How To Go Over The Top Of Elementals In Modern

What’s the best way to beat Modern’s powerhouse Elementals deck? Ross Merriam recommends going even bigger, and shares three key options for it.

Risen Reef, illustrated by Johan Grenier

Last week I wrote about how Wrenn and Six is the most underplayed card in Modern. This was largely due to how attrition-oriented the format has become coupled with the importance of playing a low curve and not getting run over early by the myriad of excellent, cheap threats in the metagame.

I suggested the card as a strong reason to splash green in the Rakdos and Izzet Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer decks, and to their own peril, most players playing those archetypes chose to bring established lists, while the rest of the metagame was prepared to beat them.

Indeed, Four-Color Elementals was the breakout deck of the weekend, having been foreshadowed by kanister’s Challenge win with the deck last weekend. It continued its winning ways, this time taking down the Showcase Challenge while being among the most popular decks among the Top 32 finishers.

Despite not always featuring the card Wrenn and Six itself, the success of Elementals is predicated on the same strengths that Wrenn and Six has. Headlined by Risen Reef, the deck generates a ton of card advantage to win long games, and the various Incarnations ensure that you don’t get run over while you set up your engine. As a bonus, Risen Reef even recoups the card disadvantage for you, making it much easier to load up on them without experiencing diminishing returns. With this kind of versatility to play powerfully in the early game and the late game, playing Elementals is like playing an entire deck of Wrenn and Sixes.

This Is Nothing New

Ultimately, what we’re seeing here is a typical metagame development that has happened many times in Magic’s history. Efficient midrange decks take over a format due to sheer power, efficiency, and versatility, starting an arms race as the rest of the metagame tries to overpower them without going overboard and falling victim to their efficiency. As the presence of the initial decks wanes, the arms race only increases, until the metagame becomes inbred enough to open a new angle of attack.

The traditional angle of attack that emerges to combat the arms race is linear and non-interactive, either big mana or combo. These decks easily fall victim to the combination of pressure and disruption that decks with Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer; Dragon’s Rage Channeler; and/or Death’s Shadow present, but love to play against bigger midrange decks, which sacrifice on speed and disruption in order to gain the necessary resilience and threat density to prey on smaller midrange decks.

For much of Modern’s history, these decks ran rampant in the metagame, much to the chagrin of many players. But recently, those decks have taken a huge hit. First came the ban on cards like Simian Spirit Guide, Mox Opal, and Faithless Looting, and then the printing of powerful disruption, particularly Force of Negation. Modern has been an eminently fair format for some time now, and with Unholy Heat making Primeval Titan much easier to kill, even Amulet Titan has fallen completely out of the metagame.

Mono-White Hammer had been the linear deck of choice, but as with all such decks, there are only so many beatings (or bonks in this case) you can dish out before your opponents figure out your tricks. At this point most players have figured out how to beat Puresteel Paladin and friends, or at least make it competitive, so that deck is solid but not ahead of the metagame in any sense.

Finding the Next Big Deck

If you want to get ahead, you’ll need to find a linear archetype that players are unprepared for and dodges the common interaction from Elementals. If you’re a creature deck, that’s tough to do since Fury and Solitude do a great job of covering the deck’s bases in that department by themselves. Solitude answers single large threats, up to and including the biggest of them all in Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, while Fury punishes players who try to go wide, which is true of most current creature combo decks and linear aggressive strategies.

If you look to go spell-based, you’re in better shape in theory, but there aren’t a lot of those running around in Modern these days. Gifts Storm relies pretty heavily on its Baral, Chief of Compliances and Goblin Electromancers while also running afoul of Endurance out of Elementals since it often utilizes the graveyard.

Past that you’re looking at the retooled Ad Nauseam deck, which in the absence of Simian Spirit Guide has turned to relying less on its namesake card and instead on the selection of Profane Tutor to combo with Thassa’s Oracle and Spoils of the Vault. Either way, the deck is still a collection of mana-intensive three-card combos that has yet to reach the level of consistency necessary to compete on a consistent basis. It may be better-positioned right now than it was a few weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean it clears the bar of viability.

I’d love to tell you that Dredge is the deck to take over in this new metagame, as it’s perhaps the most infamous linear deck in Magic’s history. But it might be worse now than at any time in the last five years. Dragon’s Rage Channeler and Lurrus encourage plenty of graveyard hate to stick around, Dredge itself isn’t nearly as explosive as it used to be, and one of the secret ways to beat Dredge has always been to trump them on the battlefield. Elementals in general and Omnath, Locus of Creation in particular are excellent at dominating the battlefield, and you only have so many copies of Conflagrate. That is, unless they get exiled by Endurance.

It really is a tough time to be playing linear decks in Modern. The disruption is powerful, which makes it hard to go over the top, and the midrange decks are nigh-impossible to get underneath with how many options they have for efficient threats and disruption, even while sticking to two colors.

The New Contenders

But as we all know, hope springs eternal. There are three decks I think that are well set up to combat the surprising menace that is Elementals while holding their own against the rest of the metagame. First up is Jeskai Creativity and its variants:

As fun as it is to put Velomachus Lorehold onto the battlefield and taking all the turns, packing your deck with eight mediocre Time Walks isn’t a recipe for success. Time Warp at least had some synergy with Wrenn and Six, letting you build towards an emblem that takes all the remaining turns, but Savor the Moment is…not a good Magic card.

The strength of this deck is in how easy it is to get a token onto the battlefield to target with Indomitable Creativity. You don’t have to play weak token-makers like Forbidden Friendship now that you have Dwarven Mine and enough good dual and trilands that you can commit to a nearly all-Mountain manabase and still cast three colors’ worth of spells consistently.

Then you have the ability to target an artifact. This turns quality cards like Prismari Command and Hard Evidence (aka the Ragavan stopper) into enablers, and also ensures that your combo is often immune to removal.

Beyond that, this is just a solid control deck. If you overload to stop Creativity, it’s more than capable of finding an unorthodox route to victory, whether it’s a Wrenn and Six emblem into a pile of Lightning Bolts or eventually finding the singleton Shark Typhoon. While you have the ability to race to an early Emrakul, there’s no need to do so if you’re fearful of an opposing Solitude.

While I mentioned Emrakul as a card that Solitude covers, the rest of the deck enabling another angle of attack offers virtual protection for everyone’s favorite noodle monster. If you overload on answers to it so they can’t confidently jam Creativity early, you’ll eventually find yourself falling behind to their control gameplan.

As far as this list goes, I want to highlight the choice of a split with Delay and Remand when the latter is typically found alone. I like Delay as a way to both protect Emrakul and combo with Teferi to do its best Counterspell impression. With curves as low as they are these days, Remand is not attractive, so I expect the balance between the two to continue to shift towards Delay, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the total counterspell count decline.

I’m also a fan of the Serra’s Emissary in the sideboard, which is a haymaker against Elementals, and particularly good when you can cast Indomitable Creativity for X=2. That’s not at all difficult against a deck that doesn’t apply a ton of early pressure.

This isn’t the most linear of decks, but over-the-top strategies have always been at their best when they’re versatile enough to also play an interactive game. As long as you get to attack with Emrakul, it doesn’t matter much when it happens, so be patient.

My next pick to take down Elementals is Dimir Mill:

This is the deck I’d choose to punish Elementals for not applying a ton of pressure in the early-game. If you’re looking to play a long attrition game, then any deck that is directly ending the game will match up well. Normally that would be Burn, but Omnath, Locus of Creation is not a card I’m interested in playing Eidolon of the Great Revel against, so I’m looking at Dimir’s version of a Burn deck, Mill.

Dimir Mill is an established Tier 2 archetype in Modern at this point, and the addition of Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, while not particularly effective against Elementals, is excellent against most of the metagame. Combined with another recent printing in Fractured Sanity, it’s clear that the deck has reached a new level of efficiency.

Consequently, you can tell players are starting to respect Mill because you often see singleton Eldrazi in sideboards to combat it. Tasha’s Hideous Laughter is an easy way to exile them, but if you plan to pick up this deck, be sure to check out how common these are week-to-week and adjust your number of Surgical Extractions accordingly.

The one thing I don’t like about these lists is the addition of Counterspell. I’d much rather see more cheap removal so you don’t get run over by aggressive decks or the lean midrange threats as often. Drown in the Loch can cover your late-game in most matchups, and your sideboard should have some counterspells for other linear strategies. But in Game 1, you need to be able to interact with early Ragavans and not just hope that your Ruin Crab will survive.

Last up, and in my opinion the best-positioned deck in Modern for this weekend, is Bring to Light Scapeshift:

Much like the Indomitable Creativity deck, Bring to Light Scapeshift can play an effective control game until it fires off its namesake card for lethal damage. And with Triomes, you have a manabase that’s flexible enough to cast your spells but not rely on Dryad of the Ilysian Grove to have enough Mountains to make it work.

It only takes five slots in the deck between Scapeshift and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle to create a completely new angle of attack that requires you play completely differently from how you would against Supreme Verdict into Omnath, Locus of Creation. And Valakut combos with Dryad anyway to give the deck a strong alternate path to either ending the game quickly or controlling your opponent’s battlefield.

To supplement this gameplan, you have a pair of excellent planeswalkers, perhaps the best removal spell in Modern in Prismatic Ending, and an absolute haymaker against most of the metagame in Chalice of the Void. Playing against this deck involves a lot of passing the turn and crossing your fingers that you’re not about to get blown to smithereens in a multitude of different ways.

And the best part is that even if your opponent shuts down every spell, you can still take over the long game with natural Mountains and Valakuts. It’s the ultimate form of inevitability and it will absolutely change the way your opponents play, often taking more aggressive lines with added risk than they otherwise would.

Over Modern’s history we’ve seen plenty of Scapeshift decks, and while this deck looks much different from the historical examples, it’s much more potent and provides the same advantages that those decks had. It’s great at ignoring the cascading value of cards like Risen Reef and happy to both race and play a long game. That’s the combination that I’m looking for to beat Elementals.

We’re nearing two months into Modern Horizons 2’s time in Modern and the metagame refuses to settle. No matter the dominant deck, there are always counters available and more cards and strategies to explore. I don’t know when it’ll stop, but enjoy this while it lasts. It’s competitive Magic at its best.