Verdicts On Modern’s New Elite

The results from SCG Dallas are in, and Ari Lax has some strong opinions! What deck with a high finish earns his ire? Which archetype seems to be mysteriously missing? And where should players go next if they want a trophy of their own?

Grand Prix Orlando March 24-26!

The SCG Tour stop at #SCGDFW marks the end of a sprint of Modern events redefining the format in the wake of Aether Revolt‘s banned list changes. What did Dallas bring, and how has everything else settled despite Death’s Shadow taking the top spot yet again?

Hot take, right off the bat.

Burn. Is. Not. Good. Period.

Texas loves red decks. That’s it. Collective Brutality exists and is a pretty good card, and Burn simply can’t beat that card. When you start trading for that many draw steps, you quickly put Burn into the phase of the game where they need N successful draw steps and you have the time to outrace them. The most popular combo deck literally maindecks one of the best hate cards in Phyrexian Unlife. Every “normal” deck is playing Kaladesh fastlands and starts the game up a half to full burn spell from where it used to when playing on time. Nothing has gotten better; it’s all just way worse for you.

I think the biggest nail in the coffin for Burn is that your best top matchups have been systematically eradicated by bans.

First Splinter Twin was banned and replaced by blue decks with more counters and fewer weaknesses to Searing Blaze. Then Gitaxian Probe was hit. Not only is Infect currently not a deck when it was previously a bye you leaned on getting, but Death’s Shadow shifted from close to bad.

People are definitely skimping a bit in certain decks that need the effort put in to beat Burn, but when most of the best decks do the job for them…. I can’t blame them that much.

Verdict: Possibly even worse than Merfolk.

Where’s the Dredge?

I have no idea why there isn’t more Dredge at North American events. I’m going to keep saying this until people go back to playing it. The graveyard hate really isn’t there beyond a couple of Surgical Extractions.

The super-weird part to me is that more people are playing Gifts Storm than Dredge. Dredge is just as interactive. Storm is just as soft to graveyard hate, with “drew my Empty the Warrens” replacing “drew my Nature’s Claim.” The fast combo that can exploit Dredge but that Storm can Remand or Dispel doesn’t exist. Storm even mulligans almost as much as Dredge does with the low land count and reduced cantrips (maybe Faithless Looting would help!). The only difference is I’ve beaten Storm with random Inquisition of Kozilek nonsense, but there is no chance normal Magic ever beats Dredge.

Verdict: Dredge isn’t real Magic, but the trophy it will bring you is still a real trophy.

Revolt Zoo Is Real

The multiple copies of Revolt Zoo could be written off as the same Texan aggression as Burn, but it isn’t. Revolt Zoo seems like a great evolution of the red aggro archetype to dodge all the cards I said make Burn bad. With the hard shift away from true burn spells, Collective Brutality is bad spot removal, and spot removal in general is not good, as it is tempo-negative against your threats. Raw lifegain doesn’t matter as you deal so much damage at a time. Importantly, you pass the “actually good goldfish” test with plenty of turn 3 kills, which gives you built-in nonsense insurance previous Zoo decks have lacked.

The deck isn’t perfect and has issues with certain hard stops to its draws. For example: Kitchen Finks, gain two life, the match slip is on your left. It is also soft to Engineered Explosives, which is fine against Death’s Shadow and does random work elsewhere, and against Anger of the Gods, which will be remembered whenever people get their act together and start playing the right amount of Dredge and Abzan Company. But for now the tools people have just aren’t the right ones for getting attacked for twelve on turn 2.

Verdict: I wouldn’t tell you to snap off Revolt Zoo because it crushes the metagame, but if all-in aggro is your jam, now is a great time to be playing events.

Which Eldrazi?

At Grand Prix Vancouver, Eldrazi Tron was the hot new deck everyone knew about. Basilisk Collar was sold out. It utilized new tools and did some cool stuff, but it was undetermined in the aftermath if it was actually better than traditional Bant Eldrazi lists.

Since then, Bant Eldrazi has generally outperformed Eldrazi Tron. This feels like a simple case of a more balanced deck outperforming the more narrow deck over larger sets against broad fields. Eldrazi Tron has an edge against midrange, but with Fatal Push taking over removal slots, midrange just isn’t built to beat any Eldrazi deck. I’m not even sure Tron has a big edge in the Eldrazi mirror, as Drowner of Hope is so good. Tron has Walking Ballista to help against the small creature decks, but no one plays Infect and Affinity loses harder to Stony Silence, leaving you better against…. Abzan Company? In exchange, you just don’t have Stubborn Denial as a catch-all against the 40-60% of any Modern deck that is classified as unpredictable nonsenese and you die. Scapeshift, Ad Nauseam, Gifts Storm…need I continue? Countermagic is great. Hoping to draw Thought-Knot Seer on time every game is not.

It’s interesting to think about how the past dominance of a known “unknown” Eldrazi shell may have biased early public perception here, but sometimes the old stuff exists for a reason.

Verdict: Don’t get tricked into playing with new cards just because they are new. Sometimes the old option is actually still better.

That Todd Stevens Top 8

I’m not sold on Todd Stevens’s list, but his Top 8 with G/W Company demonstrates the strength of Knight of the Reliquary and Collected Company. Again, generic graveyard hate is randomly low and a deck that leans on Knight of the Reliquary and Tarmogoyf just doesn’t get exploited.

I get what Todd is trying to do with Ad Nauseam and Death’s Shadow both being low-basic-land-count decks that can get Ghost Quarter Strip Mine-locked, but you are going to have to do more than that to convince me Spell Queller is not just awesome. Again, this points back to Eldrazi Tron and even points back to the same player, as Todd was on a streaming streak with Eldrazi Tron leading up to the Team Open in Baltimore. Maybe Todd just doesn’t appreciate broad-spectrum answers as much as I have come to appreciate them. Even if you don’t want to play Retreat to Coralhelm, you can just put a couple of blue lands next to your Noble Hierarchs and get free access to countermagic. It’s great!

I also want to explore maximizing Tireless Tracker a little more than Todd is doing. Mulldrifter that cascades out of control if unanswered is a great Magic card. I can’t tell if Courser of Kruphix makes it easier or more assured for Tracker to get out of hand or is just win-more, but I would be interested in a more balanced mixture of the two cards as an experiment. You probably need more than seven fetchlands, but with Knight of the Reliquary, that can’t be a huge ask.

Verdict: I have no idea when it happened, but Knight of the Reliquary came back from total unplayability.

Wait, Green Devotion?

I tried out a Green Devotion shell a few months and was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly less consistent than other big mana decks and more vulnerable to Abrupt Decay, but it provided a unique angle. The slowdown of the format was generally favorable to big mana, but the discovery of Fulminator Mage plus Surgical Extraction as a sideboard plan at Grand Prix Indianapolis in August was not. Turns out playing tons of basic Forests means you just don’t care about that sideboard plan, and as a result, everyone has nothing to stop you. I don’t know whether the non-Tooth and Nail build of the deck hits as hard as I want it to or if Tooth and Nail plus Emrakul, the Aeons Torn just corrupts your draws too much, but I think this archetype is worth exploring more with the drop-off in Infect.

My one thought is that you might not be limited to mono-green creatures and a red splash. I don’t think you want something like Thoughtseize, but there might be some weird enchantments or planeswalkers a third color opens up. Utopia Sprawl and Oath of Nissa make this easy. Who knows, you might just be able to jam Blood Moon on people.

Verdict: I am willing to believe Mono-Green Devotion is the next big thing, if only for a hot minute.

Where to Next?

So, where do I actually think the format is capable of being exploited? The keys: things are slowing down and things are getting weird.

I think the Modern Classic in Dallas actually highlights the directions I want to go better than the Open. The first direction is heading back towards the more consistent big mana decks to topdeck out of Death’s Shadow and G/B/x discard barrages. In the face of Fulminator Mage plus Surgical Extraction, that means G/R Scapeshift if we aren’t going deep on Devotion. I previously mentioned Engineered Explosives as a card I like now and it is oddly absent from both lists in this Top 8. Don’t expect that to be the norm moving forward, as it has slotted nicely into the sideboard or maindeck of Scapeshift in the past.

Verdict: Big mana wants consistency over power right now and needs to shift its answer base a little, but Scapeshift can do that with little effort.

The next level past that is just undercutting everyone as Inquisition of Kozilek loses market share. There are really two ways to consistently do that: Glistener Elf and Mox Opal. Since no one has shown up with Glistener Elf for basically the same reason no one has shown up with Dredge (aka I have no idea), that means Mox Opal was the successful option of the two. Puresteel Paladin is definitely more on the reliable side of things than the sketchy Goryo’s Vengeance side and offers some really absurd kills, but I’m still afraid of the games you just get Inquisition of Kozileked into Fatal Push.

Verdict: Puresteel Paladin is still super-sketchy. Just try to remember Glistener Elf is a card and give people the business with that one.

That leaves old faithful Affinity. I think this is another old archetype with new unexplored potential, as Spire of Industry lets you more reliably do some weird stuff Glimmervoid just didn’t. For example, Tempered Steel has been spotted alongside Dispatch, which makes sense given Jon Stern describing both Thoughtcast and Galvanic Blast as not great. I don’t think the three-mana enchantment is the place to be, but Dispatch and Thoughtseize would be the cards I would consider for the few flex spell slots the deck has access to.

Verdict: Affinity is great. Try new things and probably win anyway because it mostly doesn’t matter.

Overall, I don’t actually think you can go too wrong with most of the actually good decks in the format. Ad Nauseam, G/B Midrange, Death’s Shadow, and Bant Eldrazi will still be great. I’m going to keep playing Abzan Company, and just playing your known good deck is fine.

Just be aware we are in a bit of a grace period right now. The slower, safer format now is very exploitable by the same “non-interactive slow decks to hyper-aggressive” shift we have seen many times before in the history of Modern. Things are going to get harsh quickly, and by the time the next major event rolls around, your inbred pseudo-mirror breakers are going to look like the jokes you would assume they would be.

Grand Prix Orlando March 24-26!