That’s how long it will have been since my last high-level paper Magic tournament when I shuffle up for Round 1 of the Invitational at SCG CON next Friday.
I haven’t gone that long without playing a major event since I first got my DCI card at Regionals in 2003. In case you’re curious, I played Simic Madness at that event, and dropped before the last round at 5-4.
For whatever reason, online tournaments just don’t scratch the same itch as playing in person. Even as I’ve gotten older and the rigors of travel have gotten more difficult, there’s still nothing like spending a weekend in a convention hall slinging spells, trying to come away with a trophy. Months of mediocre finishes and close calls soothed by a nice dinner with friends afterward are made worthwhile by the handful of moments when we break through into the Top 8 and get that last match win.
So needless to say, I’m excited to get back to the tables. That said, preparing for split-format events is always a challenge, especially when one of those formats is Modern. I’m starting to narrow down my list of potential choices for next weekend, and it’s at a manageable length right now. I’ll go over each one, the aspects that I like and dislike, and what metagame forces are breaking in its favor. We all struggle to settle on a deck, so hopefully this gives you some insight as to how I go through the process.
Let’s start with the easier format, by virtue of there being far fewer viable options — Standard.
1. The Broken Deck
Despite not living up to my expectations at Magic World Championship XXVII, I’m still high on Izzet Epiphany not only being the most powerful deck in Standard, but being on a level that is stifling diversity in the metagame to a problematic degree. We likely won’t see a ban any time soon since Innistrad: Crimson Vow is set to be released shortly after the Invitational, so it’s relatively safe to work on finding the best possible list of the deck for any given weekend.
It seems that we still haven’t found the exact list that elevates this archetype above the rest of the field, and maybe we never will. It may just be a matter of adapting to the current predators, which opens up another hole for the metagame to exploit so you adapt to the new predators in turn. Right now the problem cards are high-toughness, non-green creatures forcing Burning Hands mostly to the sideboard in favor of the less efficient but more versatile Demon Bolt and Thundering Rebuke. Both of those spells answer opposing Smoldering Eggs, Goldspan Dragons, Reckless Stormseekers, and Adeline, Resplendent Cathars while still leaving you well-equipped against Mono-Green Aggro❄.
How my prospective list of this deck might change moving forward will depend entirely on metagame considerations, but at this point I don’t expect any seismic shifts in the landscape of Standard. However, I’m still intrigued by The Celestus, a card that impressed me quite a bit in the Grixis Epiphany lists, even if the archetype as a whole fell flat.
Accelerating to your Alrund’s Epiphany turns and especially into your sweeper of choice against creature decks is quite valuable, but The Celestus offers even more than that. The few extra loots and lifegain you get from simply casting your spells as you normally would never seem like much, but they add up over the course of a long tournament when so many games come down to razor-thin margins. This list may not have the extra one-mana interaction in Bloodchief’s Thirst and Duress that Grixis has, but Spikefield Hazard and Fading Hope are solid, and the addition of Demon Bolt lets you curve a Turn 2 foretell into Turn 3 The Celestus plus removal, setting you up well going into the mid-game.
If I can find a list I like going into next weekend, you’ll see me playing this deck. Nothing else is nearly as powerful. But finding the right list is no easy task, so I’m leaving myself with a backup option that’s a bit more aggressive.
2. White Is The New Green
- 4 Luminarch Aspirant
- 4 Usher of the Fallen
- 1 Reidane, God of the Worthy
- 4 Elite Spellbinder
- 4 Stonebinder's Familiar
- 2 Brutal Cathar
- 1 Chaplain of Alms
- 3 Intrepid Adversary
- 4 Sungold Sentinel
- 4 Adeline, Resplendent Cathar
Mono-Green Aggro❄ has been the more popular and more successful of the two main aggro decks, but right now I’d rather sleeve up Plains. That’s because I think Mono-White is more apt to take advantage of the shift in removal seeing play. Demon Bolt being more expensive and Thundering Rebuke being a sorcery both help out Mono-White significantly because of its lower curve and Adeline offering an immediate token that will stick around after it’s gone. That low curve also makes you better against Fading Hope, and you have plenty of options for removal to contend against the other aggro decks.
The question for white decks is whether you play a higher-curve list with more of the powerful three-drops or opt to lower the curve to take advantage of Clarion Spirit. I side with the latter, though I like to take a more eclectic approach to building the deck, which is reflected in the number of singletons in the deck. The card pool for Mono-White is surprisingly deep for a five-set Standard environment, and I like the idea of making my opponent think about as many of them as possible.
The other factor in favoring a wide spread of cards is that many of them have high diminishing returns. There are plenty of legendary creatures in the deck, so while I want the chance to draw Reidane, God of the Worthy before sideboarding against Izzet decks, it’s too much of a liability in other matchups to play a lot of them.
Similarly, cards like Intrepid Adversary, Paladin Class, and Maul of the Skyclaves are all cumbersome when drawn in multiples because they’re so mana intensive. There’s only so many total of these cards you can reasonably play and expect to fully utilize them, so I like playing a split and giving myself more options.
The exception to this rule is Adeline, Resplendent Cathar, which is in my opinion the best card in the deck and I want to draw it as often as possible. When unanswered it wins the game, even if you have an extra copy or two stranded in your hand, so its diminishing returns aren’t as high as you would expect for a legend. Play four and try not to run them into instant-speed removal, since that extra token of value is important to keep the pressure on your opponent.
I’m certainly more likely to play Izzet Epiphany at this point, but Mono-White Aggro❄ is a good backup option to have. Mono-Green Aggro❄ and Izzet Dragons, while both fine decks, feel much less adaptable to me, so I’m worried about each of them in any event where they’re being majorly targeted. Mono-Green has continued to find success in the SCG Tour Online events, so I may be overly critical, but I don’t like playing a deck where everyone knows exactly what I’m doing unless the deck is completely overpowered.
Let’s move on to the more interesting of the two formats, Modern. There are about twenty decks I could reasonably play, but I’ve narrowed it down to four that I like, and they all share a common theme: they sidestep Fury. Quietly, the red Incarnation has risen to become one of the most-played creatures in the format, finding homes alongside Shardless Agent, Ephemerate, and even Thought-Knot Seer.
So while I normally like decks that play to the battlefield early and often, I’m wary of doing so in Modern right now. Fury may look like card disadvantage, but it often kills two creatures, and doing so for no mana cost makes getting under your opponent with small creatures incredibly difficult.
That means I’ll be going either in a controlling direction or a combo direction for the Invitational, and I’m looking at two decks from each category. Let’s start with the more controlling side.
3. Getting Creative
This has been my pick for most underrated deck in Modern for weeks now. It has excellent interaction, the two best planeswalkers in the format, and a win condition that trumps most any other deck. Serra’s Emissary ensures that you don’t lose your precious Emrakul to Solitude, which would otherwise be problematic, so I like the recent shift of maindecking it even if it makes a Creativity for X=1 a little awkward. You rarely play out so quickly and it’s easy to set up a second target to cast it for X=2.
In a format like Modern where there are so many viable archetypes, the versatility this deck brings is incredibly valuable, and the combo engine in the deck takes up very few slots now that Dwarven Mine takes the place of an additional token maker. Hard Evidence is a great defender against aggressive decks, especially those with Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. Prismari Command is relevant against nearly every deck in the format while also synergizing nicely with Wrenn and Six.
The one concession you make to play the combo is in your manabase, where you need a pile of Mountains to make Mine work but also want four colors of mana. Triomes make doing so surprisingly easy, though sometimes you take a bit too much damage fetching for shocklands on Turns 2 and 3. I’m certainly worried about Burn, but you do have plenty of early interaction against their creatures, and Serra’s Emissary can shut off their last few burn spells so you have plenty of game in the matchup.
My other concern is against other control decks, since you have a pile of removal. Veil of Summer is a big help there, and I’ve opted for Spell Pierce and Force of Negation in the maindeck to help win counter wars rather than the cantripping Remand, which in my opinion just isn’t up to par for Modern with curves being so low these days. Ideally we’d be playing Counterspell in this space, but the manabase doesn’t support it.
This deck may look a little wonky, but it’s highly synergistic while still playing many of the best cards in the format. I’m honestly baffled that it doesn’t see more play, but I’m happy to play a powerful deck that’s also under the radar.
4. No One Can Resist a Mulldrifter
This deck emerged recently in Modern, since it’s entirely enabled by Faithful Mending, and it’s very similar in strategy to Creativity. It doesn’t go quite as over the top, but Archon of Cruelty is very powerful and plenty capable of taking over games, especially when it enters the battlefield on Turn 3 or 4. In exchange you get a more stable manabase, so it’s not immediately clear which one is better.
Mulldrifter may look strange but it’s an important element of the deck, letting you use your reanimation spells to generate card advantage even when you don’t find an Archon, thus bolstering the control aspect of the deck. It’s not a great standalone card, but it plays very well with the rest of what this deck is doing, and Faithful Mending ensures you don’t have to cast it the hard way if you don’t want to.
My major concern with this deck is vulnerability to graveyard hate. There’s quite a bit of hate around these days, since so many decks use their graveyard, if only a little, and Living End is one of the top decks. This deck’s foil, Four-Color Indomitable Creativity, barely uses its graveyard, so the better manabase has to be a significant gain. If I see a lot of Blood Moons around in the next week, I could make the change, but as of right now Alpine Moon is more common, so this is a dark horse pick for me.
5. Old (And New) Faithful
Getting into the combo side of my choices, Dredge is a deck I have lots of experience with, which I like playing in mixed-format events since I can bias my testing towards the other format and still feel comfortable in both. That said, Dredge hasn’t been a major player in recent months, in part because it hasn’t gotten many new tools, but also because there’s quite a bit of hate.
That said, I’m not sure why other players haven’t incorporated Faithful Mending yet. They’ve been stretching their mana to cast Thrilling Discovery, and playing a Steam Vents to cast your blue cards is easy enough to do. Faithful Mending is a great card in the deck, not just as a an enabler on Turn 2 but also for being a way to keep churning through your deck via the flashback. This allows you to trim a bit on payoff cards, since you will frequently get through a huge portion of your deck, thus making you more consistent.
Splashing blue also gives you access to Otherworldly Gaze as a second Turn 1 enabler. It’s about as explosive as Shriekhorn, but it can sometimes find you a second land when you mulligan low, or a key Cathartic Reunion to set up an explosive Turn 2. It also has flashback, making it even easier to keep the gas flowing.
With those additions, I think Dredge is a stronger deck than anyone realizes, and while there’s a lot of total hate cards, many of them are of the Tormod’s Crypt variety, artifacts that offer a one-shot effect. You’re now much better-equipped to recover from these effects, since you have more total enablers, and you can reliably build a large graveyard from a low base of resources by milling over your flashback spells. So not only are these additions good cards on their own, they help you against the most common way the deck is currently being targeted.
Dredge is one of those decks that seems bad until it becomes good again, so the fact that it hasn’t seen a lot of play recently isn’t altogether worrisome, and given my experience with it, I’ll feel better about pulling the trigger if the metagame seems favorable.
6. It Can’t Be Good…Can It?
- 4 Desperate Ritual
- 4 Blood Moon
- 4 Goblin Charbelcher
- 1 Pact of Negation
- 1 Pact of the Titan
- 4 Recross the Paths
- 4 Manamorphose
- 4 Pyretic Ritual
- 1 Infernal Plunge
- 2 Reforge the Soul
- 3 Irencrag Feat
- 4 Valakut Awakening
- 3 Bala Ged Recovery
- 4 Emeria's Call
- 4 Spikefield Hazard
- 1 Song-Mad Treachery
- 4 Shatterskull Smashing
- 4 Turntimber Symbiosis
- 4 Strike It Rich
Sodeq has become the preeminent combo player in Modern, and he’s always innovating. I’ve dismissed this deck in the past, but after seeing some results from other players, I gave it a spin last week on VS Live! and I came away quite impressed. Normally all-in decks like this fold easily to a single piece of disruption, but this list was able to set up big turns with Reforge the Soul and Recross the Paths that made beating counterspells feel easy.
I’m worried about decks that can back up those counters with pressure, say Izzet Midrange, but oddly enough you have some answers to early Ragavans and Dragon’s Rage Channelers with Spikefield Hazard and Shatterskull Smashing before bringing in Fury from the sideboard. Valakut Awakening and Bala Ged Recovery offer some much-needed consistency, so while the DFCs may look like they’re just there to make Recross the Paths and Goblin Charbelcher, that’s not all they’re doing for you.
The real all-star here is Recross the Paths, which this deck turns from a forgettable decade-old uncommon into a game-breaker. It can be a simple Vampiric Tutor for Goblin Charbelcher, Irencrag Feat, or a piece of protection, or it can completely change the course of the game by setting up a Reforge the Soul that draws seven specific cards. It eclipses Doomsday in how many possibilities it offers, which scares me given I have a week and change to prepare. That said, there are a few patterns you use most of the time, and I’m happy to play the deck at 90% if it proves powerful enough.
My interest in this deck comes from my inclination that there’s much more going on than just powering out Goblin Charbelcher and hoping. You can win a longer game through disruption, and have enough ways to keep opposing aggressive decks off balance should you need to. But I know that this deck will not be forgiving, so I’ll have to commit serious time to learning as many of its tricks as I can. If I can’t get to that level, I’ll probably shelve it for a future tournament. In that case, I just hope Sodeq doesn’t keep winning so much with it so the cat stays in the bag.
I’m beyond excited to play this Invitational, and next week I’ll be bringing you the lists that I’ve chosen to play. I won’t say that they will definitely be among these six because I have a Jedi-esque distaste for absolutes, but it would take a major metagme shift in one of the formats for me to deviate from these decks at this point.
The more time you spend flip-flopping with your deck choice, the less time you have to fine-tune your list, which is at least as important as the archetype itself. However, you also don’t want to lock in too early because you want a firm grasp of the expected metagame to make a strong, confident choice. A few days early will work well; that should give me time to set my lists and still take time to relax before the event.
And if all goes well, I’ll be enjoying a nice short trip home with the trophy.