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Modern Decks and Standard Improvements


Hey everyone!

Now that Modern Masters has been released, all eyes look toward Amonkhet. This is great because Standard is stale anyway. My two focal points this week will be Modern and ways to improve Standard. The phrase “a lame duck” is a good way to describe Standard, so this is the perfect opportunity to expand your Modern horizons.


Ad Nauseum

I still like Jeskai Flash, but I don’t enjoy playing against waves of Grixis decks. For now I’m going to try and learn new strategies.

Max McVety and I have been working on Ad Nauseam in preparation for Grand Prix San Antonio. I’m not attending the event, but took the opportunity to learn a deck that’s completely out of my range. I think Ad Nauseam is the strongest combo deck in the format because it’s resilient and goldfishes turn four wins consistently.

Ad Nauseam
I didn’t like of Spoils of the Vault, but it’s a necessary evil . Chalice of the Void where x=1 is already very annoying to play against and additional 1-drops are not desired. I can randomly mill Lightning Storm and Laboratory Maniac which creates variance and my decks are generally constructed to avoid that. Peer through Depths has been mediocre, but it can find Angel's Grace and Ad Nauseam without milling cards in a random fashion. I like the idea of it, since it costs two mana, but it doesn’t work out well in practice. I can miss entirely because of all the artifacts and enchantments in the deck.

There have been lists with Desperate Ritual, but it wasn’t helpful for me. In theory, you can combo off with six mana (Angel's Grace + Ad Nauseam) and have a third mana source to cast Lightning Storm if two Simian Spirit Guides are in exile. In practice, I could just go off with a seventh mana and ramping into Ad Nauseam with a Red ritual doesn’t come up often. The fourth Pentad Prism has been much better since it performs a similar function.

Laboratory Maniac doesn’t win many pre-board games, but I don’t want to lose if Lightning Storm gets Thoughtseized. I can also only deal a maximum of 43 damage assuming I don’t play a single land. There are several Modern decks that can gain enough life to get out of this range.

Gemstone Mine
The land base isn’t set in stone for this deck, but I have found the scry lands to be impressive. I tried a mix of Blue fetch lands, basics, and shock lands, but they were unnecessarily painful. The fast lands were ideal turn one plays to cast Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. In the mid game you can pay a price for having many of your lands enter the battlefield tapped, but it hasn’t bitten me yet. Gemstone Mine is great, but I hate drawing two copies so I trimmed to three. City of Brass also deals you damage, but less than fetches/shocks. I don’t want to draw too many so I only play two.

I wasn’t a fan of Mystical Teachings because it was too expensive. There may be room in the sideboard for a singleton. Disenchant still kills plenty of hate cards such as Chalice of the Void, Ethersworn Canonist, Pithing Needle on Lightning Storm, Leyline of Sanctity, and Runed Halo. I am happy with one despite not having a way to search for it. Many opponents board in permanents to interact with Lightning Storm which I think is a mistake. If your Runed Halo gives you protection from Lightning Storm I can easily win with Laboratory Maniac instead.

Darkness and Timely Reinforcements have been great against the decks that plan to deal 20 damage before the combo is assembled. I like a mix because Timely is more powerful, but costs more mana.

To conclude my thoughts about how this list is constructed I will say it’s not often I pick up a combo deck so that should be a strong signal of its power. I’ve played many league matches on Magic Online and have beaten a wide variety of decks. Despite there being dozens of unique Modern strategies they aren’t all on the same power level. I belive Ad Nauseam to be a top-tier strategy.

Jeskai Update

Spell Queller is in an awkward spot, but my affinity for Spreading Seas has not been lulled. Here’s an update to combat the new metagame:

I played a deck very close to this at Pro Tour Vancouver, a.k.a. Pro Tour Eldrazi. Spreading Seas gives you game against the land-based strategies. Death's Shadow still hates it when you hit their Blood Crypt or Overgrown Tomb. The original Jeskai Flash deck I had was very good against creature combo decks that don’t exist without GItaxian Probe. Now the big spell decks that were weak to fast strategies can roam free. I didn’t care for the matchup against Eldrazi or Tron which are more popular now.

Spell Queller dies often against Fatal Push decks so this version plays additional Blade Splicers to grind out value. Splicer is weak to Kolaghan's Command, but is good against fair decks in general. When I played against Jund the matchup was comically good because Splicer is so great against Liliana of the Veil.

Domain Zoo Thought Experiment

After watching Grixis Shadow play out it’s clear that Modern is a very painful format. The entire deck doesn’t need to revolve around dealing yourself damage because the mana bases and Thoughtseize is all that’s needed. Taking a bunch of damage from your lands was a reason Domain Zoo was abandoned, but Death's Shadow just being a good Magic card could be enough to bring it back.

The lists of yesteryear played White for Path to Exile, but Fatal Push means you can stick with Jund colors. A positive attribute of this deck is the mana curve. Dark Confidant will still reduce your life total, but it won’t deal more than two damage.

There are six spells that deal five damage in Tribal Flames and Might of Alara. There is a quick solitaire draw with this deck which is ideal for Modern. They’re capable of interacting early, but those spells also give reach to the deck.

The sideboard has hateful creatures in Thalia and Ethersworn Canonist. This is the advantage of playing all five colors — you get access to Modern’s most spiteful sideboard options. Collective Brutality ensures you don’t fold to Burn.

Jund Shadow

I still very much enjoy traditional Jund Shadow and believe it to be the best deck in the format. Here’s my current list:

Grim Flayer
I had too many hands where there was no clock and the game was forced to drag out — enter Grim Flayer. Hitting the opponent with a 4/4 will help me find my larger threats. If I’m not already delirious Grim Flayer will help make Traverse the Ulvenwald better in the future. There are many setup cards in Jund Shadow which makes the milling ability very important. I typically put Mishra's Bauble right into the graveyard with Flayer’s ability.

Temur Battle Rage is a polarizing card and it plays worse in a list with three Liliana of the Veil. Andrew Elenbogen and I are very high on three veils because she provides a way to trade off useless cards in the mid game with a whole card from the opponent. I want to play less cards that sit in my hand for too long if I plan to +1 each turn. Death's Shadow has plenty of great topdecks which makes the Veil a great threat. Grim Flayer gets better with three Lilianas because they are additional sources of damage against combo decks and I can empty my hand faster. I never searched for Ghor-Clan Rampager and it’s also weaker with so many Lilianas so he also got the axe.

Kolaghan's Command has been underperforming when compared to Liliana of the Veil. Jund Shadow is good against creature decks and Liliana gives me more game against unfair strategies. I can functionally turn useless Fatal Pushes into 1-for-1s against combo and control.

Phyrexian Unlife
Nature's Claim is good against Leyline of Sanctity as well as Lotus Bloom, Pentad Prism, and Phyrexian Unlife out of Ad Nauseam. It’s the best combo deck at the moment and I can afford to turn Ancient Grudge into a way to fight enchantments. Killing Phyrexian Unlife is important because Ad Nauseam isn’t good at assembling both parts of the combo in one turn. If I shred their hand with discard and have a clock, they’re in trouble. Unlife is a way to not die for a single turn and then topdeck Ad Nauseam for the win. Angel's Grace stalls for a turn, but they need to find another copy to win.

There’s still plenty of disagreement regarding the White sideboard cards, but I continue to win with Lingering Souls. In Game 1 try not to fetch your Godless Shrine because it’s better if souls are cast Game 2 as a surprise. The White plan gets stronger when there are three Liliana of the Veils in your deck. Discarding Lingering Souls with Liliana feels very good. I cut Ranger of Eos because Lingering Souls and Grim Flayer is enough grind against fair decks.

Since I’m making my deck more like a Jund/Abzan deck I want the fourth Fulminator Mage in the sideboard for Tron/Scapeshift. These are good matchups, but they can cast great threats off the top of their deck so it’s anything but a sure thing. I have less Kolaghan's Command and no Liliana, the Last Hope so recurring existing Fulminators is difficult.

Overall, I’ve played 7 matches with this version of the deck and it feels much more smooth than traditional Jund Death's Shadow. I have lost only a game and Grim Flayer has been strong. I have mulliganed less because there are more hands with a good balance of enablers, lands, and threats.


Mardu Vehicles

I went to a Standard 1K tournament at Gamer’s Gauntlet a couple weeks ago with Max McVety and Brian Demars. We all played the same 75 and won $650 out of $1,000. I split the finals with Max. Here’s the list we had:

Despite all of the crazy innovations happening with Mardu Vehicles lately I still love this classic list. My record against Four-Color Saheeli with the Aggro Vehicles is 8-1 in tournaments. Everyone knows about the transformational sideboard of boarding out artifacts and adding more reactive cards so some of its luster is lost. Tireless Tracker is coming in more often against Vehicles in anticipation of this grindy game. For this reason I like to be more aggressive.

I likely won’t change decks until Amonkhet is released because exploring Modern has been so much fun.

This leads me into my next topic:

Why is Standard so stale?

Emrakul, the Promised End
I was talking with Brian Demars about the issue with Standard. We seem to be getting into this rut like clockwork where there are only a few decks in Standard centered around powerful effects. It’s not very punishing to jam a bunch of expensive bombs into a deck rounded out with removal.

This conversation was brought up because of the banned and restricted announcement. We live in a time where no deck is safe and the threat of losing key cards for major archetypes constantly looms.

Wizards has given us aggressive cards and let some combos slip through the cracks every now and then. This doesn’t displace midrange decks because they can simply adapt post board to any opponent using 6-7 cards. The answer to beating this hate from midrange opponents is fighting fire with fire: transform into a midrange deck, too! We saw this with rg Aetherworks Marvel; they cut focused cards in favor of powerful Planeswalkers. Mardu Vehicles has also transitioned from a deck at Pro Tour Aether Revolt featuring all-stars such as Bomat Courier to a mashup of Standard’s most powerful cards. Who knows, maybe next week Vehicles will maindeck Painful Truths.

This is the natural evolution of many Standard decks — begin as a focused strategy that eventually pick up more haymakers to fight interaction. I typically cut the middle-man and go to decks filled with powerful cards.

The big question is why this happens each time? Ten years ago we wouldn’t have to ban cards like Emrakul, the Promised End. Today, the best cards are the most powerful and there’s not a lot of nuance after that.

I hear Ravnica Standard in 2006 was the pantheon of opportunity. The reason I hear this diversity was allowed to exist stems from the same thing every time — mana. A Standard format with good mana allows interesting splashes to fight the top decks which eliminates stagnation. Players are currently upset with Standard, yet again, because we have moved to a two-deck format. Is the mana bad in this format? I would say no. The two decks that exist have 3 and 4 colors! The theory suggests this deck should be constantly evolving to fight the format, but all they’re actually doing is trying to stay one step ahead of each other. We’re living in a cold war.

The frequency of events is much different than the previous decade. We have so many decklists at our disposal so the best strategies are found very quickly. The understanding of constructed formats is also more sophisticated than in the past. Magic has existed for almost 24 years. We all play this game because things are constantly in flux. Amid this chaos of information it will settle in a predictable manner much like cream in coffee. Many pros have been playing tournaments for over 10 years so they have seen it all. They know how to break formats quickly using sound theory and logic. Information creates efficiency in the metagame, but the resulting equilibrium isn’t interesting to everyone.

These issues with Standard are not unique points. In fact, I’ve read at least five articles talking about these exact issues. Ravnica is considered the golden age of Standard, but it’s more like the 1950s. We recall it fondly, but we forget all of its faults with time. I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, but try and remember what needed to be considered when building your sweet 8 color deck in Ravnica Standard. Sure, you can play another copy of that legendary dragon, but what happens when your hand is ripped apart, Stone Rain mana screws you, or your threat is Remanded?

My favorite deck in 2006 was Solar Flare. It was the modern-day midrange deck featuring good mana, haymakers, and early interaction. I got card advantage with Azorius Chancery and Compulsive Research. Back then I couldn’t jam too many haymakers like Meloku the Clouded Mirror because the rest of the format was designed to stop me from casting them. Midrange/Control was just one way to play Standard and everyone else had a different focus.

Let’s break down this diversity:

  • ur Tron
  • Esper Solar Flare
  • wg Ghazi-Glare
  • Martyr Proclamation
  • Annex Wildfire
  • Mono Black Discard (with The Rack)
  • gbw Midrange (Beach House)
  • Naya Zoo
  • wu Control
  • Dragonstorm
  • wr Aggro
  • Bant Blink

That’s so many decks!

What was the best deck in that format? I have no idea and that’s awesome. No deck was too dominant at this time. Midrange was kept in check by Remand and land denial. Aggro beat those decks to a pulp, but couldn’t keep up with anti-creature spells like Lightning Helix and Faith's Fetters. Control had the option to fight some, but not all, of these strategies. Sound familiar? Standard was great back then because it looks a lot like Modern today. Every deck is pushed to a far edge of the strategy spectrum rather than sitting in the middle.

Wizards has decided some spells are “not fun” to play against like Mana Leak, Stone Rain, discard, and Lightning Helix. My suggestion is to bring back powerful spells to create diversity. We live in a midrange world today and we know exactly how to get out because it hasn’t always been this way. If new sets focused less on absurdly powerful cards and more ways to keep things in check in a proactive manner we will have diversity. The answer to Heart of Kiran is not Aether Meltdown because it’s bad against the other top deck — Four-Color Saheeli. There aren’t enough powerful spells and traction has dethroned card advantage as the most important element of Standard.

To recap:

  1. Ad Nauseam and Jund Shadow is great. Give Grim Flayer a try.
  2. Mardu Vehicles is great, but you should go against the grain and be aggressive.
  3. Standard needs to feature more cards that punish midrange players to create a balanced environment.

Thanks for reading!


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