I rarely show up to a competitive tournament with a deck of my own design. I find I’m usually better off studying successful decks, learning their ins and outs, and adjusting them to prepare for the metagame I expect to face.
Friday Night Magic, however, is a different story. When nothing more is at stake than a few booster packs and some shiny promo card or token, where’s the fun in playing a paint-by-numbers Storm deck and crush a newcomer with a preconstructed deck that has lifegain boars in it?
With that in mind, over the years, I’ve tried many decks at my local gaming store that I wouldn’t dare bring to a tournament where I’m actually interested in winning. Sometimes I try homebrews built around an idea I like; other times I find an off-the-wall decklist online and rebuild it from the ground up. In this article, I’d like to share some of my favorite experiments. For each of these decks, I will point out their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what they would need in order to be viable in an actual competitive event.
The good: This is a midrange value deck with two infinite combos. It’s really good at leveraging Renegade Rallier with either Horizon Canopy, Wall of Omens or Oath of Nissa, or even just a fetchland for mana development. Most of the pieces interact well with each other, so very few cards are ever dead. Eldritch Evolution enables some truly powerful lines of play, especially out of the sideboard, as some decks can’t beat an early Sigarda, Linvala or Keranos, or a recurring Stonehorn Dignitary. The deck can surprise unsuspecting players and win out of nowhere in a single turn, and even if the Saheeli/Felidar Guardian combo is expected, you can backdoor into Kiki-Jiki plus Restoration Angel. Recurring Reflector Mages really do a number on creature decks. This has a better Death’s Shadow matchup than Devoted Druid/Vizier of Remedies decks, because it can rebuild more easily after a barrage of discard spells, since many cards can replace themselves. It’s also less vulnerable to Collective Brutality and Grafdigger’s Cage, which are commonly played and very effective sideboard cards against those Druid decks.
The bad:: The deck is really soft to combo and burn. There might be ways to build the sideboard differently, but as it stands, you need a really good draw, or a bad one from your opponent, to stand a chance. More importantly, in a lot of ways, this is just a slower Devoted Druid deck. It might be more resilient to the usual hate cards brought against those decks, but the combos here are often too slow for the current modern metagame. One of the strengths of Druid decks is that they can actually race Storm, which this deck can’t really do most of the time. It’s often Bird into Eldritch Evolution for Eidolon of Rhetoric turn two, or bust, and you’re just screwed if they have an answer.
What it needs to be competitive: A Devoted Druid ban could make this a contender among the creature combo archetype. As a whole, it feels like the whole format needs to slow down before this deck becomes truly viable. But it’s close.
The good: Based on the Arbor Elf/Utopia Sprawl engine, this deck is capable of generating a lot of mana very quickly. The best draws can produce eight to ten mana by turn four. At that point, if you can resolve a Genesis Wave for seven or more, you can likely cast a second, bigger Genesis Wave, by untapping Nykthos and a land with auras using Garruk Wildspeaker, and by retrieving the Wave with an Eternal Witness. From there, you can dump your entire library on the battlefield and attack with Craterhoof Behemoth and a few Strangleroot Geists for massive damage. Or you can time walk your opponent by using Primal Command to put a land back on top of his or her library, while finding Eternal Witness to do it again next turn. The deck also has a strong mana denial plan, using Acidic Slime, Primal Command (and the devastating Plow Under after sideboard) to crush big other mana decks. Primal Command’s versatility really shines here, enabling the backdoor plan of finding Primeval Titan, while also acting as defense against aggro strategies and as graveyard hate. If all else fails, a Garruk ultimate on a crowded board can also end the game in a hurry.
The bad:: Death’s Shadow decks can often run circles around this one, especially if they have Collective Brutality in the sideboard. Control decks also have draws that can be really hard to beat, though this might be one of the decks which can best leverage Path to Exile’s drawback. Storm can also be a very rough matchup, especially on the draw. You basically have to combo out before they do, which is not that likely to work.
What it needs to be competitive: A metagame where fast combo and Death’s Shadow are not very prevalent. This deck is very powerful and resilient, and has the tools to overwhelm most midrange, control and big mana decks. In the right context, I could actually see myself trying this one out in a competitive event.
The good: Resolving one of these planeswalkers spells doom for most midrange decks, including Death’s Shadow. Oath of Nissa and Cascading Cataracts (which seems janky as hell, but actually helps solve consistency issues as it can be found with Expedition Map and Sylvan Scrying) enables you to cast those walkers way ahead of schedule with an assembled Urzatron. Access to the five colors makes the deck and sideboard highly customizable.
The bad:: While the threats this deck plays are awesome against many decks, many others can also just ignore most of them. The manabase is also quite clunky at times, especially when you don’t draw Oath of Nissa.
What it needs to be competitive: Less planeswalkers and more colorless threats; less Oath of Nissa and more Ancient Stirrings; less colors and more consistency. Well, you get the idea. Honestly, as it stands, this is more of an “achievement unlocked” kind of deck. If your goal is to win a tournament, play a version of Tron that’s actually good.
The good: Initially designed in the days of Gitaxian Probe, this deck is sort of an “Infect without Infect” deck, but where every spell acts as a pump spell. It’s built to maximize the power of the Temur Battle Rage / Become Immense combo, which often kills opponents out of nowhere. It runs on an engine similar to Grixis Death’s Shadow, without dealing as much damage to itself unless it’s going for the kill. In other decks, Temur Battle Rage is often a liability when drawn at the wrong moment, but Mutagenic Growth greatly helps mitigate that. I think this might be the only deck in Modern where Stormchaser Mage is actually good. Delver of Secrets is basically Swifstspear with evasion, that is, a one-drop that deals 18 damage with Battle Rage and Become Immense. Forked Bolt is awesome against elves and other Collected Company decks. The deck can capitalize on the low number of Spellskites running around these days, as that was one of the strongest cards against it. No one sees the sideboarded Hazoret coming, and it’s very good against any non-white deck that wants to kill all your dudes.
The bad:: The Gitaxian Probe ban really hit this deck hard. I actually played this one in a PPTQ back then and made top 8 with it because it was basically an Infect deck with a great matchup against actual Infect. I’m not sure it can totally recover at this point. The emergence of Death’s Shadow and the uptick in Chalices of the Void also makes this type of deck poorly positioned right now.
What it needs to be competitive: It’s still fun to play and still really effective at times, but it’s missing something. That something is Gitaxian Probe. Not only was the information a big deal for a deck like this, but the immediacy of the free card draw led to many explosive turns that even something like Mishra’s Bauble can’t quite replicate.
Of course, among the many decks I have tried, there have also been abysmal failures like that Pyromancer’s Goggles control deck that attempted to kill opponents by copying Electrolyzes and Cruel Ultimatums (fortunately/unfortunately, I lost that decklist). There have been decks can no longer be played, like the Brain in a Jar/split card deck. Then there are those ideas that I have yet to try out, such as an Aetherworks Marvel/Nahiri deck, or a green-blue Eldrazi deck with Elder-Deep Fiends.
The point is, don’t be afraid to experiment, especially at low-value tournaments like FNM. Modern is a wide-open format, and even today, it still has a lot of untapped potential and unexplored ideas. Even when experiments don’t really pan out, hey, at least it’s good for a laugh. And if you’re lucky, who knows, perhaps you could find the next big thing. Sometimes all it takes is a new card, a metagame shift, or maybe a ban or two, to thrust a Friday night homebrew into the Sunday night spotlight.