Editor’s note: this article was written prior to the bannings of [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] and [card]Punishing Fire[/card]. Manadeprived feels that the bulk of this article is still highly relevant to players wishing to understand the Modern format.
For those unaware, this upcoming PTQ season is Modern. Luckily for writers everywhere, Modern is actually a pretty good format right now. It is still fresh enough to allow innovation, while still being defined enough to have an established metagame. There are lots of strategies capable of winning a PTQ, enough so that I highly recommend playing something you are comfortable with. This article is intended to serve as a guide to help in deck selection for the upcoming PTQ season. And with that note, I will segue into an aside that is almost long enough to merit an article of its own…
How many Magic players at a PTQ are the best in the room? I’m sure if you ask around, you’ll find a dozen or more at any given qualifier (hint: it’s never me! sadface). Wait, wait Marc, you said THE best, didn’t you? Of course I did! In all seriousness, there are two camps of Magic players: those who think they are better than they really are and those that say they are bad/terrible/awful. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, the former camp is a bit larger. The first thing to do in deck selection is figure out exactly how good you are and pick a deck that will play to your strengths. Every Magic player has different strengths, whether it’s patience, threat assessment, bluffing, math, sideboarding, etc. and the Modern format is currently deep enough to reward those skills. Years ago I went to GP Dallas, an extended GP, and brought a gifts rock along to a format I didn’t know nearly well enough. Now even putting aside the fact that gifts rock never wins anything, it was still a horrible choice. Every turn I had a million decisions to make! Between what lands to get with fetches/[card]Sakura Tribe-Elder[/card], whether to tutor up Top, Chalice or Explosives with my [card]Trinket Mage[/card], what to get with my Gifts, even how to Top properly with all those shuffle effects, I had no chance. What was I thinking? I don’t think a single person in the history of the game would have been able to play that deck properly for 7 rounds, it just had way too much going on.
I still fall in to this trap way too often. Something about tutoring seems so appealing, I can never get away from it. At Nationals 2010, of course my deck was jammed with [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], and my standard record suffered enough to barely keep me out of top 8. Even for this year, upon stumbling on the Twinpod list I used, I was worried that during testing the huge amount of fun I was having was stopping me from being objective. Luckily the fact that I was aware of the trap I had fallen in to before helped me to avoid it again and I honestly think that it was the second best deck to play at the time (the best was Caw-blade, which I was not at all comfortable with).
Back to Modern…
In Modern, my process for deck selection is simple. I want something proactive, since the reactive decks have too many things they need to answer. Even if you do manage to build a perfect control deck, there is a good chance you’ll draw the wrong answers for the wrong games, since between Storm, Living End, Affinity, Twin, Zoo and Melira, it is very difficult to find cards to answer these that overlap. Removal is good against some and dead against others. Some are vulnerable to graveyard hate, some to discard. The worst part is that none of these proactive decks give you very long to find your answers.
As for the proactive decks it all depends on the hate. In my opinion, Tribal Zoo is the most powerful deck but also has the most hate going for it right now. Going in to the Modern portion of Worlds, I actually wanted to play Tribal Zoo, but we didn’t have the cards for it. It is still the top deck and barring any more bannings (editor’s note: for those unaware, [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] and [card]Punishing Fire[/card] have been banned), should be well represented at most tournaments.
Pros: Easy to play. Very powerful and consistent. Customizable within a degree.
Cons: Expensive. Big target on its head.
For Worlds, I knew I wanted to play a deck that had the ability to steal games. Unlike a PTQ, I didn’t need to win (almost) every round, and Affinity as a whole has enough variance to win a few matches just from what you see in your opening hand. It worked out pretty well for me in that regard but I wouldn’t recommend it at the moment. The increase in spot removal as a backlash to zoo makes it a worse choice than it was before and even so, there are a few too many [card]Punishing Fire[/card]s, [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]s and [card]Seal of Primordial[/card]s to make me comfortable. Other aggro decks are pretty much invalidated by zoo and affinity since no other deck can match the consistent speed of [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] and co. or the raw explosiveness of Affinity.
Pros: Explosive. Cheap to build. Capable of the fastest wins in modern.
Cons: Vulnerable to hate. Suffers from zoo hate overlap. Very draw dependant.
Status: Not recommended
As for combo, if you happen to find one that works well, you had better win the tournament since it will likely be banned soon after! Modern is shaking down to a healthy point, and the remaining known combo decks are [card]Splinter Twin[/card], Storm, [card]Ad Nauseam[/card] and Melira. Splinter Twin has not impressed me, since after getting rid of [card]Ponder[/card] and [card]Preordain[/card], it lost a lot of consistency and is arguably not even as good as it’s standard equivalent 5 months ago (and even then it wasn’t dominating or anything).
Pros: Pilot may already have practice with the deck from recent standard format. Can combo with pretty good permission package backing it up. Redundancy in combo pieces.
Cons: Low power. No good plan B. A bit slow.
Status: Not recommended
Storm decks did quite well in Philadelphia using swath, but the new breed is on different plan. Losing [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card] AND [card]Rite of Flame[/card] neutered Storm pretty hard, but printing [card]Past in Flames[/card] gave the deck enough gas to be more resistant (if slower) choice that still put up some respectable numbers.
Pros: Rewards those good at math and probability. Immune to spot removal. Cheap to build.
Cons: Requires a lot of space for combo pieces and very little room for innovation. Difficult to play properly.
Status: Not recommended
Ad Nauseum has not put up impressive numbers recently since it still requires some work. It is completely resistant to removal, which is nice, but is a bit too slow and clunky to be a tier one deck. If some decent amount of time was spent working on it, I might see it becoming tier one, but I think it needs a missing piece filled before taking it to a tournament.
Pros: Immune to removal. Hard to hate out.
Cons: Not quite fast enough. Shaky mana. No good plan B. Not enough ways to interact with opponent.
Status: Not recommended
Moving on to what I believe to be a trap, we can examine Melira Pod. Here is a deck can that pull off a turn 3 combo that is enough to win most games (Twin can still beat infinite life if they kill a piece then combo themselves, as can poison if Melira isn’t around), plus has a decent beatdown plan, plus has a pretty good Zoo matchup! What’s not to love? Well look through the deck and you will find that not only is the deck endlessly complicated, but every slot matters so much due to tutors that leaving out one key card can be the difference between victory and defeat. I think this deck is actually quite good right now, but I wouldn’t touch it without very extensive practice, since knowing when to combo and when to just attack is a tough skill to master.
Pros: Good plan B. Good against zoo. Combo faster than other decks. Able to recover a failed combo attempt.
Cons: Hard to find correct line of play. Easily disrupted.
Now, having said that control isn’t in the best spot right now doesn’t mean that control decks are completely dead. Various Gifts and Teachings decks have done reasonably well and can be customized to be very strong if the metagame is predicted correctly. That being said, it is very difficult to figure out which cards are necessary and which cards are just too cute and narrow when building a deck around repeatable tutor effects. On top of that, some decks in the format have nut draws that beat you no matter how well your deck is built. Control will become a larger player in the format as natural evolution settles things down a bit, and might be a good choice for the long term. As of now though, as I said I prefer to be proactive.
Pros: Customizable. Able to beat any deck if built properly. Consistant.
Cons: Tough to play. Long rounds. Even if you correctly predict the format as 40% Zoo 40% Affinity 20% random, you still might find your aggro-destroying deck paired against randoms every round.
Status: Not recommended (until things settle down)
On the exact opposite side of things, we find a midrange deck that I would recommend for the early stages of the season, but not the latter ones. Midrange in modern is represented by Jund, winning the MOCS, beating Zoo in the process. Jund can do a pretty good job beating the aggro decks, and can beat some of the combo decks, but will struggle against control. As a result, it will be a good early choice but will only get worse. It is a deck that consistently does reasonably powerful things (let’s say always 8/10) instead of sometimes doing insane things (a deck with a range of 4/10 to 10/10). That consistency can really help when other people are stumbling around with untuned lists.
Pros: Consistent. Good against zoo. No unwinnable matchups.
Cons: Low on raw power (relative to the format).
Status: Recommended (until things settle down)
Overall, with so many viable strategies, even if you think you are the best player in the room, I still would prefer to bring a deck that has an unbeatable nut draw as well as some very good matchups. Getting free wins has extra value in a long tournament and trying to beat absolutely everything dilutes things too much. If I were to play in an upcoming PTQ, I would likely either start testing Melira asap or build a control deck catered to wreck the top 3 expected decks, ignoring the rest. Sure it leaves your fate up to the pairing gods, but if the goal is to win the top slot, if I play a deck I’m favored to win with 55% of the time all tournament, I won’t even make top 8. There are other decks, such as Death Cloud, Living End, and Elves, but none of these have been impressive enough for me to consider them threats. Good luck to everyone competing, and I hope to see you on the flight to the next pro tour!