Modern at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

Posted in Top Decks on January 30, 2018

By Simon Görtzen

Simon Görtzen ist begeisterter Magicspieler, wobei sein größter Erfolg der Sieg bei der Pro Tour San Diego 2010 ist. Neben eigenen Projekten ist er seit 2012 fester Bestandteil der offiziellen Magic-Berichterstattung in Europa.

Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan is almost upon us, and with it Modern will return to the biggest stage of competitive Magic for the first time in two years. Results from Grand Prix and StarCityGames.com Open tournaments showcase a vast metagame with multiple tier 1 decks vying for the spot of "best deck," along with the occasional breakout deck utilizing a newly released card.

Today I will take a look at the state of the format as a whole and some of the more recent developments. If you haven't followed Modern too closely in the last few months, this article should give you a sense of what to expect at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. Modern is too vast to cover fully in a single article, so not every deck in the format will be covered. Instead, I will touch upon six Modern decks that cover the major strategies of aggro, midrange, control, and combo.

If you want to learn more, there are many content creators out there writing articles and recording videos about Modern. One of them is my coverage colleague Riley Knight, whose "Level 1 Modern" series covers the format from the ground up, one deck at a time.

#6: Lantern Control

Lantern Control wins the game by assembling a combination of lock pieces, followed by running a completely helpless opponent out of cards. This leads to drawn-out games like those traditionally associated with control strategies, but Lantern Control is not really enacting a controlling game plan at all. In fact, it aggressively searches for its combo cards to take over the game before the opponent has drawn too many threats or answers.

The lock pieces for Lantern Control are Ensnaring Bridge to stop attackers, Lantern of Insight to reveal the opponent's next draws, and cards like Codex Shredder to prevent them from drawing anything meaningful. Instead of running opponents out of resources, Lantern Control takes away their future. With the printing of Whir of Invention, the deck gained an extra layer of redundancy, and can afford to main-deck protection in the form of Witchbane Orb and Grafdigger's Cage.

Two well-known masters of Lantern Control are Piotr "kanister" Głogowski and Sam Black. Głogowski is a regular at the top of Magic Online's Modern League trophy leaderboard, playing (and streaming) Lantern Control almost exclusively. Black was one of the first big-name pros to draw attention to Lantern Control, calling it one of the best Modern decks even before Whir of Invention was printed. At Grand Prix Santa Clara a few weeks ago, he and his teammates Matt Severa and Andrew Baeckstrom finished in 5th place, just outside of the Top 4.

Sam Black's Lantern Control

Lantern Control might secretly be the best deck in Modern, and is certainly powerful enough to deserve a larger metagame share. On the other hand, Lantern Control is not a deck you simply pick up and run at the Pro Tour. Not only do you have to race both your opponent and the round clock, you also have to know when it's okay to turn on the autopilot and when it's necessary to go deep in the tank to maximize those precious outs in a close situation.

#5: Humans

Humans is a new tribal aggro deck enabled by the printing of Unclaimed Territory in Ixalan. Together with Cavern of Souls and Ancient Ziggurat, this deck has twelve lands that tap for any color of mana as long as all you want is to cast Humans. The game plan of the Humans deck is to present a quick clock with Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant, while the rest of your team disrupts the opponent just long enough to win the game.

Jonathan Rosum placed 7th at the StarCityGames.com Modern Open in Columbus with this Humans list:

Jonathan Rosum's Humans

Humans is a deck with almost perfect mana and a super-linear game plan. However, this comes with a price. Where other aggro decks have access to Cranial Plating or burn spells to finish a game, you need to rely on your creatures to get there. And as good as Collected Company would be in this deck, it's too expensive for a deck with 19 lands, four of which (Ancient Ziggurat) only cast creature spells.

At Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, Humans will join Affinity and Burn as the aggro decks of choice. However, I expect the majority of players to shy away from such a one-dimensional deck. And don't forget that we might see another tribal deck at the Pro Tour. With the printing of Merfolk Mistbinder and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, Blue-Green Merfolk might just be strong enough to see Pro Tour play.

#4: Gifts Storm

Combo decks have been a strong force in Modern since its inception. There are still many viable combo decks, including Counters Company, Ad Nauseam, and Grishoalbrand. However, the undeniable number-one combo deck at the moment is Blue-Red Gifts Storm. The printing of Baral, Chief of Compliance to complement Goblin Electromancer pushed the deck firmly into tier 1 territory.

Storm plays as many cantrips and Rituals as possible and wins with Grapeshot, backed up by Empty the Warrens when necessary. There are many ways to win depending on your hand and graveyard, but the deck's default path to victory is to cast Gifts Ungiven with three floating mana and at least one cost-reducing creature in play. Gifts finds Past in Flames, Manamorphose, Desperate Ritual, and Pyretic Ritual. At this point every Gift pile enables you to cast or flash back Past in Flames, which usually leads to a lethal Grapeshot.

Storm master (and streamer) Caleb Scherer has been playing and tuning a "fetchless" Gifts Storm list that eschews Scalding Tarn and company in favor of lands that don't shuffle your library. The subtle difference is that all your library manipulation actually gets you closer to the card you are looking for, and you don't ruin your progress by shuffling. This is Caleb Scherer's Gifts Storm, with which he placed 3rd at the StarCityGames.com Modern Open in Columbus:

Caleb Scherer's Blue-Red Gifts Storm

Gifts Storm looks complicated, but is not terribly difficult to play once you have some experience with the deck. However, Storm is on everyone's radar by now and Storm players face a variety of hate cards, from hand disruption and graveyard hate to Chalice of the Void, Leyline of Sanctity, and Eidolon of Rhetoric. My experience is that almost every hate piece can be overcome with careful sideboarding, but that you are the underdog in post-board games against prepared opponents.

In order to beat Storm at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, competitors will not only need the right sideboard plans, but also a good understanding of what the deck is capable of. Given enough time, a good Storm pilot will collect the tools to beat even multiple pieces of disruption.

#3: White-Blue Control

Traditionally, control decks do not have a good time in Modern. Aggro decks and combo decks attack you in very different ways, midrange decks strip you of your resources with Thoughtseize and Liliana of the Veil, and decks like Tron and Scapeshift easily out-mana you. But for the last few months, white-blue and Jeskai (blue-red-white) control decks have been on the rise in Modern. Ixalan gave these decks a cheap card advantage engine in Search for Azcanta, and Field of Ruin complements Spreading Seas as a way to combat threats like creature lands, Urzatron, and Valakut. Even the problem of threat diversity from aggro and combo decks is mitigated by the fact that Gideon of the Trials can buy you time against not all but most threats in the format.

Vidianto Wijaya played White-Blue Control at Grand Prix Santa Clara with Logan Nettles and Jonathan Anghelescu, placing 2nd.

Vidianto Wijaya's White-Blue Control

Many players on the Pro Tour are known for their love of blue control decks, and it might be the right time to sleeve up Sphinx's Revelation. Another alternative is Grixis Control, or if all that is too tame for you, there is always Esper As Foretold. Let's just wait and see what Hall of Famer Shota Yasooka brings to Bilbao.

#2: Big Mana

If last December is any indication of what to expect at the Pro Tour, you should be prepared for "big mana" decks. At Grand Prix Madrid, Rodrigo Togores won with his team playing Red-Green Scapeshift. Out of the Top 4, only one team did not play either Scapeshift or Tron. On the same weekend, Grand Prix Oklahoma City's Top 8 featured two more Scapeshift players and three Tron players, one of them Pro Tour Ixalan Champion Seth Manfield.

Seth Manfield's Black-Green Tron

Tron is a deck that just works. By turn three or turn four, you usually have access to all three Urza lands (Urza's Tower, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Mine). This means that Wurmcoil Engine and Karn Liberated can come down on turn three, followed by Ugin, the Spirit Dragon on turn four. There are three main Tron variants: black-green, mono-green, and the occasional mono-blue Tron. One more deck with Urza lands is Eldrazi Tron, which is much more focused on fast creature development and disruption than the other big mana decks.

Tron decks like Seth's have always been around, but they often lacked a bit of interaction. In games without an early Karn, for example, it could be difficult to keep the opponent in check. Two recent cards have changed this, and they are the reason why black-green is the most popular Tron variant at the moment. Fatal Push is exactly the kind of early-game interaction Tron players were looking for, and revolt synergizes extremely well with Chromatic Star and Chromatic Sphere. The sideboard playset of Collective Brutality should not be underestimated either, providing hand disruption against combo and control decks and a devastating double effect against Burn and Collected Company decks.

#1: Death's Shadow

If you want to play midrange in Modern, you should play Death's Shadow. This might be a tad controversial, but there are very few reasons to play traditional Jund or Abzan when you can upgrade your deck with Death's Shadow instead. You can still decide if you prefer Grixis Death's Shadow, Jund Death's Shadow, or a Jund-based four- or five-color version.

Death's Shadow can play a normal midrange game against aggressive decks. Once your life total drops below 13, Death's Shadow threatens to become a massive threat. This puts aggro opponents in a precarious situation—not attacking is rarely an option, but attacking grows the Shadow. This creates a subgame in which the aggro player has to beat Death's Shadow in one big swing, but if that fails, they are doomed. Of course, if your opponent doesn't attack you for whatever reason, your deck gives you plenty of options to damage yourself.

Nathan Holiday piloted this version of Death's Shadow to a Top 4 at Grand Prix Santa Clara with his teammates, Joe Demestrio and Ricky Sidher:

Nathan Holiday's Four-Color Death's Shadow

This is a relatively standard Jund Death's Shadow with Godless Shrine to enable a few sideboard cards. Notably missing is Lingering Souls, which was the initial reason to splash white. You can tell that Nathan wanted to be prepared especially for less interactive matchups with three copies of Temur Battle Rage.

I expect Death's Shadow strategies to be the overall most popular choice at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. The deck is highly interactive, has a high skill ceiling and very few hopeless matchups, and can be tuned in a variety of ways.

Conclusion

Modern is wide open, and each of the competitors at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan should be able to find a deck that suits their play style. Being experienced with a deck is heavily rewarded, which is why we see the same players bring Affinity, Storm, or Lantern decks to tournaments again and again. Looking at some of the new Rivals of Ixalan cards, the big question is whether Blue-Green Merfolk has what it takes to compete in this powerful format. Or is a single card like Blood Sun powerful enough to disrupt the metagame on its own?

Tune in to twitch.tv/magic beginning this Friday at 9 a.m. local time (CET)/12 a.m. PT/3 a.m. ET. to find out!

—Simon

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