A Brief Look at the Modern World

Posted in Top Decks on March 7, 2013

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

With all of Top Decks's focus on various Standard events—Opens, Grand Prix, and even the odd Pro Tour—it can sometimes slip a body's mind that there is a PTQ season going on... and its format is Modern!

Modern is a potentially huge and diverse format. Its breadth of sets gives it a wide variety of viable strategies, from mono-burn to mono-lifegain; it has control decks, other control decks, still other control decks... and beatdown decks. Modern presents combo decks with Deceiver Exarchs; combo decks with Deceiver Exarchs + Birthing Pod; and combo decks with no Deceiver Exarchs at all, like Eggs or Storm.

Deceiver Exarch | Art by Izzy

I don't know that any one article could really do justice to all the viable decks in the Modern format. What I wanted to do in this one was just to point out some of the interesting decks from the Magic Online 4–0 tables that caught my eye... and one deck that took down a recent PTQ in the hands of a friend.

Opposing Mono-Foci

chiralane's Mono-Foci

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Whether you realize it or not, deck designers (and players) are constantly making choices. I think the choices that chiralane made in playing this deck are pretty interesting; I am a big fan of low-cost solutions to problems, a fan of hybrid decks, and also a fan of jamming extra value into a decklist without compromising its core functionality (much). I think that chiralane did a good job of all of those things with this 4–0 list.

This deck has two major foci: beatdown and lifegain.

This is a deck with fourteen one-drops and four copies of Honor of the Pure; it can get its beat on if you let it.

Serra Ascendant
Honor of the Pure

But if you look a bit further, these are not exactly the most offensive one-drops. We don't see traditional 2-power offensive one-drops like Savannah Lions; Elite Vanguard; or Isamaru, Hound of Konda; nor even conditional performing beaters like Steppe Lynx or Figure of Destiny.

Instead, chiralane played a bunch of cards like Soul Warden that would allow him to gain life with each subsequent creature—a powerful strategy against decks that care about dealing damage... especially if they can't (or simply don't) deal with your one-drop.

But look a mite further; this deck puts a tremendous hurt on Splinter Twin. Their Deceiver Exarch copies only deal 1 damage (even if it is a million times a thousand), meaning that one Soul Warden in play will counter an entire infinite combo! Doesn't hold, necessarily, against infinite Pestermites, no, but the subtle Splinter Twin-hate angle is there.

Deceiver Exarch
Soul Warden

Now look at the synergy between Ranger of Eos and many of these one-drop creatures. You can get a Soul Warden and a Soul's Attendant and really gain a ton of life. Another card that works with this theme of one-drops and lifegain is Martyr of Sands. Martyr of Sands is extremely powerful: great to race and sometimes half of a pseudo-combo (with Proclamation of Rebirth)... Here chiralane only plays the one half but runs Squadron Hawk to help boost the size of white cards in hand, greatly bolstering the potential of Martyr of Sands (Proclamation or no).

Ranger of Eos
Martyr of Sands

Now, about those choices. This version has a light black splash, not for black disruption or loads of Doom Blade-style point removal, but simply for Zealous Persecution. Zealous Persecution can act like a mini-Overrun with all the small creatures in this deck and beat up on the small creatures of another one.

The black splash allows for the activation on Vault of the Archangel, or more and more (and more and more) small creatures in Lingering Souls.

Speaking of "small" in the context of all this lifegain? Serra Ascendant is basically the lifegain beatdown deck's answer to Tarmogoyf!


suitedspades's Mono-Red

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This look at the Red Deck by suitedspades is also the product of many specific choices. How about that mana base? Most mages are not brave enough to run only eighteen lands... even in a deck of all 1- and 2-CMC cards.

Many of the cards in this deck are hyper-efficient in terms of mana-to-damage ratios. Vexing Devil is the kind of card that forces the opponent to make some tough choices... like whether he or she is going to take 4 damage (against one paltry mana) or let you have a pretty reasonable body that can probably hit much harder than a single 4-point payment on a Vexing Devil.

Vexing Devil
Lava Spike

The cards in this deck really just want to move a mage from 20 to 0 as efficiently as possible. A "punisher" card like Vexing Devil might give the opponent an option—the ability to choose the best possible future for him or her given the situation—but even the "right" choice can be fine for suitedspades. Everything in this deck pushes in the same direction (and it's not like it is very likely to be mana flooded).


_Batutinha_'s WU ETB

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I love this deck.

It kind of defies what you think a white-blue deck should be doing. It's like a blunt object: heavy and straightforward. The deck plays a lot of creatures—more than a quarter of the deck—with most of those creatures doing something when they come into play.

Sun Titan is an engine of particular force in this deck without being absolutely necessary to win games in general. Sun Titan can combine with Wall of Omens and especially Jace Beleren to create a relentless draw engine. Think about how difficult it can be to deal with a Planeswalker in general... and Sun Titan can keep getting Jace back over and over; you can just keep drawing a card with Jace, drop it into the graveyard yourself... and bring it back with Sun Titan.

Sun Titan
Jace Beleren

Of course, the onetime Standard Solar Flare combo is a powerful feature of this deck as well. Sun Titan can get back a Phantasmal Image (which will itself become a copy of Sun Titan). This can make for a seemingly unstoppable combination of two Titans. What do you do about two Sun Titans? Especially if... if you can kill the "easier to kill" one, the other one just gets it back? One Sun Titan, after all, is much more powerful than what most non-combo decks will be doing.

Warnock's WU ETB

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Here's a white-blue deck with a seemingly similar concept—powerful creatures that do something interesting when they enter the battlefield—yet Warnock's version is substantially different from _Batutinha_'s. This deck is lighter and faster, although less relentless. It doesn't have the turn-after-turn bell-ringing of a 6/6-for-six draw engine, but it can chip out opponents with a similar string of two-for-ones.

The "Sun Titan" role in Warnock's deck is played by Restoration Angel. Restoration Angel can indeed do many things well, and combines with many of the same creatures as in the previous decklist.

Restoration Angel
Snapcaster Mage

The big difference is that in the former case you want your creatures in the graveyard; in the present one, on the battlefield already.

Red-White-Blue Snapcaster Mage

MattiasNL's RWU Snapcaster Mage

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I've played against this archetype quite a few times in recent weeks, and a big part of that is probably based on MattiasNL's consistent finishes of 3–1 or better in the Modern Magic Online events.

This RWU Gifts Ungiven deck has a lot of flexibility (which you can probably glean from its many one- and two-card slots). But unlike many blue decks, it packs all four Snapcaster Mages to recoup or re-use vital cards.

The deck has multiple lines of play, some of which are driven by Gifts Ungiven. Gifts Ungiven allows the deck to go straight to "superstar fatty" mode instead of grinding out instants and Snapcaster Mages.

By the by, you don't even need to find all four cards. A favorite of this kind of deck might be to just Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites and Iona, Shield of Emeria. Both will go to the graveyard, and MattiasNL can just pop Iona right out with the Unburial Rites, obviously obtaining the major threat at a substantial discount, and in most cases locking the opponent out of being able to remove the legendary creature or perhaps win at all. You can do the same subbing in Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and kill (and/or pre-empt) lots of the opponent's creatures, again relatively quickly. Either huge white legendary creature offers a fast clock and a resilient backside; and either creature is going to give you some amount of resistance to Splinter Twin decks.

Unburial Rites
Iona, Shield of Emeria

If you're feeling particularly rich you can go for all four cards, even if two of them are Unburial Rites and one of the fatties. This might be especially attractive if you are playing against a deck that features Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, as you can then front-side the Unburial Rites for extra value (or just Gifts for lands, which will eventually get you to a position where you can hard-cast your big guys). This plan is something you might do if you have more time and don't need to Unburial Rites "combo off" immediately to stay alive.

Gifts Ungiven

The Snapcaster Mage structure of the deck allows MattiasNL to play to a substantial cross-section of tutoring and card advantage. MattiasNL can just go get Snapcaster Mage and three awesome cards... and always come away with more than he started. Either the opponent will give him a straight two-for-one or will give him a shot to make Tiago Chan look really good; although this will, again, require some time and mana development. Snapcaster Mage will be able to re-buy most anything, including the namesake engine card itself, Gifts Ungiven, once there are six lands in play.

Naturally, drawing some number of Snapcaster Mages can be quite helpful in this deck, as if you have enough mana, you can basically turn Gifts Ungiven into an extra-value Demonic Tutor.

Huey's RWU Snapcaster Mage

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Just as a highlight of the ultimate flexibility of the Modern format, check out this Red-White-Blue Snapcaster Mage deck as played by Huey.

The main difference between this deck and the previous one? No Gifts Ungiven! So, similar sorts of cards, but Gifts Ungiven-is-central to no-Gifts Ungiven-at-all!

No Gifts Ungiven means no Reanimator sub-suite! And Snapcaster Mage is less powerful (if still quite good, given those cheap instants).

...but it does also mean some additional spell availability. It's not every day that you see room for a Think Twice in a Modern deck, let alone three copies in a 4–0 list. The elbow-dropping card-drawing engine in this deck is Sphinx's Revelation—you know, kind of like in Standard. But you've also got Shadow of Doubt as both a supplemental card-drawing tool and a nasty surprise for opponents caught off guard.

Think Twice
Sphinx's Revelation

I mean hey, free two-for-one.

Shadow of Doubt can be backbreaking for an opponent who kept a two-land hand and gets wrecked on an Arid Mesa activation on turn two (kind of like a cantrip-Sinkhole)... and, of course, it is effective against big search spells like Scapeshift or Gifts Ungiven—not just a two-for-one but also trading up on mana.

What's really head-scratching for me about this deck is that while it has room four for copies of Electrolyze and two copies of Lightning Helix... there aren't four copies of Lightning Bolt! You would think that would be the first card a deck like this one would max out on.

Lightning Helix

I think this split in the Red-White-Blue Snapcaster Mage section is a real testament to the diversity of the Modern format and its successful decks. You can do all sorts of different things, even within the confines of the same kind of deck, and even in the confines of the same kind of deck... in the same colors!

Lastly, in honor of Gruul Week I thought we'd finish not on a high-performing Magic Online list but on a PTQ-winner played by Gabe Carleton-Barnes two weeks ago. Gabe is usually a notorious blue player, but this Gruul beatdown deck was super effective and gave him lots of options to outplay his opponents, even while being red and green.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes's Gruul Beatdown

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Reminiscent of some recent Standard decks, Gabe's Modern Gruul deck races out of the gates with Experiment One, Kird Ape, and the hasty Goblin Guide; it then explodes turn two via Burning-Tree Emissary and Flinthoof Boar. So while many of the decks we have just looked at are all about resurrecting former favorites like Gifts Ungiven, Lightning Helix, or Martyr of Sands, Gabe's leans hard on the speed of Gatecrash and the present core set.

Experiment One
Kird Ape

While most of the cards in this deck should be pretty understandable and familiar to Top Decks readers, there is the question of Deglamer in Gabe's sideboard. Is this really the best option? Better than, say, Naturalize?

For Gabe's purpose... the answer was yes!

Which one do you want to point at a Wurmcoil Engine? psst... Deglamer doesn't trigger a Wurmcoil Engine.

Now as an—ahem—modern Gruul deck played in the Modern format, you can't actually ask a whole lot more out of Gabe. The deck is fast and seems pretty consistent. It is powerful despite being relatively inexpensive (from the mana perspective). It even showcases the recent mechanic of bloodrush!

...and it's got some subtlety to its game as well.

Sure, some cards, like Tarmogoyf or Searing Blaze, are unambiguously heavy hitters... but what about Seal of Fire? Think about the deck that won the most recent Modern Pro Tour: Eggs. A deck like this might be able to put the first dozen or more damage onto Eggs but be raced on a single turn by that deck's recursion/infinite combo. But what about when you have a Seal of Fire in play?

What is Eggs supposed to do?

Seal of Fire
Second Sunrise

Not cast Second Sunrise? You can respond to Second Sunrise by pointing Seal of Fire at the Eggs opponent for 2... and it will come right back! The Eggs player had best have more than 4 life the turn he or she plans to go off against this great Gruul!

So... which Modern decks have caught your fancy?

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