Ari Lax is one of the pros who ardently loves Modern, and loves tinkering with all its parts. “Modern has so much of what Legacy has to offer. It has all that ‘Weird Magic,' just not always as frequently,” he said.
The deck he's playing this weekend certainly qualifies as ‘Weird Magic.'
“It was like turn one million and no one had any permanents,” reporter Corbin Hosler exasperatingly relayed to me after watching Lax's fourth round. Yup, that's a hallmark of Weird Magic.
Restore Balance uses the same cascade-based tricks that Living End does, but uses them for completely different purposes. The deck has zero spells that cost fewer than three mana (except for Restore Balance, of course), then casts spells like Ardent Plea and Violent Outburst to cascade directly to the Balance and disrupt everything going on.
Greater Gargadon from suspend-land can sacrifice all your own lands with Restore Balance on the stack, leaving no lands in play, and a nine-powered haste creature waiting in the wings for the next turn. It's brutal.
Restore Balance has a storied archetype history in Modern—all the way back to the beginning. But getting to this version of the deck took a while.
“Since Modern was a format, there was a version of the deck that played both Ardent Plea and Violent Outburst [as your Cascade spells].” Lax explained. “But it was too easy to disrupt the mana. It was super-heavy on Borderposts, so Stony Silence was just death.” The deck had some minor success, but was quickly deemed just a worse cascade deck than Living End.
“Then two years ago, there was an all-Suspend version with literally no Borderposts. It was close to really good, but still wasn't there. Then, at Grand Prix Lille [in August], Julian Felix Flury finished in the Top 64 with this new build. Then he won a WMCQ with it.” So what changed? Ari said, “He moved from Ardent Plea to Demonic Dread.”
With this simple change, instead of a four-color mana base, you slimmed down to three. Not to mention, Flury gained access to a bunch of great black cards in the sideboard. Gone were the days of artifact destruction disrupting your manabase, and in were the days of an expanded 75-card arsenal.
Ari called out Lingering Souls specifically as a card that can really shift bad match-ups—giving Affinity and Infect fits. Not to mention a few beneficial tools in the main deck like Anguished Unmaking and Mardu Charm. But Ari made sure to emphasize the sideboard.
“It's really important,” Lax said. “You're good against the decks playing 2016 Magic; but they're playing 1998 Magic.” He laughed. “You're favored against the creature decks, but now, with discard you can just Pick the Brain and Slaughter Games Ad Nauseam out of the game.”
And against the decks that don't seem to care about any of that stuff? Ari flashed me a bevy of cards from his sideboard, which all removed the graveyard into exile. He smiled.
Additionally, the newest tool in the deck is a certain Modern-playable Planeswalker, Nahiri, the Harbinger—alongside the mainstay Ajani Vengeant. Lax said of the card, “Nahiri is just a legitimate way to end the game when you need it.” After Restore Balance moves things to a crawl, just tick the loyalty up until you search on Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and win. Heck, you can do that even without the Balance.
With all these hot new features, it's not that Restore Balance is now the best deck in the format, but it's more than good enough. “It's become another good deck in the scrum of good decks in Modern.”
That statement might not sound like glowing praise, but it's more than enough for Ari, who's pumped he finally gets to play with Restore Balance and win. “It's just soo good!” he said. Lax loves exploring all the avenues of Modern, and though this street's been under construction for years, he's flying down it full speed now.
One aspect to the deck that Ari made sure to highlight is something that all Balance decks share, but is unique in the rest of the Magic world. Sometimes mulliganing is good. Not just “not bad” when you're looking for Bazaar of Baghdad or something—but actively good. Because with fewer cards in your hand, your first Restore Balance becomes all the more devastating.
One game, Ari had to mulligan to four cards, “and I saw land, Borderpost, cascade spell,” he continued, “and I was like, ‘Ok ... I just win.'” When his first Restore Balance hit, he not only made his opponent sacrifice all his creatures, and all but one land, but made him discard his hand as well. All because he only started with four cards. “My hand legitimately improved because of the mulligans,” he said.
The deck is incredibly fun to pilot, but there are some nuances to it that Ari told me about. If you're going to suit this up for your FNM, there's some things you should know:
- “You can crack a fetchland [like Windswept Heath] and respond with Violent Outburst.” This means that after the Restore Balance, you end up +1 land (and your opponent -1).
- “You can cast Simian Spirit Guide to have a Demonic Dread target.”
- “For Greater Gargadon, the cost is sacrificing something. So even if it's low on counters, you can just keep sacrificing, and respond with Violent Outburst at the end.” This means the Restore Balance happens before the Gargadon becomes unsuspended, no matter how few counters are on it.
- “Violent Outburst during their draw step to nab an extra card off Restore Balance.” Ari was quick to qualify however, “But watch out, it can backfire. This format has things like Pacts, and Angel's Grace, and giving an opportunity to untap can blow up in your face.”
- “Mardu Charm is an instant; target them during their draw step.”
- “DO NOT CUT LINGERING SOULS!”
It's been a long time since Restore Balance, the card or the archetype, was common in Modern. But its resurgence, in the hands of both Flury and Lax, points to the perennial nature of powerful cards. And how although it's easy to call Modern a “turn-four” or a “turn-three” format, that doesn't mean the game ends on that turn.
“You just have to do something significant by then,” Lax said. “It's a fundamental theme of Modern that there's a timeframe for your deck to do its stuff. As long as your deck does its stuff by that point, it can be a successful deck.”
Watching Lax in the Feature Match area has been mesmerizing so far. He was against friend and Team East-West Bowl teammate Pascal Maynard playing Bant Eldrazi. Earlier in the day Lax asked Maynard how the Canadian would beat his deck. Maynard said, “I have no idea ... But it won't happen, so it's not relevant.”
It was only two rounds later that the match-up became immediately relevant.
It's power of Modern. No matter how practiced you are in the format, there are always decks playing ‘Weird Magic' to account for. And Restore Balance is a great one to consider sleeving up yourself.