Once Upon a Time was one of the defining cards in Modern.
Its banning has definitely shaken the format up, and while there are some early pillars…
There are also a lot of new or uncommon strategies showing up on the fringes. Today, I’d like to take a look at the Top 10 Modern decks flying under the radar. Whether picked up and used exactly as is, or studied for new pieces of tech, there are lots of interesting ideas here that could be of use getting a step ahead of the format in flux.
10. Gruul Aggro
Up first, Gruul Aggro!
- 2 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 1 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 1 Hooting Mandrills
- 4 Reckless Bushwhacker
- 4 Hidden Herbalists
- 4 Narnam Renegade
- 2 Hexdrinker
- 3 Gallia of the Endless Dance
Gallia of the Endless Dance and Hexdrinker breath new life into the strategy, and Narnam Renegade is an unusual one-drop selection (which obviously combines excellently with fetchlands), giving the strategy better tools against cards like Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath.
Besides, at the end of the day, you gotta respect somebody who chooses to register exactly two Tarmogoyfs. That’s a sign they’ve probably done a lot of work on this deck and in this format, as it’s not the kind of number most people arrive at naturally.
9. Gruul Eldrazi
A more exotic style of Gruul showed up near the end of last week, piloted by _Antoniou_ in a Modern Preliminary event: Eldrazi Gruul.
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 2 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Eldrazi Obligator
- 4 Reality Smasher
- 4 Thought-Knot Seer
- 3 Gruul Spellbreaker
- 1 Questing Beast
- 3 Bonecrusher Giant
Bloodbraid Elf and Domri, Anarch of Bolas are both powerful sources of card advantage. Along with Smuggler’s Copter and the Eldrazi, they highlight why this list is set up well to outlast anybody trying to grind you down with removal or interaction.
Finally, the three-drops in this list are pretty interesting. Eldrazi Obligator shows up from time to time in Eldrazi decks, so not too strange. Bonecrusher Giant is just a really strong card, so that makes sense. Then we come to Standard stand-out Gruul Spellbreaker, though, which is interesting and something to think about. I’m not saying it’s bad or anything. It looks pretty good here. I’m just saying that this may be a good example of a card that has done very well in Standard, but that people just haven’t thought of as a Modern card all that much, yet actually lines up pretty respectably in the format.
The Eldrazi weren’t the only tribe propping up a new red aggro deck…
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 4 Skirk Prospector
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 3 Vexing Shusher
- 2 Dragon's Herald
- 1 Hellkite Overlord
- 1 Goblin Chieftain
- 1 Goblin Cratermaker
- 3 Munitions Expert
- 2 Sling-Gang Lieutenant
- 1 Pashalik Mons
- 4 Putrid Goblin
- 3 Grumgully, the Generous
Now this is a cool deck!
Sling-Gang Lieutenant is a faster Siege-Gang Commander, helping keep up with Modern’s fast pace. The tokens it makes obviously stack well with tribal lords, including Grumgully the Generous. While Grumgully is fine and all, the role it plays in this deck becomes a lot more clear when viewed through the lens of being a “green creature.”
Why does being a green creature matter?
Dragon’s Herald is a Goblin that adds a really exciting dimension to the strategy, thanks to Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader to find it and both a green and a black Goblin. Goblin Chieftain giving haste means we can actually drop the Herald and use it in the same turn, giving us a very powerful alternate angle of attack.
Vexing Shusher helps round out the green requirements for Dragon’s Herald, which is definitely the bottleneck. Black has plenty of great Goblins to sacrifice, between Putrid Goblin, Munitions Expert, Murderous Redcap, and the aforementioned Sling-Gang Lieutenant.
I think this is just such a cool new take on Goblins, and I hope this archetype proves to have staying power. The Hellkite Overlord angle really changes the dynamic of which sweepers can fight Goblins best, and can go way over the top of some people trying to fight you low to the ground (not to mention setting up easy Turn 4 kills, in case you’re facing somebody trying to goldfish you).
7. Hollow Red
Actually, on the “exotic red aggro deck using new tech to cheat eight-drops onto the battlefield” front, we’ve got another entry in the form of PSBaro’s Hollow Red deck with a really splash new combo…
Most of what’s going on here shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, and Ox of Agonas finding a home here is pretty straightforward. The real fun comes from four copies of Storm Herald and four copies of Eldrazi Conscription.
Between Burning Inquiry, Cathartic Reunion, Goblin Lore, Lightning Axe, and even Ox of Agonas, more than a quarter of our deck can be used to discard Eldrazi Conscriptions. Get one back with Storm Herald and it attacks for thirteen on Turn 3, plus forces them to sacrifice two permanents. Get back two? Well, that’s a Turn 3 kill if the Herald connects, and blocking is going to be challenging when they’ve got to sacrifice four permanents before blockers are declared.
This is a very cool deck that looks pretty solid for racing other combo decks, particularly Valakut decks, thanks to the extra kicker of Blood Moon. I’m a little apprehensive about its vulnerability to graveyard hate, but there’s a lot to like with this list.
6. Boros Land Destruction
Blood Moon isn’t the only way land destruction is being used to help rein in Valakut and Urzatron decks. EduFonseca 5-0’ed a recent League with an usual Boros land destruction deck that doesn’t even use Blood Moon.
Instead of trying to use Blood Moon to lock people out, this list tries to suppress lands one at a time, starting with a base of Pillage, Molten Rain, and Ajani Vengeant. While these are the more traditional land destruction cards appearing in the list, I suppose it might be more accurate to say things start with Crack the Earth and Boom // Bust, since they will sometimes get the ball rolling even earlier.
Crack the Earth works especially well with Chromatic Star, Ichor Wellspring, and Flagstones of Trokair. Sacrificing a permanent that replaces itself gives us a way to overcome Crack the Earth’s “drawback.”
Similarly, Boom // Bust also works with Flagstones of Trokair, and can target one of your fetchlands and still resolve, even after you use the fetchland in response. You can also target your Cascading Cataracts without issue. It being indestructible saves it from Boom // Bust, but doesn’t fizzle the land destruction on your opponent or anything like that.
Finally, Mana Tithe is a cute and underplayed form of permission that works particularly well with land destruction. Additionally, the play of Boom // Bust on your fetchland flows perfectly, since you can still use that fetchland for the one mana you need for Mana Tithe to force your Boom // Bust through.
Besides, one of the biggest weaknesses of this deck is its first turn. Mana Tithe is perfect for making good use of that!
5. Mono-Black Smallpox
Another strategy with a land destruction component that popped up this week was dstathis’s Mono-Black Smallpox deck.
While this deck may be pretty wild-looking to those not familiar, versions of this strategy have shown up from time to time. The basic idea is to use most of your resources obliterating your opponent’s resources. Eventually, The Rack or Shrieking Affliction can put a merciful end to the game, but usually not before Castle Locthwain, Liliana of the Veil, or Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage has generated a sizable advantage.
With very little possibility of triggering revolt, Defile gives us more ability to hit three-drops and larger. I’m not totally sold on how often we’ll have enough lands to do what we want, but it seems fine.
Plague Engineer continues to be a premier sideboard card, attacking everything from Humans to Goblins to Merfolk and more. This isn’t the deck for it, but I’m not actually sure more decks shouldn’t be playing Plague Engineer maindeck.
All this land destruction has been such an important part of the format, as lands that tap for more than one mana continue to mostly invalidate slower decks and roll right through people without a plan.
4. Mono-Blue Tron
While Eldrazi and Primeval Titan are the most common ways to do this, there are some fringe strategies in this vein, such as SwissRolls’s Mono-Blue Tron deck:
This is a real throwback list, circa the mid-2000s. Instead of a pure focus on assembling the Urzatron and dropping game-winning threat after game-winning threat, this list tries to slow the opponent down with permission and set up its mana engine with a bit more card draw and scrying. While it has far fewer threats, it’s much better at finding them.
That said, I think this list is a bit too reactive for my tastes. I do appreciate it attacking the format from an unusual angle, and many opponents will not at all be prepared for the mana advantage from the Urzatron coupled with a pretty hefty quantity of permission and interaction. Still, if your opponent knows what you’re up to, I think they can actually recapture a lot of the advantage this deck is gaining from flying under the radar.
3. Indomitable Polymorph
Playing the Urzatron and not getting to use any Eldrazi seems like a real missed opportunity. That said, one of the most notable deckbuilders to watch, CALEBD, put up a 5-0 finish with Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in a very different kind of Remand deck.
Farseek can put us a turn ahead of schedule and conveniently can find any of our red shocklands, helping Manamorphose tie the whole manabase together. Finally, and quite importantly, it can find Dwarven Mine, stacking with our eleven fetchlands, ensuring we always have access to as many Dwarven Mines as we need.
2. Five-Color Superfriends
While plenty of Modern players are using small numbers of planeswalkers, some just can’t help themselves and are going all in. One of the most colorful of these “SuperFriends” decks is the five-color planeswalker deck aspiringspike used to 5-0 a Modern League:
- 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
- 1 Vraska, Golgari Queen
- 3 Dovin, Hand of Control
- 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
- 4 Karn, the Great Creator
- 2 Ashiok, Dream Render
- 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
- 3 Wrenn and Six
Obviously, 21 planeswalkers is pretty unheard-of, but that’s only half the story.
Birds of Paradise, Arbor Elf, and Utopia Sprawl ensure we’re reliably casting a planeswalker on Turn 2 most games, which can really take the pace into a place most people aren’t prepared for. Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl actually combine very well together, too. A Turn 1 Arbor Elf gives us three mana on Turn 2, but if we also have a Utopia Sprawl, now we’ve got four mana on Turn 2!
Simian Spirit Guide can also sub in for either half of the “combo,” giving us even more ways to cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Karn, the Great Creator on Turn 2. With the full fifteen sideboard cards dedicated to artifacts, this deck Karns hard.
Because sometimes you have Narset on the battlefield…
If you can assemble Puzzle Box/Narset, your opponent will have to put their hand on the bottom of their deck and only get one card to replace it. What’s more, that will count as their draw for the turn. If they can’t play the card by their next turn, they will lose it, too (continuing to only get one card per turn).
Because sometimes you have Teferi…
Because sometimes you have Dovin, Hand of Control…
Dovin easily comes down Turn 2, often virtually blanking your opponent’s second turn and setting you up to easily get Karn, the Great Creator down, before they can fight back. Go get God-Pharaoh’s Statue and you’ll frequently be able to lock somebody out before they even get going.
While I’m not sure we actually need all fifteen sideboard slots to go to artifacts, I’m not sure what other sideboard cards we’d even really want. While there are a lot of decks using Karn right now, this one might be the coolest.
Finally, no Top 10 list of under-the-radar decks would be complete without a Grixis deck…
1. Grixis Midrange
- 1 Magus of the Moon
- 2 Snapcaster Mage
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 3 Seasoned Pyromancer
- 1 Bonecrusher Giant
- 2 Brazen Borrower
- 2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
This list combines the Kroxa style of Rakdos deck with a bunch of the generically powerful blue cards that Modern decks are usually known for. This list makes especially good use of Thought Scour, powering up Kroxa, Gurmag Angler, and even Seasoned Pyromancer if you’re lucky.
While nobody’s like to disagree with them both being generally strong cards, neither has risen to ubiquitous staple the way Snapcaster Mage has. I can definitely see it, though. It kind of reminds me of Pia and Kiran Nalaar, where the card is inherently strong and happens to give card advantage in some pretty useful ways for how games often go in Modern.
While it’s barely been two weeks since Once Upon a Time’s banning, already we’re seeing a new landscape rich with unusual strategies and exotic technology.