It is again time for us as PTQ players and/or aspiring Pro Tour players to once again care about the Modern format. Modern is a fine format that gives the impression of depth and complexity. However, with the constraints placed upon us by the banned list, the format is currently slightly more simple than it might otherwise be. I’ve written about the issue once and mentioned it more times. Others have written about it as well. I’d recommend reading those articles if you’re interested in hearing about the Modern banned list. All I will say is that while Birthing Pod is legal there’s a good chance you will get paired against it during the course of a Modern event in the near future, and there’s also a good chance you should simply be playing it yourself. Each mid-game turn allows you to make multiple decisions. If you think you are better at making decisions than your average PTQ opponent, then it would seemingly make sense to give yourself the most opportunities to make decisions.
As it turns out, I myself have a pretty low tolerance for actually playtesting Modern these days, which left me in an unfortunate situation heading into my first PTQ of the season. So, I did what I could with what resources I had. Luckily for me my, network of Magic friends is extensive and knowledgeable to say the least. The “Angel Pod” list Luis Scott-Vargas played in a Grand Prix not long ago looked good to me, so I simply asked him about it. I also was able to ask Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald and a bevy of other people what they thought. They all shared the same sentiment, and that was simply that the deck was less important than playing it well, within reason.
‘What is it that I mean by within reason,’ you might ask. Well, in this case, it means you can only play one of just a select few decks.
These two cards are somewhat the boundaries of the format. If you can’t hope to beat them, you shouldn’t be playing your deck… it’s almost that simple. What’s worse is that the strategies these two decks employ, while both-creature based, are quite different. The Birthing Pod deck can easily play as a “Junk Midrange” strategy, sometimes with a combo lurking nearby, which makes playing against it that much trickier but also means that simply drawing removal spells won’t be as super-effective as it might be against U/R Twin. This is, of course, a slight simplification. The traditional Twin deck or “Tempo Twin” deck plays primarily as a blue control deck employing mostly instants and flash creatures, and then – when the coast is clear – shuts the door with Splinter Twin. The Twin deck, barring a combo finish, can also quite easily kill with just damage; the pressure from Pestermites and Snapcaster Mages can quickly add up, especially in conjunction with their Lightning Bolts and any Vendilion Cliques. Let’s just say that falling below seven life is not exactly safe.
I went into the first PTQ knowing that I had chosen a good deck, even if I had only chosen it because I liked it “better” than the alternatives (hello Beta Birds of Paradise!). I also think Birthing Pod has been oppressive for quite some time now, and while I’d never played it, you gotta start sometime, right?
I’ve been of the opinion that Birthing Pod should be banned from the Modern format for quite some time now, as it routinely wins most of the Modern GPs in one form or another. I’m now of the opinion that Splinter Twin should probably also be banned. I think with both of those cards out of the format, a lot of other cards will shine (such as Bitterblossom, for example). That being said, I don’t really think they’ll ban either card.
After playing in the tournament and not drawing Birthing Pod all that often, I have to report that I didn’t find the deck particularly challenging to play. I think removing the Melira combos from the deck makes finding the “optimal line” (please forgive me for saying ‘line’) a lot easier on the average turn, and while there are some interesting plays to make with Chord of Calling, I was honestly a little underwhelmed with the challenge the deck presented. I did have to tank a little sometimes, and had I drawn Birthing Pod more often, the games might have been easier to win and harder to play, if that makes any sense.
This, the first PTQ of the season held exactly one week after the last PTQ of the previous season, was only a scant few players from being nine rounds. Honestly, I had expected it to be a full hundred people more than it was. I got the sense that people were quite literally starving to play Constructed Magic. This meant that when I did end up 6-1-1 in the last round after winning, I had to sweat and ended up in 8th. This meant I’d play against the first seed playing Jund Scapeshift. But, let’s rewind.
In round one I played against Splinter Twin Scapeshift. Twinshift, or ScapeTwin. Turn one Search for Tomorrow after I double mulliganned to start things off, the game ended pretty quickly with a turn-three Deciever Exarch followed by a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. I didn’t see Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle but he was in the normal RUG-Scapeshift colors. I went with my gut and assumed I was playing against some kind of hybrid deck which actually had me briefly taken aback. Back around 2001 when Extended had Revised duals and things were simpler, there was an Illusions-Donate combo deck, and there was an Oath of Druids control deck that I think also happened to be RUG in color. I vividly remember playing the Oath deck at a PTQ in Philadelphia long before I knew anything about anything and joking on the way home that it should probably include the Illusions-Donate combo. Then, of course, shortly thereafter we saw the Masters Series grinder coverage where not one but two Oath of Druids / Illusions-Donate combo decks were played. Here’s one of the lists for those who like to reminisce.
The point of a “Hybrid” combo deck is to essentially make sideboarding for your opponent a nightmare. There are other possible advantages, and sometimes the hybridization is actually a simple or natural fit. For example, I think that adding Counterbalance to the Imperial Painter/Grindstone deck in Legacy is one such case. You don’t get to Blood Moon everyone quite as often, but in exchange you get a very powerful defensive countermeasure that can win the game outright for you occasionally.
In this case his deck was spread a little thin and I’m not entirely sure what he had cut to fit in all the ramp – I’m guessing he didn’t have much in the way of cantrips or Snapcaster Mages in there – but he did have a lot of stuff going on, and sideboarding was difficult. Ordinarily it would be nice to take Abrupt Decay out against RUG-Scapeshift, but in this case I had to leave them in.
I don’t remember all the details as this event was actually a few weeks ago and I’ve played a ton since then, but I remember evoking a Reveillark in the final game to return Birds of Paradise and Aven Mindcensor, setting up to prevent him from winning for one turn. He had an Anger of the Gods and then every turn thereafter I think I rang the bell (Gavony Township) and grew some dorks to kill him while he whiffed on his various combos.
Round two I played the mirror, and while he had Birthing Pod advantage in game one I more-or-less drew what I needed on most turns and won. Round three my opponent was slightly inexperienced (he attempted to block a Shriekmaw with a flashed-in Restoration Angel that garnered no other value) and I was able to win the match pretty easily.
In round four I faced off against RUG Twin. I guess I should have called a judge on turn one when he played a Serum Visions and tanked, but I didn’t. The pace of this game was entirely dictated by his “thoughtfulness,” which I think was probably a lot of Hollywooding as he was losing the game the entire time. I don’t remember how long this game took. Game two was quite the opposite, and I was losing the entire time. I made my plays quickly and thought about how I’d need to draw or play to win on his turn. Amazing. He did not do this. Again, I should have called the judge. For game three we had very little time. This was made all the worse by the fact that I was not entirely sure about how to sideboard and changed a few things at the last second. We shuffled up, I kept a one lander with a Bird and some other mana-creatures, and eventually I drew out of it. I had the game won many different ways but needed an extra turn. I asked him to concede and he didn’t, which is fine. He was very smug about it which left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
Later in the tournament he was the last player playing in two separate rounds. I find this to be totally inexcusable. Why bother having the judges watch if they’re simply watching as any other spectator? I don’t have a solution for how to better train judges to watch for slow play, but I am frustrated all the same. Honestly, an overzealous judge (with regards to slow-play warnings) is obnoxious. But, perhaps, more obnoxious is making a room full of people wait. Twice.
Rounds five and six were also uneventful, with me defeating both comboless UWR Control and then Affinity. I was honestly relieved to beat Affinity as at Grand Prix Richmond I lost to it three times on Day Two after starting 8-1 and felt quite bad about it. Round seven against Jund Scapeshift I lost when I decided I’d rather leave up the Aven Mindcensor I’d drawn than start my Township-clock one turn sooner. I think it was correct not to flash the Mindcensor in and start attacking with that, as that lets him know the coast is not clear and makes him play differently. But, I had a Bird and I could have attacked with it for one, then two, then three, etc. This would have sped up the clock by at least the one turn I needed (I think he ended the game at one life when I lost). Round eight I beat what was essentially a Standard Delver deck circa two years ago, without the Ponders of course.
In the Top 8 I played against Jund Scapeshift again. I played game two very badly and lost, I played game three pretty well and won. I think I sideboarded a lot better the second time around, leaving in as many x/4s as I could against what I perceived to be four Anger of the Gods. The matchup still felt bad, and Anger of the Gods is very hard to beat sometimes. Finally I lost to Tempo Twin in the Top 4, but the Jund Scapeshift deck really caught my eye.
Here was his list:
I think I had an inflated opinion of the deck after playing against it twice in the PTQ, but it’s still a powerful strategy. Valakut, Primeval Titan and Scapeshift are all very powerful cards and give you very powerful things to do. Unfortunately running 28 lands and 32 spells (some of which also make or find mana) is not the greatest recipe for success, and not playing the blue cards in this deck is not necessarily the best approach. I do think Prismatic Omen in conjunction with Scapeshift is amazing, and heading into the next PTQ I wasn’t quite sure what to play. I showed the above decklist to a few people including Gerry Thompson and Ben Seck, both of whom really quite liked it. This gave me a slight nudge in the direction of playing it. I had become a bit worried about the fact that land combo decks (such as Scapeshift and Tron) had seemingly grown in popularity, and didn’t feel super-great about the U/R Twin matchup with Pod in the first place, so I suppose I was looking for an excuse not to play it. This was a big mistake on my part, but since I already made it, we can at least try to learn from it.
We brewed a bit and eventually I decided I didn’t really want to change the maindeck –though Courser of Kruphix does seem like a good fit, it might require a Fire-lit Thicket to be added to the main deck. The black cards, which seem to be your best bet at fighting against combo, might also be altogether too luxurious an inclusion, costing you valuable slots that could otherwise go towards utility lands (like a Raging Ravine might be a welcome inclusion, or a Temple of Abandon even.) On the other hand, I did not know how to make heads or tails of the sideboard. Gerry immediately knew that Reverberate was good in the mirror match (copy your Scapeshift… Thanks!) while I thought it was a pretty poor proxy for a Red Elemental Blast against a counterspell of some kind. Chalice of the Void seems okay against a few decks, but the scope seemed a little limited. I spent a fair bit of time thinking about it and eventually registered this sideboard with the above maindeck:
I should have spent more time figuring out which cards I could afford to take out in various matchups. The PTQ itself went pretty poorly. I beat Affinity in round one when my draws were great, then I lost to Storm in round two when he Desperate Ritual into Manamorphose to cast a Leyline of Sanctity. I had already cast Slaughter Games on his Grapeshots but he had drawn his one Empty the Warrens. A few turns later I couldn’t remove all 42 of his goblins and we went to game three; we both mulliganned, but he started with the Leyline. I didn’t draw Back to Nature, and he killed me pretty quickly afterwards. This really took the wind out of my sails. I then beat G/B Midrange and the Amulet of Vigor combo deck before losing again, this time to Affinity.
Going forward, I would recommend reworking the sideboard. Unfortunately there are very few cards you can actually take out in most matchups without weakening the whole deck, making the creation of an effective sideboard a challenge. While I was pretty happy to play four Anger of the Gods, it’s often hard to take out more than four cards in a matchup so having more than that for any one particular matchup might be a waste. I didn’t realize this in time and suffered for it.
The Affinity matchup also seemed pretty dicey, even when I was boarding in eight cards for it, which makes me wonder if the deck is viable at all. At this particular tournament with two or so rounds to go, it seemed like 20% of the remaining contenders were playing Affinity. This again really hammered home my regrets about not playing Birthing Pod. I think the Pod deck I played (Angel Pod, normal list) has a pretty good or even favorable matchup against Affinity with the plethora of removal, blockers, and Lingering Souls – not to mention an infinite-life combo that is almost unbeatable for them. In addition to this you can add Kataki to really ratchet up the Affinity hate and you have Chord of Calling and Birthing Pod to find it, so you can kind of make the matchup as good as you want. This is another strong point in favor of Birthing Pod, in that if a creature-hate card exists for a particular matchup, including a copy or two in your 75-card Birthing Pod decklist goes a long, long way.
Spellskite is a great sideboard card in Modern, filling holes against Splinter Twin, Affinity and Bogles, and I was quite happy to have it in my sideboard. I could easily see playing a second copy in the decks that are currently sideboarding just one.
Going forward, I still would only choose from a handful of decks. I’ve gained about fifteen matches worth of knowledge about how the games play out, but still think you can only play a few decks and ultimately the Pod decks have more versatility which I like. I also like Township as a way to mitigate flood. Anger of the Gods is very good against Pod, and if people are moving towards Jund without that card – either because they are playing BG or their own Prophetic Flamespeakers or because they are gunning for the Twin matchup, where Anger does nothing – then that’s a relevant shift for Pod.
If you’ve ever heard the someone say that a deck’s plan against Jund is to just play a fair game and you’ve wondered how a deck could possibly out-Jund a Jund deck, Gavony Township is the answer. The early turns of a game against a Jund deck are very attrition-y: lots of removal and discard flying around, but they can’t make you discard your Township and eventually a creature is going to stick. Unless their draw is great, it seems easy to me to stall the board in a way where they can’t attack and then via Township you create a position where you can start attacking yourself.
Comboless pod is weaker to Twin than traditional Melira Pod is, and lately I’ve been thinking that re-adding the combo might give you a real shot at actually racing some of the bad matchups like the land-combo decks. I also like the added strain that having the combo in the deck places on your opponents, if they are aware of what’s going on. No one said you have to make it easy on them, right?
Going forward, I think I’d put the Pod deck back together, as it were. I’d probably start off with a stock Melira list with both combos and see how it felt. I know I will hate drawing Viscera Seer and Ranger of Eos, but it still might be worthwhile. If you’re vehemently against playing Pod for whatever reason, then I suggest playing Splinter Twin, hold the Goyfs. I’d want two maindeck Vendilion Cliques and maybe some Gitaxian Probes to spice things up (it looks like people have rediscovered Peek, but I don’t think it’s really better, just cuter). Blood Moon and Batterskull are a somewhat fearsome combo out of the sideboard, one that can often win you Game Two outright regardless of what they’re expecting (unless they’re expecting Blood Moon and Batterskull, specifically).
Finally, I just saw on Twitter this little guy:
At 2/1 for three with Flash and Flying it seems a lot like Aven Mindcensor, but rather than preventing searching this one prevents value. This might give the GW Hate Bears deck the ammunition it needs to perform a little better, and it might just be another bullet for Pod to run (maybe for the mirror?) or it might give way to more aggro decks like Delver. Mindcensor was already a little scary to play against out of the Delver deck I did get paired against, and while they can’t exactly overload on threes, this one is pretty darn good. In any case, it’s going to see play and it’s pretty cool, and it’s a Hippogriff, so you can’t really go too wrong.