The Next Wave Of Modern

Continue to get ready to play Modern at Grand Prix Richmond this weekend as Patrick takes a look at non-combo approaches to beating a format as combo centric as Modern.

GP Richmond

"For Grand Prix with 2,400 or more players—our very biggest and often most challenging events—that purse grows to $54,000 with the Top 150 players receiving prize money." –Helene Bergeot, Wizards of the Coast Director of Organized Play

It would have sounded crazy a year ago, but it seems that next year there may need to be yet another level for tournaments. After all, if 1200 moves you up to full size and 2400 is a very large Grand Prix, what does that say about 3600+ player mega events?

The biggest Constructed tournament of all time is just days away. To say that Grand Prix Richmond is the Magic event of the year is an understatement. That these record-breaking numbers are for a Modern tournament?


Modern has been a chaotic format, but it’s also one that has grown at an incredible rate. The reason? A passionate Modern community springing up devoted to making the format the best it possibly can be. Part of this is pushing the format, breaking it whenever possible (which contributed to the many bans). Part of it however is how popular Modern has grown as a tournament format, with more players playing in Modern tournaments in 2014 than even Legacy!

Despite numerous rounds of bans, the Modern community has lent strength to the format, and finally we have reached the point where it’s not just bans, bans, and more bans. The most recent Modern Pro Tour saw two unbans to replace the one ban. The result? Despite much hype, neither Wild Nacatl nor Bitterblossom achieved a winning record overall.

Why is Modern the perfect format for today?

The format is perfect for players that have been playing at least three or four years of Constructed. Taking a step back, one realizes that Magic blew up again four and a half years ago with the release of M10 and Zendikar. It has been growing nonstop since then, meaning there is a huge supply of third- and fourth-year tournament players with many more on the way.

Everyone can play Standard, but players that have been playing seriously for three or four years have collections that far surpass the current format yet are not appropriate for Legacy at all. What is their format? Where can those cards get played?


In preparation for GP Richmond, this week is dedicated completely to Modern. Monday we discussed the role combo plays in the format and all of the major combo decks. Today I’d like to take a look at non-combo approaches to beating a format as combo centric as Modern.

In looking at these decks, it is important remember that GP Richmond is going to be a very unusual tournament with different parameters than most events. To begin with, the larger the event, the more random of decks on day 1. This is not to say they are bad; rather, the makeup will be different. The hardcore community plays in every event they can reach regardless. When an event reaches this astronomical level, there are many players playing in the event that don’t play in as many tournaments. This population brings with it the habits of the metagame that the hardcore community doesn’t usually brush up against.

Ever play in an FNM and notice a completely different metagame than what you see at the SCG Open Series? Metagames that are isolated from each other often evolve extremely differently. GP Richmond will actually be made up of over half players that do not play in many major tournaments. As a result, the GP Richmond metagame will be far less predictable than normal. That it is Modern only compounds things, as Modern is a format where most people not in the hardcore community are at least somewhat impacted by card availability issues.

As a side note, if I were WotC, I would do Modern Masters II in 2015, and you better believe I’d include the fetch lands. I’d also consider rereleasing another print run of Modern Masters (perhaps even drafting two packs of Modern Masters II and one pack of Modern Masters). Modern has an incredible amount of momentum right now. It is not the ideal Pro Tour format, but neither is Legacy. It is clear the Modern community is serious about the format, and it should be supported to the fullest.

One of the greatest risks to the format is card availability, but I’d like see Modern Masters 2 printed in a little bit larger supply than the first Modern Masters was. Obviously they wanted to be careful not to flood the market, but the last time around did not even scratch the surface. Tarmogoyf went up in value, not down!

All that is well and good, but what about winning this weekend?

Okay, okay. We’ll get to the decks. Just one more thing: Modern has been a format facing continual bans. The subject of more bans is always a tough one, but I think the truth is that the Modern community is right. The format is at a place where it deserves some time to breathe. The bar for bans before a PT are much different than immediately after. This PT was the first time a Modern PT was held where the metagame breakdown did not violate the stated guidelines for Modern.

  • Supersaturation of a deck
  • Highly undesirable speed
  • Heavily undesirable play pattern

Zoo decks were the most popular by far and did pass the 12.5-15% healthy threshold to violate rule number one. However, there are two mitigating circumstances. First, you only get this high of a Zoo count if you count both Fast Zoo and Big Zoo. While it is reasonable to merge the Ghor-Clan Rampager decks with the Tribal Flames decks, Big Zoo is just too different of a deck to be considered the same as those. Just using Wild Nacatl doesn’t make two decks the same any more than two Snapcaster Mage decks are the same.

Additionally, the various Zoo decks won at a clip of 48%. This suggests they were overplayed and the format could easily adjust to them. It’s possible Zoo variants will be even more popular at the GP and PTQ level than they were at the PT, but the format deserves a chance to adjust. Wild Nacatl may be on the watch list, but unless Nacatl decks just completely take over in the next two years, it should be safe.

As far as undesirable speed decks go, there are basically three candidates for the watch list:

  • Storm
  • Infect
  • Amulet

Storm is the most dangerous of these, as it might be the best deck in the format, so also being capable of killing on turn 3 has the spotlight on it. Of course, the format was completely targeting Zoo in Valencia. Now that the Modern community knows to target Storm, there is a reasonable chance it can adjust and knock it down a peg or two. Either way, the format deserves a year to try (unless Storm also starts violating the supersaturation threshold, which is unlikely).

Infect is not tier 1 and is the easiest deck in the world to interact with. It may be capable of killing goldfish super fast, but in the real world it is not a turn 3 kill deck.

Amulet is a bizarre deck capable of super degeneracy. While it has some pretty crazy turn 2s and turn 3s, it is much more of a turn 4 kill deck (or slower). There is no evidence to suggest Amulet will warp the format the way Twin, Pod, and Storm do.

Finally, we come to undesirable play pattern. Sensei’s Divining Top and Golgari Grave-Troll are good examples of these bans, which might not be needed for popularity or speed. While many of the combo decks flirt with this, particularly Storm, the community is right in that they deserve a chance to knock Storm down a couple levels. If Storm is the best deck for a full year with everyone aiming at it, that would be a real problem, but if it gets knocked down to tier 1.5 once people play the hate they should, game on.

What happened to banning Manamorphose?

What can I say? The Modern community is right. It’s unclear what the future holds, but any such talk is miles ahead of itself. I humbly stand corrected.

Let’s take a look at some non-combo decks, examining the technology they utilize to combat combo. There may be fewer combo decks in the first five rounds of GP Richmond due to the random faceless masses of new tournament players, but my guess is that combo will overperform on the whole. You know what is real good against random good stuff decks?

Killing you on turn 4.

If you want to qualify for the Pro Tour in Richmond, you gotta go 13-2 or better. That means you are going to have beat a lot of combo decks on the way to the top.

Just as PT Born of the Gods was dominated by combo decks, it was also rife with non-combo decks failing. The biggest exception to this was U/W/R Control. It was the only major non-combo archetype with at least 1% more winning records than its day 1 popularity, and it won the whole thing.

Those familiar with Modern are not going to be surprised by this style, though it is worth noting that in the past year U/W/R Midrange has generally been more popular than U/W/R Control. PT Born of the Gods saw U/W/R Midrange fail, with negative win and success rates. The difference between the two styles of U/W/R is generally Control has six or fewer creatures (usually Snapcaster Mage, Wall of Omens, Vendilion Clique, and Wurmcoil Engine) while U/W/R Midrange has Restoration Angel, Geist of Saint Traft, and sometimes Blade Splicer or Thundermaw Hellkite.

While our focus is primarily on combating combo decks, it is worth noting the rise in popularity of Porphyry Nodes. It can be very effective against aggro strategies, but it is also an out to Geist of Saint Traft.

As for anti-combo measures, the abundance of Mana Leak, Remand, Spell Snare, Cryptic Command, Shadow of Doubt, and Vendilion Clique are obviously a great plan as long as you have a way to end the game (a combo, Sphinx’s Revelation, Wurmcoil Engine, planeswalkers, whatever). Of note is the increase in popularity of Mana Leak and Remand and the slight decline of Spell Snare. The card is still great; it’s just not a four-of Spell Snare format.

While blue offers a lot of great maindeck cards, sideboarding is where white decks really shine. For instance, Stony Silence is one of the most popular and most effective sideboard cards in the format. It is completely devastating to Affinity, stopping all unequipped Cranial Plating and completely neutering Arcbound Ravager (Affinity’s two "good" cards). Additionally, it shuts off half the mana in the deck, leaving the Affinity player with a pretty mediocre 1/1 flier plan if they can even find the mana to activate Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus.

In addition to shutting down Affinity, Stony Silence proactively stops Birthing Pod (the best card in Pod decks by far) and is very effective against G/R Tron, crippling Chromatic Sphere, Expedition Map, Oblivion Stone, and more.

While Shaun doesn’t employ it, white offers two of the other highest-impact sideboard cards in the format: Rest in Peace and Rule of Law. Rest in Peace is obviously just a stone-cold killer against graveyard decks, but interestingly it also cripples Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and Voice of Resurgence. So why no Rest in Peace here? Snapcaster Mage decks generally prefer Relic of Progenitus, letting them get some of the graveyard hate while still being able to employ Snapcaster for value.

As for Rule of Law, if you want to beat Storm, that’s as good as it gets. The problem? Rule of Law doesn’t cast as wide a net as a lot of other sideboard cards. It is brutally effective where you want it, but where else is that besides against Storm? While it’s passable against a few fringe decks like Dredge and Infect, the reason I suspect there will be a rise in Rule of Law is the realization of the world that Living End is tier 1. Rule of Law turns that deck into a glorified Draft deck. They can dig to Maelstrom Pulse to try to eventually get out of it and can suspend Living End and go off super slow, but the card is very effective at taking the unfair out of their game.

Shaun’s list makes use of a lot of great utility cards to help tune his control deck between games. Counterflux is obviously a great card for winning counter wars, but Modern is a format where you often overload it. Storm can try going off again if they have a super stocked graveyard and a Past in Flames, but you’re going to win a lot of games by just countering twenty copies of Grapeshot.

Logic Knot as a one-of is pretty hot since a two-mana counter is a valuable anti-combo measure, even if it has diminishing returns if you try to play many copies. Likewise, the first Wear // Tear is a super versatile addition to any W/R/x deck. It doesn’t devastate many people, but the first copy gives you a lot more versatility in how you can solve problems like Blood Moon, Cranial Plating, Birthing Pod, Pyromancer Ascension, and so on. It even kills Spellskite and Splinter Twin at the same time!

Crucible of Worlds doesn’t look like an anti-combo card, but it does target "slow" combo decks like G/R Tron and Scapeshift. Additionally, it is another card drawer for control mirrors, which are likely to be more prevalent at GP Richmond.

U/W/R Control is one of the two decks I would most be interested in if I were playing instead of doing commentary. My starting point?

Surprise, surprise, Wafo-Tapa and I are on the same page about building a control deck. This list is such classic Wafo-Tapa, with more than half of the spells in the deck drawing a card. As for anti-combo measures, Wafo has access to Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, which is obviously great against control but also beats Living End. Even if it doesn’t stop Splinter Twin directly, it is very hard for them to go off with Teferi ensuring the U/W/R player gets the better of every exchange.

Detention Sphere is actually a somewhat underrated anti-combo card. A lot of combo decks at the moment involve leaving permanents in play for several turns. Storm has Pyromancer Ascension and Empty the Warrens. Birthing Pod has tons of targets, not the least of which is Pod itself. Ad Nauseam puts Phyrexian Unlife into play. The list goes on and on.

Dispel and Engineered Explosives are popular and versatile sideboard cards. They rarely win the game outright, but they stack with Mana Leak, Cryptic Command, and so on to add up to a heavy disruption suite. If you plan on throwing just one or two minor disruption cards at a combo player, they are generally going to power through it in a turn or two. It takes a critical mass and a variety to actually shut them down. When you have a clock, sometimes a few turns is plenty, but if you’re playing some slow control deck like Wafo and Shaun, you are going to need a lot of disruption.

While I would definitely play U/W/R Control over U/W/R Midrange, many will want to go the other way, so let’s take a look at one of the successful builds:

Pro Tour Theros winner Jeremy Dezani followed up his breakout tournament performance with Grand Prix success and a Top 25 at Pro Tour Born of the Gods. His list is a fairly typical U/W/R Midrange deck, which applies a lot more pressure, meaning his disruption goes further. In addition to the usual suspects, we see a number of high-impact choices in his board.

Spellskite is a classic anti-Twin sideboard card, but it also has incredible utility against Auras (stealing all of their Auras) and Infect (stealing all of their pumps). It’s even a killer against Burn, which sort of functions like a combo deck. It’s usually going to eat two burn spells, which is like gaining six life and is exactly what you want against those people.

Runed Halo is an exciting sideboard card that people often overlook. It can’t stop tokens like Empty the Warrens and Bitterblossom produce, but it stops Grapeshot; Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; Gifts Ungiven (yeah that targets); and whichever creature the Auras deck happened to draw. Its versatility lets it also do double duty as an anti-beatdown card.

Against an aggro deck, you can often just name Tarmogoyf or Wild Nacatl. You won’t be able to get your Geist of Saint Traft through, but it can buy you a lot of time for your Restoration Angel to do the dirty work. Besides, you are often boarding Geist out against those people anyway. I am very impressed with Dezani’s inclusion of Runed Halo here and think it is one of the absolute best sideboard cards that people should be playing more in U/W/R and other decks.

Grafdigger’s Cage is one of the most important sideboard cards in the format, giving you a single card that can beat Birthing Pod, Chord of Calling, and graveyard cards like Kitchen Finks, Murderous Redcap, Unburial Rites, Past in Flames, Desperate Ravings, and Snapcaster Mage. The problem? Awkwardly, it doesn’t stop Living End because of a strange rule where Living End moves the creatures to exile before moving them to the stack. It is a very unintuitive interaction, but it is an important one to know if you’re serious about the format.

Anger of the Gods may headline as an anti-aggro card, but it is actually incredibly disruptive to Melira Pod decks. They often don’t go off in one turn, and Anger typically slows them by two full turns. Sometimes you even exile a key card that ensures they can’t actually go infinite. Anger of the Gods also disrupts fringe combo decks that create a massive board, such as Dredge. If you’re lucky, sometimes you can even catch a Slippery Boggle that hasn’t had time to grow completely out of control.

Finally, Gideon Jura is primarily an anti-aggro card that provides a backup road to victory. However, it can also surprise a Splinter Twin player by ensuring they can’t go off in one turn. Even if they can assemble the combo, they will have to kill Gideon and then try to win again next turn. This gives you a lot more time to try to break the combo up.

While I expect U/W/R Control to be the most popular control deck, people will also play U/W and U/R. The U/W lists aren’t much different than Wafo’s list above, just cutting Lighting Bolt and Electrolyze and making room for more Path to Exile, sweepers, and blockers like Kitchen Finks or Wurmcoil Engine. As for U/R, Lee Shi-Tian’s team provided the blueprint with their Blue Moon list:

This list relied pretty heavily on Blood Moon for free wins. Many experienced players are expecting Blood Moon to fall off this week now that people are prepared for it, but they may be underestimating just how many players at GP Richmond will be playing in one of their first few major tournaments. The most common "random" deck is the good stuff deck, which is usually three colors in a format as deep as Modern, meaning Blood Moon has a whole new generation of victims.

In addition to all of the usual blue disruption, it should be noted that Vedalken Shackles is much better against combo than it has been in the past. If you have it untapped, you can steal a Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch even if it tries to tap your Shackles. What if they drop a Spellskite? Steal that!

Spreading Seas is a good combo with Blood Moon anyway (messing up their one basic Plains or whatever), but it also provides a little disruption against Urza’s Tower or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Just having an answer to the Kessig Wolf Run that Knight of the Reliquary finds can be a big win.

Combust used to be a classic against Splinter Twin and is still great if you don’t mind how narrow it is. It has some utility against Merfolk and Celestial Colonnade, so there are advantages compared to just using Spellskite. Besides, every Twin player prepares for Spellskite, so Combust will often catch them by surprise.

Finally, the plan of sideboarding in a lot of Vendilion Clique can work great in slow decks with limited roads to victory, completely changing their pace of play. If you already have a bunch of creatures, like Restoration Angel and Geist of Saint Traft, this plan doesn’t work nearly as well.

I mentioned that if I were to play a non-combo deck in Richmond, Wafo’s list would be one of my two options. The other? Esper Gifts.

Okay, this is a pretty loose use of the term "non-combo."

While it may feature a combo kill, there are a lot of anti-combo measures that can be adopted by combo or anti-combo decks. The combination of discard and permission is a classic approach that gives you the consistent ability to slow combo decks down by many turns. When this is combined with a combo kill (Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites + Iona, Shield of Emeria or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite) or solid pressure (Bitterblossom or Geist of Saint Traft), it is devastating to combo decks.

Most of the rest of the anti-combo cards have been discussed above, but it is worth noting the value of Gifts Ungiven into Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Snapcaster Mage when you have seven mana or when neither creature will "win the game" for you.

While I advocate Esper Gifts, the more popular approach in Valencia was to put the Unburial Rites package into a Gifts Rock shell.

Gifts for Life from the Loam and Raven’s Crime lets you shred slow combo decks, which is crucial given our lack of permission here. Aven Mindcensor has fallen out of favor lately, but it is worth remembering when you specifically want to target Birthing Pod, Scapeshift, and Gifts Ungiven.

The Terastodon in the sideboard is an important option for this build for tuning itself against decks that don’t fold to either Iona, Shield of Emeria or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. If all else fails, you can destroy three lands and give yourself a ton of time. Amusingly, most people do not realize that Four-Color Gifts plays Terastodon in the sideboard because of the Wizards webpage accidentally listing it as a Terra Stomper, which countless people will copy without even asking themselves what it’s for!

Of course, control is hardly the only way to play non-combo blue decks. One reasonably popular approach is that of Merfolk, which is very much not an aggro-control deck. Being a true Fish deck, Merfolk is mostly beatdown with just minimal disruption to buy a key turn to let it win the race.

Here the variety of blue disruption is important for denying opponents the ability to "play around" Merfolk’s tricks.

One of the most talked about decks leading into Valencia was that of Faeries given the recent unbanning of Bitterblossom. Like Wild Nacatl, Faeries’ performance was slightly underwhelming. My favorite of the Faeries decks is Shouta Yasooka’s without question:

The problem with Faeries is being a little soft to aggro. This is the price you pay for strength against many combo and control decks. Of course, with combo and control on the rise, Faeries is looking to be one of the biggest gainers this week.

The combination of discard and permission combined with a moderately fast clock make Faeries a winning strategy against decks that need to assemble a specific combination of plays to execute their game plan. Glen Elendra Archmage and Sword of Feast and Famine are slow but can be game winning when they are the third or fourth disruption spell played in a game.

While blue decks are the obvious winners from Valencia’s results, there are plenty of nonblue decks that are going to try to step up their anti-combo game. Wild Nacatl was public enemy number one in Spain, but with focus shifted to fighting combo, it may gain a little.

Lots of classics, but it is worth noting that a surprise Swan Song out of Zoo can often buy you a turn if they know you have it while winning the game outright if you surprise them with it.

While Tribal Zoo often needs just one piece of hate to buy itself time to race, Big Zoo needs more or at least more effective hate given its slower speed.

Torpor Orb is the card you want if you want to hit Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin at the same time.

Notice how Owen’s sideboard has a great diversity of game winners, minimizing the ability of people to play around his hate and the diminishing returns that come with drawing two of the same lock card.

Since they’re basically the same person, Brian Kibler also came up with something similar:

Kibler’s list has a midrangeier vibe, with more planeswalkers, an above average number of three-drop fatties, and a different yet equally devastating selection of sideboard cards. Owen’s list amusingly is much more akin to the Big Zoo deck Kibler won Pro Tour Austin with back in 2009.

Choke, Thalia, and Fulminator Mage all add up to a far more mana denial approach. I prefer the path Owen took, but both have merits depending on what you want to beat.

Wild Nacatl’s return synchronizing with Deathrite Shaman’s departure leads one to wonder how much of everything is caused by each of these. Prior to the Deathrite Shaman ban, B/G/x was far and away the most popular strategy. After? Well, it has survived, but in numbers that pale in comparison to its previous incarnations.

The highest finishing B/G/x deck was piloted by the man that might be the hottest PT player in the world right now: Matej Zatlkaj.

  • 7th at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze
  • 15th at Pro Tour Theros
  • 10th at Pro Tour Born of the Gods

This rampage has already put him Top 25 in the world power rankings. Just imagine if he had actually gone to all the Pro Tours last year!

Remember, Rakdos Charm isn’t just graveyard hate and a Shatter; it also beats Splinter Twin by making them take twenty!

For another look at Jund, consider Adrian Capilitan’s build that features maindeck (!) Surgical Extraction:

Sowing Salt has dropped a lot in value since Scapeshift and G/R Tron are not at their peak, but it is still worth considering given how incredible it is against Celestial Colonnade decks, which will be on the rise.

While it is not a Jund deck proper, Reid Duke’s B/G deck is a Jund deck in spirit, using many of the same hate cards:

Nothing we haven’t already considered, but if I were going to play a B/G/x deck, this is the place I’d start. Phyrexian Obliterator is an underrated way to destroy aggro, while the rest of the deck is built to be able to interact with combo.

Finally, let’s take a look at Craig Wescoe’s W/B Midrange deck. It’s not quite W/B Tokens and is not quite a Jund deck, but it has some powerful anti-combo plans that deserve closer examination (and will catch many opponents unprepared).

Overloading on discard helps, but game 1 we’re going to be a little soft to combo decks that don’t rely on creatures (Path to Exile and Doom Blade will go a long way against decks like Splinter Twin and even Birthing Pod given our ability to race with fliers).

The real value comes from so many A+ sideboard cards letting us transform into a hate deck after sideboarding. My main advice would be to make room for a Rule of Law or two given the direction the format is going.

Okay, I’m out for now, but I’ll be back on Friday with the brews. If you’ve got any questions about Modern, any decklists you want help with, or any ideas you want to share, let me know today!

If you’re going to be in Richmond between 7 PM and 9 PM on Friday, make sure to check out my deckbuilding seminar that will have a focus on Modern. There is a ton of edge to be gained in this format. How much you fight for it is up to you.

See you Friday!

GP Richmond