Learning from UW Eldrazi

In time, people will be looking back at the last two months of Modern not just as a format dominated by one deck, but as a format dominated by a historically great deck.

All the evidence points to an impending ban, so it seems likely that this past weekend’s Grand Prix will be the last high-level tournaments to be subjected to fully-powered Eldrazi decks.

While playing this past weekend, I started thinking about other historically great decks and what they have in common with Eldrazi.

Broken Mana

I’m not going to waste much time on this one. Without Eldrazi Temple or Eye of Ugin, the rest of the cards in Eldrazi are just a bunch of weird, overcosted Limited cards. The nature of the mana in this deck makes the games high variance, and the most important stage of the game is mulliganing (which is a trend among every deck in Modern). The lands in this deck break the fundamental rules of Magic and are obviously the most important aspect of the deck’s success. In addition, the deck gets a massive advantage from Phyrexian mana and is aggressive enough to disregard its own life total.

A Proactive Plan

When you think about the best decks in Magic history—there are very few, if any, reactive decks on the list. Even decks like Faeries, Psychatog, and Caw-Blade, which trend toward the control side of the spectrum, have cheap proactive threats that come down early and dictate the pace of the game.

Eldrazi should be classified as fundamentally an aggro deck, but with a set of threats that are powerful, unique, and do multiple things, which makes it so hard to contend with. Thought-Knot Seer provides both a clock and disruption, Drowner of Hope and Eldrazi Displacer serve to dominate the board and act as temporary removal, and Reality Smasher ends the game fast while also being resilient to most forms of removal.

But I think one of the most important aspects of this level of aggression is the ability to leverage situational answers.

In round 7 of the GP, I got paired against Ad Nauseam. This was a deck that was on my radar and I wasn’t surprised to play against it, but it also wasn’t a deck I had any specific hate cards for. The closest thing I had were the 2 Stubborn Denials in my sideboard, but between Path to Exile and Dismember, I had at least 7 cards I wanted to take out.

Luckily, the aggressive nature of my deck let me leverage moderately effective sideboard cards to good value. Stony Silence provided a little bit of disruption for artifact mana Pentad Prism and Lotus Bloom, while Disenchant and Cyclonic Rift provided a similar role while also threatening Phyrexian Unlife.

The majority of the cards I just listed aren’t very good cards against Ad Nauseam if you are playing a long game, but my deck didn’t need to do that—it just needed to buy a turn or two to put together a lethal attack.

This type of scenario comes up often in Modern. There are so many different decks with a wide variety of cards and you only get 15 sideboard cards. A control deck with access to the same cards would have no chance, but a proactive deck can usually cobble together enough disruption.

A Plan for the Long Game

One of the things that impressed me the most about UW Eldrazi was its ability to play a long, grindy game. Eldrazi Displacer, Drowner of Hope, and Eye of Ugin form an engine that generates lots of mana, creatures, and makes it impossible for the opponent to attack.

I managed to win a game against Worship without having answers to the enchantment. I won by generating a massive amount of Scion tokens and decking my opponent with Thought-Knot Seer triggers.

In general, the Eldrazi deck is great because it can operate on very few lands but also has a number of cards that are good when you are mana flooded: Eye of Ugin, Eldrazi Displacer, and Endless One.

Having a plan like this for games that don’t go according to script is tremendously important, but I don’t like it when the plan includes situational or expensive cards. In the Grand Prix, I played a mirror against an opponent who brought in Oblivion Sowers and an Ulamog. The problem is that so many of the games are decided quickly and involve aggressive mulligans that drawing Ulamog early is a huge liability. It’s not uncommon for this deck to mulligan to 5 looking for an Eldrazi land—not exactly a situation where you want Ulamog to show up.

I liken this to Jeskai Black in Standard, which has a nearly unbeatable long game with Soulfire Grand Master recursion of Kolaghan’s Command and other spells. The powerful aspect of the deck is that it does it all with cards that cost between 2 and 4 mana, which makes your other draws that much more consistent.

If you take a look at the best decks in Magic history, the vast majority of them are broken combo decks. Outside of those, the rest share the following:

  • A broken mana engine (if available)
  • A proactive game plan (that attacks from multiple angles or an unexpected angle)
  • A robust long game (usually using cheap cards)
  • A powerful sideboard (that doesn’t change the core of the deck)

It’s crazy to think about how dominant this deck is despite a huge target on its head. I watched friends playing Eldrazi get paired against dedicated, hateful decks round after round, and beat cards like Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, and Worship with ease.

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