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Lessons from The Rack

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Last week, my article on The Rack in Modern seemed to strike a nerve; more than a few of you wrote me with questions or comments, and between your ideas and experiences and my own, I think there is a lot that needs to be brought up about the state of 8-Rack (or 10- or 12-Rack, depending on your build).

The first thing that was reinforced was my underestimation of the shifting of the format.

Stoneforge Mystic

Stoneforge Mystic is a hell of a card, and it is almost single-handedly capable of tearing what Rack decks are doing in half. Yes, of course, you could make the opponent discard it, or you could make them discard the equipment that they fetched, or you could even kill Stoneforge Mystic before it manages to accomplish the task of putting into play an incredible piece of equipment - all of that is true.

But if you don't deal with it, you can immediately lose the game.

This is the case in so many situations.

Sword of Light and Shadow
Sword of Feast and Famine

The classic "Black Swords" are just incredible against Rack decks. Protection from Black is no joke for overwhelmingly Mono-Black decks, even if you are also packing edict-style removal in the form of Liliana of the Veil, Smallpox, and Liliana's Triumph. The fact of the matter is that once the Sword is equipped, the advantage can be incredibly insurmountable. This is especially true of the Sword of Light and Shadow, which seems like the worst of all worlds, protecting a creature, returning a card to hand, and providing a life buffer to make it to later in the game.

Even Sword of Fire and Ice is an issue because despite not rendering the creature immune to Fatal Push, the card draw and extra damage can push a game over that might otherwise have been mostly under control. It is significantly weaker than Sword of Light and Shadow in this matchup, but it still matters.

And, of course, Batterskull is a damned monster. Naturally resilient against edict-based removal, the lifegain it provides can be impressive, and it will often get in the first hit uncontested, and being able to be re-deployed matters too. I had thought that I would be able to suppress these cards more successfully, but that doesn't feel like it is as easy as I had hoped.

Of course, there are solutions.

Long ago, I solved the problem of equipment in a different format by thinking outside the box and turning to Icy Manipulator, a card that laughed at equipment - especially Legendary equipment like Umezawa's Jitte. That card is too expensive in the realm of Modern, but it still makes use of an impressive principle of answering the entire class of problematic cards with a single play.

In Modern, we have another card that can do that as well.

Karn, the Great Creator

No, not Karn, the Great Creator. While it is true that Karn is fully capable of turning off all of the equipment's activated abilities, it won't solve any equipment already equipped, and it could very easily come down immediately and die. No, we're looking for something much more sweeping than Karn, the Great Creator.

Ensnaring Bridge

One of the first things that comes to mind in the world of equipment is doing work to make equipment bad; adding power to a creature is bad if you're trying to deal with Ensnaring Bridge. An excellent aspect to this is that if you're desperate to empty your hand, you can turn your own discard towards yourself and make the potential plan of a Sword of This and That simply fail to connect more than once. Ensnaring Bridge even makes playing planeswalkers more appealing.

I started working on a new build, but then I got sent this list from a reader named Jay that went 5-0 in a Competitive Modern League a few months ago:


Huh.

For reference, here is my list from last week:


One of the things I'm struck by is the incredible similarity in a huge variety of our spell choices. This is not too surprising on some counts - the 8-Rack archetype family has been pretty well trod ground for quite some time. My own small 'pets' in the deck - Blackmail and Nether Spirit - are only tiny departures from an otherwise well-explored archetype, and cutting Wrench Mind in a world where both Urza, Lord High Artificer and Stoneforge Mystic were commonplace seemed reasonable, as did my updating the deck with Silent Clearing and Nurturing Peatland.

After a bit of digging, I saw that fully five decks that were almost exactly the same 75-cards as the 5-0 list above, just after the release of War of the Spark. Clearly, the core of that list has something fundamentally successful to it. These lists basically disappeared with the appearance of Modern Horizons, which I have to assume was mostly the fault of the ascendance of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis.

Wrenn and Six

Of course, it is also still important to mention Wrenn and Six as an issue. This was, in part, something that got handled by Nether Spirit or by shrugging it off and leaving it for the sideboard. I have largely come to the conclusion that this can't effectively be answered in the maindeck by anything other than Sorcerous Spyglass or Pithing Needle. Neither of these are necessarily terrible choices in a deck so full of discard, so I'm certainly keeping them in mind, though I still prefer the single-mindedness of keeping it in the sideboard.

Here is my current list:


As a three Ensnaring Bridge deck, this deck plays it safe by keeping the land count high and cutting other expensive spells. This version of the list still shaves into the land from the previous version but still makes use of the "Canopy"-lands of Silent Clearing and Nurturing Peatland. Collective Brutality return to the deck to help to keep the hand low, as well as to increase the ways to kill a turn two Stoneforge Mystic.

Bitterblossom makes its appearance in the sideboard as a means to grind out many slower matchups. It is especially valuable in a world where you might still want your Ensnaring Bridge, as your Faeries can attack after you draw your card for the turn, and then the opportunity to attack can get shut down by playing the drawn card post combat. Bitterblossom is also a more effective card on the grind when fighting against Wrenn and Six, as opposed to using Dark Confidant, which will simply die, or Waste Not, which won't get under the Bridge.

Also out of respect to both Wrenn and Six and the creature-heavy world tha otherwise exists in Modern, Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage has departed in favor of the more reliable fourth Shrieking Affliction. Pithing Needle joins the sideboard to help fight this cruel Modern Horizons planeswalker, but the card can be of great use elsewhere as well.

Nether Spirit

I'm sad to have abandoned Nether Spirit for now, as I think the card is incredibly powerful. I just find it to at odds with Ensnaring Bridge, which I'm currently of the opinion is a necessity. There might very well be a build of the deck that goes this other direction, but I do think it is going to need to think very serious about how to manage the issues presented by Stoneforge Mystic if it does. Perhaps a move toward Kolaghan's Command could be a part of that solution, or some other creative shift might be necessary.

I think there is some exciting progress being made on the deck. Keep sending me those messages, and let's see about Racking Modern!

- Adrian Sullivan

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