What’s Up With Constructed?

Ari Lax discusses Standard, Modern, and Legacy in this thoughtful article about metagaming. The Invitational is just a few weeks away, so make sure you’re on top of your game!

Two weekends off until my next event.

See also: break.

See also: Time to sit back, analyze, brew, and win the next one.

All of the major Constructed formats are all in a similar state right now. Stable, but with enough tools for someone to break them wide open with the right amount of effort. These are the conclusions I’ve come to so far.


The buzz after this weekend is going to be about Nightshade Peddler plus Izzet Staticaster or Somberwald Sage plus Craterhoof Behemoth. But really, that wasn’t the breakthrough. Both of these are awesome interactions that found a niche in a format where synergy was waiting to be rewarded, but there are a ton of similar options for this role. To name a few, you have the Deadeye Navigator decks we saw before, the Conjurer’s Closet deck that popped up at Grand Prix Charleston, the Seance deck Cedric Phillips has been working with on his stream, and various Angel of Glory’s Rise brews that have even included the Peddler-Staticaster combo.

Here are lists of the Hoof and Peddler decks for reference. For the record, the Hoof deck was a Brad Nelson invention, and he lost playing for top eight of Grand Prix Charleston when Martin Juza was winning his finals match with the deck on the other side of the Atlantic.

Deathtouch Pingers

Hoof Let the Dogs Out

The takeaway: People have figured out how to maindeck Deathrite Shaman.

If you haven’t been following Modern, it would be easy to miss how powerful this card is when it is firing on all cylinders. In Standard there aren’t fetchlands to activate the first ability, which has previously limited the card to use as a sideboard answer to graveyard strategies. Both the Craterhoof Combo deck and the Peddler-Staticaster midrange deck were able to use the card to full effect, and the key card in getting Shaman’s mana ability reliably active was Tracker’s Instinct.

Prior to now, Tracker’s Instinct has been the bad graveyard enabler of the format with Mulch and Grisly Salvage both being much better at getting creatures into your graveyard. The big change is that these decks want creatures in their hand. The Craterhoof Behemoth deck can reanimate its namesake but is just as comfortable tapping a Somberwald Sage to cast it, and the Nightshade Peddler deck just wants the card selection to assemble its combo.

In these decks, we should be viewing Tracker’s Instinct as an Impulse with flashback that happens to turn on Deathrite Shaman. Considering how much play Desperate Ravings and Think Twice have seen, it was only a matter of time before Tracker’s Instinct played a similar role.

With Gatecrash bringing Breeding Pool to better support blue-green decks, I wouldn’t expect Tracker’s Instinct or its buddy Deathrite Shaman to go anywhere but up from here.

Note: I may have been calling this for a while, but it may be time for Bonfire of the Damned to shine again. The Hoof deck is almost all mana creatures and Lingering Souls, both of which make a non-miracled Bonfire profitable.

One other thing from the weekend that deserves mention is the return of Delver of Secrets at Grand Prix Bochum, with a list tuned by recent Modern Grand Prix finalist Emanuel Sutor.

First thing worth noting, the Inaction Injunctions were Fleeting Distractions in other lists, but the point remains the same. Cheap cantrips still exist in the format to turn Snapcaster Mage into a pseudo-Silvergill Adept.

Also worth noting: Swift Justice may look like a joke, but it does a lot of work. Just to name a few: When your Geist of Saint Traft attacks into a Beast token, Swift Justice is there for you. When your Delver of Secrets attacks into a Restoration Angel or two Lingering Souls tokens, Swift Justice has your back. It even gets them in the inevitable Restoration Angel stare down where normally the 3/4 bodies would sit around forever. As much as it looks like a janky Limited combat trick, that is exactly what this deck needs to push through.

Now may not be the time to play this deck due to the surge in Cavern of Souls, but it still exists. At the very least, this should show you the reason people are playing with a virtual Ancient Ziggurat in a format of multicolored spells.


After some quick testing with Brian Kibler Green-White deck from Grand Prix Chicago, I found myself liking the deck. Wilt-Leaf Liege was extremely powerful, and breaking the x/4 barrier is almost as important in this format as in Ravnica Limited due to Bloodbraid Elf and Lightning Bolt.

My only issue was that against Jund you would sometimes have games where you flooded out with bad creatures. Not that any of the creatures in the deck are actually bad, but there are a bunch of, you know, hate BEARS. You make a two-mana 2/x; they make a Tarmogoyf. You make another bear; they cascade into a removal spell for your 4/4 or another Goyf; you die.

I wanted another relevant body. I knew it couldn’t be Tarmogoyf for multiple reasons. First off, the deck would never get it past 3/4 without your opponent’s assistance. That just isn’t good enough. The other issue is that post-board against Jund you want to lean on Relic of Progenitus to cold most of their threats. Deathrite Shaman, Tarmogoyf, and their choice of Lingering Souls, Geralf’s Messenger, or Kitchen Finks are all made significantly worse by your Relics. Playing your own Tarmogoyfs does not play to this plan.

The answer I have right now is Fauna Shaman. Suddenly, your bear is relevant. You will never flood on low-quality creatures with a Fauna Shaman in play. Beyond that, it makes your current hate bears even better. Brian’s list had two Thalia and a Gaddock Teeg against Storm. With one of each and a set of Fauna Shamans, that’s effectively six copies of that effect accessible by turn three.

That said, be aware Fauna Shaman is capped in what it can do by the massive presence Deathrite Shaman has in the format. I actually first thought of the card as a combo engine to back a Jarad’s OrdersBody Double-reanimator target, but immediately realized half the format has maindeck hate for this plan. That means definitely no Vengevines or anything else cool like that. All I want to do is upgrade my mediocre draws or extra mana creatures to game breakers in midrange mirrors and have my semi-narrow hate slots line up properly against the right combo decks.

Yes, it dies horribly to a lot of Jund’s removal, but no more than any other two-drop would in its place. It also forces them to kill it immediately to prevent it from generating a huge advantage, which has a drastic effect on how well they can apply pressure. Also, every Terminate it eats is not being aimed at a Wilt-Leaf Liege, and every Lightning Bolt is not being aimed at your face.

The other deck I’ve been looking into is Birthing Pod, specifically the four-color Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo list over the Melira list being promoted by MOCS champion Sam Pardee. This deck is near the top of the list of things that laugh at Lingering Souls. The only issue is that this requires it to have a Birthing Pod in play to be a powerful deck. Without the card, the deck is barely playable. The original lists had Chord of Calling, but that card was slow and only assembled a single shot at comboing into removal. Recent lists moved to Commune with Nature, which solves the slow issue but not the single use aspect.

I want to solve the single use issue. I want Birthing Pod in play as often as possible because when it is, the deck is nearly unstoppable. I want to play Fabricate in my lists. Not as a four-of but likely just replacing the two Commune with Nature slots from the Grand Prix Lyon Top 8 lists. The deck is already supporting blue spells; two more should not be an issue.

Another important factor is the ability to tutor for a creature with Fabricate. The games where you have a Pod in play and aren’t winning involve drawn out games where your opponent has a removal spell or counter for every single card you play. If Fabricate was just a way to find Pod, it could easily be considered a liability as another blank draw in these scenarios. As it stands, you can find a Spellskite, Ethersworn Canonist, or Phyrexian Metamorph with it. These may not seem like much, but a two-drop and an untapped Pod takes two activations that turn and an untap step to combo out with. These are also some of your high priority cards in combo matchups. Even if you don’t have time to cast it to get a Pod, Fabricate can find a hate card for Infect, Twin, Eggs, or Storm.

The one issue with Fabricate is that it doesn’t solve any issues the deck has with search hate, namely Aven Mindcensor and Grafdigger’s Cage. To be 100% honest, I’m just ignoring the fact those cards exist if I’m playing Pod. Mindcensor is quite good and is scheduled to be better next week, but only a small subsection of decks play it. If it is that big of a concern, the deck can sideboard Path to Exile like the list from Grand Prix Lyon. As for Grafdigger’s Cage, I think people have realized the card isn’t actually good anymore. I only played it at the Pro Tour because of Pod and the fear of a Goryo’s Vengeance deck, but between Eggs and Storm, graveyard hate has shifted towards Relic of Progenitus and Rest in Peace. If anyone has a Relic, it is solely for Pod, and even then it isn’t that good, as you can just naturally kill them. They have to hope their card expended on a Cage makes your hand not only worse overall but bad enough that they can beat it. There were three copies of the card between the top sixteens of Lyon and Chicago, and I expect this trend to continue.


First of all, the number of Deathrite Shamans being played is way too low. Play more. Now to a more full topic.

It’s currently a rough time to play combo in Legacy. The term pickle would be appropriate (see: baseball), as the traditional ways to handle each of the current disruption suites are punished by another that is equally prevalent.

Let’s start by looking at the threat RUG Delver poses. It has a huge mass of disruption, but all of it is soft disruption that trails off in quality as the game goes on. The best plan against RUG Delver out of combo is usually to realize they usually can’t kill you until turn five and spend your first turns setting up to play straight through a Daze and a Stifle. Slower, more stable combo is rewarded, like High Tide.

Of course, Miracles will wreck you for doing this with one card: Counterbalance. If your combo deck is at all vulnerable to that card, your best plan is usually just to try and sneak under it. I’ve used Empty the Warrens in the past, with the more common line likely being Show and Tell on turn two with Force of Will backup (or Animate Dead, if that is more your style).

Notice a theme with these last few options? All of them involve putting a creature into play, which folds to a Terminus set up with Sensei’s Divining Top if not a Karakas.

So, in order to be a successful combo deck in this format, you have to be able to play straight through Counterbalance and have a solid amount of mana to beat RUG, as well as not relying on creatures to avoid Terminus. The other option of hoping to dodge isn’t realistic, as even if only 8% of the field is either of these decks they will be at the top tables waiting for you.

So, beating RUG Delver is easy: play more lands, get Dazed and Wastelanded out of games less. How does this extend to beating Miracles?

In Show and Tell strategies, I would try to focus on stretching Miracle’s answers. You are reasonably well positioned against Counterbalance, as your threat costs three and they are short on cards to reveal that cost more than two, but I want to go beyond that. Don’t play into their answers with Emrakuls; instead focus on a backup plan of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Not only is Jace a must-counter threat, but the deck with Ancient Tomb can easily get down their Jace first and preemptively answer one of the control deck’s routes to victory. I’ve also started moving towards Vendilion Clique as a backup disruption spell past the Force of Will slot. Again, it forces the control deck to take action against a threat that isn’t your Show and Tells, as well preempting their Cliques and demolishing Show and Tell mirror matches.

Just stay away from Intuition. There are way too many Surgical Extractions floating around for that card to see play.

Of course, if you are completely crazy and still want to Tendrils of Agony people, an opening has formed in the format. You just need to know two things: Maverick is dying out, and you can beat a resolved Counterbalance.

Maverick dying out means fewer Thalias. You no longer have to deal with maindeck hate bears, and therefore no longer have to try and speed up your deck to race them. Importantly, you can now play a list with more lands and Cabal Rituals.

This gives you the plan B to beat a Counterbalance deck: multiple Tendrils of Agony and Dark Confidant. If you manage to push in a couple chip shots with Dark Confidant and get to eight cards in hand with four or five lands in play, you can strain their Top mana with proper Ritual sequencing and actually cast a lethal number of spells from hand. The change to more lands lets you hard-cast more spells in this configuration, and the switch to Cabal Ritual helps with the Top straining for a number of reasons. As a two-drop, it forces them to change up their Top more times to answer all your spells; as an instant, it lets you get some timing jumps on their actions; and as a black ritual, it helps your mana line up to cast Tendrils as opposed to the red from Rite of Flame.

Combo isn’t out of the picture in current Legacy, but you can’t just wing it anymore. Your deck decisions have to be very targeted for the metagame to break through.

This is just the start of what I’ve been looking at across the board. Give me another two weeks, and maybe I’ll have something cool for Grand Prix Toronto. Of course, I could just be playing Infect still, but at least I’ll have a good reason to do so.

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter