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Q-Branch – Gearing Up for Modern

Modern is a wonderful format. The combination of fetchlands and duals backed by no [card]Force of Will[/card] and nothing that is simply ‘too powerful’ creates a nicely balanced environment where everything is possible. It reminds me very much of the final hurrah of the original dual lands in Extended—instead of fetchlands, these were supported by cards like [card]Tithe[/card] and [card]Land Grant[/card].

The beauty of this format is that you can play the deck you like for a long time—it can continually change to (hopefully) deal with the always-evolving metagame.

Robots on the rise? Tweak your fetchlands, add a [card]Stomping Ground[/card] and throw a few [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]s in the ‘board. Eggs got you down? Why not slot a white dual in there and play around with [card]Rule of Law[/card] or [card]Stony Silence[/card]? Has Mono-Red or Stompy been giving you a drumming? Shift to [card]Pyroclasm[/card] or [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card].

[draft]ancient grudge
rule of law
pyroclasm[/draft]

Decks that have this kind of flexibility are generally midrange or controlling. Combo and beatdown seldom have the same adaptability. Combo has to streamline to go off reliably, and will often only have 2 to 4 slots for tomfoolery, so these have to be given over to versatile spells like [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Echoing Truth[/card].

Beatdown is similarly restricted, it needs to maintain a solid curve and an adequate amount of removal/burn. Its options tend to be one similar spell or another—like [card]Char[/card] vs. [card]Flames of the Blood Hand[/card], [card]Thoughtseize[/card] vs. [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] or, more recently, [card]Kitchen Finks[/card] vs. [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] vs. [card]Lingering Souls[/card].

This plethora of options leaves us with a thriving format full of diverse and difficult deck choices. Predicting the metagame becomes absolutely key—though there are a few things you can do to give yourself a helping hand.

Modern decks can, to take a simplistic view of things, be split into two different types: ‘My’ decks and ‘Your’ decks; or ‘threats’ and ‘answers.’ ‘My’ decks are generally combo and beatdown—in these, I am more concerned about My plan than Yours. Either My hand is good enough to beat you or it isn’t. In interaction-light matches, these decks may as well be goldfishing. These decks include [card]Splinter Twin[/card], [card]Scapeshift[/card], RDW, Eggs, Storm, and Infect.

[draft]splinter twin
second sunrise
blighted agent[/draft]

‘Your’ decks play either efficient answers like [card]Path to Exile[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], and [card]Cryptic Command[/card], or versatile threats like [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card], and [card]Restoration Angel[/card]. Funnily enough, the most common decks in this category are Jund, Big-Zoo, Gifts, and UW Midrange. These decks have to be metagamed well—whether they lean on having the correct answers or the right threats.

[draft]path to exile
mana leak
dark confidant
snapcaster mage[/draft]

Somewhere in between these polar opposites are engine decks like Robots, Pod, and Tron. These are combo decks posing in a more resilient, and generally less unfair, shell. They can be tweaked, they can play the mid-game, and they can all still shut out the game quickly.

If you are new to a format as open as this, or if the format itself is new and uncertain, then my advice is always to play a ‘My’ deck. They do not care what the opponent is doing—their complex decisions are what to keep with a [card]Sleight of Hand[/card] rather than which spells to kill or counter; or just BURN, BURN, BURN!* Generally these decks pose more of a threat and can beat unprepared or poor opponents while giving you a fighting chance against good or knowledgeable players.

*I will freely admit that there is an intense skill in playing RDW well, but almost any idiot can play Burninator.

Formats, like math puzzles, can be figured out. However, this Modern format is so good, it is always changing, so the ‘solution’ this week will almost certainly be wrong in a fortnight. There are other options than cheaply choosing a ‘My’ deck.

If you are playing a Gifts deck, then your sideboard will be a beautiful collection of up to 15 singletons. Many of these will be silver bullets as the deck has ways to maximize one-ofs. However, if you are playing a more conventional deck, like Zoo or UW Midrange, you may only have 4-6 slots available to you to fight combo. You don’t have the luxury of playing 1 [card]Stony Silence[/card], 1 [card]Rule of Law[/card], 1 [card]Rest in Peace[/card], 1 [card]Kataki, War’s Wage[/card], etc.

My advice, in general, is not to gamble on one or two of these narrow hosers, but to figure out what cards are available that cover the spectrum of combo decks you could face. Cards like [card]Negate[/card] and [card]Duress[/card] are about as general as they come, but sometimes it is possible to go one step further. The current combo decks are Splinter Twin, Storm, Scapeshift, and Eggs. These are all vulnerable to [card]Meddling Mage[/card] or an accelerated [card]Slaughter Games[/card] (Twin a little less so). Of these strategies, I like the [card meddling mage]Pikula plan[/card] a lot. The 2/2 fits well into Zoo and UW decks right now, and any other deck running either white or blue can easily add the other color.

[draft]meddling mage
slaughter games[/draft]

Similarly, rather than playing [card]Shatterstorm[/card]s and [card kataki, war’s wage]Katakis[/card], choose cards like [card]Rakdos Charm[/card], [card]Ancient Grudge[/card], and [card]Disenchant[/card]. This way, rather than tackling specific decks that individually make up a pathetically small part of the metagame, you play cards that can be used against 25% of your opponents, rather than 5%.

One last piece of advice before I focus on a couple of decks I have been working on: If in doubt, play a deck you know! As I mentioned at the start, you can tweak the deck to shore up bad matchups and capitalize on your experience rather than having to learn a new deck and make new mistakes. You will make educated card choices rather than experimental ones, and the confidence you will have in your plays, from how to sideboard to what opening hands to keep, will translate into more wins.

When I come across a new format, there are two questions I ask:

1) What is the most powerful thing you can do in this format? This is the question I pose whenever I start thinking about a new format. Invariably, this will lead me to start with a ‘My’ deck. In this example, I figure it is probably to draw one of your eight [card]Pestermite[/card]s and then cast one of your six [card]Splinter Twin[/card]s. However, as we all know, this is easy to [card abrupt decay]disrupt[/card]—maybe there is a better answer I have not found yet.

2) What is the best card in the format? This was the question I found myself asking again and again in this format. As it is so easy to fit a single card into a deck, it makes sense to play the best one. Right now, I am confident that there is a best card. It is [card]Blood Moon[/card].

[draft]blood moon[/draft]

Here is a sample of some of the mana bases from the Top 8 decks at GP Toronto:

1 [card]Arid Mesa[/card]
4 [card]Celestial Colonnade[/card]
1 [card]Godless Shrine[/card]
2 [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card]
2 [card]Island[/card]
4 [card]Marsh Flats[/card]
2 [card]Plains[/card]
1 [card]Scalding Tarn[/card]
3 [card]Seachrome Coast[/card]
4 [card]Tectonic Edge[/card]
1 [card]Watery Grave[/card]

4 [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card]
4 [card]Darksteel Citadel[/card]
3 [card]Glimmervoid[/card]
4 [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]
1 [card]Island[/card]

4 [card]Blackcleave Cliffs[/card]
1 [card]Blood Crypt[/card]
1 [card]Fire-Lit Thicket[/card]
1 [card]Forest[/card]
1 [card]Godless Shrine[/card]
4 [card]Marsh Flats[/card]
1 [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card]
3 [card]Raging Ravine[/card]
1 [card]Stomping Ground[/card]
1 [card]Swamp[/card]
1 [card]Temple Garden[/card]
1 [card]Treetop Village[/card]
4 [card]Verdant Catacombs[/card]

3 [card]Forest[/card]
3 [card]Gavony Township[/card]
1 [card]Godless Shrine[/card]
4 [card]Misty Rainforest[/card]
2 [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card]
2 [card]Razorverge Thicket[/card]
1 [card]Swamp[/card]
1 [card]Temple Garden[/card]
4 [card]Verdant Catacombs[/card]
2 [card]Woodland Cemetery[/card]

I haven’t mentioned either of the two Scapeshift decks, as it is rather hard to win with [card valakut, the molten pinnacle]Valakut[/card] when it itself is a Mountain, nor have I covered the other two Jund decks which are equally susceptible to [card]Blood Moon[/card] (though some do run a Plains). It should be noted that the last list is from a Melira Pod deck that runs 8 mana men, so Blood Moon is far from its best in this matchup, only shutting off 19 land. Nor is it truly superb against Robots, though shutting off all of its manlands with a single card is nothing to shrug at. The entire Top 8 averaged 3.5 non-Mountain basics each!

This format bends over to a Blood Moon. Scapeshift, Tron, Jund, and most UW decks almost automatically lose to the enchantment—decks like Maverick and Pod also tend to join them if it is accompanied by a [card]Pyroclasm[/card]. This is compounded in game one, when most of the format both will not have many answers to a Blood Moon and, more importantly, will not be playing around it. The catch is that almost none of the current tier 1 decks can truly support a Blood Moon in their main deck.

Storm does not want to run it, so I started building a string of UR variants. I very much liked the idea of running Blood Moon alongside cantrips to ensure you find it by turn three when it will still be powerful enough to do its job. I started with a sexy control deck complete with cantrips, Pyroclasms, Bolts, [card]Cryptic Command[/card]s, and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s. I had a horrendous time beating Jund without a Moon, so back to the drawing board I went. I returned with UR Delver—strewn with early drops like [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card], [card]Spellstutter Sprite[/card], and [card]Vendilion Clique[/card]. It too could only reliably beat Jund when it resolved a Blood Moon. For the record, both decks utterly smashed when the world became filled with Mountains.

It was then that I remember that Splinter Twin was in the format—I dug up some of the latest lists to see 3 Blood Moons already nestled in the sideboard! A quick glance over the decks, and I identified that Twin decks have more spare slots than any two-card combo. Here’s is Peter Dunn’s Lyon Top 8 list:

[deck]1 Arid Mesa
2 Cascade Bluffs
3 Halimar Depths
3 Island
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
2 Sulfur Falls
1 Watery Grave
4 Deceiver Exarch
4 Grim Lavamancer
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Pestermite
3 Dispel
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Serum Visions
4 Sleight of Hand
3 Spell Pierce
4 Splinter Twin[/deck]

Several things struck me about this deck. Firstly, there are 14 combo cards. 8 cantrips to find them. 9 disruption/protection slots. 4 utterly spare slots (the Lavamancers). There are also 25 land—this number seems far too high for a deck whose curve essentially ends at 5 and one that is already packed with cantrips. So I went to work.

Other decks also have [card]Mizzium Skin[/card] and [card]Spellskite[/card] in the protection slots. I like these. Both of these importantly provide protection against [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]—a card many have cited as the death knell for Twin, as well as proving handy in the mirror for preventing Lavamancers and Twiddle-effects from becoming annoying. Also, since this list was played, [card]Izzet Charm[/card] has been printed to contend with [card]Spell Pierce[/card], though I am not sure the latter is even that amazing in the deck in the first place.

[draft]abrupt decay[/draft]

I am still not 100% why [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] is a maindeck staple. It is good and can combo with your Twiddlemen, but it is far from essential. After board, it is handy at killing GW’s meddling men, but this is hardly a compelling reason for taking up 7% of the main deck. Sure, it slows down Jund and Robots enough for you to find and protect your combo, but then so does [card]Spellskite[/card] and more cantrips. I am willing to be proven wrong here, and more testing will show me the way but, for now, I view these as definite slots.

However, if you are to remove them, it is always useful to have cards to deal with any annoying permanents. Whether these should be main or in the sideboard is debatable. Peter played [card]Cyclonic Rift[/card]s in his sideboard. Main deck, I would definitely prefer [card]Into the Roil[/card]s and I think I might in the sideboard too—not only do they draw a card, but they can also save your own permanents from destruction to be reused. Though, it is entirely possible that the Rifts get overloaded enough to justify their place, so I am currently trying one of each—not because I believe this to be correct, but because I am still deciding. All this mulling has left me with:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Pestermite
4 Deceiver Exarch
4 Splinter Twin
4 Sleight of Hand
4 Serum Visions
3 Gitaxian Probe
3 Spellskite
3 Blood Moon
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
2 Grim Lavamancer
2 Mizzium Skin
1 Dispel
1 Izzet Charm
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Misty Rainforest
3 Steam Vents
2 Cascade Bluffs
1 Sulfur Falls
1 Watery Grave
1 Mountain
7 Island
Sideboard:
3 Pyroclasm
3 Dispel
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
2 Thoughtseize
2 Grim Lavamancer
1 Into the Roil
1 Cyclonic Rift[/deck]

I really like the idea of playing [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card]—being able to see if the way is clear to run out the combo unhindered is phenomenal. I also need more cantrips as I have trimmed down to 23 land. The Izzet Charm is currently experimental and takes up the ‘real’ slot of the 4th Probe. Izzet Charm, as always, feels like every bit of it is almost good enough to justify a place… Let’s see if it earns it.

I have cut the [card]Spell Pierce[/card] entirely. I think that often your opponent will resolve some early threats and then pass, sitting on their removal with their mana open. With the exception of stopping discard, I think that both [card]Mizzium Skin[/card] and [card]Spellskite[/card] are superior as protection. Spellskite especially, as it blocks the non-Tarmogoyf creatures that resolve before you can shut your opponent down with [card]Blood Moon[/card].

The sideboard is mainly experimental. I almost played a [card]Muddle the Mixture[/card] to help find the [card]Cyclonic Rift[/card] if needed, but decided that it probably was not worth playing over the 4th [card]Dispel[/card] (though I will definitely play it as one during testing). I am not certain if you want the 4th Lavamancer over the 4th [card]Pyroclasm[/card]. I cut [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]s and their [card]Stomping Ground[/card] completely, as I think that Robots is not a large enough part of the metagame to dedicate specific cards for, especially while these generic ones are already so good against them.

I intended to play this at a recent PTQ, which would have left me much better informed as to a few of the card choices. However, on the morning of the event, my friend who was lending me the deck was ill, and I was left to scrape together whatever I could. After goldfishing a Storm deck a few times and feeling a bit stupid (I was very hungover), I scraped together an almost random selection of UW Midrange cards (including a sideboard [card]Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir[/card] who over-performed time and again!).

I dropped at 5-2, my losses were to a rather random [card]Vedalken Æthermage[/card] deck (less embarrassing than it sounds, when you consider how good a dedicated Wizard deck is in a control mirror) and to a couple of turn one [card]Goblin Guide[/card]s. The experience has let me make a bunch of changes, and here is what I believe is a genuinely good list:

[card]Main Deck:
4 Restoration Angel
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Wall of Omens
4 Path to Exile
4 Cryptic Command
3 Mana Leak
3 Spell Snare
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Sun Titan
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Dismember
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Sphinx’s Revelation
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Island
4 Plains
3 Mystic Gate
3 Glacial Fortress
Sideboard:
4 Meddling Mage
2 Vendilion Clique
2 Aven Mindsensor
2 Batterskull
2 Disenchant
1 Celestial Purge
1 Negate
1 Timely Reinforcements[/card]

Sadly, I could not fit the Teferi or a 2nd [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] in to the sideboard, but I would dearly love to, as they were really good in the PTQ. However, my first list was much more flash/instant-orientated, and I do not believe they would be as good in this version.

I am trying a mana base without any sources of pain… other than being reasonably weak to the aforementioned [card]Blood Moon[/card]. I am not sure this is entirely correct, but I saw it in a recent list and thought I would give it a try. It only involved cutting 2 [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card], 2 [card]Marsh Flats[/card], and 2 [card]Misty Rainforest[/card] for the 6 non-regular non-basics, so it is far from severe.

It kills me to only play 3 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], but this list does not have as many instants as I am used to playing, having cut a [card]Dismember[/card], the 4th [card]Spell Snare[/card] and the 4th [card]Mana Leak[/card]. I absolutely love playing 4 [card]Cryptic Command[/card] in this format, and casting them again and again with Mr. Snappy is almost too good a feeling.

I’m very fond of the 4 [card]Wall of Omens[/card] and 4 [card]Kitchen Finks[/card]. They really keep your draws consistent, allow you to provide a bit of early pressure, and maximize value with your [card]Restoration Angel[/card]s (contender for best card in the deck with the Cryptics). They make the Jund matchup excellent and RDW a 50/50 or better flip.

[draft]wall of omens
kitchen finks[/draft]

I’m trying [card]Sun Titan[/card] as my singleton fatty over [card]Batterskull[/card], Teferi, [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card], and a 2nd [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]. Combined with the Walls and Finks, I have found that it is far better against midrange decks than Batterskull ever was, and has the ability to end the game more quickly than most of the alternatives.

[card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is far from fantastic right now, which is why there is only one Wrath in the entire list. The presence of manlands means that against Robots, Jund, and Infect, you are usually dead after you cast it—even Zoo can just burn you out. However, it is great as a catch-all and singleton spells gain a tremendous amount of value thanks to [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card].

I really like the sideboard too. There are the four [card]Meddling Mage[/card]s I was talking about earlier—made even better in this deck as it is usually correct for your opponents to board out their [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s and other spot removal against you, while not boarding in Pyroclasms. In some matchups, you can make almost a straight swap of the 8 anti-creature guys in the main for the 8 anti-spell guys in the board.

I think that the 2nd [card]Batterskull[/card] is definitely a flexible slot and the 2nd [card]Aven Mindsensor[/card] may well be too, as I have found the deck to be surprisingly strong against Scapeshift with all four Cryptics. I am very tempted to add a 2nd [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] and/or a 2nd Sphinx’s Revelation in their stead. Otherwise, I think this deck is tight and very good. I will be playing one of these lists in the upcoming PTQs (probably with a few cards changed here and there) and I thoroughly recommend you do too.

I will leave you with one final thought. I think the best Blood Moon deck is still out there. I lost to a Dutch Tezzeret/Blood Moon list at Worlds a few years ago and it has a lot of potential. After all, Blood Moon and artifact mana fixing is a great combo. Sadly, I could not find a list, so rather than leave you with just a brainstormed list, here is Patrick Chapin’s then-Standard, non-Moon Tezzeret deck as something to get you thinking:

[deck]Main Deck:
1 Blackcleave Cliffs
4 Creeping Tar Pit
3 Darkslick Shores
2 Inkmoth Nexus
3 Island
2 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Tectonic Edge
1 Treasure Mage
1 Wurmcoil Engine
4 Everflowing Chalice
2 Galvanic Blast
1 Mindslaver
2 Mox Opal
4 Preordain
4 Prophetic Prism
2 Pyroclasm
2 Slagstorm
3 Sphere of the Suns
2 Stoic Rebuttal
3 Tumble Magnet
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Sideboard
3 Duress
1 Flashfreeze
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Kuldotha Rebirth
2 Pyroclasm
1 Ratchet Bomb
4 Spreading Seas
2 Stoic Rebuttal[/deck]

If I manage to find the time, I will get some of these decks together on MtGO and try to bring you some videos to see how my follow-up testing is going. As always, please share your thoughts, opinions, and even deck lists in the comments and I will try and reply!

Quentin

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