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Hours of Modern


While we were busy focusing on Standard and Limited for the Pro Tour, Modern quietly waited on the sidelines, humming along quite nicely without any interference from pros or pundits. Over the last few weeks, though, the format has demonstrated its resilience and range in a number of events, including two SCG Opens and two Grand Prix events, and a few new champions have risen to prominence in a format that seemed to be knocking on Death (Shadow)’s door only a few weeks ago. Let’s walk through them, and the next steps to success in Modern.

First up is the boogeyman, the deck that was supposed to kill Modern, but now sits as the first among equals at the top of the metagame dogpile.

1. Ol’ Reliable

Kerry Foerst’s list is as good a place to start as any, and Grixis Death's Shadow is to Modern as Grixis Delver is to Legacy. It’s the “best deck”, and one that many skilled players gravitate toward, but it’s by no means the only way to maximize your win percentage in a Modern tournament. The deck still has some room for improvement, and Grixis isn’t even necessarily the best color combination! Sultai, Esper, and Four-Color are perfectly legitimate choices, and part of the reason Grixis is doing so well is that the best players see it as the easy choice. It can’t be wrong by that much, since it wins so much, and the cycle continues. Sure, innovations like the Young Pyromancers in Kerry’s sideboard are great ways to beat formerly-annoying hate cards like Mirran Crusader, but the high density of cantrips and low virtual deck size means that even single card choices have an outsize impact. Nothing is sacred with this deck, and if you want to win, you’d do well to try basically everything.

Of course, Ol’ Reliable is boring. Everyone knows that Grixis Death's Shadow is great, and a stellar choice for Legacy enthusiasts who find themselves shanghaied into playing a Modern tournament or two. What about those of us who yearn for Standard formats of old? Those of us who Think Twice when we see an opponent playing Storm, who still call it America Control? I’m proud to say that Modern Jeskai is alive and well, with three Top 8 finishes in last week’s three large Modern tournaments.

2. America, the Beautiful

Supreme Verdict
Benjamin Nikolich is quietly making a name for himself in competitive Magic. The kid’s played in a handful of Pro Tours, made Top 8 of a smattering of Opens, and always seems to make a deep run with his preferred Modern archetype, Jeskai Control. I personally would love to see more of the faux-Twin combo in these Jeskai Control archetypes, but Jonathan Rosum and Ben Nikolich both went with their own takes on control shells. The relative immaturity of this archetype demonstrates its potential, much like the parable of the two runners.

As the story goes, there were once two track runners competing for the tutelage of a world-renowned coach, and the coach scouted them running a few races against each other. Both runners were fast, both had stamina, but despite them both putting up commendable numbers in all of their races, there was one significant difference. One runner had beautiful form, honed over years of watching and imitating the best runners in the world. Not a muscle twitch was wasted, and the peak efficiency was a pleasure to watch. The other runner, though, had an ungainly stride that he made up for with sheer determination and energy. He seemed miserable running the race, and observers recognized that he had a ways to go if he was going to be a truly world-class racer. When it came time to choose which one he’d take under his wing, the choice seemed obvious for the old coach. Surely, he’d take the one with crisp form, the one who looked like a world-class runner already, and just needed to iterate and practice more and more to get to the next level.

Not so fast.

The coach immediately requested time to teach the boy with the poor form. Why? He knew that anyone who could run as fast as that boy did with such poor form would almost immediately jump to championship level with a few tweaks to his style. The first boy was closer to his “cap” than the second boy, and the coach knew that the second boy had an even higher peak potential with the right form and the right training.

“It’s not about how good you are, it’s about how much better I can make you.”

Spell Queller
What’s the point of this seemingly unrelated tangential story? In Modern, there are a lot of untuned decks. There is such depth and breadth to the format that only a small percentage of the decks have been truly optimized (or close to optimized), chief among them longtime format staples like Affinity and Burn and linear combo decks like Ad Nauseam or Grishoalbrand. Grixis Death's Shadow and Jeskai Control, due to the nature of their hefty card selection aspects, can improve massively with small changes. Jeskai, specifically, is not tuned nearly enough relative to its results, and as such it stands at the unique intersection of power, positioning, and potential right now. This is a deck to tweak, to tune, to test, to perfect. Hell, Rosum and Jean Sato (GP Sao Paulo Top 8 finisher) had nearly completely different takes on the Jeskai color combination, relying on Spell Queller and Geist of Saint Traft to do much of the heavy lifting, while Nikolich had Think Twices and X spells out the wazoo. If that isn’t the sign of a deck ready for tuning, I don’t know what is. Grixis Death's Shadow is ripe for that kind of improvement and experimentation, to a lesser extent, but the deck is so crisp looking already that it’s hard to find ways to profitably and incrementally improve the list. The task is out there, and the question is finding a person (or people) equal to the task.

Now, of course, there are those of us who want easier wins, who would rather pick up a finished (or nearly finished) product with a straightforward gameplan, and rock out at the next Modern tournament knowing that luck and matchups will decide the day more than intricate in-game sequencing. There are two bold choices at the top of the list for those players, the best two choices for the Lazy Modern Mage™.

3. It Ain’t Pretty, But It Works

Dan Musser has been making it easy on himself at the last two SCG Opens he’s played in, winning a ton of matches without a single color in his deck. Eldrazi Tron is solid (but not spectacular) against Grixis Shadow, squarely favored against Jeskai builds of various stripes, and has the tools to compete against just about anything. It’s not winning any prizes for most effective sideboard cards or stellar card selection any time soon, but it doesn’t need to. It just needs to win matches, and that it does. Dan’s latest list eschews All is Dust, which surprises me, but includes Wurmcoil Engine, which doesn’t. There are certainly a few open-ended choices to make when building this monstrosity, but in the end, your draws are either going to cooperate or they aren’t, and you’ll live and die by your own highly polarized draws. As Dirty Harry (not to be confused with my good friend and old semi-pro, Harry Corvese) would say, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”

Of course, the continued success of Eldrazi Tron bodes well for another archetype, one that has seen increasing market share over the last month and a half, and now seems to be breaking out with Top 8 finishes galore. It’s been maligned, but it seems like some folks have forgotten about the high power level on this baby. Whether you’re a fan of inspiring high school football teams overcoming adversity, embracing diversity, and coming together to win State, or a fan of inspiring Mountains and volcanoes overcoming the intervening if clause, embracing the five other Mountains in play, and coming together to deal opponents 18 or more damage in a single turn, you’ll be ready for the next big deck.

4. Remember the Titanshift

It’s here, and R&D even provided the deck with a moderately exciting new tool in the form of Hour of Promise. Of course, Hour is to Primeval Titan as Unsubstantiate is to Venser, Shaper Savant. However, the Titan’s trigger is a wee bit more powerful than the timebending wizard’s (which is non-intuitive) and gives the deck a heftier component of must-answer game-winning topdecks. With the shift (pardon the pun) from Through the Breach and Simian Spirit Guide to Scapeshift, Prismatic Omen, and Hour of Promise, Valakut-based decks increase their average power and resilience immensely at the expense of a rare but unstoppable nut draw. Vitor (not to be confused with Paulo Vitor) Grassato took second in Sao Paulo (again, not to be confused with Paulo Vitor) with a well-built version of the deck. Heavy redundancy, a few angles, and a full thirteen powerful topdecks in Primeval Titan, Hour of Promise, Scapeshift, and Summoner's Pact (for Titan) come together for a simple and effective Modern weapon. It doesn’t take a hundred-million-dollar stealth fighter with an ace pilot to win a Modern tournament; sometimes a well-made pointy rock can do the job with a lot less stress.

Some of the sideboard selections are a bit perplexing in Vitor’s list; things like his choice of two copies of Chalice of the Void, one Fracturing Gust and one Ancient Grudge, and a single Crumble to Dust (for mirrors? For Tron?) are interesting, to say the least. If a tool for those matchups is needed, it’s possible that a few copies of Mwonvuli Acid-Moss are even better for the job, but that would need serious testing to back it up. After all, Crumble to Dust only works if the opponent opens themselves up to being Crumbled out of the game, and a savvy Valakut player can protect their Valakuts in their deck until it comes time for a Scapeshift to take things on home. Regardless, the maindeck is super solid and the metagame is ripe for an improved Valakut deck to bring home the bacon.

Now, Modern is a diverse and open format. Knightfall, Storm, Elves, GBx Midrange, Burn, Affinity, Dredge, Living End, Lantern Control, and countless other decks are all more than capable of winning on any given Sunday, and we should be thankful for that fact. Despite Standard’s renewal in the wake of numerous bannings and the release of Hour of Devastation, Modern remains as popular as ever, and a big part of that is the fact that a player can invest in a major archetype and see years of returns on that investment. There’s always more to the format, and this is the time to put in the practice to learn how all the pieces fit together, so when the next metagame twist comes along, it won’t be hard to stay ahead of the curve. Keep at it!

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