Brave Modern World
Written by Weedmonkey on August 25, 2011
I had another article planned (which I still intend to publish), however with Pro Tour Philladelphia fast approaching and the new shiny paint coating that Modern has given to the Magic tournament scene, people seem to be wildly testing and throwing decks at each other (figuratively) in an attempt to be the one to find the 'breakout' deck of the format.
The last major tournament for Magic-League before the Pro Tour is this weekend's Modern Master. Inevitably, there will be some (or many) people who will see is as a testing ground for their own homebrew decks, with the hopes of making a top 8 and the possibility that the pros who keep an eye on Magic-League will pick up their deck and run with it to glory. However, developing a mainstay of a volatile format is tough, and it is even tougher to build a rogue deck that flourishes even once the metagame for a format settles down.
In this article, I am going to look at things to take into consideration when selecting a deck for Modern, as well as how to prepare for an undefined metagame. I will also provide some decklists to kick-start some ideas about how to attack this metagame.
Obligatory Disclaimer: This article is not an article about hot tech, nor an article about me trying to influence the metagame by throwing out every decklist I've created when brewing. This article is aimed at people looking for more direction when trying to develop ideas to tackle an open metagame, and it should be treated as such. Don't criticize the article for the decklists presented, as they are in no way to be construed as tuned or final versions.
Look Ma, No Tier 1!
Although rumours of Modern have abounded since Wizards of the Coast's Community Cup (and we at Magic-League have had Modern more or less a mainstay of our tournament environment since then), there has yet to be a defined metagame for the format. My observations regarding new tournament formats have led me to the conclusion that people will try anything that sounds good until a Pro Tour or similar event occurs, where they then can copy lists from the PVs and LSVs of the top 8 for use in tournaments that they play themselves. This happens after nearly every major event for a new format. What many people don't realise is that Magic-League actually holds a lot of data for new formats before a major event, and thus a number of pros use Magic-League's tournament data as a guideline when preparing for major events in new formats.
Personally, I love undefined formats. Much like the wild west or outback Australia (or Scotland if you want the title of 'Lord', but who wants to be Scottish?), an undefined format allows you to take on all opposition, stake a claim on the territory of the metagame, and tinker around in a backyard laboratory without The Man breathing down your neck (unless you like that sort of thing, at which point substitute with appropriate despised individual of your choosing). An undefined metagame also gives you one of the best opportunities to learn how a range of archetypes work through tweaking, working towards optimal builds, and understanding why certain matchups are stronger than others. Whilst you can also achieve this in an established metagame, the volatility of an open one promotes more collaboration, and thus more opportunities to learn.
Setting Up the Play Equipment
For those unfamiliar with the term, 'litmus test' archetypes refer to archetypes that define a format. For deckbuilders, litmus test archetypes are the benchmarks for any deck they make - if the deck doesn't have at least a favourable matchup, it often isn't worth continuing with. Although Modern is far from established, the current state of the format has produced two litmus tests:
With the gutting of Affinity, Zoo has emerged as the alpha male of Modern aggro decks. Whilst it comes in a variety of flavours to make Baskin Robbins blush, all Zoo variants are defined by cheap, efficient creatures backed up with burn and removal spells. What has made Zoo a defining force in this metagame is its efficiency in achieving what it aims to do. It can win by the fourth turn, and has enough burn/removal to ensure that if its creatures can't get the job done, they can at least soften up the opponent enough to burn them out.
The other litmus test for Modern is 12Post. By having access to 12 Locus lands, 12Post can generate a disgusting amount of mana early, and left unchecked can completely dominate the game. The deck is more than happy to pay full price for an Emrakul, and the free Time Walk is often more than enough to tear a game away from an opponent.
Part of 12Post's strength is the difficulty one faces in trying to combat 12Post. Without dedicating a significant number of slots to attempting to keep the machine from hitting critical mass, one runs the risk of being trampled out of nowhere. However, trying to find enough slots to dedicate means you open yourself up to weakening up other matchups.
The difficulty in securing a foothold in the format lies in there being few cards available that can fulfill the role of trying to handle both Zoo and 12Post. If a person dedicates slots to keeping Zoo caged, then they inevitably open themselves up to being overrun by 12Post. Alternatively, trying to keep 12Post in check can often mean that you're opening yourself up to being trampled by Zoo. This makes deckbuilding for the format quite complex, and a lot of thought needs to be taken into account in order to adequately prepare for the format.
There are a number of things any deckbuilder should take into account when developing their decks. These encompass viability, strategy and flexibility:
As people who have read past articles have ascertained, I am one who loves his questions. For any deckbuilder, I feel it is crucially important to ask yourself questions (and more importantly, to be able to answer them) in order to better understand your deck and how it operates in the wild. Whenever I build for a new format, I ask myself the following questions:
This is the most important question by far: if you cannot say 'yes' to this, then go back to the drawing board. In terms of Modern, this question can be rephrased as, "Does this deck beat Zoo and 12Post?". If it can, then keep going and working on your deck. If not, then you should look at refining the deck so it can, or throw it away altogether.
Even in clearly established metagames, I have seen players at tournaments throw away easy games because at one point or another during their match they don't know what they are trying to achieve in order to win the game. Having a clear game plan so you know what you are doing at each stage of the game allows you to make better informed decisions, and thus improve the quality of your play.
To further refine this idea, a person may want to figure out a game plan at each stage of the game. For example, a Zoo pilot's plan might be early game to play efficient creatures and attack, then burn an opponent out once they can't force through damage with their creatures anymore. They may modify this strategy against other Zoo decks though and use their burn spells to clear out enemy creatures so that they can push their own critters into the red zone. Each deck will take a different approach, and you can hypothesize any number of scenarios and what your plan is for them.
This is where a lot of decks fall down. Deckbuilders get so wrapped up in refining their decks and making sure their game plan gets executed consistently that they completely miss their win condition getting shut down by a key card (e.g. Leyline of the Void). Whilst it is good to have insurance in order to ensure you can execute your game plan, it is also important to be able to adapt in case that game plan goes down the drain like a politician's gaffe. To this end, utility cards with a range of applications can go far to improving your deck's flexibility.
While I for one am all for attrition decks, Magic is a game where you cannot spend all day chipping at an opponent's armour waiting for a crack. Eventually, you are going to want to get a sledge hammer and deal a bit more damage to it. For aggro decks, this is highly important: optimal (or 'nut') draws will allow you to gain a superior position against enemy decks on occasion even though you may not be favoured in the matchup. For control decks, it may allow you a chance to establish a board position against an unfavoured matchup before you get trampled over.
While you can ask yourself any number of other questions in order to get a better understanding of how your deck will perform, I feel that these four are the most important to ensure that if nothing else, you have the ability to stake out some sort of territory in the metagame tower.
Beloved Foxes and their Boxes
With such an open metagame, there are also a lot of options that players may not have considered in terms of decks to play in Modern. There are a large amount of Magic players that suffer from what I call 'Sheep Syndrome' - they take what professional players say and do and consider them gospel without considering the information themselves. Pertinent examples are tournament players who show up to a PTQ with decklists pulled from tournaments card for card without considering changing it to suit the metagame or their play style, and players who in debates/arguments will quote lines from professional players word for word without even considering the merit of those points. These people will often dismiss left-of-centre ideas without seriously considering them, whether it be because a 'pro' player hasn't played it, because it doesn't look good on paper, or because they haven't considered it themselves. While some people will give thought to these ideas and reject them for good reasons, there are just as many others who will give it two seconds' thought and then put it to one side.
Therefore, it is important to take ideas into consideration. If a deck as a whole isn't viable, the ideas it represents may be able to be utilised elsewhere to great benefit. I want to take you through some ideas in Modern in terms of viability, as well as the possibility of exploring areas of the metagame that not everyone may have seen as viable.
While I said it at the beginning of the article in the disclaimer, I feel it is necessary to reiterate that the following decklists are not in any way to be construed as tuned, or to be seen as me promoting them as the new 'hot tech' for the metagame. These are merely ideas to stimulate thought and discussion.
Beginning with familiar territory, Merfolk has enjoyed a good spread of matchups in Legacy. Porting the archetype to Modern, Merfolk loses some raw power in Force of Will and Standstill, but keeping Aether Vial means it isn't completely gutted.
Does it pass the litmus test? Not convincingly. Merfolk is always a good meal for Zoo because its creatures are weaker individually. Whilst a black splash does go a long way to improving it, it's not certainly an easy matchup. Against 12Post, it's even more of a question mark because Merfolk doesn't inherently have a fast clock.
Does it have a clear game plan? It does, although against Zoo and 12Post it is not as ideal as other archetypes present. Against Zoo you are looking at trying to prevent yourself from being overrun by creatures whilst presenting a reasonable offense yourself. Against 12Post, you're trying to hold them off their ramp spells whilst your creatures beat them down. Against other archetypes, you can play aggro or control depending on the situation.
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? Most definitely. Aether Vial provides flexibility in when you want your creatures to hit the board running, and the spells Merfolk has available aren't narrow in their applications (as opposed to timing, in which counterspells only have a narrow window of use in the scope of a wider game).
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? I would say no. Whilst it is flexible, Merfolk's creatures aren't inherently powerful on their own. This can cause troubles when fish are dealt with through removal spells, as Merfolk's strength lies in its lords' ability to provide power and toughness boosts.
Personally, I like Merfolk a lot. The ability to be flexible in making plays is a great strength. However, its inability to convincingly pass the litmus test and a lack of raw power does make it difficult for the deck to survive.
Whilst Pyromancer Ascension has been around the block a few times in other formats, in Modern it gains a bit more consistency over its Standard cousin.
Does it pass the litmus test? Depending on how its built, Pyromancer Ascension can combo out as early as turn 3. This means the archetype can outrace both Zoo and 12Post. Tick!
Does it have a clear game plan? Play Pyromancer Ascension, build up a critical mass of spells, and fire off enough burn in one turn (preferably copied with an Ascension) to clear an opponent out. Tick!
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? More or less this is a yes. It has enough counterspells to stop any shenanigans that would prevent it from executing its game plan. and it has enough burn as a plan B. However, it has a limited amount of win conditions, and it can struggle against strategies.
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? It can combo out as early as turn 3, and consistently turn 4. Tick!
Overall, this is a relatively safe bet for an open metagame. It has a game plan, and it can execute it efficiently. However, it may have a hard time recovering if it gets tripped up.
The marriage of Life from the Loam and Seismic Assault is by no means new to the Magic universe. Since Life from the Loam's release, it has been part of archetypes such as CAL and Aggro Loam in Legacy, and has seen some play in Extended in various forms.
Does it pass the litmus test? Assuming you don't drop too low with the number of Strip Mine variants you run, yes. You have enough tools available to keep Zoo from getting out of hand, and Life from the Loam ensures that your opponent will have headaches attempting to stick a Cloudpost.
Does it have a clear game plan? The strategy will naturally change depending on the matchup, but Seismic Assault and Worm Harvest are always available as game-enders, and Punishing Fire is also available to slowly ping them out.
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? It has multiple fallbacks if its primary game plan doesn't work, and has the ability to grind out an opponent if need be. It isn't able to handle everything it comes across, but it has enough ways of keeping things in check.
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? It has enough card advantage going for it, has the ability to gradually dome the opponent out, and Seismic Assault can generate 6 damage a turn by itself. It may be a little slow out of the blocks, but once it gets going the deck can generate more than sufficient power - think of a Mack truck gearing up.
Overall, this archetype may be very promising considering the options it has for combatting the metagame. While its long lost sibling Aggro Loam in Legacy has a lot more acceleration in the form of Moxen going for it, that may not be detrimental to this archetype's success.
UR Vore is an archetype that has been around the Standard and Extended lap pool back in the days that combat damage used the stack. The archetype utilises bounce spells such as Eye of Nowhere and land destruction spells to keep the opponent's mana thin, whilst giving itself enough room to power out a big, nasty Magnivore. After Magnivore comes down, you slam it home repeatedly until the opponent caves in.
The addition of black gives access to Damnation, which may be important in order to handle the bigger nasties that Zoo typically has nowadays. It also gives access to hate spells out of the sideboard, which can give it a better spread of matchups.
Does it pass the litmus test? Vore variants should be able to handle 12Post without a problem. The high amount of land destruction spells (the list above runs eighteen) should be more than enough to offset 12Post's mana acceleration, and the high number of bounce spells combined with Befoul and Damnation should be sufficient to hold down the fort against Zoo decks.
Does it have a clear game plan? Deny, deny, deny, then slap down a Magnivore and go to town like Kirstie Alley at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doesn't get much clearer than that.
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? While it can temporarily handle most situations it finds itself in, the lack of permanent removal options for noncreature permanents may land it in a spot of bother.
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? It doesn't have as much raw power as an aggro deck, but it does have tools at its disposal to keep things from getting out of hand until it can start applying the pressure.
This may be the sleeper deck of the format, purely because of its potentially spectacular 12Post matchup. How good it actually is, and how good it is in the format depends on how many people pick it up and put in the effort to fine-tune it.
For those unfamiliar with its Standard iteration, Blink-Riders was a Time Spiral-era archetype that used Avalanche Riders and Momentary Blink to deny the opponent lands. It combined creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities to abuse with Blink, and rounded out with Lightning Angel as a beatdown option.
Porting it to Modern gives the deck access to the Deceiver Exarch-Splinter Twin combo: something that gives the deck much-needed bang to survive in a format where decks can be rather unfair.
Does it pass the litmus test? Zoo is a formality for Blink-Twin. There are more too many obstacles Zoo has to overcome in order to be able to mash the opponent's face. While Avalanche Riders coupled with Momentary Blink is a good way of slowing down 12Post once it comes online, if 12Post gets off to a blistering start the deck can't rely on Avalanche Riders to wrench a superior board position away from 12Post.
Does it have a clear game plan? While it has a number of methods to go about it, most game plans boil down to keeping things under control until it can either combo out, or Frost Titan shows up to put the opponent on ice.
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? While it has a number of routes to deal with problem decks that rely on creatures to win, it has to fall back on forcing through a Splinter Twin combo against combo or control decks it hasn't faced before. Sometimes Avalanche Riders isn't enough to avoid combo decks getting out of hand.
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? This is the biggest question mark hanging over the deck. While it has some potentially explosive plays over a turn or two, it doesn't apply a lot of pressure itself. This is the deck's biggest weakness.
While the deck is a good idea conceptually, on paper it has some significant issues that need addressing. Still, the Blink idea may have enough merit to make the archetype work in a different iteration.
And if I were to walk into Pro Tour Philladelphia tomorrow?
Before anyone jumps down my throat for this, yes this is the archetype I'm currently testing, and yes I find it incredibly promising. However, I want to use this as a practical example of the concepts I've explored in this article. This is my current build at the time of testing, and should not by any means be taken as a final version.
A depart from Kenny Oberg's Tezzerator that made the top 8 of Pro Tour -
Does it pass the litmus test? Based on current testing, the strength of the matchups depends solely on how many slots you want to dedicate. Against 12Post, Quicksilver Fountain is very efficient at shutting down lands, especially considering Flood counters still flood the lands after Quicksilver Fountain disappears. Post-board, Blood Moon and Jester's Cap can help a lot in shutting down Posts, and getting rid of their (often few) threats. Against Zoo, the deck slows Zoo down via Trinisphere, Chalice of the Void, Engineered Explosives, and Damnation.
Does it have a clear game plan? Like with Blink-Riders, the deck has a number of methods to go about its game plan. Ultimately, each game is about keeping the opponent's deck from getting out of control until it can either search out Blightsteel Colossus, or fire off the ultimate ability of a Tezzeret.
Is it flexible enough that it can handle a range of unforeseen situations it comes across? Considering how many artifacts are available and the methods it has for finding them, the archetype has everything it needs to handle any situation it comes across. Artifacts can be added/removed depending on what the pilot expects to come up against without too many ripple effects against other matchups.
Does it have enough raw power to survive in a volatile environment? Without access to Chrome Mox, the deck does fall into situations where it needs a Simian Spirit Guide to power out early artifacts or risk being overrun. However, it can threaten very quick wins unless the opponent has an immediate answer to the threat.
While it does seem like I'm biased because this is the deck I've chosen to pilot, objectively the deck's flexibility does make it very, very appealing. The key to this deck's success lies in fine-tuning the deck until it has the perfect balance against the major players in the format, as without that fine-tuning there will inevitably be a couple of gaping holes that will beat this archetype down mercilessly. However, it does have great potential.
That's All He Wrote
Coming away from this article, I want deckbuilders to have a greater understanding of what it takes to succeed in finding a foothold in an unestablished metagame. While the same deckbuilding skills apply in an unestablish and an established metagame, the volatility of a format such as Modern requires smart thinking and developing innovative ways of applying those skills. There is a lot to learn from building your own decks, and hopefully this article has explored some skills that can be used when developing new archetypes.
Public Service Announcement
A couple of months ago, I posted this thread outlining my plans for coverage in the coming months. While reception has been positive. I am still looking for people who can contribute to coverage on a semi-regular basis. It doesn't have to be every tournament, but people who can commit in advance to providing tournament coverage or helping out with developing new coverage is a huge help when trying to organise logistics. If you'd like to help out, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Jacois on 2011-08-25 14:01 CET
Thanks for the article.
by darkwizard42 on 2011-08-25 16:26 CET
No mention of Birthing Pod decks, but a lot of good lists are mentioned and analyzed. Well written as always!
by fdart17 on 2011-08-25 18:08 CET
Great article as always. Thank you sir.
by Steveman on 2011-08-25 19:19 CET
I already broke this format with Battle of Wits
by Kronik_Azn on 2011-08-25 19:29 CET
Hmm Surprised you didn't right an article about persist combo
by MrBrett on 2011-08-25 23:27 CET
omg battle of wits is legal?
by Halldir on 2011-08-26 03:43 CET
where is demigod stompy?:)
by chimuelox on 2011-08-26 18:26 CET
thnx for the article
by hawkman3111 on 2011-09-05 12:21 CET
A lot of work went into that, thx
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