterskull (and maybe one Thrun, the Last Troll), though both of those are strong for their own reasons.

The diversity of hate in Owen’s sideboard is very appealing, as it makes it difficult for people to play around and he has a little bit of everything for everyone. Hate cards often have diminishing returns, so by playing a variety he gets a little extra bit out of each one.

With Zoo on a downswing and combo everywhere, another possibility is to build the maindeck to be a hate deck with an anti-aggro plan in the board.

Here we have a dozen creatures with disruptive “hate” abilities combined with a reasonably fast clock. While the one- and two-cost hate bears are obvious, it can be easy to forget about Burning Tree-Shaman. In addition to a very respectable body, it singlehandedly shuts down Splinter Twin and can often make Melira Pod unable to go off without dealing with it (which often entails taking several extra points of damage and a turn).

The downside to such an approach is a vulnerability to other creature decks. They will often outclass us with bigger bodies and more spot removal. That is where our sideboard comes in.

After sideboarding this Naya deck takes on a midrange almost Jund-like quality. When we cut all the hate bears that just don’t cut it against Zoo, we turn our sweepers into very powerful control cards. Kitchen Finks and Lightning Helix help bridge the gap, and then we start dropping Batterskull and Baneslayer Angel to actually take over the game.

Another nice feature to having so many “generally good” cards in our board is that it gives us options for tuning our list against the combo decks, where some but not all of our hate cards are good.

That’s your big move? Turn Wild Nacatl into a control deck?

Laugh it up, but I kind of suspect Wild Nacatl in a control deck will be one of the hot topic strategies in Modern as soon as someone figures out how to best capitalize on it. Wild Nacatl is not the worst blocker, and if you’ve got a bunch of discard or permission, it is a real solid clock that requires minimal investment.

Fine, though. You win. Wild Nacatl control too futuristic?

Let’s take it back to the old school.

Let’s take it back somewhere most of us haven’t been in a long time.

Let’s take it back to Prison!

The idea is a two-fold attack. In order to fight the combo decks, we have a bunch of hate cards that can make it increasingly difficult for the combo decks to win, eventually locking them out completely. Against aggro we have an abundance of reactive cards that blunt attacks, eventually making attacking at all impossible.

At the core of this deck is the profound strength of Runed Halo. Runed Halo is the most underrated card in Modern. Just look at the applications:

  • Storm – Name Grapeshot.
  • Scapeshift – Name Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.
  • Splinter Twin – This one is tougher since they have both Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch. But the first one has good chances of slowing them down, and the second mostly locks them out (while also cutting off most of their backup plan). They often have Cryptic Command to get out of it, but we have a lot of other cards they cannot win through.
  • Birthing Pod – While not great here, it can still prevent them from Murderous Redcapping you out. The upside is that even if they gain infinite life, we can lock the game up such that they can never attack again and we actually run them out of cards.
  • Auras – Name whichever creature they happen to draw. They don’t have many, and if you draw a second Runed Halo, they will be hard pressed to ever damage you again.
  • Gifts – Name Gifts Ungiven (which targets).
  • Zoo – Name whichever creature is giving you a hard time. A two-mana removal spell is great, and it shuts down future copies. If you have already locked out creatures with your various other defensive cards, you can name a burn spell to make sure you don’t get burnt out.
  • U/W/R Control – Celestial Colonnade. This doesn’t win the game by any means, but we are aggressively attacking Cryptic Command with Nevermore anyway. If you assemble the one-two punch, they are going to be hard pressed to do anything.

Speaking of Nevermore, this is an interesting one. With so many combo decks out there that require a key card to be cast to win, what if we could just shut them all down, make them all play fair?

Runed Halo and Nevermore are the primary anti-spell lock components, and they’re supported by Leyline of Sanctity (thwarting Valakut, Gifts, Grapeshot, Redcap, discard, burn, etc.). The anti-creature plan is most of the other half of the deck.

Path to Exile, Wall of Omens, and the aforementioned Runed Halo give us the first line of defense to try to keep our life total up. Wrath of God and Day of Judgment work wonders at destroying creature-based assaults, but we have a lot more than that to work with.

Ghostly Prison and Sphere of Safety slow attacks to a crawl, eventually making it impossible to ever attack again. With Runed Halo, Nevermore, and Leyline of Sanctity capable of stopping burn, this eventually leads to a full lock against many fair decks. As an added bonus, any of these enchantments completely shuts Splinter Twin out and can really do a number on Auras, Infect, and Empty the Warrens.

So how do we win? Well, once our opponent can’t beat us, we are free to win at our leisure. Luminarch Ascension is given extra slots since it’s also a very strong anti-control card (which is likely to be a matchup we could use the help against). White Sun’s Zenith and Sigil of the Empty Throne are also very effective at taking over games, particularly with Nevermore to lock out Cryptic Command. Urza’s Factory and Mistveil Plains might not be needed but are extra backup victory conditions in the event that we have trouble winning the fight over Nevermore.

The sideboard is mostly just more hate, but it also features a transformational element that doubles as a way to fill out our deck against fair decks where we don’t want the anti-combo hate.

The inspiration for this list comes in part from the deck Gabriel Nassif almost played at PT Born of the Gods. Here is his take on Mono-White Prison:

The primary differences in Nassif’s list are the use of Gideon Jura, Batterskull, and Wurmcoil Engine instead of Ghostly Prison and Sphere of Safety and the Weathered Wayfarer and lots of one-of hate instead of Runed Halo and Nevermore.

For what it’s worth, Nassif abandoned the deck the night before the PT, instead playing U/W Control, but the white deck wasn’t that far off. With more time and more tuning, he might have played it at the PT.

One of the big challenges for these Prison decks is how to actually close out a game. Nassif’s deck has several great finishers, but he’s going to have a real hard time against a blue deck. My Prison list has an anti Cryptic Command plan but is glacially slow and has a lot of mediocre kill cards. How else can we win?

What if we put Gifts Ungiven in Prison?

Mana is easy in Modern, and we don’t actually need to stay mono-white. Gifts could give us more free wins as well as point us toward a bona fide path to victory that actually gets it over with.

Here we have abandoned the Sphere of Safety and cut down on sweepers to make room for the Gifts Ungiven package. Runed Halo, Nevermore, and Ghostly Prison are all great at slowing opponents down. Play any of them in the first three turns and you’ll usually live long enough against combo to Gifts for Unburial Rites and Iona, Shield of Emeria or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and lock it up.

Nevermore on Path to Exile can be dicey if you might need yours, but if you do it, you can generally Iona blue against control without fear. Often, however, you’ll just name Cryptic Command to ensure your Gifts resolves and then name white. It is not as hard a lock, but it is generally good enough.

Another possibility is to massage the mana base a little and incorporate Emeria, the Sky Ruin for an additional backup plan. For instance:

Similar concept, but now we have the additional plan of using Emeria, the Sky Ruin to ensure Iona, Shield of Emeria eventually makes it into play. This is complicated by those that use Tectonic Edge, but perhaps Pithing Needle is enough of a solution.

I will be doing commentary all weekend long, but if I could play this time around, I would most likely end up going with something like this:

If you can slow an opponent down with an early removal spell or wall, sweepers are very effective against aggro. Versus combo we have permission and discard as well as the quick Gifts Ungiven kill. There is a little more inconsistency than I’d like, but Serum Visions was just too slow.

The toughest challenge for this list is facing blue decks, which are just better control decks. One possible remedy is to make room for another Calciform Pools, maybe cut a Wall of Omens for a Spell Snare. Hell, we could just bite the bullet and play more Lingering Souls maindeck and put a little more anti-control in the sideboard, such as planeswalkers, cheap interaction, and Flashback cards. Mystical Teachings and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir are both options.

Anyway, I gotta jump on this plane to the Magic Mecca of 2014. If you get a chance, hit me up this weekend. I’ll be around the coverage area during most rounds. If you can get into town in time for the Next Level Deckbuilding Seminar (7-9 PM Friday), I definitely recommend it. In addition to discussing deckbuilding and Modern, I’ll be taking all questions, no matter how brazen and bold.

Can Modern survive 5,000 people trying to break it in half at the same time? We will find out soon enough.

With Richmond just 24 hours away, what is your prediction for the Top 3 most played decks? Monday I will be giving away a prize to everyone that answered exactly once and with the correct answer.

Grand Prix Richmond is finally here.

Let the games begin!

GP Richmond