No bannings or unbannings? Are you kidding me? What kind of nonsense is…
Well, actually, Modern is wildly popular and relatively diverse, despite a couple of cards that are head and shoulders above the rest of the format. I know that, even more than a favorite deck, Modern enthusiasts all have a most-hated archetype, and everyone has one or two cards they wish would leave Modern forever, but the honest truth is that nothing absolutely needed to go, and no one card is so dominant that it would be worth destroying a huge swath of folks’ Modern investments in order to excise it from the format.
Sure, Faithless Looting is Modern’s equivalent of Brainstorm, and Dredge and Izzet Phoenix both use it to disgusting effect. Sure, Mox Opal is basically a Vintage-power-level card that somehow sticks around because a lot of people would be very upset if their Affinity decks stopped being legal. And sure, Ancient Stirrings is legal while Preordain isn’t. But let the people have their fun, I say, and until it truly stops being fun, it shouldn’t be banned. People have fun playing Affinity. People have fun playing Izzet Phoenix. People (not me, but they are out there) have a lot of fun playing Tron. So the cards remain legal.
But we don’t need to rehash the obviously busted cards that shape Modern. People can bicker about whether one or more of them crosses some invisible line of “too good,” but in the end it doesn’t particularly matter. Our job is to help find the diamonds in the rough, the secret weapons you can use to gain that crucial edge to hit Top 8 in the Philadelphia Open or MagicFest Tampa Bay this weekend. What’s the new tech on the street, and what are people neglecting because of a rigid adherence to an outdated collective heuristic?
1: Basic Lands (specifically Island and Mountain in Izzet Phoenix)
Your Izzet Phoenix decks have the wrong manabase. People love Path to Exile. They love Assassin’s Trophy. They love Field of Ruin. Having your opponent give you two or more lands over the course of the game is hugely important when you’re playing Faithless Looting, because it means extra lands can sit in your hand and turn into extra cards in the mid-game. Four is just not enough, especially when you’re incentivized to fetch a basic or two early to save a few incidental points of life. You don’t want three Islands and one Mountain. You want four Islands and two Mountains.
Cut down to a mere five or six fetchlands to enable this. You aren’t playing any incidental lifegain, and an extra life point here or there can make a huge difference in a close game. Your manabase is excellent, you play tons of cantrips, and you really feel it when you mill over too many of your own basic lands with Thought Scour. This will make a lot of games against fair decks feel a lot more comfortable, and your opponents will start to get irked when they end up spotting you three free cards off their removal suite.
2: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
It conflicts in an ugly way with Thing in the Ice, but in Grixis Death’s Shadow, Jace offers the Snapcaster effect with a small amount of card selection up front and the ability to split up the extra two mana required to Flashback a spell with Snapcaster Mage. Paying two mana up front and one or two mana the next turn is a lot more doable than the three to five mana required to get full Snapcaster value chains going. Incidentally, the -2/-0 ability makes Auriok Champion look foolish, and the ultimate is a rare, though certainly executable, win condition in sideboard games against slow opponents. I’m thrilled to have one or two copies of this bad boy in Grixis Death’s Shadow, especially in concert with the next card on this list.
3: Rise // Fall
I was so enamored of playing Hymn to Tourach in Legacy Death’s Shadow, I basically forgot that there was a weaker Modern equivalent with a super-sick alternative mode to gain immense value with Snapcaster Mage and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.
Rise is a stellar answer to Thing in the Ice, and there’s even a narrow use case involving bouncing both Thing in the Ice and a graveyard Arclight Phoenix back to the opponent’s hand in order to completely upend a well-executed combo turn. Generally, though, Fall is a great way to follow up on a Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek that spies a land-light hand, snagging a healthy two-for-one and setting up for a subsequent Flashback for loads of value. Grixis Death’s Shadow can always use a bounce spell, a recursion spell, and a card advantage-oriented discard spell. Rise // Fall is all three, and for only two mana, there are few tools better-suited to trapping opponents who don’t expect it.
The first time you bounce an enemy Gurmag Angler and recur your own Snapcaster Mage or Street Wraith, you’ll be hooked. Keep this secret weapon in your Shadow Box and thank me when your one-of bounce spell makes an opponent look silly.
People are just sleeping on Oust, and it’s weird. The drawback on Path to Exile is real; setting a Thing in the Ice, Noble Hierarch or Champion of the Parish back into the deck is almost a two-for-one (because of how bad those cards become when you draw them in the mid-game); and if you ever nab a Death’s Shadow off the incidental enemy lifegain, you’ll know true love. Instant speed is super-important when the big deck of the format is Infect, but when opponents can make great use of their free mana and want the game to go a bit longer, you’ll start wishing you were playing a different card. Mix up your Path to Exiles with a couple of Ousts and see how they treat you. I promise they will impress in spots you didn’t expect.
5: Tireless Tracker
Gerry Thompson showed us what he’s been brewing with an interesting Golgari Midrange deck with no Dark Confidants, opting instead for Tireless Tracker and lots of incidental graveyard hate. Scavenging Ooze; Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet; and many copies of Assassin’s Trophy and Field of Ruin give him quite a solid matchup against the prevalent graveyard and big mana decks in Modern while letting him stick a real threat, one that gives control decks fits.
It’s slow, for sure, but it’s the kind of card you want in all your green decks. Abzan Company, Bant Company, Jund, Golgari, Abzan Midrange, hell, even Gruul Land Destruction loves a Tireless Tracker. It’s not the flashiest or the techiest threat in the book, but I roll my eyes every time an opponent drops this followed by a fetchland. If you are married to the idea of playing fair in Modern, I’d look to Tireless Tracker and Assassin’s Trophy over Path to Exile right now. Gerry has it right.
6: Molten Rain
I sang the praises of this card last week over Blood Moon, and I’ll sing them again here and now. Against Tron and Amulet Titan, Molten Rain is often a better hate card because of how obvious Blood Moon is. Tron will stick an Oblivion Stone and make you look foolish, while Amulet Titan will play bouncelands without the drawback (because they’re Mountains, the “return a land” trigger doesn’t occur) and eventually Summoner’s Pact for a Reclamation Sage to win the game. And yes, they play four basic Forests to prepare for your Blood Moons, unfortunately.
Molten Rain allows you to attack from an unforeseen angle, combos with Surgical Extraction to strip the opponent of their mana engine, and even chips in for a bit of incidental damage. Jeskai and Azorius Control will bring in their Celestial Purges regardless, so it makes little sense to rely on a permanent like Blood Moon when pinning the opponent off their fourth land often wins the game much more quickly.
Throw in the fact that Molten Rain is a sorcery and thus triggers Thing in the Ice, flashes back off Snapcaster Mage, and counts towards Arclight Phoenix, and you have a clear winner on your hands.
7: Ravenous Trap
Everyone and their brother has Surgical Extraction fever. And yes, I get it. A zero-mana Extirpate is nothing to sneeze at. Ravenous Trap, though, is significantly more backbreaking against Dredge, because sometimes even three or four Surgical Extractions don’t quite do the trick.
Ravenous Trap is the no-nonsense way to wipe Dredge back to square one and deserves significantly more consideration than it currently sees. Leyline of the Void is a powerful option, for sure, and once the London Mulligan takes over in a month, it will be very hard to justify playing something else, but Ravenous Trap offers the power of surprise and wrecks Izzet Phoenix just as hard in most scenarios. Incidentally, Trap snaps up any Snapcaster food or Faithless Lootings, which can be even more valuable than stripping the remaining Phoenixes from the Izzet deck.
Consider a split with Surgical Extraction in your next sideboard.
8: Echoing Truth
Andy J, the undisputed King of the SCG Tour, has been brewing with a straight Dimir Death’s Shadow deck in Modern, claiming that Temur Battle Rage isn’t even clearly better than this little trick. I’m on Team Rise // Fall myself, so I’m going to stick with the Grixis colors I know, but I watched him embarrass a Whir Prison opponent with multiple Welding Jars and Ensnaring Bridges, bounce a pair of Mantis Riders to turn the corner against Humans, and turn a whole swarm of Hangarback Walkers into nothing more than a bunch of wasted time and mana.
Now, sure, Echoing Truth isn’t quite a powerhouse spell, but the utility of incidental bounce in Grixis Death’s Shadow, especially unexpected bounce, is not to be underestimated. And yes, it’s got the potential for real blowouts against Izzet Phoenix, either by saving a Death’s Shadow from a Lightning Axe or by turning an alpha strike into a clogged hand full of uncastable Arclight Phoenixes. This is one of those cards that plays much, much better than it looks on paper, and I have complete faith in Andrew’s ability to find unproven gems like this one and show why folks are wrong to dismiss it.
Modern right now is like the world map in the early 1700s. Most people have some idea of most of what’s out there, but intrepid explorers know that there’s more to be discovered. Aptly enough, Wizards of the Coast is set to push the Modern Horizons even further with the appropriately named set.
And when the explorers return to London for the Mythic Championship to show what they found, the ones who traveled the farthest will be rewarded. It’s time to push the envelope, dig deep into Gatherer, and try to exploit any stagnation from the big players of the format. The next quantum leap in Modern technology could come from anyone. Stay open-minded and creative!