Early Solutions in Modern

Posted in Top Decks on January 5, 2012

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."

In case you haven't been paying attention to the Magic Online site the past couple of weeks, Modern events have started to fire with some frequency (I think there were five big ones on Christmas day!), probably in anticipation of the upcoming Grand Prix and Pro Tour Qualifier seasons. Modern recently lost two popular cards, putting it in a state of both growth and uncertainty... and has led to some somewhat disparate reactions, viz.:

  • "No more Wild Nacatl? Maaaaan! Little creature beatdown sucks now!"
  • "No more Punishing Fire engine? I can play little beaters again!"
Wild Nacatl
Punishing Fire

Strange, but true!

The removal of these cards, in the context of a format that was previously so dominated by combo, has been the catalyst to the format exploding every which way, seemingly from tournament to tournament. Is Zoo-style beatdown still viable, but just not overwhelmingly dominant without a 3/3 for 1 mana? Some players have seen a "yes" to that question as a cue to explore Martyr of Sands decks (certainly great against beatdown!), but they still have to respect a combo.

Speaking of combo, which way do you turn? Not only are there versions of the Blue-Red Deceiver Exarch or storm combo decks from Pro Tour Philadelphia (albeit without Ponder and Preordain) but also cascade combo decks riding the Violent Outburst—despite there being no Hypergenesis in the field.

And control? It is probably the macro-archetype with the biggest question mark next to it. How do we approach control? Straight counters? As many colors as our mana bases can allow? An echo to Gifts? To Mystical Teachings? How many Cruel Ultimatums?

...or, God forbid... no blue at all?

Here's the thing about big formats—and in particular, winning long tournaments in big formats—you have to be able to deal with lots of different things, oftentimes powerful and disparate threats. This puts control in a precarious position. Even a relatively "weak" deck like the Lava Spike deck (all 1 mana cards that deal 3 points of damage—you know, the old Extended standby) is at least fast, consistent, and well aware of what it wants to accomplish (that is, "20"). But look at it from the control side. Not only does the prospective control deck have to deal with such an aggressive Red Deck, but the Lava Spike deck probably isn't even the most popular aggressive mono-red deck!


raphael_puleo's Artifact Attack

Download Arena Decklist

This deck—ostensibly straight red (ignoring Rule of Law in the sideboard)—is actually an artifact attack deck, the Modern interpretation of Ravager Affinity. A deck like this is, to put it mildly, exceedingly fast. It can play out a first-turn Vault Skirge and make up the life loss quite quickly. Or, of course, there are the super-aggressive draws—the ones that go something like first-turn Signal Pest, Mox Opal, Memnite, Memnite, Frogmite—that deal massive amounts of damage often before the opponent has even played a nonland card. Cranial Plating has always been a fine pairing with Arcbound Ravager (damned if you do, damned if you don't), and this deck has no shortage of unimpressive creatures waiting to get big up front and create problematic or stressful blocks and trades. Most compellingly, the Modern Affinity deck has access to not just four Shrapnel Blasts (a fine finishing spell when the deck is capable of such super quick starts) but four Galvanic Blasts, too! The Galvanic Blasts basically always do four. To you.

Vault Skirge
Cranial Plating

Contrast with:

iammrj0j0's Lava Spike

Download Arena Decklist

Here is a deck with "only" twenty lands, but forty business spells that all have an expectation of 2–5 damage. Lava Spike, Spark Elemental, and Shard Volley are all pretty embarrassing when compared with Lighting Bolt, but hey, they do 3 points of damage, the opponent only starts with 20 life, and you start the game with seven cards in hand.

Lava Spike
Spark Elemental

A deck this straightforward is easily dealt with via the tools available in a huge format like Modern, but that is little consolation to the prospective control player. Here we have a completely different, still aggressive, still red deck... that requires a completely different palette of response cards. The Affinity deck wants Ancient Grudge, or at least Annul. The Lava Spike deck wants, um... Mental Misstep (too bad about that being not legal). It can actually take advantage of players who are breaking Arid Mesa to make Stomping Grounds, as each "start on seventeen fourteen life" opponent basically cedes 2–3 extra cards before the first spell is played.

Shard Volley

If you're Martyr, sure... problems for Red Deck. But for most other opponents? Once they get past the idea that they have to respect Lava Spike, Spark Elemental, and Shard Volley, they realize that they might have precious few cards that can actually interact profitably with them!

Intellectual Exercise:

_megafone_'s Lava Spike

Download Arena Decklist

I like the twist _megafone_ put on the Lava Spike deck (not the least of which is upgrading Spark Elemental to Bump in the Night, which not only can deal twice as much damage, but now runs around some kind of Circle of Protection: Red, avoids needing to make contact in the Red Zone, and even upgrades straight damage to life loss). The deck is mostly 1-mana and 2-mana cards, so Dark Confidant's downside is a little less down than usual. _megafone_ gets a source of card advantage and—were _megafone_ so inclined (it seems that wasn't the case)—could play black removal or disruption to slow down Tarmogoyf or combo.

Bump in the Night

What _megafone_ did opt for was Rain of Gore:

Rain of Gore

Pretty awesome to have an actual answer to the massive life gain afforded by Martyr of Sands or Soul Sisters. If a white opponent doesn't know it's coming... Bam! The game can de facto end on the second turn.

For reference: Martyr of Sands

TimEvans's Martyr of Sands

Download Arena Decklist

Martyr of Sands decks do all kinds of things "well," ranging from "relatively well" to "not well at all." They do these things as pseudo-White Weenie decks ("I hit the first-turn Figure!") or White Control ("Path that, Elspeth; Day your squad"), but the real incentive to this strategy is the combination of Martyr of Sands and Proclamation of Rebirth. (Incidentally, I think I would play Wrath of God over Day of Judgment in any format where it is available, especially as Modern is showing us quite a few singleton copies of Thrun, the Last Troll in green decks.)

Martyr of Sands
Proclamation of Rebirth

Martyr of Sands and Proclamation of Rebirth fit together like peanut butter and chocolate. You can happily sit back and gain life (often blocking the opponent's best guy before sacrificing the Martyr) more or less forever (or, you know, unless the opponent started on Rain of Gore). Against a control deck that lacks the sufficient tools in terms of nonbasic land destruction or graveyard hate, you can even stay out of damage range by gaining 20+ life each upkeep, and then eventually decking the opponent with your double Mistveil Plains!

It's actually absurd, and somewhat depressing (at least for the prospective control deck).

On the other hand, a deck like this can be hopeless against the wrong kind of combo deck. There are all sorts of combo decks in Modern. Their techniques and technologies are even more varied—and wildly more dangerous—than any of the other kinds of decks. If you are scratching your head at the prospect of having to deal with a "gain 20 life per turn" deck (that can run you out with Mistveil Plainsand whose mechanism to inevitability can't actually be Counterspelled); a red deck based on fast attacking into explosive one-shot instants; a red deck based on doing 3 points of damage at a time with a steady stream of instants, sorceries, and one-shot attackers; or even black-red decks with basically that same plan-plus, consider all the different ways a combo opponent might come after you:

kitchenfink's Combo

Download Arena Decklist

Here is one you might actually (initially) mistake for a White Weenie deck or a White-Blue Control deck (if he starts on Seachrome Coast and doesn't do anything for a couple of turns). Your opponent can come out super fast with a turn-zero Leyline of the Meek, then Intangible Virtue, and start pumping out two or even three medium-huge weenies at the end of your turn, which is a completely different draw. I'd say the worst thing that can happen is the combination of sly speed, card advantage (that isn't actually cards), and creature size, but Windbrisk Heights in this deck can produce a fast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The lack of any non-Eldrazi monsters means that Polymorph will always hit the big fifteen.

Leyline of the Meek
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

As a control deck, you can fight a deck like this with cards like Repeal, mass removal, or somewhat simply via Ratchet Bomb and Engineered Explosives, but you still run the risk of falling behind the sheer volume of threats in the deck. Almost every token producer makes two or three 1/1s at a time, and with the enchantments, those 1/1s are actually 2/2 or 3/3 (or bigger!). Ergo, despite the fact that you might actually be dealing with 2 or more threats with any one sweeper, that might only translate into one token-producing card. On a plan like this, it is very likely the control will run out before the token producers. Even worse, if you rely on cards like Snapcaster Mage or Academy Ruins, you can find yourself on the wrong end of a well-placed Beckon Apparition.

Beckon Apparition

_mRichi_'s Blue-Red Storm

Download Arena Decklist

This is a Blue-Red Storm deck. It plays lots of mana in a single turn to ramp up Storm count to kill you with Grapeshot or a fast Empty the Warrens.

Empty the Warrens

Storm decks are naturally resistant to permission, though even a super-fast turn-two Warrens is susceptible to a fast Engineered Explosives or Ratchet Bomb. You can also successfully jam stuff like Trickbind or sometimes Echoing Truth.

bozidar2121's Hive Mind

Download Arena Decklist

This is a Hive Mind deck. It tries to get out a fast Hive Mind so that it can play some kind of Pacts, which the Hive Mind will copy; ideally the opponent will die on upkeep on account of being unable to pay for four different kinds of Pacts, often all at the same time.

Hive Mind

You really want to stop the Hive Mind from hitting the battlefield, because if it hits, and the opponent has some kind of Pacts (in my experience, your opponent always has Pacts), you're probably going to lose unless you have some really esoteric cards that stop triggers or stop the passage of turns. Straight counters can be useful to stop Hive Mind, but remember that unlike some other combo decks, this one actually has permission of its own. Hive Mind can Remand you right back (or Remand your opponent's own cards as a kind of reloading Dismiss), or even smash you with Pact of Negation. If the Pact hits, your opponent doesn't intend to take another turn anyway (and if it doesn't, there isn't any down side, so whatever).

Pact of Negation
Pact of the Titan

Vodka7up's Exarch Twin

Download Arena Decklist

This is an Exarch Twin deck. It can go Deceiver Exarch (or Pestermite) and Splinter Twin like the old Standard deck and attack you for infinity damages on the fourth turn. Or it can set up Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to do the same thing. When a Deceiver Exarch or a Pestermite copy hits play, you can untap whichever creature is producing the tokens.

Deceiver Exarch
Splinter Twin

A Storm deck is fast and redundant: it kills you by playing a ton of stuff all in one turn. It can be disrupted or stopped, but often requires a particular kind of answer at a particular time, while you are under pressure. A Hive Mind deck gets you with a tricky trigger, can test you in an annoying fashion, and actually fights back. A Twin deck, though, is truly infinite! No number of Proclamations is going to keep the Twin deck from poking you out with 1/4s or 2/1 fliers.

All these combo decks have different vulnerabilities. A Storm deck can be interrupted by answering a key card (often a fast mana producer) in the middle of its generation of tonnage. You can cross your fingers and Annul a Hive Mind. A Twin deck is actually vulnerable to regular old creature removal. Obviously, generic discard (disruption) and permission (that can "answer anything") is applicable to any of the combo decks, but the former usually just buys time, and the latter can force you to play tentatively (and can prove unreliable, especially when the combo deck has permission of its own).

As you can see, there are loads of different crazy combinations in Modern... without leaving the Izzet color combination.

Elsewhere, we see decks that pop up a Living End or search through their libraries while gaining near infinite life with Kitchen Finks (against these you might want a Leyline of the Void). There are decks with Birthing Pod, Chord of Calling, or Cloudstone Curio that do similar things to other combinations... just in a "green" way.

Kitchen Finks
Birthing Pod

Point being, a control deck may have a difficult time tailoring its solutions to all these different strategies while maintaining enough space to, you know, win the game.

"Fair" or interactive strategies pack everything from planeswalkers to Geist of Saint Traft to Bloodbraid Elf (and often more than one) in their efforts to keep pace with all these disparate wings of The Modern metagame. Some decks pack a Knight of the Reliquary, others Liliana of the Veil. If you play long enough tournaments, you will battle not just flashback, but retrace, dredge, and graveyard interactions that have no particular keyword. You will find opponents who cascade into Living End, Restore Balance,... and Blightning.

Ultimately, a huge card pool gives us lots of opportunities to play lots of card advantage—and much of it quite fast—even when beating you down:

Silvergill Adept

Do you really want to Repeal this card?

The Modern metagame is a strange, broad, and ultimately pretty interesting one, with mid-range, combo, beatdown, and hybrids all represented, and represented over and over again. If you are a brave soul rolling up your sleeves to try to control this mess of a metagame just remember that there are lots and lots of wildly different things you have to control. My guess is that the successful mages will have something big and strong to hit right back with.

Happy New Year everyone!

Next Up: Dark Ascension

Latest Top Decks Articles


August 2, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Modern and Legacy by, Simon Görtzen

Pro Tour 25th Anniversary Coverage Begins Today! Tune in to twitch.tv/magic for four days of Pro Tour coverage celebrating Magic's 25th Anniversary, beginning TODAY (August 2) at 2 p.m. ...

Learn More


July 31, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Standard by, Simon Görtzen

Tomorrow, I'll board a plane to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to cover Pro Tour 25th Anniversary. On Thursday, August 2, the $150,000 Silver Showcase kicks off the action with a once-in-a-lifet...

Learn More



Top Decks Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All