Modern is missing a good aggro deck. Affinity is fine and Infect exists as well, but there is nothing that really puts the pressure on people for running a fetchlands + shockland manabase. Affinity usually hits hard with Cranial Plating and tends to get a lot of wins via overkill, not by finessing out enough points to get you for exactsies.
Affinity has long been known as a design mistake. Since then, extremely strong cards to fight the robotic threat have been printed – from Shattering Spree to Kataki, War’s Wage. People know it as a big player and will pack some number of these regardless of how popular Affinity is. If people have a big fear of Affinity, they can definitely sideboard enough hate cards to nullify the artifact menace.
It’s a known fact that I’m quite fond of Infect. I feel like the Modern version is a fine deck but is a pale comparison of what the Legacy version is capable of. Modern Infect is more gimmicky and relies on assembling an unmolested string of pump spells on a very vulnerable creature and hoping it’s good. Infect will always be a real threat in Modern that should be respected, but as of now I want to explore more traditional aggressive decks.
Modern is super combo-heavy right now, and new breeds of control are starting to pick them apart. Grixis featuring Cruel Ultimatum, UWR control variants including the version that features the Restoration Angel + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo, and even basic U/W Control are on the rise in popularity because no one fears the beatdown.
Mono-Red has won the last three Standard events on the Open Series. The Invitational Top 8 was Standard and I piloted Boss Sligh to a win in a metagame that was focused more towards beating control. That same weekend, Festus Resendez won with a creature-heavy but more straightforward version of red aggro in the Standard Open. Last weekend we saw Kevin Rand win with his own take on a creature-heavy mono-red build that focused on making blocking difficult for the opponent with Legion Loyalist, Titan’s Strength, and Rubblebelt Maaka.
Burn has always been a known player in Modern, although it hasn’t been very popular as of late. The concept is simple: to play as many three-damage spells among Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt, Lava Spike and such to win the game in a simple and largely non-interactive fashion.
- 1 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Vexing Devil
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Legion Loyalist
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
- 18 Mountain
We get Lightning Bolt but so do they. There aren’t any Pharika’s Cures but there are Lightning Helixes. They can react faster and their spells are cheaper. There is less going under everybody than in Standard and less stranding them with spells in hand when the game ends. The power level of the red cards is higher and the rates are better, and what usually happens is that each player gets to play out most of their spells but they’ll get jammed up deferring from what they’re doing and be forced into playing defensively and at a faster pace. This involves the tension between deciding to pay two life for a shockland to keep up or to possibly falling too far behind on the board, right into the reach of burn spells. Boss Sligh in Modern aims to put opponents up against tough decisions just like it does in Standard.
What the Modern format at a whole isn’t very good at is racing. Eidolon of the Great Revel is nearly a freeroll in the format against anything that isn’t Affinity. We see the manabases full of fetchlands and shocklands because everyone is trying to combo each other out. We’ve seen Melira Pod lists shift to more of a beatdown Plan A because it’s simply more efficient. Thoughtseize, Gitaxian Probe, and Birthing Pod drain life totals uncontested in far too many matchups.
One thing that the deck needs to do is to always make choices for the opponent difficult, pressuring them to have to choose between using their removal spell on their turn or waiting until your attack step. Madcap Skills typically made waiting the correct line in Standard, but here Ash Zealot’s haste, Firedrinker Satyr’s pumps, and both Titan’s Strength and Brute Force put them in the squeeze.
I found it sometimes awkward to scry a card to the top with Titan’s Strength only to have to crack a fetchland. Also, when you scry a Mountain to the bottom you’re essentially undoing the land-thinning aspect of a fetchland by shuffling a Mountain that’s on the bottom back into the deck. Grim Lavamancer is the main attraction for fetchlands, but if your creatures aren’t going to the graveyard you’re typically in fine shape. There are also a healthy number of spells to enable it as well.
Outside of the lone Forked Bolt, the deck only plays instants, creatures, and lands. Without fetchlands, it will be up to your opponent to grow Tarmogoyf to be bigger than a 2/3. This is key for powering through with Legion Loyalist + Titan’s Strength or Brute Force.
Or we could go to the opposite side of the spectrum. Forgoing mana consistency and spending some of our life total for better card quality and raw power. Tribal Flames is the most cost-efficient burn spell available, and Snapcaster Mage alongside it presents poses an incredible amount of damage for only two cards.
Fetching out the correct lands is extremely important. You need the correct combination of four colors to operate and you don’t want to be stuck with an inconvenient Lightning Helix on the second or third turn. The sideboard is a bit heavy against Affinity, as it’s the matchup where your manabase hurts you the most and you want to play a more controlling role against them. Against other decks you want a few cards but not so many as you reduce the amount of pressure that your deck can present.
I’ve always liked a Four-Color Zoo that goes bigger as well. Lightning Angel has been a favorite of mine in the format as a midrange card that dodges Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix, even back when Bloodbraid Elf was a legal option. I had a decklist in mind, complete with Bant Charm, but while doing research on similar lists I came across one from Ben Stark that was nearly card-for-card what I was thinking of.
- 3 Lightning Angel
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
Outside of Scavenging Ooze, there’s not much that the deck wants that has been printed since then. It has a healthy amount of interaction with a nice clock. The counterspells in Negate and Bant Charm ensure that the opponent can’t win with a single powerful spell like Splinter Twin, Cryptic Command or Birthing Pod.
Lightning Zoo is an oldie but a goodie, and I wouldn’t mind taking this three-year-old list to a Modern tournament nearly card-for-card.
Given how Melira Pod wants to focus on attacking first with a combo backup plan as a distant second, I wonder if a Zoo shell that adopts the combo would work in Modern. A more efficient beatdown Plan A with a less efficient combo Plan B. Here’s my initial rough take on the archetype.
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 2 Eternal Witness
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Knight of the Reliquary
- 2 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 3 Voice of Resurgence
I like how the deck attacks from multiple angles, often playing a Pod with four mana and getting decent value while already having a board that pressures the opponent to deal with it. There may not be enough value creatures to warrant the number of Restoration Angels, but this isn’t a deck that necessarily needs to eke out every bit of value per card. Wild Nacatl, Knight of the Reliquary, and Restoration Angel are all great creatures on their own.
It seems to be the direction of Modern to alter a combo deck to win in more traditional fashion. Tarmo-Twin is the current take on the strategy and even basic U/R Splinter Twin decks sideboard so they can win with Snapcaster Mages and Vendillion Cliques. I believe that a Zoo deck with a combo aspect isn’t too far-fetched to work.
Don’t let people have all the easy wins they want. Like in Standard with Mana Confluence, Temples, and shocklands, people get caught with their pants down when they think that their slow or painful manabases come for free. Because aggro is such a small part of Modern and Standard metagames, people feel it’s best to ignore the bad matchups and jam as many rare lands as they can into their decks.