Modern Weaponsmiths

Posted in The Week That Was on June 7, 2014

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

While there is still one more Pro Tour remaining in this current season, the PTQs for Pro Tour Magic 2015 in Portland, Oregon, have come to a conclusion. That makes now the perfect time to get a jump on the 2014–15 Pro Tour season.

I hope you have been paying attention to the last few Modern Grand Prix and the most recent Modern Pro Tour. Starting this very Saturday, you can get a jump on next season—could you be the next Rookie of the Year?—by winning a PTQ for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, and the accompanying trip to Hawaii(!!!).

Modern is a wide open format with dozens of viable decks. The card pool goes back to Eighth Edition and includes all expansion sets from Mirrodin forward. There are no restricted cards in Modern but there is a significant banned list that keeps the format fresh and some of the most dominant decks in check. One of the hallmarks of the format is the ability for a player to stick with a deck and make adjustments to it as the metagame shifts.

You need look no further than Pro Tour Born of the Gods Champion Shaun McLaren to find a high-profile player who sticks with the deck he knows but is not beyond sneaking in a new wrinkle to catch opponents off guard. En route to making the Top 4 of Grand Prix Minneapolis, McClaren added Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to his Pro Tour–winning Red-White-Blue Control list.

Pro Tour Born of the Gods Champion Shaun McLaren

"I added Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to combo off by making a million Angels and winning out of nowhere, since opponents would likely put me on the list I had just won the Pro Tour with after they see a bunch of blue, white, and red lands," McLaren said. "It worked out great, and I caught a bunch of people off guard. The deck plays similar to previous versions so all the experience I had with the deck converted over."

While McLaren normally favors control decks that will play out over many turns each game, that strategy was not quite viable in the early days of Modern. The banning of combo cards and the removal of Deathrite Shaman from Jund's arsenal meant cards like Electrolyze would have consistent targets and McLaren could play the style of Magic he most enjoys.

"I love the slow, reactive strategy that leads to long games and lots of decisions. I don't think RWU is overpowered, just one of many viable decks in Modern right now," explained the Platinum Pro who identified Bogles, Fairies, Storm, and Scapeshift as bad matchups for his deck that he cannot completely solve—something he is fine with.

"I'm willing to lose games to those decks and not devote my entire sideboard to solving them," he shrugged. "Building your sideboard in Modern is all about bringing in absolute haymakers that will almost single-handedly destroy your opponent, or cards that are strong against a whole bunch of different decks, since the format is so wide open. Stony Silence is the hoser of all hosers and makes games versus Affinity play out more my speed. Relic of Progenitus is also a very versatile sideboard card and is strong versus many decks in the format."

While McLaren is an advocate for a more controlling style of deck, he said it is not nearly as important as finding a deck you feel comfortable playing and playing the heck out of it.

Shaun McLaren - White-Blue-Red Control

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And for those who want to walk the same path McLaren has, he has some advice on where to take the deck from here.

"I think the Wall of Omens and Restoration Angel package is the way to go right now," he said. "Focus on the simple stuff first, knowing how many basics you have for sac lands, and whether you should be playing Wall of Omens on turn two or leaving up Remand based on what your opponent did for the first turn. Remember to have fun and don't worry about making mistakes, because they're going to happen. It's a complicated format!"

Pro Tour Born of the Gods runner-up Jacob Wilson played what has been one of the most successful archetypes over the most recent Modern events in Melira Pod. The deck has been seen in the hands of Pro Tour Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas and favored by fellow Grand Prix Champions Sam Pardee and Josh McClain. Prior to the bannings leading into Pro Tour Born of the Gods, Wilson favored Jund—a deck he used to win GP Chicago—but he was looking for something new after the banning of Deathrite Shaman. By virtue of playtesting with McClain and Pardee, he had plenty of experience sitting across the table from it and knew what the deck was capable of.

Pro Tour Born of the Gods Runner-Up Jacob Wilson

"Birthing Pod is a lot of fun to play, especially because there are many unique cards and matchups leading to unfamiliar situations," said the PT finalist. "The worst matchups are the 'big mana' decks of the format, Tron and Scapeshift. They both have sweepers that are cheap and effective and a game plan that doesn't care much about what the opposing board looks like."

The elusive Entomber Exarch—Wilson had to scramble all over Valencia to find it the night before the Pro Tour—gave the deck a Pod chain that could start with a two-drop and then take apart an opponent's hand with Sin Collector and Entomber Exarch over the next two turns. It's a chain that is ideal against something like Scapeshift, but Tron was another matter. Much like McLaren, Wilson decided he could not prepare for everything and did not want to dedicate four precious sideboard slots to Fulminator Mage.

"I think you're better off just hoping you don't play against it. Modern is a huge and diverse format and there are a ton of viable decks, so playing against any one deck in an eight- or nine-round PTQ is not super likely."

Wilson has not had the opportunity to play the deck in the recent Grand Prix, but he pointed to the success of the deck in the hands of Josh McClain and Oscar Jones, who made Top 8 at GP Richmond, and then Nathan Holiday and Brian Braun-Duin, who both made Top 8 of GP Minneapolis, evolving the deck along the way.

Brian Braun-Duin - Melira Pod

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While Melira Pod put multiple people into the Top 8 of Grand Prix Richmond, it was not a version of a Birthing Pod deck that won that Grand Prix. Instead, Brian Liu opted for a tighter Birthing Pod combo that used the same two-card combo as McLaren's most recent deck.

Grand Prix Richmand 2014 Champion Brian Liu (center)

"I think Kiki-Pod is a much more powerful deck than Melira Pod," said Liu, who has been playing the deck for more than two years. "Kiki-Pod plays a much more unfair game compared to Melira, with its Birthing Pod activations being more powerful, and having a two-card combo, as opposed to three with Melira Pod."

Liu continued: "Against other 'unfair' decks, Kiki-Pod can go toe to toe, assembling its own game-winning combo on turn four, while Melira Pod, in my opinion, attempts a weaker plan, using discard spells to slow the game down and play a fair game. In Modern, why be fair when you can be unfair?

"The creatures played in Kiki are also much more solid: Restoration Angel, Scavenging Ooze, Voice of Resurgence, and Kitchen Finks make for a strong creature base. I think LSV's most recent iteration of the Melira Pod deck is starting to highlight some of these issues, taking out the weak Melira combo and showcasing the power of Restoration Angel."

Liu identified Scapeshift and Splinter Twin as the worst matchups for his deck but felt that the deck is always up for the challenge—but sometimes the pilot is not.

"When playing this deck, I find that it has all the tools to beat every matchup; you just need to play it correctly. The deck's worst enemy is itself. Once you play the deck enough, know it inside and out, along with all the interactions, and know your game plan against all the archetypes, you are unstoppable. It's less a question of 'Can I win?' and more 'I can win, but how do I do it?' The deck really punishes you for making even the smallest of mistake."

Brian Liu - Kiki Pod

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"The sideboard is ever-changing depending on what I expect," said the Richmond champion. "Shatterstorm, for example, was a card I added last minute at GP Richmond due to how much Affinity I saw. The sideboard is always in flux and I might add an extra Fiery Justice over the Shatterstorm, as it is more flexible. People have been advocating for Eidolon of Rhetoric over Ethersworn Canonist due to its advantage against Lightning Bolt, but I disagree for various reasons. Playing the deck is like a puzzle; there's always a path to victory, you just have to figure out how to get to the end."

Grand Prix Chicago 2012 Semi-Finalist Alex Majlaton

When anyone mentions the Affinity deck in Modern, I immediately think of Alex Majlaton, who has played the deck successfully throughout the existence of the Modern format. In fact, his tournament Magic experience goes back to the days of Mirrodin.

"I got into competitive Magic by playing Affinity, back in the Disciple/Skullclamp days," recalled Majlaton. "I lucked into a qualification for Nationals via Regionals in 2004, and also lucked my way into a GP Top 8 with it in Extended in Charlotte at the end of 2005. I say 'lucked' because I am certain that I wasn't very good then and accomplished both of those things on the strength of the deck."

Majlaton stuck by the deck in Modern and it has served him well with cash finishes in seven of eight Grand Prix, with three Top 8s, not to mention a cash finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. With all that experience, he has found that decks built around white cards give him the toughest matchups—especially after sideboarding.

"Each matchup requires slightly different preparation after board, but I almost always try to anticipate hate cards like Stony Silence and board in ways to deal with them. So far I have found Thoughtseize to be the best overall way to deal with it (and most other things), although I can usually be found playing enchantment destruction as well," said Majlaton.

Affinity does not often get new main-deck tools, but Majlaton is always on the lookout for new sideboard options

"The best recent additions I have used are Illness in the Ranks from Gatecrash—it's great versus token decks and Splinter Twin combo—and Wear & Tear from Dragon's Maze—a neat way to combine Ancient Grudge and Ray of Revelation to conserve sideboard space. What I'd really like is a more elegant answer to Stony Silence, since it feels unfair that it shuts off most of my mana in addition to all my good threats, in matchups that are already not easy to begin with."

"I think the best list right now would be something simple and not too gimmicky. I'd want to play at least 3 Etched Champion main deck. I probably also want both Thoughtcast and Galvanic Blast, but not more than 6 colored cards total, so either a 3/3 split or 4/2 in either direction depending on whether or not I expected the metagame to be more grindy or speedy."


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"The most important thing to keep in mind when playing Affinity is to not be afraid," Majlaton said. "Affinity can very much be an 'all-in' type of deck, which means that the right play is often to put all your eggs in one basket and try to dodge a single removal spell, sometimes over two or more turns. It's hard to do this since it feels really bad to lose your board and be out of the game without actually having taken lethal damage, but it feels even worse to fall behind a little bit more each turn because you didn't take your one good opportunity to win. Just remember to take smart, calculated risks."

While Jacob Wilson moved off Jund after the banning of Deathrite Shaman, another longtime advocate of the deck has stayed with it and posted a Top 16 finish at Grand Prix Minneapolis with his latest take on the deck. Brazil's Willy Edel posted a Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica with the pre-banning version and explained a little about the history of the deck.

Willy Edel

"In the first days of Modern, Jund wasn't really good with all these Cloudposts and super-fast decks around, and I never touched it," explained the four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor. "After the first round of bans I started testing several decks that could beat Jund for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, and I didn't find any that could do it with consistency. I just give up trying to beat it and start playing Jund myself. For that specific tournament, I tuned the list to win the mirror match, which paid off. At that moment, I think it was just the best deck."

Edel has barely played another Modern deck ever since, even after the banning of Deathrite Shaman. He likened Modern to Legacy, where experience and knowledge of a deck is rewarded.

"Jund was forced to evolve/change over the last years. A lot of bans targeted it: Punishing fire, Bloodbraid Elf, and finally Deathrite Shaman. The Shaman ban was the one that really changed the way Jund works. The busted draws of turn-two Liliana are over," said Edel. "Jund now is a midrange deck that is much more controlish than aggro. You will win more stabilizing and then winning than with aggressive draws. That's where Courser of Kruphix and Chandra, Pyromaster come in. Now Jund has more card advantage than it ever had, so you need to change your play style and mindset to a less aggressive one."

"My decklist from last GP Minneapolis is a good start—the only change I can see is swapping Jund Charm for the sideboard Slaughter Pact, but I like the surprise effect of Jund Charm too much to do it," advised Edel. "As for the sideboard, it needs to be reworked for your local meta. For PTQs, I'd run 4 Fulminator Mage for sure, at least one more Ancient Grudge, and a Batterskull there. Just take out whatever you think won't be necessary for your local field."

I did a deck tech with Michael Hetrick at Pro Tour Born of the Gods for his Living End deck—a deck he is still arming himself with for Modern battles.

"I do not think Living End is the best deck in the format or ever will be. I think Pod is the best deck, but I also think that you should play what you're comfortable/best with in this format," said Hetrick, who started out 9–0 at that Pro Tour. "Living End is that deck for me, and as long as no one really cares about it or plays it, I will still be able to play it pretty fearlessly, especially since that also means that my opponents will frequently misplay because they don't have experience against the deck. It's definitely a gamble to play it, but you have to take some risks to do well in a big event or PTQ."

"This is my current list and I'm pretty sold on everything in it," Hetrick said.

Hetrick's Living End

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Perhaps you are in the market for something even more off the beaten path. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you the off-road stylings of one Conley Woods.

Conley Woods

"I would personally not play one of the 'stock' decks, but would not fault anyone for doing so, as there are a lot of heavily explored and strong strategies in Modern," said Woods, who was last seen playing Modern at GP Minneapolis with a Krark-Clan Ironworks in play. "I have been a big proponent of Eggs for the past year and a half or so, since the banning of Second Sunrise, and I still think the deck is good. Aside from Stony Silence, you have the means to fight through all traditional combo hate relatively easily."

Conley Woods's Rogue Eggs

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"I have played the deck in three different Grand Prix at this point, iterating on it throughout the process, and am happy with where the deck has gotten," said the rogue-deck advocate. "The deck has a very robust and proactive game plan, which makes it appealing, but it also makes it difficult to leverage skill to high degrees in certain matchups. That said, surprise factor, lack of sideboard prep from your opponent, and raw power, provide the deck with enough incentive that I think it is a strong choice for anyone who has a little time to learn the tricks with the deck."

"I think the next few weeks are going to be a little different than the rest of the season. We are essentially just entering Modern season, so many players have no idea what is going on or what to play," said Woods. "Because of this, the metagame is bound to be pretty loose for a week or two, allowing players to play whatever they want. I would suggest that players either play something they know very well, as experience can carry them through a looser field, or play something with high risk and high reward. I will go back to Eggs one time here as, if you can catch people without the proper hate in their sideboard, you might just snag a blue envelope."

Good luck to everyone playing in PTQs this week and throughout the season. If you happen to be in Philadelphia this Saturday, you may well see me there. I will be the first person in the queue for Conspiracy side events that will be going on all day.

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