Modern has always been seen as the “wild west' of Magic. From the format's inception and the wild myriad of decks that found success in the early days, to the more controlled-but-still-diverse format of today, there's always something new — or something downright odd — going on in Modern.
There's plenty of both going on in Pittsburgh. There's the usual suspects of “fair” decks in the room — Zoo, Jund, Jeskai, Abzan, Merfolk, Grixis and more — as well as the known combo decks like Splinter Twin, Scapeshift and Storm. There's even the “combo creature” decks of the field — lots of Elves and Affinity are scattered throughout the room.
There's no shortage of Modern decks to whet your appetite for innovative or just outright fun. But what truly sets Modern apart isn't the know decks — it's the ever-present breakout potential of decks on the fringe.
Take Ad Nauseam combo, for example. While the deck does have a few solid finishes, it's a deck that has never really caught on in the mainstream. Its plan seems simple: Assemble mana with Lotus Bloom and Pentad Prism and then cast Ad Nauseam with either Angel's Grace or Phyrexian Unlife, draw the entire deck, exile three Simian Spirit Guide and win with Lightning Storm.
A bit convoluted, perhaps, but overall a straightforward game plan. But the beauty of Modern is that things don't always go according to plan, and odd game states pop up with regularity. Just ask Travis Allen, who won his first round of the day by attacking with Simian Spirit Guides for several turns before casting Lightning Storm without any lands to pitch to it.
“That's the thing about Modern, even the combo decks have to be resilient enough to win through other ways,” he explained. “In Legacy, if something weird happens you usually just kill them or lose. But in Modern you get into these board states where all kinds of strange things happen.”
When it's not attacking with ape spirits, Ad Nauseam also holds one distinction only a few decks can claim: it can win with a “lose the game” trigger on the stack. Because the deck's combo is all instant-speed, it can use Pact of Negation freely on an opponent's turn, and untap and combo off before having to pay for the Pact on its upkeep.
The other deck to make that claim is an old favorite to some but a newcomer to the top tables. Protean Hulk combo has been removed from premier-level tournament Magic for over a decade, but it's making quite the comeback this weekend. While it's still considered “fringe” for now, that may quickly change after Zac Elsik — the Grand Prix Oklahoma City winner and champion of Lantern Control — won a grinder with Protean Hulk.
Look for a full deck tech later in the weekend, but the gist of the deck is such: Get Protean Hulk into the graveyard, then bring it back with Footsteps of the Goryo or Makeshift Mannequin. When the Hulk dies, fetch out a combination of Viscera Seer, Body Double, Reveillark and Mogg Fanatic. The cards can be looped to eventually deal infinite damage with the Fanatic. Unlike many of the other combo decks in Modern, Hulk has been essentially unheard from since the format's inception. It's rise to the edge of Modern over the past few weeks is a testament to the format's depth, and the deck might not be so fringe by the end of the weekend.
Zac Elsik is one of a handful of players battling with Protean Hulk combo this weekend, looking to take the deck deep into the tournament.
Modern is ever-changing, and it's been shown time and again that a deck on the edge can eventually rise to the top. While Elsik's Grand Prix Oklahoma City victory with Lantern Control is the best example, there's plenty more. Amulet Bloom — considered by many of the pros in the room as the deck to beat — began its life on the fringe before slowly morphing into a defining pillar of the format as it is now.
Could another deck rise to the same level? With Battle for Zendikar hitting the Modern scene, it's certainly possible. The emergence of additional Allies — and Ally Encampment — could push that archetype over the edge, while Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is sure to show up in some lists. Will Goryo's Vengeance make a deep run? Will Bring to Light and Cinder Glade reinvigorate Scapeshift? Will Knight of the Reliquary plus Coralhelm Retreat make a deep run?
Those are just some of the open questions in the wild west that Modern continues to be entering Grand Prix Pittsburgh. There's no easy answers, but more than 2,500 players are battling to find out.