Choosing Your Own Adventure

Posted in Top Decks on June 6, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

One of the things I love about Modern is how many decks there are and how customizable each deck is. Between the vast selection and the option to take most of those decks in a number of viable directions, you not only play against a different deck just about every round, but the rounds where you do repeat often feel very different. Most importantly, it allows you to pick a type of deck that suits you and fine-tune it even further, until it matches your play style perfectly. Let's take a look at some examples as we head into the Modern PTQ season.

Birthing Pod

It makes sense to start with Birthing Pod, which has been my weapon of choice over the last few Grand Prix (and may just be the best deck in the format). Even just looking at my history with the deck, you can see an evolution of the list and how it has played. Even this relatively stable deck can be customized, as you will soon see.

Birthing Pod has been around for years, and the most common version is Melira Pod, named after the following combo:

The numbers on those cards have varied, but the presence of that combo has been constant in the Black-Green-White Pod lists, starting from 2012, when Andrew Cuneo got second at Grand Prix Lincoln (after defeating me in the Top 4):

Andrew Cuneo

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Even though Cuneo's deck is very much a value deck, he also almost maxes out on combo pieces, with three each of Melira and Viscera Seer. He was interested in assembling his combo early and often, and in a relatively unknown field (Modern was fairly new back then), that made a lot of sense. If you really want to combo, I don't think that approach is terrible, especially if you update Cuneo's list to include a bunch of Gavony Townships and potentially Fulminator Mages.

Moving across the spectrum, you have "normal" Melira Pod, which has one Melira and one Viscera Seer, making the deck capable of comboing but not as reliant on it. This is the version of the deck that has been the most popular recently, with Grand Prix Richmondfeaturing four copies in the Top 8. For that tournament, Efro and I added Archangel of Thune and Spike Feeder to our deck, leading to the following list:

Luis Scott-Vargas - Melira Pod

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I've written a lot about why we played that particular build, both in this column and over on ChannelFireball. Suffice to say, I'd still classify it as "normal" Melira Pod, because the way the deck plays isn't vastly different.

Moving on to the latest iteration of Pod, which I've taken to calling Angel Pod:

Angel Pod – Luis Scott-Vargas

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The Melira combo is now gone entirely, although the Archangel of Thune combo remains. This is the most value-driven version of Pod and basically plays out like a BGW disruption deck, assisted by the main-deck Thoughtseizes, Sin Collector, and an extra Abrupt Decay. I explain the deck in depth here, and with the addition of Angel Pod, we can see three distinct versions of Birthing Pod, ranging from the most comboriffic to the least.

If you want the turbo-combo version, play something close to Cuneo's version (although it could use updating, given its age).

If you want the Pod deck from the middle of the combo-to-control spectrum, Melira Pod with 1 Melira is the most common version, and you can find examples from any Modern Top 8 in the last couple years. Archangel of Thune is an optional addition here, although I like it.

Lastly, the disruption-heavy and combo-light version of the deck is Angel Pod, and this is the version I've liked recently.

As you can see, there are multiple versions of Pod available, and they fit a number of different play styles, even though they have a ton of cards in common. There isn't a beatdown version of Birthing Pod yet, although that means the door is open to some brave innovator.

Another deck with an even larger number of versions is Red-White-Blue, which really runs the gamut from aggro to pure control to combo.

Even though most of the spells in the deck change drastically from version to version, this deck basically always features Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, and some form of two-mana counterspell (plus Celestial Colonnade, the most underrated card in Cube). RWU might be the most customizable deck in the format, now that I think about it, and all that it requires is that you love casting Snapcaster Mage.

The most controlling versions of RWU look like the deck Gregory Orange piloted to the Top 8 of GP Minneapolis:

Gregory Orange - White-Blue-Red Control

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Killing with Colonnade and Snapcaster Mage is a time-honored tradition, and this deck upholds it to the fullest. All it is trying to do is survive long enough to cast a giant Sphinx's Revelation, although it can pull ahead in cards even without Revelation. Cryptic Command into Snapcaster Mage puts the deck multiple cards ahead of the opponent, and Celestial Colonnade really helps cement the late game. All the Lightning Bolts and Helices keep the opponent from getting an offense going, and Electrolyze does that while drawing cards—the best of both worlds.

Pod getting Voice of Resurgence and Splinter Twin becoming more popular have chipped into this deck's market share lately, although I still think it's a solid choice for those who really want to play glacial ([autocard mvid=249722]Fortress[/mvid]) control. This is the most controlling deck I've had the pleasure of playing in the format, and there's something to be said to playing to your strengths.

If you want to add a twist to the deck, you can do what Shaun McLaren did in Minneapolis, where he made Top 8:

Shaun McLaren - White-Blue-Red Control

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Shaun is still playing a controllish deck, but this time with a combo finish. He cut most of the Cryptic Commands (although he had the one Cryptic when we played, much to my chagrin), cut the Sphinx's Revelations, and even reduced the Snapcaster count to two. What he added were four Wall of Omens, four Restoration Angels, and three Kiki-Jikis, which adds an entirely new dimension to the deck. Kiki-Jiki plus Restoration Angel is a combo finish, letting the deck go from no board position to winning the game as early as turn five. End-of-turn Angel into main-phase Kiki-Jiki can win games out of nowhere, and against unwary opponents it can let you pick up a ton of free wins.

Both Kiki-Jiki and Angel can pull their weight even outside the combo (although Angel is vastly better in non-combo situations). Copying Wall of Omens is just good value, and Restoration Angel has been known to close out games the old-fashioned way, especially if it ambushes something on the way in. Angel beatdown actually bridges the gap to the last version of RWU that I want to look at, which is RWU Geist.

Jérémy Dezani played this version at Pro Tour Born of the Gods :

Jérémy Dezani's RWU Geist

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Just the addition of Geist of Saint Traft completely changes how the deck plays, although, much like the combo version, it's trying to pick up free wins. Of course, in this case, it's trying to do so by playing a turn-three Geist and protecting it with removal and Restoration Angels. An unanswered Geist ends the game in just a few attacks, and there's very little that actually can stop it.

One common thread that connects all the versions of RWU is that they all can play the control role if need be (and the first version basically has to). Between Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, and various removal spells, these decks are perfectly capable of dealing with all the opponent's threats and ending up a few cards ahead, which is all that you need to be a control deck. The fact that they kill differently certainly matters, but it is worth noting that they do share more than just a mana base.

Even more than Pod, there's a RWU deck for any play style, although, as I mentioned before, the desire to cast Snapcaster Mage is necessary for any type of RWU you choose.

The last deck I want to take a look at is Splinter Twin, which is a deck that varies less from version to version yet still has room for tinkering.

Splinter Twin
Deceiver Exarch

The base goal of any Twin deck is to combine Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki with Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite, but how the Twin decks get there and what they do when they aren't comboing does vary.

The straight blue-red version has a ton of directions it can go, but the list aspiring rapper Jamie Parke used to Top 8 Richmond is a good example:

Jamie Parke - UR Twin

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This deck can win with Vendilion Clique plus Snapcaster beats, but is most likely going to finish the game by comboing, and it has a ton of disruption and protection to make that happen. Blue-red is definitely the focused version of Twin, and in many games it does nothing besides throw out counters and removal until it wins in one fell swoop. That tends to make opponents very hesitant to tap out or even tap low, as the threat of end-of-turn Pestermite into Splinter Twin looms large. That throws off opposing game plans, and gives Twin much more time—time it can use to assemble the combo with multiple pieces of protection. This is one deck that would be vastly weaker if the opponent got a free Telepathy.

Patrick Dickmann took advantage of this implied value at Pro Tour Born of the Gods by adding green to his Twin deck and winning via Tarmogoyf beats, while the opponent was fretting about the possibility of getting comboed out:

Patrick Dickmann - Tarmo-Twin

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This change pushes the deck toward the same space as RWU Kiki-Jiki, where the deck is capable of winning via multiple paths. The difference is that Twin was a combo deck at its core, and the addition of Goyf and Ooze makes it an aggro-combo deck that also has a control option. That's a lot of different archetypes all in one deck, but they balance well, with cards from each strategy applying to all the others. Tarmogoyf is a great blocker in control games, Cryptic Command can play control or tap the opponent's team and help you beat down, and Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch can transition between stopping the opponent from attacking to attacking themselves—all while being critical combo pieces. This is actually one of the harder decks to play, just because your role is so often unclear, and I'd recommend a lot of practice before picking it up (although the need for practice applies to all decks of Magic in every format).

Choose Your Own Adventure

While I took a look at some of the more well-known Modern decks, there are many more to choose from, and, as you can see, within each deck there are plenty of paths you can take. Of course, not all decks can vary their play styles as much as these decks (which is why I chose them), but there is still a ton of variation contained within even the most linear archetypes. Affinity is going to be beatdown no matter how you build it, but whether you play with Thoughtcast and Master of Etherium, Galvanic Blast, or Thoughtseize (or all of them) is a relevant choice, and you need to pick the one that works best for you.

Modern is a wide enough format that it's rare that there is one best way to build each deck, which is why I keep talking about finding the right deck for your play style. If you aren't enjoying the deck you play, winning won't happen, and if you aren't enjoying what you are doing, why do it? Additionally, everyone who does strongly prefer one play style or archetype to another is best served by picking a deck that plays into that strength. Not everyone has a well-defined preference, and I think that's fine, but those who do should be aware and choose accordingly.

I wanted to explore how each deck could be adjusted to showcase exactly how many decisions there are in Modern deck construction—especially as we open the Modern PTQ season, as picking the broad archetype (Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, etc.) is only the starting point. It's awesome that you get to make so many choices when it comes to your deck, and that's why I've really enjoyed Modern recently. It may seem overwhelming, but hopefully this article can at least point you in the right direction, and I'd recommend perusing successful Modern decks until you find one that strikes your fancy. Once you've played a deck, even if you knew nothing about it to begin with, you will start to get a sense of what works for you, and you will gain confidence in making adjustments to the deck based on that. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, make sure you enjoy whichever deck you pick, as that is the number one way to give yourself the best shot of success with it.

Next week, I'll be back with some thoughts on Standard, and until then, I wish you luck with whichever deck you choose!


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