This article is brought to you by a deck I don’t want to rebuild: Living End.
For the last couple of months, an alternate build of Living End has been floating around Modern Challenges. Earlier this month, it finally broke through and won one.
- 2 Deadshot Minotaur
- 4 Shardless Agent
- 4 Curator of Mysteries
- 2 Desert Cerodon
- 4 Striped Riverwinder
- 2 Bonecrusher Giant
- 2 Brazen Borrower
- 3 Titanoth Rex
- 2 Subtlety
- 4 Endurance
- 2 Foundation Breaker
- 2 Fury
I would consider myself a cascade deck main at this point, and I put this deck through a required trial period. I wasn’t impressed with the outcome, but I was impressed with the effort.
Talk about a statement. People were coming after Living End with a lot of Chalice of the Void and Teferi, Time Raveler. Rather than rely on the generalized Force of Negation and Grief, it was better to build a deck with specialized answers and threats that functioned in the worst-case scenario.
It turns out Force of Negation and Grief are really good and just better cards to play than these alternative interactive spells, but the deck was still Living End. You still had Living End hands and kills. You could probably predict a lot of this because Bonecrusher Giant was being cut from Temur Crashcade, but imagine a metagame where Living End is playing against creatures and sacrifice outlets where Fury and Endurance carried hard.
That’s where the wheels started turning. In our recent Dominaria’s Judgment Modern Tier List, we mentioned a couple of decks as being in the high tiers of the format but on a clear downswing. Both decks are still winning, but not remotely at the rate the once were. Whenever I play against them, I feel like my decks are constructed with a clear plan to beat them that more often than not gets executed and ends with them losing.
One of those decks was Azorius Control. That one makes a ton of sense. The winning Azorius decks are built as very narrow answers to the metagame, with tons of matchup-specific lock pieces. Some raw power and generic answers lie behind it all, but not on the level of the threats people are presenting that avoid Chalice of the Void. Even if they aren’t Crashing Footfalls or Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Modern has a host of cards that outperform half a deck of air and half a deck of answers.
The other deck was Izzet Midrange. Dom and I had a bit of a split on whether this deck still belonged in the absolute highest tier of the format, and my slightly lower opinion was based on my experiences exploiting it. Izzet Midrange still has draws where it just starts ahead and Counterspells the answer or threat that would halt its advantage, or where it lines up answers and buries opponents in Expressive Iterations, but just as often it’s a deck of one-for-one creatures, filler cantrips, and strandable interaction.
Let’s try to get to the bottom of what each of these blue decks does right and is worth preserving, what cards might be underperforming and cuttable, where they are currently lacking, and what a new version of them that solves those issues might look like.
Rebuliding Izzet Midrange
Let’s kick off with working on Izzet Midrange.
The problem isn’t that Izzet Midrange stopped having good cards. The problem is they just aren’t what they were a few months ago. When people first started jamming Izzet Midrange, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Murktide Regent weren’t threats people were gunning for. They could still die, since they’re creatures, but people were short on things that killed Ragavan on Turn 1 or things that killed Murktide Regent basically ever for a reasonable rate. You would just cast your threat and get a free win a decent chunk of the time.
Now, Ragavan and Murktide Regent have targets on their heads. It’s a testament to how insane those cards are that the entire format skewing their removal to beat them leaves them still towards the top of the metagame, but they’re very beatable.
That can leave Izzet Midrange in a bind. It has card selection, but it isn’t that strong. It has card advantage, but not in large quantities or that pulls large quantities of cards. If an opponent is playing something like Four-Color Elementals (Kaheera) or Azorius Control (Kaheera) that has good spot removal and better card advantage, Izzet Midrange can often find itself burned out of threats and buried in cards without the Legacy Delver advantage of Ponder making every hand work out perfectly.
There’s the red part of the deck, but that isn’t unique to Izzet. If you want to play the good red creatures and removal and not get ground down, there’s a clear answer in Grixis Midrane (Lurrus). But that deck lacks the raw pressure of Izzet to get out of midrange crusher matchups like Four-Color Blink (Yorion), Dimir Mill (Lurrus), or Mono-Green Tron.
Can we build a Grixis deck that has more killing power against these bigger midrange decks? I think that’s a tough ask. So much of the card advantage in Grixis or the similar Rakdos is tied up in Lurrus of the Dream-Den, which weirdly constricts a lot of the fast-kill threats like Murktide Regent, and Kolaghan’s Command, not a card known for playing fast Magic. You’re legally allowed to play Death’s Shadow, and you’re legally allowed to drop from the tournament when it gets Solitude’d from the third different deck in the same event.
Can we splice some more card advantage into Izzet Midrange? Maybe. Archmage’s Charm makes it easy to layer your Divinations so you chain from an Expressive Iteration into more cards that make more cards. But planeswalkers aren’t really something you can defend these days, and I don’t feel great about slapping Fact or Fiction into a deck like this. Any extra card advantage has to come from another efficient threat.
Snapcaster Mage is the other traditional answer to card advantage issues in a threat package, but weirdly my issue with Snapcaster Mage these days it isn’t even Murktide Regent graveyard overlap.
The problem with Izzet is threats, not answers. Snapcaster Mage as Silvergill Adept is…fine? I just don’t feel like that kills someone in 2021. Snapcaster Mage was always best when it was extending your cheap interaction, not when it was a beatdown tool. It’s the wrong kind of card advantage for this job.
If you want to talk some Mono-Red Prowess classics, Bedlam Reveler would kinda be the right kind of card advantage, but Murktide Regent and it aren’t buddies. And Light Up the Stage is just not for this era of Modern with a way better version of the same thing in Expressive Iteration.
I want to pose another thing Izzet Midrange does well: produce a must-answer threat and protect it from answers or opposing threats that might match it. Counterspell was ranked my third-most-important card in Modern in large part because it plays this role in several decks, of which Izzet Midrange is the most prominent. The threat Counterspell does the best job of protecting is obviously Murktide Regent, both because Murktide just kills people if given a single window and because Murktide is often a card people have a limited number of answers to. But more threats you can protect with Counterspell sound like exactly the thing to solve this problem.
Young Pyromancer plus Spell Pierce is a real plan for killing the decks that are best-suited to answering your stuff. Maybe it’s not quite the card you want against Four-Color Elementals (Kaheera) due to Fury plus Solitude being their coverage, but against the midrange decks and especially Azorius Control, it’s a beating. The specific scenario of protecting it with a Counterspell is a big deal because that exchange increases the threat of your Young Pyromancer in a removal-resilient way. You get the right end of the exchange now and make future copies much worse.
Why Spell Pierce over Flusterstorm? I think you need to go after their Teferi, Time Ravelers. Your Murktide Regents and Counterspells depend on it. I specifically would rather have more Spell Pierce than Force of Negation right now, since Force is much worse against true interaction and not even certainly better against combo due to Violent Outburst being such a big component of that. If I had to beat a bunch of Urza’s Towers and Primeval Titans I would lean on Force of Negation since they can out-mana Spell Pierce at critical junctures like a later Amulet of Vigor, but that’s just not my main concern these days.
Gut Shot is a card I would want in extreme moderation with Young Pyromancer. I don’t see many Ignoble Hierarchs these days outside the rogue Golgari Yawgmoth player, but it’s good enough in Ragavan mirrors and against the current Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus) lists that I consider it an actual card. It’s just some free action to get Young Pyromancer rolling.
I’m mostly working with house money here, using flex slots to fit in new cards, but I think some things people consider core components of the deck are more expendable than you would think.
Dragon’s Rage Channeler is a great card that wins games…if it lives. I’ve found it to be not bad in the one-for-one fight, but not great. If you’re trying to squeeze in more resilient bodies, it feels like a copy may be trimmable.
Extra copies of Consider or other cheap cantrips also feel like a trap. Your threat hands win games, not your “Consider into some specific interaction and then sorta do something eventually” hands.
I also think it’s time to take a good look at playing the full eight Lightning Bolt plus Unholy Heat. It isn’t good against cascade. It isn’t good against Azorius Control. It’s not great against Four-Color Elementals (Kaheera). You can do better against Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus). You’re only this loaded on cheap interaction due to a bygone era of killing Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar and opposing Ragavans. Only play the copies you need for things like Golgari Yawgmoth and Boros Burn, and choose to play better interaction instead.
It might not look like much, but Izzet Midrange makes big changes in the margins. The sideboard could use some refreshing too, but I’m not quite sure where to take it. Mattia Rizzi had a Brazen Borrower in the Top 8 of a Modern Challenge last weekend, and I like where that idea is headed. I don’t think Bonecrusher Giant is the answer, but that style of interactive flexible threat can help boost the numbers. It’s also possible Young Pyromancer should just be a sideboard card, since it fits this role well.
Rebuilding Azorius Control
- 4 Solitude
Azorious Control is another clear victim of its own success. It’s weird to say this with Azorius decks still winning events now, but much like Izzet Midrange a drop-off has happened.
There are a million decks right now trying to beat Azorius Control (Kaheera), and they’re basically all succeeding.
I want to highlight this specific list, because it is telling. There’s no Chalice of the Void, because people are beating you up for trying to be a lock deck. But now your Azorius Control deck is probably just going to lose to Temur Crashcade, because you’re short on lock pieces and they’ll just grind you down.
The attempt to stop the heavy-threat midrange piles beating up on you is Jace, the Mind Sculptor. If this were 2010, or even 2018, I might believe you have a chance. But this is 2021, and Jace just gets mangled. The loyalty count on it just hasn’t aged well in a world of Fury, and the Azorius decks are always behind in the relevant blockers game.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a great card, but you can’t lean on a five-drop to mop up the midrange piles. You need to have some more push. You can’t just let these people boss you around casting Restoration Angel and Endurance. Would the Azorius players of the past let you live down dying to stupid 3/4s?
I like the direction the Yorion lists are taking, and they certainly help against decks like Temur Crashcade trying to freeroll you with solid threats even when you shut down their main plan. But if your opponent is just solid threats and then more solid threats, is Restoration Angel actually stopping them?
Two ideas immediately spring to mind here:
Monastery Mentor is the classic Azorius Control answer to “how to kill opponents instead of durdling.” It also hasn’t aged the best into Fury, but you can at least work around that, whereas Jace typically flat-out dies.
The other option is Murktide Regent. I’m honestly shocked no one has tried a bit of this. It does mean a fundamental rebuild, and probably leaves you open to exploits in the mirrors, but I’m less worried about the mirrors and more worried about trying to shore up generic Azorius weaknesses as the deck wanes in position and popularity.
Oh, and I guess it makes Endurance better against you, but you win some, you lose some.
Both of these have implications of giving up Solitude, but I think there are some fixes for that.
I feel like I’m almost turning in the same homework twice here, but the issues with Azorius Control and Izzet Midrange converge. One of these decks wants to become a little better at grinding out games, yet has the proactive plans on lock. The other needs to become assertive, yet is great at playing defensive positions.
This may also be trying too hard to accomplish what the Thing in the Ice Izzet Control decks are doing, but it generally feels like access to Prismatic Ending and other white cards is too good to pass up in the format.
I’m reiterating a statement I’ve made many times recently in this decklist. I don’t think Teferi, Time Raveler and Chalice of the Void are especially amazing Magic cards in Modern right now unless you’re leaning on anti-cascade equity. I guess both are good against Izzet Midrange too, but I just spent half an article talking about that deck having some big issues these days. With that presence in the metagame waning, you can just play different cards.
Seriously. If there’s one take away from this whole thing, it’s that almost nothing is sacred in current Modern deckbuilding. The cards are just too good across the board to play ones that aren’t great right now. If your deck stops being good, determine the thing that makes it good. Whether that’s Murktide Regent plus Counterspell, the entire Colossus Hammer / Sigarda’s Aid / Puresteel Paladin package, or eight cascade spells and four Crashing Footfalls, start there.
If that core plan isn’t good, like cascade against a million Teferis and Chalices, maybe you’re sunk. But more likely you can put another 40 cards in there that do something completely different from the old ones, and that’s how you claw your way back into a metagame.
There are still a couple of weeks until the Star City Games Invitational at SCG CON, which is plenty of time for a new Modern deck to completely shake the metagame. But that impact shouldn’t mean you completely abandon an archetype. Izzet Midrange and Azorius Control are just the decks facing this identity crisis today. If your deck of choice starts feeling a bit washed up, consider this kind of rebuild facelift and see if you can’t get back to playing an obviously amazing deck.