I was excited to learn that one of the WMCQs (in fact, the one being hosted by ChannelFireball in Santa Clara) this season is Modern! The fact that it’s then followed up by a Modern GP in Oklahoma City means it’s a format that is going to see a lot of play in the coming month. To that end, I decided to write a quick primer about the biggest decks in Modern, along with some of their strengths and weaknesses. This is by no means exhaustive as Modern is too huge to cover every deck, but hopefully for those of you considering going to your first Modern event, this will give you a place to start. The decks I’m going to cover today are the ones that I would consider “tier 1.” I would expect to face them about once each in an 8-round Modern tournament.
GBx decks have been among the most consistent top performers in Modern since the format’s inception. Their core game plan is to trade resources as efficiently as possible with cards like Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, and Liliana of the Veil and then win by having slightly more resources when all’s said and done thanks to manlands, Dark Confidant, or the aforementioned Liliana. A big part of GBx’s success is that it plays so many cards that are generically strong. It doesn’t matter much which specific combo deck your opponent is playing if you’re just going to be Thoughtseizing their least redundant piece and then ripping the rest of their hand apart with Liliana.
Another key to their success is that it’s a very challenging deck to sideboard against. There’s no one card that just KOs them so you’re basically just left making slight adjustments to better position yourself. The best sideboard plans against these decks are less focused on assembling a synergistic machine and more focused on making your individual card quality high. For example, with Birthing Pod decks of yore, you typically wanted to take out the combo cards like Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Viscera Seer in favor of haymakers that almost always guaranteed some card advantage such as Sigarda, Host of Herons or Thragtusk.
Strengths: Adaptable, few truly bad matchups, difficult to hate out.
Weaknesses: Few truly great matchups either.
UR Splinter Twin
The premier combo deck in Modern is also probably its most successful deck, having won 2 out of the 4 Modern Pro Tours. The game 1 game plan is to stick Splinter Twin on a Deceiver Exarch or a Pestermite, and attack with infinite copies of that creature. Things get a lot more interesting in post-board games however, when the Twin player can often pivot into a UR control deck that wins with Snapcaster beatdown and Keranos triggers. Blood Moon is also a card that you absolutely have to be aware of (occasionally even in game 1). It’s usually not too hard to search out basics, but you do have to be aware that that’s what you need to do or things will end up very badly. Twin is also typically the combo deck that’s best at beating other combo decks because of its ability to play a lot of counterspells and operate almost entirely at instant speed.
Because of their transformational sideboard plan, it’s very challenging to sideboard effectively against Twin. Generally, I would try to stay as proactive as possible while also having a few cards like Abrupt Decay or Rending Volley to help keep them honest. Cards that either don’t die to Lightning Bolt or are cheap enough to force through Remand are typically also quite good, such as Tarmogoyf, Voice of Resurgence, and Loxodon Smiter.
Strengths: Great against other combo decks, strong transformational sideboard plan.
Weaknesses: Very weak to Abrupt Decay game 1, can struggle against GBx.
Grixis is a relatively new kid on the block, thanks to newcomers Tasigur, Gurmag Angler, and Kolaghan’s Command. It plays a similar grindy game as the GBx decks mentioned above, but with counterspells instead of hand disruption as the primary form of interaction and Snapcaster Mage instead of Dark Confidant as the primary form of card advantage. Because they’re essentially just “good stuff” decks, Grixis tends to be very customizable, with some people adding the Splinter Twin combo and some adding more aggressive cards like Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer.
That means that it’s very important to pay close attention to what your opponent is up to when sideboarding, as the value of some sideboard cards can fluctuate pretty wildly depending on what exact plan your opponent is trying to execute. Graveyard hate is a pretty effective strategy, shutting off the delve cards, Snapcaster Mage, and part of Kolaghan’s Command, but beyond that there are no cards that just beat them. It’s important to have a game plan against the delve creatures as they can show up as early as turn 2 in some of the better draws, but you don’t want to overload on Terminate and Path to Exile and end up getting out-valued by Snapcaster. Again, boarding down on synergy and up on power is where you want to be.
Strengths: Great grindy game plan, while still being capable of explosive delve starts.
Weaknesses: Mana base is sometimes painful, graveyard hate can be punishing.
Affinity is the premier aggressive deck in Modern. It utilizes a variety of unimpressive artifact creatures along with Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, and Steel Overseer to make them much more impressive. Affinity typically boasts impressive game 1s against most of the format while sometimes struggling to win post-board games against the impressive artifact hate cards that have been printed in recent years. This deck has also received a bit of splash damage from the recent adoption of Kolaghan’s Command as a staple of the format, but it’s still a very powerful deck and you shouldn’t skimp on the hate just because you have a few maindeckable 3-mana Shatters.
Unlike the other decks I’ve talked about so far, Affinity is pretty easy to hate out if that’s what you want to do. Cards like Shatterstorm, Creeping Corrosion, Stony Silence, Kataki, and Ancient Grudge all do a ton of work so it’s really just a matter of deciding which one is most appropriate for your deck and how many sideboard slots you want to devote.
Strengths: Great game 1 deck.
Weaknesses: About those sideboard games.
Burn is a pretty straightforward deck. They have a few early creatures to help supplement a variety of 3- and 4-damage burn spells to reduce your life total from 20 to 0 as quickly as possible. They’re helped along quite a bit by the fairly common Ravnica shockland + fetchland mana bases in Modern, meaning that they often only need to deal around 17 damage to win. Sometimes they feel more like a combo deck than an aggro deck, where their combo is just casting 6-7 spells over the course of a few turns.
Because of their extremely linear game plan, the sideboard cards that look like they’d be good against Burn typically are. Additionally, Burn decks are often unable to sideboard too much themselves without diluting their core game plan too much, meaning that you shouldn’t expect to see things change too much in the post-board games.
Strengths: Fast, consistent, and very punishing to anyone that’s underprepared.
Weaknesses: Sideboard cards can be problematic, as can other linear decks that can execute their game plan faster.
That’s my list of what I expect to be the decks you’re most likely to face at your Modern WMCQ. Join me next week when I’ll talk about some of the more fringe Modern decks!