Thanks everyone who participated in the 30 card Brew Off! It was a joy to see such creation and diversity of submissions for a format that is totally theoretical and doesn’t exist.
The #1 conclusion has been that Shelldock Isle would be totally broken in that format and I wanted to put the idea to the test on Magic Online. Unfortunately Magic Online has a 40 card limit for all kinds of Constructed, so we will not be playing 30 cards. The good news is that we will be playing with 40 cards, and this new restriction forces us to be more creative to make Shelldock Isle work.
40 Card Shelldock Isle
While hard to use in a 60 card deck, Shelldock Isle is insane in a 30 card format, as after drawing 7 cards we’re already down to 23. Play Shelldock and pull an Emrakul down to 22, draw to 21, and only a Gitaxian Probe stands between you and a turn 2 Spaghetti Monster on the play.
However, the math changes drastically with a 40 card deck. After you draw you still have 33 cards in the deck. You can get to 20 pretty easily over a longer game, but I’m interested in how we can do it turn 2!
First, we have Serum Powder. With 4/40 Serum Powders, you would be likely to find one. The first Serum Powder puts you down to 26 cards to begin the game, which is a great start, and the second one puts you under 20 for a turn 2 Emrakul. Meanwhile the extra mulliganing is useful at sculpting the perfect start as well!
In the event you don’t hit Serum Powder, Spoils of the Vault works well. Spoils of the Vault is notoriously erratic in 60 card decks, and it still has the same problems with 40 cards—but becomes much more consistent. With so few cards in the deck it’s that much less likely to kill you, but still likely to lop off 10 cards from the deck for a quick Shelldock Isle win.
Pressing question—what are your “hits” off Shelldock Isle? Clearly the best one is Emrakul, but that’s not quite as consistent as you need to be. Your other options are Through the Breach, Brilliant Ultimatum, and Omniscience.
Brilliant Ultimatum looks at 5 cards, which ought to be less than all the cards you look at for Through the Breach and Omniscience so we can narrow it down to these two.
Each has tradeoffs. On one hand, Omniscience lets you keep your Emrakul, which is necessary against opponents with more than 15 life. Through the Breach Emrakul is not a guaranteed kill. However, Through the Breach is much easier to cast than Omnicience. You can even ramp to Through the Breach with Serum Powder!
Both work, but I lean toward Through the Breach in the main deck as a nice back-up plan. Omniscience is a good sideboard alternative for opponents who keep a lot of life in the bank.
You want to be as fast as possible and still have some slots left, so how about Simian Spirit Guide into Amulet of Vigor? Draw two pair with a Shelldock Isle and you can pull off the coveted turn 1 win! But even in less ideal situations this card is great at untapping your Isle and powering out Dimir Aqueduct.
The blue black bounce land is amazing with Amulet of Vigor, getting a black for Spoils of the Vault and a blue to activate your Shelldock isle. The best part is that if you bricked with Shelldock Isle the first time, Aqueduct lets you pick it up for another look!
Finally we round out the deck with some cards for consistency. Gemstone Mine gives you pain-free Grixis mana, and Serum Visions pushes you toward 20 cards while finding what you need.
This is a consistent turn-2 Emrakul deck. It’s not unbeatable, but it’s almost certainly better than anything that exists in 60 card Modern.
If this deck existed, the metagame would warp drastically, it would still likely be the best deck, and bannings would come shortly—there is a 60 card limit for a reason! Thank you Wizards.
40 Card Shelldock Weaknesses
Theoretically, if this were a real thing, what are the weaknesses? How would you beat it?
The first weakness is inconsistency. While this deck is likely to work, it will occasionally do absolutely nothing. Mulliganing into oblivion, exiling essential spells, dying by Spoils of the Vault. These games will happen, but it’s not a plan.
The best option is to attack Shelldock Isle at the source, though with this version Through the Breach can still pull out victories through even the most vicious hate. So it would take a versatile approach of specific hosers and disruption to stop this deck—but you’d have to draw it and pull it off by the 1st or 2nd turn to avoid dying. Not the most likely!
To prepare for these potential hosers, the Shelldock deck could counter with Pithing Needle for Ghost Quarter, Vandalblast for Pithing Needle, and Duress for anything else. Or just win through whatever.
40 Card Lesson
What’s the lesson in all this? There are several if we look deep enough.
First of all, people are highly entertained by the theoretical. Imagination land is fun.
Second, and maybe more practical, is the framing power of context.
Would anyone say these cards are too good in 60 card Modern? Anyone? I don’t think so.
Would anyone say these cards are too good in 40 card Modern? Everyone? Could be!
What’s different? The cards didn’t change—but the environment did!
This makes a nice parallel for evolutionary trade-off theory. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “It is well known to furriers that animals of the same species have thicker and better fur the further north they live.” So if you are born with a thick pelt of fur, why not move north?
Of course, we have greater capacity to grow and change than Shelldock Isle, but we can still learn a lesson from this card. Sometimes the best solution to finding greater strength is moving to a new environment.