The Shrining

This week Glenn takes a look at Green Devotion decks in Modern. See if you should consider playing one at your next Modern event!

At Grand Prix Antwerp this year, someone showed up to the tournament with the intent of casting turn 2 Primeval Titans. As last week’s article proved, that’s an interest of mine—naturally, I was pretty excited to see what they’d come up with. That deck, which earned the attention of coverage but not much in the way of a top finish, was the first iteration of Green Devotion in Modern.

Green Giants Redux

Here’s the original interview conducted by Tobi Henke at the Grand Prix. Below you’ll find the decklist.

Sebastian’s first crack has some cool ideas. You see it pulls its heritage from the Wolf Run decks of old, with the Primeval Titan into Kessig Wolf Run and Inkmoth Nexus combination present. Outside of that, it operates on an otherwise relatively traditional curve. The standard goldfish should cast a turn 4 Primeval Titan basically every time . . . but with Nykthos involved, we can supercharge the whole shebang!

Nykthos, especially when combined with Burning-Tree Emissary and Garruk Wildspeaker, is capable of generating tons of mana very quickly. Casting Primeval Titan and Tooth and Nail are both pretty self-explanatory paths to victory, and even Polukranos should be capable of a good beatdown a lot of the time.

However, there are some downsides to Sebastian’s build.

He’s built to be pretty resilient in the face of midrange and control decks, but he has very little action against combo. A few months ago that might have suited the metagame (though I personally doubt it), but in this day and age it’s far from acceptable. Anyone battling on Magic Online right now should know the metagame is heavily slanted toward proactive strategies. I haven’t played against a real control deck in months, and Jund is at an all-time low.

Another huge issue is that when you go off . . . you don’t win. Sure, you create a large resource disparity, but that’s not a victory. Consider the Amulet of Vigor combo deck I posted last week. It wins most games by casting multiple Titans, leaning on those resource swings, but it’s more explosive when it has the nuts and also freerolls a combo that will kill them on the spot along the way. In this deck, going off is always just “suspend 1, win the game” at best.

Since Antwerp, the deck has continued to evolve. It’s dropped the Inkmoth setup that was so successful in Standard—a sensible choice since it creates value in opposing removal that you don’t really need to give them. Playing a land-based kill that virtually guarantees you’ll have enough lands to remain vulnerable to Tectonic Edge is awkward. Instead, it goes heavier on devotion and permanent-based interactions with a different haymaker.

This is just one of the lists I’ve seen around, selected basically at random. I’ve also seen lists sporting Wistful Selkie for more Visionary equivalents that also generate devotion, but I don’t really think that they’re worth it. I do think you want the fourth Utopia Sprawl since it suits your curve quite well.

Maxing out on the mana-making Auras lets you use Arbor Elf and Garruk Wildspeaker to more frequently “build your own Nykthos” in a game, alleviating the precise concern Sebastian expressed in his interview—that the deck was heavily dependent on drawing the legendary land. All told, these mana sources are actually a little more durable and play upon the deck’s natural synergies.

Outside of Primeval Titan, this deck operates with an additional couple of engines.

Eternal Witness combines with Primal Command to let you loop on the opponent, not unlike the Cryptic Command and Eternal Witness loop generated by the RUG decks that Shouta Yasooka and Dustin Faeder popularized a few months ago. This can build advantage in a few different ways, but it’s really just a midgame grind that leads to one of your endgames. It’s not often this loop actually wins the game, but it can set vulnerable opponents back while you continue to make land drops and play green permanents, eventually sealing the deal with one of the following . . .

Genesis Wave is obviously a huge haymaker, putting tons of permanents—and often a fresh Nykthos—onto the battlefield. That means that casting Genesis Wave will actually pay back most of the mana it costs and sometimes even generate mana. You just have to actually get to the point where you can successfully cast it!

Playing it with an X below six is less than ideal because you really want to be able to put in a Primeval Titan if you flip one. That means you’ll be aiming to make nine mana for a Genesis Wave the vast majority of the time—keep in mind that target, but be aware that Wave can also function as a pseudo-ramp spell in awkward situations. Firing one off for three or four feels awkward, but if you can get two or three permanents onto the board, it might actually be worthwhile, especially if you have a second Genesis Wave in your hand.

Last but not least, we have Cloudstone Curio. Cloudstone Curio has played substitute for Wirewood Symbiote in Modern Elf decks, helping to loop Elvish Visionary and do some other nonsense. It can play similar tricks in this deck obviously—after all, they’re both hypermana decks that depend on creatures to combo. Eternal Witness is some additional spice to the recipe, but Genesis Wave is where you really start blowing them out of the water.

Not only will Wave into Curio put a ton of triggers on for you and let you chain various cantrip creatures, but with enough mana it also sets up a game-winning loop. If you can get to the singleton Karn and cast a Garruk Wildspeaker, you can bounce the Karn after using his -3 and then cast the Garruk, bouncing Karn before using the +1 to untap Nykthos and your most heavily enchanted Forest. Then simply recast Karn, bounce Garruk, and continue about your business.

Yes, it costs a lot of mana to make this loop. No, you won’t always get to do it. However, you’re basically freerolling the access because every other piece also integrates into your strategy or is a powerful card in its own right like Karn.

Sound familiar?

These are the kinds of things I really value in combo decks: synergies that offer me blowout potential while remaining passable when I don’t have the stone nuts. That’s why I have so much respect for decks like Sneak and Show in Legacy but am not a big fan of the more all-in strategies like Storm and Dredge. I like having a lot of room to wiggle, and the temptation of pinning my hopes and dreams on a longshot is downright addictive.

I’ve seen updates from this list as well. The most recent and probably the best comes from Jarvis Yu’s blog, with contributions from Kurt Spiess and Bing Luke along the way.

We’ve shifted once more, this time away from the permanent-based engines. Cloudstone Curio is admittedly begging to get Abrupt Decayed, whereas the rest of the deck at least operates against that spell rather efficiently.

To help fend off the attrition strategies, Harmonize lets you blow through Thoughtseizes and Lightning Bolts—especially with Eternal Witness around to buy it back! Finally, the deck can cast Emrakul when it goes off, which is really no different than looping Karns, and running a single Eye of Ugin allows you to convert Primeval Titan into an Eldrazi directly.

This version still doesn’t convert a resolved Primeval Titan into an outright victory on the same or following turn, but it should never need two turns after putting one into play and has an excellent midgame. I wouldn’t fault anyone for going with the Karn, but I do think it’s likely that Harmonize is a better tool for grinding than Cloudstone Curio assuming a conventional metagame. You need something that fills this role, whether its maindecking Commands, Curios, Harmonizes, or whatever.

Why Not?

So what’s not to like about this deck?

Well, for starters, it’s slow. We’ve already talked about that, but it bears repeating.

It amusingly suffers from some of the same vulnerabilities that Elves in Legacy does. Combo matchups can be difficult to navigate because you have a slower goldfish and interact on an axis that many of them are already prepared to slow down or trump. After all, you’re just playing creatures!

Take a look at the sideboards of the three decklists above and you’ll see a lot of combo hate. I’m sure the Splinter Twin matchup is a struggle for all three decklists, and Living End can’t be a cakewalk either. Outside of that, it’s fighting some real battles with Pod of course, although it might be fast enough to have the edge there—I’m not sure.

That leads to another disadvantage—it’s basically a combo deck that creature removal is very live against. For me, in Modern that’s a big problem. People are sideboarding Pyroclasms to beat their aggro opponents; I don’t need them to freeroll that slot against me as well! Creatures in pure Modern combo decks need to fit one of two criteria: 1) generate value upon being cast or 2) win the game the turn on or after being cast. Examples? Pestermite and Goblin Electromancer are the two best ones.

Perhaps my biggest knock against this deck is that when I try to think of reasons to play it I wonder why I wouldn’t just play Tron instead. Tron’s resilient, consistent, and operates more fluidly. Sideboarding with Tron is a bit more straightforward as well because fewer strategies are actually trumping you—that means fewer slots dedicated to shifting roles with reactive cards. Nature’s Claim is an efficient solution to nearly all of your ills, and Oblivion Stone can mop up anything it might miss in a pinch.

All of that said, it is a cool concept. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is the kind of card that I mentally flagged upon printing—cards that fundamentally break something about Magic in a new way are really threatening. Every new card that gets developed will have to at least for a second be held up next to Nykthos and checked forever. It’ll be a subconscious activity most of the time, but this is exactly how we wind up with so many decks in Modern and Legacy. Something slips through, or an interaction is better than expected, or a third card glues everything together . . .

After all, one of the most common ways for R&D to tone down a card that’s a little too good is to add additional colored mana to its mana cost—every time they do that from now on, it’ll be in the shadow of Nykthos (and other devotion-based cards). Sometimes the interactions we eventually get are powerful—sometimes they’re just awesome. For a classic (and current) example, just look at Melira Pod. So many cogs that come from so many eras went into making that deck, and it’s a Modern powerhouse.

I think Green Devotion is a tier 2 deck at the moment, but I would enjoy being proven wrong. I can only imagine the remainder of Theros block continuing to offer attractive incentives to this kind of strategy. Nykthos is a potent card in Standard that will likely find a mark in Modern—and I’ll be pretty surprised if Burning-Tree Emissary isn’t a healthy contributor to that eventuality!

My computer should be back up and running in the next week or so, and I’m looking forward to getting back on track with streaming and, you know, living like a civilized human. Catch you next week!