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Grixis Seas in Modern and Winning the RPTQ with Mardu Vehicles


Hey everyone!

I have been playing plenty of Magic lately as I was preparing for both the SCG Open in Indianapolis and the RPTQ in Pittsburgh. SCG Opens are getting more difficult as I didn’t even make the cut for day 1 because I failed to pre register on time. Today I will talk about the updates I would make to Death's Shadow. There are some other cool decks like Grixis Land Denial and Bushwacker Zoo I will discuss for Modern. I will have some time at the end to go over the deck I used to win the RPTQ in Pittsburgh and sideboarding advice.

I’ll start with Modern because I’m sure we’re all excited for Modern Masters 2017. They basically created Chronicles 2.0 by reprinting nearly every Modern staple players requested. Many of you may not recall Chronicles because it was released in 1995 so I’m dating myself with this reference. Wizards does not create reprint sets like this willy nilly. What an exciting time to be alive!

Let’s get to it!


I was bummed to miss the Modern Open because Andrew Elenbogen and I practiced a lot with Death's Shadow leading up to the event. We had a great record on Magic Online and we were ready to crush.

We were going to register the same 75 and he ended up not only making day 1, but got 31st place out of 900.

This deck is mostly stock, but there is room to tinker. I will spare you the overview on the deck because the literature is out there. Allow me to dive into the nuances:

Most authors were down on Tarfire, but I had a difficult time getting delirium early without it. The Instant and tribal types didn’t go to the graveyard early, but it was easy to get land and sorcery. Tarfire adds fluidity to many hands, but looks bad on paper. You can deal yourself two damage to pump Death's Shadow, too.

Gerry Thompson wrote about playing a single Architects of Will and I am a big fan. Like Tarfire, Architects of Will combines nicely with land and sorcery to enable early delirium. Cycling to draw a card can be better than dealing two damage and it can be tutored for with Traverse the Ulvenwald to pump Tarmogoyf. Gerry didn’t play it at the Open because he couldn’t find one.

Termur Battle Rage was impressive because it speeds up the deck and allows you to win from difficult situations. Many players asked me how to beat Death's Shadow over the weekend and the most important thing to remember is this is Jund with a fast clock. Some games involve you drawing too many cards in Jund Midrange decks and those draws are weak to land-based strategies. Temur Battle Rage helps by making the deck more dynamic. I want a goldfish draw against the crazy decks I’m unprepared for in Modern. It’s easy to set up because I attack their hand so frequently.

Ghor-Clan Rampager
Ghor-Clan Rampager can be found with a delirious Traverse the Ulvenwald, but it felt like overkill with two Temur Battle Rage already. I rarely searched wanted to find it and needed gg to search for it and win on the same turn which I didn’t always have. Going forward I would not play Ghor-Clan.

Liliana of the Veil was my Lili of choice because sacrificing creatures is very good in the mirror. It’s a toss-up which one is better and likely comes down to preference. I like Liliana of the Veil in Game 1s and Liliana, the Last Hope after board. Many focused decks become diluted in Game 2 and 3 so things slow down which allows her -2 to have a larger impact. Liliana of the Veil’s +1 is strong against combo decks, too.

Many authors advised cutting the White sideboard cards, but I still really like Lingering Souls. Andrew and I decided to not play Ranger of Eos because we could grind card advantage with plenty of other spells like Liliana and Kolaghan's Command. I would add Ranger of Eos to the sideboard going forward because it can be helpful to find two Death's Shadow in the mirror. Post board can be about card advantage because both players have so much removal for early creatures. A non-lethal attack can also help out your opponent by pumping their Death's Shadows which adds an additional layer of complexity. Mirror matches are very dynamic so I want something in my traverse arsenal for games that go long.

Abrupt Decay is a catch-all for the deranged hate that surfaces whenever one deck gets too popular. I can’t bank on knowing if all of my opponents will have cards like Chalice of the Void and Rest in Peace in their sideboard. Decay is also helpful in the mirror because it kills Liliana as well as the primary creatures. I want to play one in the maindeck because it serves as a fourth Fatal Push without playing too many potentially dead Game 1 cards.

I tried a Ghost Quarter to pile on the hate against Tron, but it wasn’t good against anything else. It made sense to have this land to destroy Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but they had too many other threats after sideboard so they could win with medium creatures through Surgical Extraction.

Here’s the list I would play going forward:

This deck certainly has a target on its head, but I think Death's Shadow the strongest deck in the format.

If Death's Shadow isn’t for you I also made a Grixis land denial strategy as a backup for SCG Indianapolis:

Spreading Seas
The idea here is to kill Tarmogoyf and Death's Shadow with Terminate, Fatal Push, and Liliana of the Veil while mana screwing them with Spreading Seas. I watched a match of Merfolk against Death's Shadow and their mana was very hobbled by turning Blood Crypt into an Island. They typically fetch it first which means I will often get the best target.

The reason I’m considering this version is because Grixis Control will have trouble against land strategies so I added land denial to a grindy deck. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is an excellent at creating card advantage by flashing back a removal spell, but can also cast Ancestral Visions and both halves of Boom // Bust. Since I have Liliana of the Veil to discard these awkward spells in the mid-game and Thought Scour to mill them I can set up these interactions consistently. Grixis can’t always close a game out easily, but now I can cast a 4/4 menace with a Tasigur, the Golden Fang in play and blow up all lands in play.

Grixis is an ideal 3 color combination because White locks me into playing Path to Exile which fixes their mana. I tried Esper versions of the deck, but I needed Red to push the land denial theme and all I had was Spreading Seas.

I can’t flash back both halves of Rise // Fall with Snapcaster Mage or Goblin Dark-Dwellers, but it’s another powerful spell that is good against combo and midrange decks.

I play nine fetchlands because I can target them with Boom and then sacrifice it for a land in response. Since Boom targets two lands it won’t fizzle when one leaves play before the spell resolves.

The sideboard goes deeper into the land denial strategy. Fulminator Mage and Boom/Bust destroy lands which makes the Surgical Extraction plan against Tron great.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet gives you some reach against Burn where gaining life can be difficult without it. My anti-creature package gets stronger with Anger of the Gods. It’s game over when it’s flashed back with Goblin Dark-Dwellers. I’m trying out Threads of Disloyalty because it would be great to steal a Tarmogoyf or Death's Shadow. Remember if you’re above 12 life the Death's Shadow will die.

This deck is fun and powerful; I hope to play it soon in a Modern event.

My last Modern deck I would advise playing is good ol’ Bushwhacker Zoo!

Michael Stewart got ninth place at the SCG Open in Indianapolis with this version and I agree 100% with the maindeck right down to 2 Kird Ape. If playing just a pair of apes is too wild for you then I would go with two Vexing Devil in its place.

If seventeen lands are too few then I would make the eighteenth a Dryad Arbor. Once you have three lands in play you can feel flooded so having a creature to fetch is valuable. I prefer the Simian Spirit Guides to do crazy things like cast multiple haste creatures on turn one.

I have found that everyone who plays this deck immediately cuts Manamorphose and it makes sense. The card can sometimes help you filter mana off of the 8 mana-generating creatures, but will typically function as an awkward Street Wraith.

Michael and I discussed some sideboard options and I would advise this:

Strangleroot Geist
Strangleroot Geist is here to provide an annoying and aggressive threat against decks with plenty of removal. It was good in my older versions of Bushwacker Zoo, but got better since I can cast it off of Hidden Herbalists.

Tarmogoyf comes in with Forked Bolt and/or Path to Exile when you want to play a less aggressive game. Forked Bolt is a sorcery which makes the Goyf bigger than in Game 1. Path to Exile kills large Eldrazi as well as both threats out of Death's Shadow.

I would prefer Natural State to Tin Street Hooligan, but I need an answer to Chalice of the Void where x=1. If Ad Nauseam is popular in your area I would make that switch because it can be a hard matchup thanks to Phyrexian Unlife.

Michael was 3-0 versus Death's Shadow on his way to a 9th place finish at 12-3. This is normally good enough for top 8, but there were 900 players so not all of them made it. I have a soft spot in my heart of Bushwacker Zoo and is another deck on my radar.


Now that Modern is out of the way let’s talk about Mardu Vehicles. Here’s what I played at the RPTQ in Pittsburgh to a top 4 finish:

Although I didn’t register on time for the Modern SCG Open I was able to play in the SCG Standard Classic with the above maindeck and it was great. I made an error in round seven in a win-and-in for top 8 that cost me the match. Max McVety and I worked on Mardu Vehicles for a couple weeks and I feel great about this maindeck. The only changes we made were to the sideboard.

There were seven players from Ann Arbor who made the trek to Pittsburgh and five of us played this exact list. Sean Dunn and Brian Demars went 5-2 so I was not the only one to have a decent record.

There were 79 players which mean 7 rounds:

  • Round 1: Four-Color Saheeli: 2-1
  • Round 2: B/G Constrictor: 2-0
  • Round 3: Four-Color Saheeli (Bernie Wen): 2-0
  • Round 4: Mardu Vehicles: (Dan Musser): 1-1-1
  • Round 5: Four-Color Saheeli: (Ralph Batesh) 2-0
  • Round 6: Four-Color Saheeli 2-0
  • Round 7: Intentional Draw
  • Top 8: Four-Color Saheeli: 2-1

As you can see I figured out how to beat Four-Color Saheeli with Mardu Vehicles which is a very important matchup. I think B/G isn’t favored against Mardu which makes Standard essentially a two deck format.

Here are my plans for the three big decks you will face:

Mardu Ballista

This is basically the new Mardu Vehicles mirror. I prefer Veteran Motorist in the maindeck because it ensures I don’t flood out. It helps me be more aggressive against unknown opponents and I can bring in Walking Ballista when I need them: the mirror and Saheeli.

On the draw:

On the play:

Release the Gremlins
The first game is about being aggressive, but Release the Gremlins changes everything. It’s embarrassing to try and win with Toolcraft Exemplar when you lose your artifact and the 3/2 next turn is blocked by the gremlin token. Be sure to not have too many artifacts lying around in the mid-game because Release the Gremlins where x=2 is backbreaking. If you remove one of your artifacts in response the opponent will still get 2 gremlins because the spell wasn’t fizzled. For this reason I crack my clues aggressively. It’s also possible to target your own artifact and theirs to ensure the spell isn’t fizzled.

Archangel Avacyn comes in when you want Walking Ballista because you can flip her easily. The 6/5 body can end a game quickly and pressures opposing Gideons. The mirror matches post-board get very grindy so I want ways to go over the top that have applications in other matchups.

I take out a couple Veteran Motorists because I am adding four 2-drops in Walking Ballista. It’s awkward to draw too many because they matchup poorly against a Walking Ballista where x=2. The scry 2 trigger still has value when you become a midrange deck so I don’t cut the completely.

Pia Nalaar plays a new role after sideboard where she sacrifices artifacts in response to Release the Gremlins. I can sacrifice the thopter token to flip Archangel Avacyn at any time, too.

Unlicensed Disintegration doesn’t have many good targets because the creatures are small and scrappy. I don’t have many artifacts in play because they get destroyed by gremlins so the 3 damage doesn’t happen as often. Think of sideboarding +3 Release the Gremlins and -3 Unlicensed Disintegration for curve considerations. It’s better on the draw because a stalled out game can come down to Archangel Avacyn and I need answers to her. When I go first I plan to finish the game before she is a problem.

Thalia, Heretic Cathar is good in Game 1 because it stops creatures from entering the battlefield and crewing. She is good after sideboard because a 3/2 first strike eats gremlins, Knight Allies, and doesn’t get hit by Release the Gremlins.

This matchup is tricky so be sure to practice.

Four Color Saheeli

Whirler Virtuoso
The Saheeli combo is scary, but the biggest threat is Whirler Virtuoso. Archangel Avacyn and Walking Ballista combo nicely here to destroy the Virtuoso and also clear the board of pesky thopter tokens. Make sure to apply enough pressure to bait out a Harnessed Lightning before you play the Avacyn.

After board you have 4 Walking Ballista and 2 Thalia to prevent death by one-thousand cats. I found the best strategy to stay focused at preventing the combo while Gideon attacks the opponent to death. Don’t make non-lethal attacks that sacrifice resources only to die to the cats on the swingback. This applies to Walking Ballista, but also Unlicensed Disintegration killing a useless creature to have three damage kill a Tamiyo, Field Researcher.

I also bring in 2 Shocks because it’s a flexible card that easily replaces Fatal Push. It hits Rogue Refiner and Servant of the Conduit as well. If you have a spell that stops the combo while having an end game of Avacyn you’re in a good place.

Pia Nalaar gets the axe because I’m boarding in Ballistas which can also be mana-intensive. The “cannot block” clause is less relevant against their key blocker — Whirler Virtuoso.

They will board in:

+2 Natural State and some combination of Kozilek's Return, Baral's Expertise, and Release the Gremlins.

Remember Baral's Expertise bounces artifacts and creatures so it hits uncrewed vehicles and clues.

Black Green Constrictor

Game 1 is a race. It’s easy to disrupt their mana by not attacking Heart of Kiran into Fatal Push/Grasp of Darkness. Kill the snake at all costs.

I would shuffle in my entire sideboard when playing this matchup because laying out a certain amount of cards can give away free information. Since Mardu Ballista is the most popular B/G opponents will expect the transformational Planeswalker package and not play around Fumigate. You need to strike the balance between playing around your own Fumigate and applying enough pressure because their creatures are bigger than yours.

Overall, I think this is a favorable matchup. Max played against the deck 5 times in the swiss of the SCG Classic and won every one. So much for the traditional rock-paper-scissors!

We went over a lot of decks today so I hope you learned something and got inspired to try something new.

Thanks for reading!


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