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Modern Mayhem


Golgari Grave-Troll
I’ve been home for a week now from my trip to places near and far for Magic, and I’m just starting to develop a routine. I have a nice, consistent sleep schedule, I’m practicing for the Pro Tour with the guys from East-West Bowl, and I even got to battle in our local prerelease to get some initial experience with the new set. Things are smoothing out, so to speak.

You know where things are doing the exact opposite of “smoothing out”? Modern. Modern has been alternately called “broken”, “flawed”, “unplayable at a competitive level”, and every other mean snark in the book by a wide assortment of Pro Players. And I get it. There are a ton of powerful, proactive, and often one-dimensional strategies that do well in the format. Many players love playing that sort of Magic, and many do not. For better or for worse, the doubters generally have larger platforms from which to voice their complaints, and the people who swing the banhammer are always listening. With the printing of Cathartic Reunion, specifically, Dredge moved into the top tier of the format, with all the attendant issues that come with Dredge being a “deck to beat”. Dredge is always an annoying linear deck to play against, of course, because it requires specific hate on a unique axis that doesn’t often overlap with the answers needed for other linear decks. Whereas a card like Blessed Alliance covers Burn, Bogles, Infect, and Death's Shadow to differing degrees, the same cannot be said for Relic of Progenitus, Rest in Peace, or Ravenous Trap. When a player can only play with an effective nine-card sideboard because they need to devote six slots to Dredge, it generally detracts from the format as a whole.

Seeing the evidence pile up in front of their eyes, Wizards of the Coast determined that they were pushing ever closer to the “redline” of the format, and decided to tap on the brakes for a second. Whether they steered the format in the right direction with their particular bans is a matter up for debate, but it seems likely that Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll have lost their Modern licenses for good.

The Modern format, pre-banning

Now, Golgari Grave-Troll is the most powerful Dredger of the bunch, but the loss of the Troll does not necessarily herald the end of the Dredge deck. Graveyard enthusiasts near and far have discussed alternative plans to adjust to the banning, including the package of Golgari Thug, Greater Gargadon, and Bridge from Below. Those cards actually increase the power ceiling of the deck, oddly enough, and may mean that Dredge remains a menace to the format until and unless Wizards bans Cathartic Reunion or Narcomoeba as well. This is a worrisome revelation, and brings back memories of post-Skullclamp Affinity still dominating tournaments. Don’t blame me if you lose to a swarm of Zombies, a 9/7 with haste, and a recurring Narcomoeba-Golgari Thug loop in your next Modern tournament. Bridge from Below is a powerful card, with a low floor but an extremely high ceiling on what it can do. If the Dredge player draws a few of them in their opening draw steps, their deck will quite literally do nothing, but if they spike a couple off a Stinkweed Imp dredge, the opponent is in for a world of hurt. Increasing the potential variance of the most unfun linear archetype in Modern? This line of reasoning leads me to a pessimistic prediction for the coming Modern format. Fortunately, there are other factors at play here, which will certainly help balance Modern and make it better than before! Why am I actually more sanguine about the future of the format? Read on.

Golgari Thug
Greater Gargadon
Bridge from Below

So Grave-Troll’s banning weakens, but doesn’t kill the Dredge deck. Similarly, Gitaxian Probe’s banning weakens, but doesn’t kill, Infect. In fact, it’s significantly more punishing to the Death's Shadow deck, which relied on Probe to 1) lose two life and 2) see if the coast was clear to go all-in on Become Immense/Temur Battle Rage. It puts a significant dent in the Thing in the Ice-Pyromancer Ascension deck that Ryoichi Tamada put on the Modern map, and it hurts all Pyromancer-based decks to some degree. Whether you’re a Young Pyromancer, or you’re trying to Ascend as a Pyromancer, part of the gameplan was casting a free cantrip to get a trigger out of one of your Pyromancer cards! Now, you can’t do that anymore, and it is a damn shame to see a banning that was ostensibly made to increase competitive diversity actually do the opposite. Tom Ross wrote an excellent article describing the next steps for Infect in a post-Probe world, and I’m still a little unhappy about the prospect of going up against Probeless Infect in the future. So much for throttling Modern! You can lose to the same Dredge and Infect decks you lost to before, while people who had invested deeply in Pyromancer Ascension or Thing in the Ice decks basically see their investment rendered unplayable. As President Trump would Tweet, “Sad!”

Inkmoth Nexus
I truly believe that if Wizards wanted to open up the format a little more, the card to hit was Inkmoth Nexus. That would have dented Infect significantly more than the Probe banning did, while hitting Affinity (always annoyingly close to too-good status) with some splash damage. We would have spared the interesting Pyromancer combo decks, the Young Pyromancer and Prowess-based synergies, and kept Death's Shadow as the primary aggro-combo deck of the format. Why is Death's Shadow actually a healthier creature-based combo deck for Modern than Infect? Well, aside from the fact that Death's Shadow runs fewer protection and pump spells, and that all of its creatures are vulnerable to sorcery speed removal, and that it inadvertently kills itself in the process of trying to win, and that it’s one of the most skill-testing decks to play with or against in the whole format, there’s also the little matter of an innocuous new removal spell that might just be the perfect card to print as an answer to the whole deck.

As Brad Nelson (a notable Death's Shadow pilot, if ever there was one) has said, Path to Exile was the single best card against the deck in Modern. A 1 mana universal removal spell allowed other decks to move forward with their gameplan while comfortably holding up the threat of breaking up the Become Immense-Temur Battle Rage combo. Even post-sideboard, where Death's Shadow would board in a Forest against Path to Exile decks to make use of the drawback, Path was still the card that correlated to the most wins against Death's Shadow.

Death's Shadow
Now, it seems like Death's Shadow is about to be fatally pushed right out of the format with the combination of the Probe ban and the printing of the best Black removal spell of all time. (Dismember will have to settle for being the best Black removal spell of all time that non-Black decks can also use. Phyrexian Mana is kind of silly!)

Of course, Fatal Push is excellent against Infect as well as Death's Shadow, but the problem is that Infect still has Blossoming Defense and Vines of Vastwood as equally-costed protection/pump spells that put a cap on how good any removal spell, no matter how cheap or flexible, can be against the deck. Death's Shadow doesn’t have the luxury of a heaping helping of protection spells, which magnifies the impact of a hard removal spell for only 1 mana. By failing to account for this, Wizards of the Coast banned a card that slightly weakens the aggro-combo deck that is moderately impacted by their new removal spell, while crushing the aggro-combo deck that is heavily impacted by their new removal spell. Additionally, Affinity can play through Fatal Push with Etched Champion and judicious use of an Arcbound Ravager, which only adds to my case that Wizards banned the wrong card from the aggro-combo side of Modern.

Even though Gitaxian Probe is ostensibly dumb as a zero-mana cantrip, it would have promoted the decks that were better for Modern’s competitive diversity and interesting gameplay, while not crushing anybody who invested in one of the many second-tier decks that employed Probe to good effect. If Wizards had banned Inkmoth Nexus instead of Gitaxian Probe, it would have pushed Infect harder, damaged (but not killed) another top-tier linear deck, and accounted for the printing of Fatal Push in a more elegant way. This is a case of “ban to curate the format, not to just to get rid of ostensibly stupid cards”, and Wizards could have done a better job. Again, though, let’s take a minute to analyze what the format stands to look like before we commit to whining and complaining. It may not be perfect, but I think it is going to be a more enjoyable Modern format than it’s been for some time.

Fatal Push
Fatal Push does exactly what it says in the name: it pushes some decks off the cliff, and pushes others into the limelight. What gains, and what loses? Two archetypes immediately stick out to me as big gainers. One is, of course, Bant Eldrazi. Infect was never a wonderful matchup, and now we can hope that it will diminish in metagame share. Dredge was a nightmare pre-board, so any chance of that deck losing its place is welcome news. Bant gains sideboard slots back, and we can better adjust to the grindy games that I love so dearly. Additionally, Reality Smasher and Drowner of Hope, two of the better cards in the deck, are completely immune to Fatal Push, which means that I foresee future games with opponents having dead removal spells in hand while I Smash their Realities. All of this is absolutely great news for a Bant player.

Additionally, Grixis Delve seems like an archetype that stands to gain a ton from Fatal Push. Not only do you get to play with Push, but your Gurmag Anglers and Tasigur, the Golden Fangs are completely Push-proof! Every time Wizards prints another powerful one-mana instant, Snapcaster Mage immediately gets that much better, and Fatal Push is a pretty powerful one-mana instant. If the format slows down and becomes more grindy in general, then Snapcaster-Kolaghan's Command loops become a realistic possibility again, which always excites my inner value hunter. I mean, hell, I snuck a Kolaghan's Command into my Legacy sideboard, so you know I’m ready to play that card in Modern. Anywhere on the spectrum from Grixis Delver to Grixis control, we stand to see a huge resurgence in grindy value-battles now that Fatal Push got the nod.

Incidentally, it’s not only Grixis! Esper Control and Sultai Control now have excellent removal options for a single mana that completely revitalize those archetypes as well. I’m sure that somewhere in France, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa is rubbing his hands together and cackling as he brews up a Mystical Teachings deck replete with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and Sphinx's Revelation for maximum value. Even Shaheen Soorani, notable Modern hater, has to be willing to give the format a shot again now that he can play his beloved control monstrosities.

Unfortunately for Tarmogoyf lovers everywhere, Fatal Push puts a huge crimp in its style, and Jund stands to lose big as Snapcaster-Push decks gain traction. I’m skeptical of Merfolk, Elves, and Hate Bears archetypes as well, as the higher density of good removal certainly can’t make them better. If you want to bash your opponent quickly, I’d look to Burn or Affinity, with Etched Champion and Ghirapur Aether Grid as the 3-drops of choice.

In a slower format, though, Tron looks better and better. You could certainly do worse than Karning people on turn three, especially when their maindecks are flush with Fatal Pushes and Snapcaster Mages. Combine it with the fact that folks love casting huge threats, and you can be sure that Tron stands to increase its metagame share in the coming months.

There is one deck that I haven’t mentioned yet that looks absolutely amazing in a format where Infect shrivels up to a mere 3-5% of the metagame. I’m sure many of you have figured it out by now, but Ad Nauseam combo has a lot of completely lopsided matchups, and when Wizards kneecaps the most prevalent bad matchup for the deck, I foresee a lot of Angel's Graces in our future. Be prepared to fight on the stack, rather than the battlefield, once again!

So what does my Modern format look like in a couple of months? Well, we stand to have a mix of Tron, Ad Nauseam, Grixis good-stuff, Bant Eldrazi, Burn, Affinity, weaker Infect, weaker Dredge, R/G Valakut, Chord/Company decks, and the whole kit and caboodle of rogue strategies. Hell, maybe there will be an opening for my beloved Griselbrands to enter the battlefield on turn two and cause a ruckus!

I’ll leave you all with a decklist for Bant Eldrazi, since that’s become my M.O. of late. The format is changing, and with those changes we will see a shift to some previously discarded cards. I look forward to playing with my Matter Reshapers again, to be sure!

Here is where I’ll start my testing:

Now, I know I haven’t done the cowboy schtick for a while, but things have come full circle. It’s a Wild West of a Modern format all over again, and you can bet that Sheriff Friedman is hitching up his britches and leading his posse of Eldrazi out to lay down the law on some ne’er-do-wells. See you out there, partner!

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