The Modern Landscape

Posted in Top Decks on March 7, 2017

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).

By now, you've probably seen all of the previews for Modern Masters 2017 Edition.

The set is going to be a blast to draft, but it's also a good way to get into Modern. If that's your goal, it helps to know a bit about what Modern looks like right now and what strategies are viable along with what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Modern is a dynamic format. It's a non-rotating format, but the combination of new sets, bannings, and unbannings as well as the discovery of new technology makes it change more often than you might think. As such, it's a good idea to check in often and see what the landscape looks like, with now being a particularly good time. The recent Grand Prix Vancouver revealed a breakout deck, and that alone is a compelling reason, especially alongside the effects of recent bannings. Let's get to it.

Death's Shadow Aggro

The place to start is clearly Death's Shadow Aggro. The list played by various members of Team ChannelFireball Fire sported an 80% win-rate in the tournament (if you discount mirror matches) and put three copies in the Top 8, eventually taking home the title.

Death's Shadow Aggro – Josh Utter-Leyton – GP Vancouver Champion

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This is an odd deck, and its dominance is especially interesting given the recent banning of Gitaxian Probe, which you would assume weakened the Death's Shadow deck significantly. This is also a demonstration that not everything is discovered in Modern, as this deck is likely how Death's Shadow decks should have been built for months and just weren't.

Gameplan: Manage your life total to make Death's Shadow a huge threat, while managing your graveyard to grow Tarmogoyf and enable Traverse the Ulvenwald with delirium.

This decks plays like a midrange deck more than a pure aggro deck, getting card advantage with Kolaghan's Command and Liliana while disrupting the opponent with Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. Eventually, it closes out the game with a stream of giant monsters, all while operating on a very low land count.

Tips and Tricks: I learned some funny things after talking with Josh Utter-Leyton, as the deck has some counterintuitive plays (thank Death's Shadow for that one).

  • Josh pointed Tarfire at himself more often than his opponents or their creatures. It turns out that giving Death's Shadow +2/+2 is a very relevant ability. Note also that Tarfire counts as tribal for Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald, hence its inclusion over Lightning Bolt.
  • Leaving fetch lands like Wooded Foothills unbroken gives you more optionality later. Normal decks break them as soon as possible to get tapped shock lands, but this deck may want to pay the 2 life, so deferring the decision is often right.
  • Mishra's Bauble timing and targeting is tricky. When you have a fetch land in play, Baubling yourself lets you decide if you want to shuffle the top card away. Likewise, if you suspect discard from the opponent, not using it until their turn can protect your hand better.
  • You can, in rare instances, Thoughtseize yourself to get another card type into the graveyard. This deck is all about managing life total and graveyard count, so always be aware of how you can mess with those.

Weaknesses: This deck doesn't have many glaring weaknesses, thanks to the fast clock, discard spells, and resilient threats. That said, Josh did fear experienced burn pilots, so picking up Goblin Guide and testing the matchup may be your best bet.


Burn – Nathaniel Knox – GP Vancouver Top 8

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Goblin Guide and friends is a classic Modern strategy that has taken down tournaments ever since Lava Spike went on the stack. It's a beautiful collection of 4-ofs, as clean and pure of a list as I've ever seen.

Gameplan: Deal 4-8 damage with creatures, and the rest with various burn spells. Also, cast Goblin Guide on turn one as often as possible. It's really that simple.

Tips and Tricks:

  • This is another deck where you want to save fetch lands, this time because of the landfall on Searing Blaze.
  • If you are playing against a deck with counterspells and they go to kill Eidolon of the Great Revel, it's often worth casting burn spells in response. You take extra damage from Eidolon, but if they want to use a counterspell, so do they.
  • Against Death's Shadow, just play creatures and intentionally save burn spells. You don't want to start burning them until they drop their own life total to enable the Shadow, at which point you can finish them off. Suspending Rift Bolt on turn one is exactly the kind of play you don't want to make.

Weaknesses: Fast combo decks and sideboard cards are Burn's bane. This deck is consistent, but rarely kills before turn four or five, and has a lot of trouble against massive life gain out of the sideboard. If it's not expected, Burn is a great choice though, as it preys on midrange and control.


Dredge – Zen Takahashi – GP Brisbane 2nd Place

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Much like Death's Shadow without Gitaxian Probe, Dredge without Golgari Grave-Troll still put up great results. Two copies made Top 8 of Grand Prix Brisbane, potentially aided by a reduction on graveyard hate as a response to Grave-Troll's ban.

Gameplan: Discard dredgers like Stinkweed Imp or Life from the Loam and use red card-draw to flip as many cards into the graveyard as possible. Recur Narcomoebas, Bloodghasts, and Prized Amalgams while using Life from the Loam to fuel giant Conflagrates.

Tips and Tricks:

  • If you suspect sweepers like Anger of the Gods, you can choose not to return all your Bloodghasts, and saving fetch lands lets you return them later.
  • Aggressively use Life from the Loam as getting a ton of cards in hand gives you the maximum amount of ammo for Conflagrate.
  • Pay attention to which lands you have left in deck—it's not uncommon to run out of targets for Arid Mesa or the like.

Weaknesses: Like Burn, Dredge is weak to fast combo and sideboard cards. The sideboard card part is mitigated right now, as graveyard hate is at a low, but watch out for fast combo stepping in to take advantage. One good thing for Dredge and Burn pilots is how easily Death's Shadow defeats fast combo, making the field safer for those who fear it.


Affinity – Jon Stern – GP Vancouver Top 8

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Speaking of fast combo, Affinity plays a good imitation of that. It is a touch faster than Burn or Dredge and can finish games ahead of almost any deck in the format. Like the two preceding decks, it's also a great choice when sideboard cards aren't out in full force, and Jon Stern may have taken advantage of that.

Gameplan: Dump your whole hand by turn three, with the artifact count powering Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating alongside Master of Etherium. Attack with super-charged fliers and finish things off with Galvanic Blast if need be.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Use the instant ability of Cranial Plating if the opponent has removal or blockers—it comes up more often that you'd think.
  • Always be aware of a potential infect kill, as Inkmoth Nexus ends games very quickly.
  • If you have Springleaf Drum in your opener, be sure to play it before you play your first creature so removal in response doesn't thwart your plans. Likewise, play Mox Opal in the same order.
  • Don't over-sideboard—cut four cards at most, as you need a high artifact count.

Weaknesses: In a shocking twist, Affinity is also weak to sideboard cards. Modern just has a ton of these linear decks, where their gameplan is robust against almost everything but weak to specific hate cards (in this case, Stony Silence and Ancient Grudge are two of the main offenders). The prevalence of Kolaghan's Command is very annoying to Affinity, but it's still a good choice overall.

Decks That Are on the Downswing


Infect has taken a real beating lately. The loss of Gitaxian Probe hurt a lot, and Death's Shadow with its nine discard spells and cheap removal doesn't help. Infect is laying low for the time being and may need a rework before it's tier 1 again.

Grixis / Jeskai

As much as I love Cryptic Command decks, I can't recommend them right now. They are just too slow and vulnerable to discard, and being reactive in Modern is not where it's at. Inquisition of Kozilek is better than Mana Leak, and playing a cheap threat is better than trying to control the game. If the metagame slows down a little, they could re-emerge, but for now I'd be proactive.


Despite making the finals of GP Vancouver, I think Merfolk is a fishy choice right now. It's very weak to Death's Shadow and Affinity, both of which I expect to be heavily played. It's a great deck against control and combo, but those don't appear to be where the metagame is at.

Modern is high on diversity, as always, and this is but a snapshot of recent changes. There are tons of other decks and plenty of viable options. Death's Shadow is the clear frontrunner, so either play it or have a plan against it, but past that, feel free to tune the deck that suits you best. Happy hunting.


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