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Choosing Decks For The Online Grind

Sheltering in place? Go online and smash some face! Ben Friedman shares six carefully chosen decklists across four formats.

Fires of Invention, illustrated by Stanton Feng

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So we’re all stuck inside for the foreseeable future. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do, but it’s unfortunately curbed any live Magic tournaments until further notice. What’s an enterprising grinder to do? 

If you’re stuck at home, bored and disappointed in the multiple event cancellations that stopped you from attending some excellent tournaments, it may not be the most enticing time to sit down and start battling online. But that’s exactly why right now is the best time to get on your preferred client and get into games. Whether it’s Magic Online (MTGO) or Magic Arena (MTGA), the most dedicated folks will come out of this with their in-game decision making heuristics still sharp and their decklists tuned.

It’s highly likely that the first SCG Tour Open Weekend to run after the lockdown and quarantine period ends will be won by someone who played dozens of hours of online Magic in order to stay on top of their game. That type of dedication will pay off. 

But what to play? There are a number of different formats one could pick up and master, and they move quickly when the entire Magic world is online. My recommendation is to alternate: when one gets repetitive or boring, pick up a different one. Keep a rotation going between Standard, Modern, Pioneer, and even Legacy to grind MTGO QPs or get up to the vaunted Mythic level on MTGA and qualify for the next MCQ Weekend.

Now, with four relatively dynamic formats, there’s always something to play for everyone, but each one has its best deck, the one that you should play unless you have a compelling reason not to. With these as starting points, you’re setting yourself up for the best chance at success and can adjust and evolve as needed.

Theros Beyond Death Standard

You should probably play Jeskai Fires right now. It’s the most flexible archetype, offers free wins with overpowering Fires of Invention draws, and packs the ever-powerful sideboard juke plan that longtime readers should know is a hallmark of a great deck. In fact, these sideboard jukes allow a “best deck” to retain its throne long beyond what would otherwise be its normal rotation back to the bottom of the metagame wheel.


It’s simply a quality pile of good cards, stitched together with the overwhelming mana advantage granted by Fires of Invention. But here’s the thing. If an opponent isn’t pressuring you, even answers to Fires of Invention don’t do all that much. If they answer the Fires, you can just slam a few Cavaliers or Elspeth Conquers Death and get to work with your massive five-drops. If they don’t answer Fires, you’re going to be applying two haymakers on Turn 5 a huge portion of the time. You make your opponent try to pressure you while also praying you don’t have some massive turnaround turn involving ten mana worth of beef.

Additionally, in your sideboard games, you gain the ability to just get under an opponent who sideboarded out small creature removal. When you get both Legion Warboss and Robber of the Rich, what’s an opponent to do? Azorius Control, for example, can get thoroughly embarrassed if it maintains or brings in more copies of Glass Casket or Shatter the Sky, but without those cards, they simply aren’t going to keep up with a Robber of the Rich into Legion Warboss on the play. It’s just not going to happen. Clearly, it’s awfully tough for most opponents to cover both bases, and the way that Jeskai Fires forces them to make that call is painful. Can a control deck maintain anything resembling a good win rate when it has to hope to draw the right half of answers against the right half of threats? The answer is no. Azorius Control circa World Championship XXVI a few months back is old hat. Now Jeskai Fires is the control deck to play.

It also has nut draws that quickly overpower decks like Temur Adventures, which were designed to blast through Azorius Control with ease. I don’t foresee Jeskai Fires being outside of the best three decks in Theros Byond Death Standard, at least until Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is released in a month. Until then, this is the deck to play and tune in your online grind.

Pioneer

If you thought the answer here was going to be anything other than Dimir Inverter, you’ve got another think coming.

Of course, Mono-White Devotion has picked up and actually presents a genuine challenge to the deck. And yes, Bant Spirits is still a contender (though even if it is likely not going to be above 50% against an expert Dimir Inverter player). 

The best list comes from Andrew Jessup (no surprise – the Monarch of the SCG Tour doesn’t lay down his crown easily!). He’s got three Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in his maindeck, an innovation that I personally love but understand may look a little bit weird. He also declined to play any copies of Fetid Pools, which I chastised him for, but hey, the man wins matches and likes his list.

Do with it as you wish, but I would be reluctant to question these decisions outright without a very good reason.


The choice to play Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy maindeck makes your opponent better able to interact with you with Fatal Push or Bonecrusher Giant in Game 1, but it does lower your overall curve and offer a Turn 2 play that threatens to pull ahead quickly. 

Annul is a blast from the past that smoothly attacks decks as disparate as Mono-White Devotion and Izzet Ensoul. It’s an excellent sideboard card that people haven’t quite picked up on yet.

And yes, it seems like we’ve converged on Ashiok, Nightmare Muse as our alternate finisher of choice. It’s not a bad one, to be sure. It can take over the battlefield quickly and answer any permanent in a pinch. This is particularly useful against Mono-White Devotion and their Gideon’s Interventions.

Don’t underestimate the deck playing the most bannable card in the format (Dig Through Time). It’s unlikely to stop being the most-played deck until and unless a ban occurs. Keep that in mind as you grind Pioneer for MTGO QPs or tickets!

Modern

They finally banned Once Upon a Time. It definitely did something to Amulet Titan. Did it end that deck’s ability to crush matches at an obscene clip? Not in the slightest. It’s still an incredible deck that is well worth playing, if and only if you’re a competent Amulet Titan player. The deck is one of the most difficult archetypes in the history of Magic, and though it’s often forgiving, an expert will squeeze out a healthy win percentage bump compared to a novice.

Therefore it’s important to give a disclaimer here: There are actually two options here for the online grinder. The first is Amulet Titan, but if you do not want to spend the time, money, and energy to learn it, the second is the intuitive, straightforward, and powerful Eldrazi Tron.

I vastly prefer those two archetypes to Dredge, Mono-Red Prowess, Bant Snow, or Jund right now.


This list is very close to the one that MTGO user Hampuse1 went deep in the Modern Super Qualifier this past weekend with, and for good reason. Their list was clean, straightforward, and powerful. If you want a forgiving deck with a high ceiling and high floor, look no further. If you want to stretch your creative muscles and really try to learn the hardest deck in Modern, though, you have to pick up Amulet Titan. The list to start with, unsurprisingly, is MTGO grinder PuntThenWhine’s crispy 75 from the same Super Qualifier this weekend.

Bear in mind, a key piece of this deck may very well get banned at some point this year. So if you do decide to play Amulet Titan, you’re likely dancing with the banhammer as well as your own skill cap. But for the fearless, here’s the deck to play:


Primeval Titan is a tutor. Summoner’s Pact is a tutor. Karn, the Great Creator is a tutor. Tolaria West is a tutor. Ancient Stirrings is a step down from a full tutor, but still often offers a tough choice when selecting your card. This deck is so chock-full of tutor effects, it’s hard to say with confidence that anyone is going to be able to play it perfectly. All you can hope for is competence in the face of near-impossible perfection. And any tips you can glean from the masters of Amulet Titan will be well worth the trouble, because I can’t for the life of me imagine playing this deck without every hard-won heuristic at my fingertips. This deck is just that good, and just that difficult.

Legacy

I suspect that Infect is secretly a solid choice right now, what with being able to cast Oko, Thief of Crowns on Turn 2 and all. It also gets to play Once Upon a Time, another card now banned in every other format. However, without enough evidence to back up the assertion that Infect is the unknown hero the format needs, it’s important to defer to actual data.

For those who might be interested, here’s the list I would play, just for fun:


A lot of exciting work remains to be done on this archetype. Turn 2 Oko is so strong, though, that it’s worth putting some time in to make it happen. 

But for someone who wants to just make it easy on themselves and play a strong deck that wins fast, it’s best to play Colorless Eldrazi (sadly). Once Upon a Time and the London Mulligan work together to make this the best deck for MTGO grinders at the moment. 

The lists tend to converge, with basically all the maindecks looking close to identical, but here is a list to work from regardless:


Of course, one could pick up Sneak and Show, Grixis Delver, Simic Lands, or one of the Snow midrange decks, but in contemporary Legacy the deck that bends the rules with the London Mulligan most is Colorless Eldrazi. I would consider either it or Infect as my go-to choices for quick wins on the MTGO grind.

During this particularly trying time for the world, the best thing 90% of us can do is hunker down and stay at home. That’s demoralizing and a little scary, to be sure, but it’s also the environment in which an enterprising online Magic player can come into their own and get to the next level in the format of their choosing.

Put in the work now. The world is offering many of us an opportunity to put time into developing the skills to succeed at whatever endeavor we want to pursue. For those who want to make that Magic, you have all the tools you need at your disposal.

Plus, it will take your mind off the stressful and disempowering news going around in the world today. There’s value in taking that mental break from the nonstop churn of alarming media reports to just click some buttons and smash face with a Thought-Knot Seer or a Cavalier of Flame!

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