Sideboard Lightning Bolt

Two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Sam Black talks about the B/R Devotion deck he’s been working on in Modern while explaining some of his philosophies about deckbuilding.

I’ve started working on Modern. It’s important for me to start early because my process involves losing with every weird brew I can think of so that I can get that out of my system in time to work on a real deck for the Pro Tour. There’s always a chance something sticks, as it did in Philadelphia, but I expect to work back around to playing something normal by the PT. For now, though, I’m letting myself try whatever strikes my interest.

The other day I mentioned on Twitter that I was playing a fun deck, and people asked if I’d write about it. At the time I wasn’t planning to. I don’t care about "hiding" my early Modern experiments since I don’t think most of them are likely to lead anywhere and even if they do that will be several steps away, but I just didn’t think people would be especially interested in Modern for the most part at the moment (I’ll explain why I decided to write about it anyway soon).

I finished 3-1 in the Daily Event I was playing when I tweeted about my deck and emailed my team about it, which was:

Matt Costa messaged me later on Magic Online and mentioned that it had "a very ‘Sam’ four Lightning Bolt SB." I was surprised that that was identifiably "me" so I asked him about it, and he pointed out that it’s something I’ve done a few times in Legacy. I realized he was right. I do like Lightning Bolt as a sideboard card, and other people tend to maindeck it a lot more than I do. I think people choose Lightning Bolt as their removal spell because they figure it isn’t dead against a deck without creatures, but I’m not usually trying to play Lava Spike in my decks so I tend to think of Lightning Bolt as a one-mana removal spell, which is something I’m generally only interested in if I’m in the business of killing creatures.

In this case I also had four Thoughtseizes in my sideboard. Thoughtseize is another card that can go either way, but I think I tend to leave it in the sideboard a little more often than other people do. Again, it’s a versatile card, but I’m relatively picky about which matchups I actually want it in. For example, I believe that it’s a bad card against Mono-Blue Devotion in Standard, while other people think it’s one of the best cards.

More recently Caleb Durward messaged me on Facebook to ask which and how many answers I would play in Modern if I were to try to play "The Aristocrats" in that format. This was the answer I gave him:

"With decks that are built around critical mass of interactive pieces, I like to start with the answer cards in the board and focus on making my maindeck do what I want it to do. Then if I find that I always need to side in the same cards, I see if the deck can work with them main."

And this general principle is what I thought I’d focus on today and why I think it’s useful to look at even for people who aren’t playing Modern at the moment.

I like to build decks that "do something."  I’ve noticed in other games, most recently SolForge, that decks that are basically just powerful creatures and removal spells aren’t interesting to me. I want to play cards that have a more direct logical connection, that do something together, that are greater than the sum of their parts. This is often not the best strategy because the cards alone are weaker and the people who are playing cards that disrupt your synergy and cards that stand on their own are well positioned if they can force your cards to interact one-on-one. Still, in a deckbuilding game it appeals to me to try to build decks to get more than face value out of a card. It just feels like a better game if it matters how your cards fit together more than what they do individually.

And sometimes your opponent doesn’t have the right answers, the powerful synergies come together, and the results are extremely effective.

The deck above is playing a lot of relatively weak cards. You can tell because most of them don’t appear in many other Modern decks. However, when you get Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; Kalastria Highborn; Bloodghast; a sac outlet; and Dark Prophecy together, the results are extremely fun. Clearly that’s a lot of pieces. But each individual piece is useful, and the effects usefully build as it all comes together. It’s not like I have a bunch of dead cards until I find my five-card combo.

This deck is also playing a lot of very "needy" cards. Needy cards being basically just another way to say they’re not individually powerful and require a lot of support. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx requires black symbols; Kalastria Highborn requires Vampires; Dark Prophecy requires creatures, ideally life gain, and some extra mana wouldn’t hurt; Blood Artist requires creatures—most of these are pretty obvious. The point is that all these needy cards don’t allow me to play many (if any) cards that aren’t part of the plan.

Liliana of the Veil isn’t one of the cards that’s paying me for going out of the way to build my deck the way I did like Dark Prophecy, and it’s not one of the support pieces like Viscera Seer. It gets a pass because it’s a powerful card that gives me some way to interact with my opponent while providing devotion and a discard outlet for Bloodghast so it’s not entirely off plan, but even then I can’t make room for many.

To rephrase, every card is there to further my own plan, not to hinder or disrupt my opponent’s. My sideboard, on the other hand, is almost entirely devoted to disrupting their plan. This is consistent with my general philosophy regarding the difference in how I approach building maindecks and sideboards, as I’ve discussed previously, but I think a review can never hurt.

I always want my deck to focus on completing its own plan in game 1. Usually this means proactively killing my opponent, but I’m also open to the Andrew Cuneo method of just playing all the most versatile answers and boring my opponent to death. What I don’t want is to play a proactive strategy with random reactive cards that might not apply to the game I’m playing. Worse yet, even when they do apply, I could often do better if I wasn’t trying to answer my opponent’s plan anyway and instead was focused on executing my own plan that trumps theirs since they’ll be suboptimally set up to stop me.

After sideboarding the expectation is that it will become much harder for either of us to execute our own plans because both of us will have access to efficient answers. This means the game is more likely to go long because there will be more cards trading so I’m more likely to see more cards, and the game will generally be more about how my cards match up to my opponent’s cards rather than being about whether my cards pair with each other better than my opponent’s cards pair with each other. This is particularly evident when non-interactive combo decks race each other in game 1 and then side in counterspells and discard to disrupt the other and slow themselves down in the process, but similar mechanics are at work in other matchups.

This is why I like to play decks like Faeries and Mono-Blue Devotion that have solid synergy-driven proactive game 1 plans but can sideboard into something very different. Faeries in particular would often cut most of its Faeries for planeswalkers and removal and become a U/B Control deck against most opponents.

Mono-Blue Devotion is less extreme, but the transformation from a tapout midrangey aggro/swarm deck into an aggro-control deck with creatures backed by a ton of counterspells and card draw against control decks makes me extremely happy. After I started thinking about the matchup that way, I found myself hoping to play against control, not necessarily because I thought it was my best matchup but just because it let me play the kind of Magic I like to play where I tune my deck to work differently after the first game.

With my B/R Devotion deck in Modern, I’m expecting that I’ll likely always side in at least one of Lightning Bolt and Thoughtseize, and I’ll have to cut something to make room. I get to decide if I need to play an attrition game where I’ll likely cut Greater Gargadon and focus on Dark Prophecy, maybe with additional Lilianas as another way to grind out marginal advantages, or if I just need to stay alive to have time to get some of my synergies together but don’t need to go as big, in which case I’ll likely cut Dark Prophecy.

This is why it never bothers me to have a certain card that I always side out against everyone or another card that I always side in against everyone. Again, to use the example of Faeries, that’s probably exactly what I was doing for a while, where I’d cut Scion of Oona for Jace Beleren against 90% or more of my opponents because Scion of Oona was a good game 1 card and Jace Beleren was a good game 2 card. Scion of Oona was proactive and based on my cards working together, and Jace Beleren played well with the reactive cards and strategies I’d shift to with its inclusion.

So now that you understanding where I’m coming from with the sideboard, let me discuss this deck briefly since it’s definitely fun, relatively new, and a reasonable starting point for exploring a new direction in Modern. If you’re not interested in the deck, you can safely stop here; I’ve made my point about general deck construction and sideboards.

The basic idea is just to try to use Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in Modern. Specifically here in a black deck, but I’m interested in it in other colors as well. Modern’s much deeper card pool means the limitation of trying to, say, find two-drops that cost CC instead of 1C likely leaves you with a lot more options than it does in Standard, where black basically can’t reasonably play any and blue only has Frostburn Weird and Tidebinder Mage. Nykthos is a card that is particularly improved by having access to a larger pool of support cards.

In particular it’s a great fit with Bloodghast, which costs CC. It’s a good start, but it’s also a particularly resilient two black symbols. Once you play it, those symbols are likely to be in play whenever you need them. Also, you don’t always have to pay two black mana to put them into play. For example, in the best case you can play Deathrite Shaman on turn 1, cast Liliana of the Veil on turn 2 and use it to discard Bloodghast, and then use Liliana again on turn 3 to discard another Bloodghast and play Nykthos, returning both Bloodghasts. Now you have seven black mana symbols in play on turn 3 before you’ve used any mana. This is the kind of start that’s only possible in Standard with Burning-Tree Emissary.

Dark Prophecy is another extremely resilient source of a large number of black symbols. In Standard it’s less reliable than Underworld Connections, but pairing it with a greater number of sacrifice outlets, creatures, and Bloodghast in particular makes it a very different kind of card in Modern than it is in Standard.

The goal of this deck is basically just to build synergies that result in gaining life and building a mana base in an effort to drain the opponent out with a huge Gray Merchant of Asphodel or to tap Nykthos for six-plus mana and sacrifice a board full of Vampires with a some combination of Kalastria Highborns and Bloodghasts in play such that each creature that dies drains the opponent for three-plus life, with Nykthos obviously being necessary to pay for all your Kalastria Highborn triggers.

Of course sometimes you’ll just attack with Vampires and then drain them out for a little at the end.

This deck is definitely in its infancy and has a lot of room to grow. Greater Gargadon hasn’t been great, and I don’t think I need that many sac outlets if I keep Viscera Seer and Falkenrath Aristocrat. Geralf’s Messenger is great at everything I’m trying to do—it’s a reliable source of a lot of black symbols that lets me trigger multiple deaths and domes my opponent when I’m trying to "burn" them out. Unfortunately it’s a Zombie rather than a Vampire, but I could use that to my advantage. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is also a Zombie, so I could potentially get to the point where I can support Gravecrawler, which is obviously another resilient way to build devotion and excellent combo with Dark Prophecy.

If I want to focus less on creature-type synergies, Phyrexian Obliterator is another excellent source of black symbols. I’m not playing it because I think it’s only good against some decks and don’t have it in the sideboard because I think I’m better served by having reactive cards there, but if I find that I’m bringing in too many reactive cards that don’t contribute to devotion and it makes my deck not work, I could see instead filling my sideboard with threats that support my plan that are optimally configured to each opponent.

If I keep my focus on the Vampire theme, Malakir Bloodwitch is something like an additional Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but I think it’s quite a bit worse despite the better body and Vampire synergies. The only real exception to this would be if I decide that Cavern of Souls is necessary and want my five-mana trump to be uncounterable, but that’s an unlikely direction to go with Dark Prophecy since I already have Nykthos making it a little more difficult to get BBB on turn 3 and Cavern of Souls would really get in the way. I’m mostly leaning on Bloodghast to punish counterspells.

And that’s where I’m at with this deck for the moment. It’s fun, but I don’t know that it’s the best way to use Nykthos in Modern. Michael Jacob recently tweeted about an alternative he’s been playing with:

This deck is built of a similar mind—a Zvi Mowshowitz style deck that has absolutely no way to interact with the opponent outside of combat but can do some extremely powerful things on its own. This is another deck that looks to me to be in the early stages of its development with plenty of room to grow, so this might be among my next projects. I would like to have some fun with Modern before I have to buckle down and do some real work, and this deck is at least capable of some fun moments.