Death’s Shadow Has a Pest Control Problem

Death’s Shadow Has a Pest Control Problem

Death’s Shadow took modern by storm. After the banning of Gitaxian Probe, it looked like the card didn’t quite have enough support to be a force in modern anymore. But at GP Vancouver, the pros picked up a deck designed by MTGO grinder GHash77 before Probe was even banned. Josh Utter LeytonSam BlackGerry Thompson, and Matt Severa took the most recent MTGO lists which added a few more innovations like the white SB splash, made some tweaks of their own, destroyed the tournament.

Shortly after that, Michael Majors started streaming with a Grixis build, replacing Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald with delve creatures and Snapcaster Mage. Soon after in GP San Antonio (a team unified format), and GP Kobe, Grixis made appearances in the top of the standings, including the top 8, and off we were. The deck continued to put up results, largely dominated by Grixis with Stubborn Denial. At some point, Magnus Lanto, Clay Spicklemire, and others started splashing blue in the original Traverse / Tarmogoyf lists to gain access to Stubborn Denial, and that shell slowly started making a comeback. This culminated in PT Rivals of Ixalan with Jean-Emmanuel Depraz making the top 8 as the only shadow player using a Traverse build splashing blue for Stubborn Denial, and several other players doing well with both Traverse and Grixis Shadow shells. Many innovations came out of that tournament, including Delay as a catch-all piece of countermagic, Manamorphose as a “free” way to get in an instant in the graveyard for delirium, and Hostage Taker as a Traverse target that answers Ensnaring Bridge through Welding Jar and Academy Ruins.

That’s only a small percentage of the top performing decks though, and shortly after the PT in GP Lyons there were only two shadow lists in the T16, both Traverse lists, and one a repeat performance by Depraz. But people still thought Shadow was going to get something banned out of it. Modern is a slow moving format, and the difference in power level between tier 1 decks and tier 2 is always relatively small. So in any given tournament, random stuff can easily win, given the right matchup and topdeck luck, and it takes time for the format at large to buy into the best deck. But the pro players could see the writing on the wall. Gerry Thompson and Michael Majors described Death’s Shadow as a legacy deck. When Claim to Fame was printed a couple of sets before PT Rivals, LSV even publicly predicted that the card was broken in Death’s Shadow, and would eventually lead to a ban. I had a similar view about an eventual banning, though I managed not to fall into the Fame trap.

Going up the midrange ladder

But none of this came to be. From its high point at PT Rivals, Death’s Shadow slowed dwindled in the metagame, stopped showing up at the top tables, and eventually settled into the fairly permanent tier 2/3 position it’s in now. What happened?

There are two parallel storylines here. The first and easiest one is the obvious one: shortly after PT Rivals, Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were unbanned in modern. Before this, Traverse Shadow could throw Lingering Souls and Ranger of Eos in its SB and make most of the grindy, fair matchups about 50/50. Jund didn’t have much in the way of card advantage, and had a lot of trouble beating Lingering Souls, and any other fair deck probably wasn’t even good. So just hope to dodge them and get to the top tables. Grixis Shadow didn’t have Souls, but Snapcaster Mage does a lot to help grind, especially when paired with Kolaghan’s Command. But with Bloodbraid Elf, suddenly Jund had a better late game engine than either Shadow build, and Jace eventually brought about a resurgence of card advantage focused UW and UWr control decks. Neither of which are very easy for Shadow to deal with.

There was another important development before the bannings though: Gerry Thompson introduced the world to Mardu Pyromancer in PT Rivals. Mardu is yet another grindy midrange deck that naturally preys on Death’s Shadow, and it does the Lingering Souls plan even better. On top of that, it can steal wins with Blood Moon. Truly a nightmare matchup. In short, the grindy decks got better – good enough that they weren’t embarrassing to play. And this meant more hostile matchups in the metagame. Fatal Push played a minor role in all of this, but Death’s Shadow did very well at PT Rivals despite the card – arguably Traverse Shadow did better than Grixis, despite being more susceptible to the card. So I don’t think it was much of an important factor.

Pest control wanted. No, not that kind.

Grindy decks becoming better is less than half the story though. It’s pretty easy to ignore grindy decks and still do well in modern tournaments, because so much needs to go right for them in order to make it to the top tables: having the right sort of interaction in their deck, drawing the right half of their deck at the right time, and not getting paired against Tron. So Death’s Shadow could very easily still have a spot in the tier 1 metagame despite this development. But it did not.

To understand why it didn’t, it’s useful to understand Death Shadow’s place in the modern metagame after the unbans. Let’s categorize modern decks into: 1) grindy decks (BGx, UWx, Mardu), 2) “pure” combo decks (Storm, KCI, some Vizier/Druid decks, Ad Naus), 3) Big mana + burn decks (Tron, Amulet, Valakut, Burn), 4) non-tribal aggro decks (Hollow One, Bridgevine, Infect, Hardened Scales, Affinity), and 5) Tribal aggro decks (Humans, Spirits, Elves, Goblins, Merfolk). There are some missing categories, but they’re usually not important in terms of metagame share.

After the unbans, Shadow’s matchup against most decks in the grindy category became essentially hopeless. You can gain a couple percentage points here and there, but no single card helps in all of the matchups, and significant gains require so many SB slots that it’s not worth it – just play a different deck if that’s who you want to beat. There’s differentiation in the category, however. You can meaningfully disrupt Mardu with a bit of timely GY hate, UW is somewhat susceptible to the rip their hand apart and stick a giant shadow plan, and Lingering Souls does help a decent amount against Jund specifically. But this is the category you hope to dodge, more than anything. They’re just naturally very strong against Shadow.

The pure combo decks are the sort of decks that either combo off or do nothing at all. There is no real plan B, typically. Maybe a single card plan B like Sai or Blood Moon, but they’re still easily disrupted by discard spells. Shadow is naturally very strong against these decks. They don’t typically have a way to take advantage of Shadow’s low life total, or at least not a strong one, and discard + massive threat + light permission plan is the perfect foil to these matchups. Many of these decks also depend on the graveyard, and Shadow can exploit that weakness too, via good SB choices.

The 3rd category, big mana + burn, seems sort of weird, but it makes sense from Shadow’s perspective. These are the decks where discard spells are only ok, and you really want to interact with countermagic. So, assuming competent pilots on both sides of the matchup, the Shadow player is naturally unfavored. But with enough countermagic and perhaps some additional deck-specific disruption (Collective Brutality, Fulminator Mage), it can easily be made 50/50 or even slightly favorable. This category is one reason that Delay is attractive: you can’t Disdainful Stroke a Lava Spike, but you’d like your countermagic to work in all the countermagic matchups. And if you’re TBRing, they’re dead before Delay’s downside matters. The upshot is that Shadow can beat these decks if it wants to. It just has to really want to.

Next is the non-tribal aggro decks. Most of these are more aggro-combo decks than pure aggro, but that’s modern. Here, Shadow’s plan A is again pretty strong. The discard spells can sometimes be bad, depending on the matchup and when you draw them, but cheap removal + big threat + TBR to quickly close is a great formula. So, e.g., the Hollow One matchup is very favorable, Affinity is pretty favorable, and Bridgevine and Hardened Scales can be favorable with the right pieces of interaction in the 75, and careful play.

But the problem lies in the last category: tribal aggro. If we could just stop here, Shadow’s place in the metagame would be apparent: don’t play it when the grindy decks are being played, and bring it out with piles of countermagic when Tron et al rise up to push down the midrange menace. That way you minimize your bad matchups, and have even to good matchups against nearly anyone not playing grindy decks. Unfortunately, the majority of the aggro decks people play in modern are in the last category: Tribal Aggro, AKA the pests.

It doesn’t matter how many cockroaches you step on, there’s always 10 more hidden in the walls of your house. The same is true for Humans, nasty little buggers. Humans was one of the other big stories from PT Rivals. It had already put up big results on the SCG circuit and in GPs, but you never know with a new deck until the pros get their hands on it. Well, the pros got their hands on Humans, and they liked it. Two copies T8ed PT Rivals, solidifying the deck as a fixture of the format. And Humans is a problem for Death’s Shadow.

Why is Humans so difficult for everyone’s favorite 12/12? Lots of reasons. First, discard spells are pretty bad against Humans. Death’s Shadow is at its best when discard spells are the strongest. Many non-tribal decks have a major synergy component, so a timely discard spell can e.g. take a discard outlet in Hollow One, or a payoff artifact in Affinity. Humans does have a major synergy aspect, but the deck is literally just creatures and mana, and all of creatures are fine on their own as either a threat or disruption, and sometimes both. So it’s much harder to convert discard into a tempo advantage. Another big reason is Thalia. One of Death’s Shadow’s strengths is its ability to play as many spells as possible in the early turns of the game, and then capitalize on that tempo advantage. Thalia completely erases that as a possibility, and often repeatedly Time Walks the Shadow player. The next big reason is evasion. Mantis Rider is a problem. It has haste. It flies. And it happens to be resistant to Fatal Push, Shadow’s prefered piece of one mana removal. Top it off with Aether Vial to help the Humans player to dump their hand as quickly as possible, and it gets real dicey real fast.

Together, this doesn’t quite equal a bad matchup for Shadow. Merfolk has many of these qualities, but the plan of stick a big threat + TBR for the win can still buy a lot of wins, and judicious choice of SB cards can buy a few more. But the TBR plan has a major problem against humans: Reflector Mage. This cuts off many of the cheesy TBR wins for Shadow, and it’s very difficult to make up those percentage points by another means. You can oversideboard for Humans and make the matchup something like 50/50, but that sacrifices a lot. A whole lot. Good luck having a good matchup against Tron at the same time.

On top of that, Humans naturally preys on many of the same sort of decks as Shadow. You know who else destroys Storm? Humans. Humans is also naturally weak to many of the same sorts of decks as Shadow too: grindy midrange/control decks, and Tron.* The matchup profiles are so similar that it’s hard to imagine a spot for Shadow in the metagame at that point. Humans may not be good against the grindy decks, but it tends to be better than Shadow. If Humans isn’t good, are you sure Shadow is good?

*Yes, I know I just said Shadow can beat Tron if it wants to. But it really has to want to. It takes commitment.

But what if Humans gets pushed completely out of the metagame? What does that look like? It looks like Gerry Thompson making the finals of PT Rivals. It looks like Terminus on your end step into Teferi on your opponent’s turn. It looks like Bloodbraid Elf into Assassin’s Trophy. It looks like Blood Moon into Bedlam Reveler. This is not the pest control we asked for! Fundamentally, it takes Death Shadow’s worst set of matchups to push the pests out of the metagame. And that’s what happened for awhile: grindy midrange and control decks started popping up everywhere, taking advantage of an easy Humans matchup.

So this is what the metagame cycle looks like, absent some outside disruptions or your local variations: Humans on top -> grindy decks rise up to prey on humans -> Tron rises up to prey on grindy decks and also humans -> fast combo decks rise up to prey on tron -> Humans returns. Where, exactly, does Shadow fit in that cycle? You might argue when Tron is on top: you’re expecting the fast decks to rise up, which Shadow naturally preys on, and you can pack enough countermagic to make Karn a good matchup, which is something Humans can’t do. But the Tron matchup is still, at best, 60/40, and there will still be plenty of Humans and grindy decks in the field, and you’re sacrificing a lot to fit all of that countermagic in there. Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off running the degenerate deck that no one happens to be thinking of? Maybe you should just go by 4 copies of Krark-Clan Ironworks and call it a day.

Exogenous Shocks

But Modern never sits in a static cycle for long. Outside disruptions happen. Bans. Unbans. New printings. New technology. It all happens eventually. We in the economics business like to call these things exogenous shocks. No, there’s not really a good reason. We just like complicated sounding names. And we saw a shock with Creeping Chill: this made Dredge a real player again, which caught the grindy decks with their pants down (i.e. with the wrong SB cards). Shadow does a great job of preying on Dredge — TBR is that good. So for a brief moment it looked like Shadow had a place in the metagame at SCG Dallas, until everyone else adapted, and Spirits took a shot at the Best Disruptive Aggro Deck mantle at GP Atlanta. And Spirits is just Humans with a different skin. Piles of creatures? Check. Evasion? Check. Aether Vial? Reflector Mage? Check. It plays spells, so Stubborn Denial is worthwhile, but its creatures are also much harder to kill, making it better than Humans against the grindy fair decks. The pests have evolved.

I’m not sure if Spirits is the real deal, or if Humans is just better at that metagame niche, but either way it’s bad for Death’s Shadow. Spirits does seem to be better than Humans against the grindy midrange decks, so maybe they get pushed out of the metagame if they lose one of their naturally great matchups. But Shadow still needs to figure out how a better form of pest control so it can at least be reasonable against Spirits. I don’t know how to do that, or how to make Shadow beat Humans, but that’s the place to look. To make Death’s Shadow great again, you need to find a way to deal with these tribal pests. Whether it’s a new card, or a metagame shift, or new technology.

The other option – getting better against grindy decks – is unreasonable to expect because it’s such a bad matchup, structurally. But tribal aggro decks are still aggro decks. With the right removal, or a shift away from Reflector Mage, or some way to neutralize Reflector mage, it’s possible killing yourself to kill the opponent can become fashionable again. It’s a tough needle to thread, but maybe it can be done. But you probably shouldn’t try. Your time is probably better spent learning KCI, or the next busted deck that no one expects. At least if your only goal is winning tournaments. Keep an eye out for something that changes the fundamentals, of course, but for now I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.

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KCI Thopter Sword Combo and Primer by Jordan Lidsky

I would like to have a brief discussion on the merits of Thopter-Sword in the modern eggs shell.

I recently took 4th place at the SCG Classic in Indianapolis. Here’s the list I played:

Creatures (5):
1 Myr Retriever
4 Scrap Trawler
Lands (18):
4 Darksteel Citadel
1 Forest
1 Plains
3 Buried Ruin
2 Glimmervoid
4 Spire of Industry
3 Inventors’ Fair
Spells (37):
3 Chromatic Sphere
4 Chromatic Star
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Ichor Wellspring
4 Krark-Clan Ironworks
4 Mind Stone
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Sword of the Meek
4 Terrarion
2 Thopter Foundry
4 Mox Opal
4 Ancient Stirrings
Sideboard (15):
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid
2 The Antiquities War
1 Fatal Push
1 Guttural Response
1 Lightning Bolt
3 Nature’s Claim
2 Path to Exile
2 Ray of Revelation
1 Silence

There are some notable differences from the stock builds of KCI like this one:
Louis Deltour (2nd place at GP Barcelona 2018):

Creature (6):
2 Myr Retriever
4 Scrap Trawler
Sorcery (4):
4 Ancient Stirrings
Artifact (36):
3 Chromatic Sphere
4 Chromatic Star
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Ichor Wellspring
4 Krark-Clan Ironworks
4 Mind Stone
4 Mox Opal
2 Pyrite Spellbomb
4 Terrarion
4 Darksteel Citadel
Land (14):
3 Buried Ruin
2 Forest
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
3 Inventors’ Fair
2 Karplusan Forest
Sideboard (15):
1 Defense Grid
1 Galvanic Blast
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid
3 Guttural Response
3 Lightning Bolt
4 Nature’s Claim
1 Wurmcoil Engine

In the main deck there are only 3 spell differences: I cut a Pyrite Spellbomb, a Myr Retriever, and an Engineered Explosives for 2 Thopter Foundry and 1 Sword of the Meek. Thopter Foundry forces you to change the mana base because it costs 2 colors you weren’t necessarily playing before. Luckily for us we have 15 5-color sources naturally built into the deck with access to the best rainbow lands ever printed in Glimmervoid and Spire of Industry. So I cut the 4 Groves and 2 Karplusan Forests and 1 basic Forest for a Plains, 4 Spire of Industry and 2 Glimmervoids. Glimmervoid is really bad in multiples in your opener, so I didn’t want more than 2 and to support the Plains I built my sideboard around white when possible. This puts us up to 22 sources for Thopter Foundry which is more than enough in order to cast it by turn 4. Thopter Foundry has a lot of upside to it.

As a friend described it: “It provides a lot of redundancy. Thopter Foundry on its own is good against both fast aggro decks and slow control decks, and with Sword of the Meek it’s nearly unbeatable. It can be hard to resolve a KCI against control, so having another threat that only costs 2 mana is very helpful against them. It also helps with the combo on certain board states, as you can get a 1-drop back from Trawler when Sword goes to the graveyard, and Myr Retriever is a 1/1 and triggers Sword to come back.”

It makes your control matchup game one almost unlosable as you set up a turn where you jamThopter Foundry with 4 mana backup. If they counter it you jam KCI and if they don’t counter ityou go off. Thopter Foundry basically acts as engine pieces 5-6 a lot of the time. Many decksjust can’t handle it even without Sword of the Meek involved, even to the point where I havethought about cutting Sword or moving it to the sideboard.
It also provides you with really nice insulation against Surgical Extraction because it gives you ways to win games no matter what card they hit. Even if they hit KCI you can just kill naturally with Foundry. It also allows you to sidestep a fair amount of the hate that people try to get you with. I have beaten many Eidolon of the Great Revels and Damping Spheres by making infinite Thopters.

Thopter Foundry adds five new infinite combos to the deck. Here they are:
Put 3 of any of the following onto the battlefield:
● Krark-Clan Ironworks
● Thopter Foundry
● Sword of the Meek
● Scrap Trawler
● Myr Retriever

Point to them repeatedly and shuffle them around until your opponent concedes.

But seriously:
● Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Krark-Clan Ironworks. Perform the regular
Thopter-Sword combo and sacrifice the tokens to generate more mana. Infinite colorless
mana, life, and Thopter tokens.
● The previous combo with a Scrap Trawler. Every time Sword of the Meek dies you can
return a 1-drop to your hand to draw cards. Usually you’ll just find your Spellbomb and
kill them that way.
● Any non-Thopter combo that generates infinite mana, along with Thopter Foundry. Once you have the mana, sacrifice the Retrievers and Trawlers to Thopter Foundry instead of to KCI in order to make infinite Thopters. (No Sword of the Meek needed.) This only comes up when you’re in one of the rare game states where you can get infinite mana but not infinite card draws.
● Krark-Clan Ironworks, Scrap Trawler, Sword of the Meek, and Myr Retriever. Whenever
Myr Retriever enters the battlefield it brings Sword of the Meek back from the graveyard,
so you can sometimes go off in cases where you wouldn’t normally have enough mana.
● Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Scrap Trawler, 2 Mox Opal. Perform the regular
Thopter-Sword combo, every time Sword of the Meek dies it brings back a Mox Opal
which you play and lose the other one to the legend rule. This doesn’t give you infinite
mana, but does give you infinite Thopters and life.

I’m going to give a short tournament report to show some examples of the power of this build.

Round one I played against Jeskai Control. In game one I activated my Inventors’ Fair on turn 4 to find Thopter Foundry. On Turn 6 I cast Foundry; he tapped down to 1 mana to counter it and I followed it up with KCI and the game ended. Game 2 I misplayed by starting with Darksteel Citadel and he had turn 2 Stony Silence and I was never able to overcome the tempo hit or remove the Stony (I probably would have had a decent shot with The Antiquities War if I had the tempo). Game 3 he had turn 2 Stony again but this time I had a Ray of Revelation. Turns 3 and 4 I kept a green up for Rest in Peace. On turn 4 he had it so I used the green but he Negated it. The next turn I slammed my Thopter Foundry on the table and over the course of a long game I beat him down with a bunch of 1/1s. I ended the game with more cards in exile than in my library.

Round two I played against Grixis control. Game 1 played out very similarly to the previous round, except this time he let my Thopter Foundry resolve so I made a bunch of 1/1s with Ichor Wellsprings and beat him to death. Game 2 I did the exact same thing but this time had Sword of the Meek, which he tried to Surgical but I always left one mana up so he never got a window.

Round three I played against Azorius control. I played game 1 with the same basic control game plan and he also never stood a chance (noticing a pattern?). Game 2 I don’t remember as well but I won.

Round 4 I played against Affinity. Both games my hand didn’t line up correctly and I got steamrolled. This matchup is good but sometimes you lose. What can you do?

Round 5 I played against Faeries. Both games were super tight and both revolved around mecreating more Thopters than he had 1/1 Faeries. I would have never won the match withoutThopter Foundry.

Round 6 was Nivmagus Elemental Combo. Game one he got stuck on 1 land and I managed to kill him on turn 3 when I was facing lethal turn 4. Game 2 he got stuck on 1 land again but this time had an 11/12 attacking me turn 3 so I put down Thopter Foundry and chump blocked it for a couple turns while setting up.

Round 7 was Elves. Game 1 he mulliganed to 4, watched what I did turn 1 to know what I was playing, then conceded. This put me in an interesting spot, I boarded in 3 Nature’s Claim, Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and 2 The Antiquities War because I felt like that would play around the hate that anyone could bring in. In game 2 he put 2 Damping Spheres on the battlefield with a turn 5 kill and I did nothing. Game 3 he put in 2 Damping Spheres again but I had Aether Grid and I picked off his whole board while he was stuck unable to double spell because of his own Spheres. I managed to remove his whole board before dying and he was never able to get anything going after that. This is an example of rather than trying to beat the hate just sidestep it.

Round 8 I played my win-and-in against Counters Company, which is not a good matchup
especially being down to only 1 Pyrite Spellbomb. Luckily in game 1 I happened to keep a hand with Pyrite and killed his turn 2 Druid only to see a turn 3 Druid. I topdecked KCI after cracking a Star and won on turn 4 though. Game 2 he had a Druid on board for about 2 turns when I had the option to pop Inventors’ Fair for KCI and go off the next turn or pop it for Pyrite and blow up the druid. I choose to go for KCI on his end step but he topdecked the Vizer. Game three I went for a combo early but he tutored up Phyrexian Revoker in response to my KCI and I didn’t have mana for the Bolt in my hand. He then untaps and slams Shalai, Voice of Plenty, leaving me facing those 2 cards and a Scavenging Ooze. I manage to have just enough time to tutor up an Engineered Explosives and pop it on 2 and then go off (thank god he didn’t have a Chord for
Selfless Spirit).

Round 9 ID

Top 8 I am playing against Humans; a matchup that gets slightly worse without the third EE butis still positive. Game 1 he has the nut: he plays turn 1 Aether Vial, into turn 2 Noble Hierarchplus Meddling Mage on KCI, into turn 3 Mantis Rider plus Champion of the Parish plus Thalia,into turn 4 Mantis Rider and Thalia’s Lieutenant. This hand was unbeatable, I couldn’t believe what hand just happened to me. Game 2 and 3 I boarded in 6 cards and managed to take them.Game 3 was really intense because he had double Kitesail Freebooter into double Meddling Mage into Thalia but I manage to top deck like a savage lucker and beat that draw. Top 4 I got absolutely destroyed by infect, this matchup is awful. But not as bad as 4c Death’s Shadow, apparently.

This is what I plan to play going forward:
Creatures (5):
1 Myr Retriever
4 Scrap Trawler
Lands (18):
4 Darksteel Citadel
1 Forest
1 Island
3 Buried Ruin
2 Glimmervoid
4 Spire of Industry
1 Yavimaya Coast
2 Inventors’ Fair
Spells (37):
3 Chromatic Sphere
4 Chromatic Star
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Ichor Wellspring
4 Krark-Clan Ironworks
4 Mind Stone
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Sword of the Meek
4 Terrain
2 Thopter Foundry
4 Mox Opal
4 Ancient Stirrings
Sideboard (15):
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid
2 Sai, Master Thopterist
2 Fatal Push
1 Lightning Bolt
3 Nature’s Claim
1 Path to Exile
3 Negate
1 Ray of Revelation

This list should have slightly better mana. Sai, Master Thopterist is an interesting addition as it is a nice threat through graveyard hate. I worry that it will play similarly to Thopter Foundry but I think it is worth trying. Negate is amazing I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it until these pro tour lists came out. It is very similar to Dispel but can also counter hate pieces and can blow out planeswalkers. I found throughout the event that the Path to Exiles were nice, but I often wanted removal and didn’t want to bring in Path because the land was too important. Going forward I think 1 is correct. The second Aether Grid could easily become a Kozelik’s Return.

One of the major motivations for how I configured this deck list is that people will come at us with lots of different types of hate and some of it we will try to beat head on, but often times we can find another path to winning without our combo. Between The Antiquities War, Sai, Ghirapur Aether-Grid, and Thopter Foundry, KCI has many ways to win the game; they can’t all get turned off by a single card. I’m not giving up much in the way of our main game plan of comboing. In fact you could make an argument that this build is better at comboing but I am getting payed off by having the side plans available. The 3 cards that were cut from the main deck are often extraneous. I think the best argument against this build is the mana but I accept that I often won’t be able to cast Thopter Foundry early and view it more like a 4-drop than anything else.

I hope this article was informative and that you will try out a Thopter Foundry build of the deck at some point going forward. If you have any questions or want to share how you have been liking this deck, please comment below!

Ep 18 Birthday Boy

In which our heroes take a hard look at the modern meta in preparation for the upcoming pptq season. We talk about what we played in regionals and how varied the modern meta really is. What do you plan on playing for your next event? How do you expect the meta to evolve in the next few weeks?

State of the Format Address and SCG Regionals Prep

When looking at the current modern metagame and how to prepare for Star City Games Regionals, I decided to do a little digging on what was finishing well,and see if I could develop a plan to attack the meta. My results are…inconclusive, as one might conclude for the modern format, but here’s what I was able to collect and deduce.

 

Using all the data from the past few weeks of large modern events (SCG Opens, GPs, SCG Classics), I compiled a list of all the decks that finished in the top 32 of these events to see if I could get a picture of modern at the current moment. Here is every archetype and the frequency it appears in various tournaments in a list from most common to least common at the top tables.

 

Jeskai Control: 12

 

Humans*: 11

 

Jund: 9

 

Tron: 7

 

Storm*: 6

 

Mardu Pyro*: 5

 

Burn: 5

 

Affinity: 4

 

Hollow One: 4

 

Boggles: 3

 

Death’s Shadow (Grixis+Mardu): 3

 

TitanShift/BreachTitan: 3

 

GW Company: 3*

 

Blue Moon: 2

 

UW Control: 2

 

Amulet Titan: 2

 

Infect: 2

 

UR Prison*: 2

 

Elves: 2

 

Eldrazi Tron: 1

 

Eldrazi Taxes: 1

 

UR Pyro: 1

 

Ad Nauseum: 1

 

BW Control: 1

 

Merfolk: 1

 

RG Hollow Vine: 1

 

So looking at the data, we have 26 different archetypes. 26 distinctly different decks that have all shown the ability to win. Welcome to modern, this is pretty much how it has always been. Some people love it, others hate it, but one thing is for certain, there is a large swath of powerful decks that can lead to a positive win percentage and put you into a top 8. This is also why modern can feel like a matchup roulette and many players feel that matches are won and lost at the pairings board. But this is all old news. What can we gain by knowing this information? What can we figure out about the format?

 

First there should be a couple things to denote about this list. Any deck with an asterisk next to it is a deck that won one of the events…except for GW Company, which only has an asterisk because 2 of those 3 results are Todd Stevens. That deck is likely not great but Todd Stevens is so take that result with a grain of salt. Mardu Pyro put on a clinic by winning an Open without breaking so much as a sweat, while Humans is likely one of, if not the best deck in the format, winning the following  SCG Open. Storm took down an SCG Classic in the hands of Caleb Scherer, perhaps the most well known storm pilot and Columbia native (although he possibly travels too much to claim Columbia as home anymore, but I digress). Lastly, the other SCG Classic was taken down by UR Prison. So, if you want to win an SCG Classic, just play blue/red. You can thank me when you win the next Classic based off of this advice.

 

On a more serious note, surely there is a best deck to play when expecting a meta like this one…right? Well that’s what I hope to find out. With Regionals around the corner, I hope to not only help others find how to attack the format, but also figure out what deck I’m going to play!  I recently reached the finals of an SCG IQ with Jund, convincingly going 4-0-2 (double intentional draw) in the swiss and cruising to the finals where I met Eggs and Jordan Lidsky. Jordan is a good player and we had a sort of comical match, as we’re both friends, but ultimately it’s a tough matchup that I couldn’t win without a strong dose of luck. That didn’t happen, but the deck felt really strong. You can find my list here. So here’s the big question, if it isn’t broke, why fix it? Why not just make a change or two and run it back? Perhaps that’s a good decision, as Jund isn’t just showing up because of me, it’s been performing fairly well at large events as well. There is a multitude of reasons that I don’t actually love Jund at the moment, and here they are. 1. The presence of Jeskai. It’s not a good matchup. Winnable, yes. I beat it round one in the IQ, but it was super close. I cheesed game 2 with a well timed Choke, and won game 3 because my opponent kept a risky 1-land hand. I had multiple good hands and know how to navigate that matchup, so it went well but I wouldn’t want to face that deck multiple times a tournament with the trimmed out discard package that I was packing. 2. I’m not certain the Humans matchup is great. It feels like it’s probably okay but there is only so much removal that I could pack, and Freebooter plus Meddling Mage can cause a couple issues. I don’t really want to be caught with a bad humans matchup. 3. I also don’t think that it’s incredibly well positioned against some of the decks currently being played, a la Mardu Pyro and TitanShift. Honestly I’d be okay if I never saw a Primeval Titan anywhere near a match I was playing again (sorry Peter!). It is because of these reasons that I am likely not playing Jund at SCG Regionals this weekend. So then where does that leave us?

 

Humans is likely the best deck, but I don’t have the cards for that deck or a spare $500 to accrue them, so that is not an option, but even if it was, I am not sure I’d be into it. Again, the amount of Jeskai is concerning and it’s just not my style anyway so I wouldn’t consider it either way. Humans seems well positioned for any of the combo decks, and is (I think) easily the best aggressive style deck for the meta. I think it’s a very strong option but is weak to things like Jeakai (wraths and infinite kill spells), Blood Moon decks (have you seen that mana base, hot damn), and tron (I think at least…this is more speculation). I don’t love being weak to these things, but it’s certainly one of the best decks despite these weaknesses.

 

Jeskai is interesting because it’s so interactive and just got a new toy in Teferi. I’m not sold on the five mana walker but the format appears to be in a good place for him at the moment, so it’s worth it to play right now I think. Jace is still the most powerful walker ever printed so I would probably look at a 1-1 split, even though I’d love to find room for an Ajani Vengeant instead. But given that this format seems to be about going wide (Humans, Mardu Pyromancer, Affinity, Hollow One), I’m not so interested in the big cat right now. He was much better in the death’s shadow era, when decks were generally playing big threats and bolt was down in numbers. I do like Electrolyze right now, as it’s built in 2 or 3-for-1 is huge game at the moment. People going wide are going to hate it and it does a good job of shrinking an opponent’s life total when you need it to while replacing itself. Search for Azanta, while it is a do-nothing two drop, is pretty powerful once you get it going, so the prospect of that is kind of nice, though it is slow. Jeskai has good matchups against a decent swath of the format it would seem. Humans and Jund being good matchups make this choice particularly appealing. It’s also decent against Pyromancer, Burn, Affinity, and storm. Jeskai just might be the best fair deck in the format at the moment in the hands of a skilled pilot, and something that I’m very interested in sleeving up this weekend. It’s weaknesses come in the forms of Tron and decks that are playing a lot of discard or combo that it doesn’t have enough interaction for. Ad Nauseum, Tron, and Mardu Pyromancer’s best draws are going to be hard to fight. Jeskai can handle most of the nonsense of the format as well as it has removal and counters, giving it a myriad of answers to any problem your opponent can present (Cryptic Command is a hell of a card, huh?). One of the problems that Jeskai has in my mind compared to Jund is its lack of ability to close the game. Jund at least has a Tarmogoyf, which can clock opponents once you disrupt their gameplan. Jeskai has…Snapcaster Mage? Eh? It ain’t great is what I’m saying. Still, Jeskai is one of my favorites for Regionals.

 

What about something that goes over the top of all this? There isn’t anything too aggressive or low to the ground happening. Burn is not that popular, neither is Infect, two natural enemies of Tron. Tron is seemingly very well positioned, which terrifies me but it’s true. Tron is poised for a resurgence and it won’t be pretty. Its natural predators suppressed, and it’s positive matchups doing well is all tron could ask for. The deck has so many 80/20 and 20/80 matchups that it really is a deck that wins or loses at the pairings board (or so it feels like), and if you can get out of the first few rounds, tron looks well positioned to do well at the top tables. That said, Tron is a trap you won’t see me falling into, as I’ve been burned too many times by that deck…and my Chromatic Stars and Spheres are currently loaned out. So there’s that. This deck also has a fail rate that I don’t particularly enjoy. You need the right mix of cards and if that doesn’t come together, you’re not doing anything powerful anytime soon. I think Tron is a bit of a gamble (it always is), but this time it has a pretty big payoff.

 

Looking at what Tron does, other big mana decks are also kind of appealing, especially ones that are less reliant on assembling a certain amount of very specific cards. TitanShift and BreachTitan are on that list along with Bring to Light Shift and old school RUG Shift. These decks all have a tough-ish time with Meddling Mage, but are very powerful options for the current meta. They crush Jeskai, Jund, Tron, and  have a reasonable win condition for the rest of the “nonsense decks” of the format (let’s face it, someone is going to show up with a brew containing Fateful Showdown). I’m less convinced with Valakut decks unless they contain a Titan or four, but I don’t think that blue Scapeshift decks are necessarily a bad choice right now. The amount of discard would be something that concerns me but those decks tend to be slow enough that a top deck Scapeshift will win the game in short order. As discussed previously though, I’m not thrilled with this idea with the amount of Blood Moons running around, in the main decks especially. Mardu Pyro or just Blue Moon decks can be more than annoying and make this less appealing.

 

So what about Mardu Pyromancer? It crushed an SCG Open, and has put up decent numbers across the board in large tournaments. Bedlam Reveler is apparently the real deal. Tied for the sixth most played deck in our list, I think it is at the very least, positioned way better than burn. The discard, pyromancer draws, and Reveler refueling you is a powerful combination of cards and creates a small army of tokens that can overwhelm most decks. Blood Moon also allows for some cheese wins and is something that the opponent will have to play around all game. Kolaghan’s Command is still one of the most powerful tools in the format and it’s no exception here. Getting back Pyromancers and Revelers as well as just being a 2-for-1 is a great baseline, and the ceiling of that card is game winning. Mardu gives you good game vs a lot of the format. Blood Moon can hose Jeskai, Humans, and any other random deck, while Pyromancer going wide is kind of a nightmare scenario for Jund and other attrition decks. The discard spells are great against combo like Storm and help against Tron, but big mana is still a problem for this deck. One of the reasons I’m not sold on it, is just the fact that it can’t apply pressure THAT fast. Pyromancer eventually does a good Tarmogoyf impression, but it’s not ideal. Also, the card advantage engine requires a bit of enabling, which I don’t love but Reveler is pretty powerful. Honestly, if I didn’t dislike the card Faithless Looting so much, and if I had more reps, I would definitely consider Mardu Pyromancer this weekend. It’s a good choice and gives it’s pilot a lot of game. I may not play it, but it definitely gets my stamp of approval for SCG Regionals.

 

As for combo, Storm is fine, although I think the format is a bit hostile to it at the moment. Occasionally one will sneak into a top 8, or win a Classic, but overall I do not like this as a choice. Having a mediocre Jeskai matchup and a very hard humans matchup is not appealing to me. Storm is still a pretty decent choice, although I won’t be considering it.

 

Affinity is exactly is as it always has been. Powerful, fast, and pretty hate-able. I think it will always be a fine choice, as it has been in the past. I have played it a few times but Affinity is a deck that I don’t feel that comfortable with. I also don’t love it in the world with Electrolyze and Pyromancer tokens, but all that is pretty beatable honestly. The amount of Stony Silence is down as is Ancient Grudge so maybe it isn’t a bad choice.

 

Hollow One and Boggles are too high variance for me, I’m not that interested. They could be good but I’m not sold on them. I’m not saying they are a bad choice (well, yeah I am), but there other reasons besides the variance. I think Hollow One is better positioned than Boggles, but they’re both too meh for my tastes. Also a playset of Goblin Lore is $100 so forget that!

 

Most of the other decks listed are pretty fringe and only a good choice if you are very well versed with them, or maybe not a good choice at all. GW Company? If your name is Todd Stevens, sure play that. Otherwise stay away. Infect? Only if you’re just in love with Blighted Agent and want to show off your Judge Promo Noble Hierarchs. Thinking about sleeving up Death’s Shadow? The sun has finally gone below the horizon, friends, Death’s doesn’t have a shadow anymore. Merfolk? More like Mer-f*%#. I’m kidding but also kind of not. These don’t seem to be good choices, but going rogue has some marginal perks to it. That said, if you’re going to go rogue, you better be doing something powerful (like Fateful Showdown and Griselbrand).

 

All in all, I think my conclusion is that modern is in a really open space. There’s many fine choices, and plenty of not so good choices that can do well. Good choices for this weekend are probably Jeskai, Humans, Jund, Tron, Primeval Titan decks, and Affinity. I’d be hard pressed to play anything else, honestly, but that doesn’t mean that other decks can’t perform well or even win! I hope this helps readers make an informed decision for Regionals, and going forward, and we here at Dead On Board hope to see you in Kansas City!