Ancestral Vision and You

If you’re anything like me then you’ve spent the last couple weeks damaging your already bad eyes, squinting and scouring all over the internet, trying to find the breakout [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] decks that we all expected after its unbanning. At first the card seemed like it could improve almost any blue strategy: Jeskai control, RUG midrange, Grixis, [card]Scapeshift[/card], Thopters. The possibilities were endless. Yet, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be a single definitive deck showcasing [card]Ancestral Vision[/card]. Remember, Reid Duke went so far as to say it, along with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], was likely one of the best cards in Modern. A quick glance at the top 32 from SCG Milwaukee reveals a mere 7 copies of this “powerful” draw spell, most of these copies being registered in a taking turns deck. If we can assume that more players are playing AV than are winning with it, then it seems that all is not well in the state of Blue Modern. What gives?

Everything I’ve heard on the topic so far suggests one of two things. Either people have yet to fully realize the power of AV in the correct shell, or Modern is simply too fast for it to be good. Obviously drawing three cards for little initial investment is powerful, but for some reason it isn’t being used to great effect. There are some very sad blue mages out there who are drawing a lot of cards and not winning with them, and I think that’s a travesty. Something must be done!

Unfortunately the odds are once again stacked against us poor, poor, poor, neglected blue mages. Everything in this format is taking its turn being the durdle police. Infect, Burn, Affinity, Zoo, all of these strategies were already good in the format, and the haters couldn’t give a Fblthp less about the extra cards we hold so dear.

But before we pass final judgment, we should ask ourselves a few important questions. After all, the whole format isn’t [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s, Ravagers and [card]Blighted Agent[/card]s. The 2nd place deck at Milwaukee was Tron for Thassa’s sake, and Ugin ain’t exactly a Ferrari. Just how fast is Modern anyways?

The Fundamental Turn

A quick turn to classic Magic theory might help us figure out what’s up. The most important article on the fundamental turn comes from Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz’s “Clear the Land and the Fundamental Turn.” Moshowitz details how the playability of any given deck is dependent on an inflexible constraint: the average turn on which a deck, undisrupted, will win the game in a given format. He reasons that any deck that is incapable of interacting by a format’s fundamental turn, or incapable of racing that turn, is doomed to lose over and over again. This is why you can’t play durdle.dec in Modern, (I’m looking at you Tezzeret). Your synergies and late-game just fold to 60% of the format because they are faster than you, plain and simple.

The fundamental turn is a simple enough idea, but it has had very real consequences for how we think about Modern. For instance, you can’t swing a dead cat in a Modern forum without hitting someone preaching the virtues of Modern because of the incredible diversity of decks. “There are so many viable strategies!”, they say. “You can play combo, or midrange, or aggro, whatever you want!”, they say. “Stop playing [card]Savage Knuckleblade[/card], it’s unplayable garbage”, they say. You know what? They’re right. You can play all sorts of decks. But what all of those decks have in common is their respect for Modern’s fundamental turn. Every successful deck in Modern either races or disrupts by the 2nd or 3rd turn of the game, or else they lose in spectacular fashion.

So the fundamental turn, in its first and most basic sense, refers to the speed of a format: the average turn in which a deck converts most of its resources (be they cards, life points or tempo) into a game win. If AV is slower than Modern’s FT we definitely have a problem.

So how slow is Ancestral? Well in the best-case scenario Visions will resolve on T5 and that only happens the 40 odd percent of the time when we draw it in our opening hand with an untapped land. That only happens if we play 4. This means that the “real” average cast time for AV is actually much slower than T5, and goes down the fewer copies that we play. If Burn/Affinity/Infect/Zoo can have us dead, or dead to several topdecks, by T3, then it doesn’t take an [card]Augury Owl[/card] to predict that AV is indeed too slow for that portion of the format. I would put the FT of Modern at around T 3.5: the turn after most decks either win, or effectively win, if undisrupted. Strike one against AV.

So what about the disruption that AV decks bring to the table? After all, it’s not like we are goldfishing a combo to beat burn. AV decks, almost by definition, are not interested in racing the FT of Modern, but are rather interested in disrupting it. Herein lies another problem for AV: there are a diverse number of ways to race the format’s fundamental turn, but few consistent ways of disrupting it. There are so many different decks that try to race the FT that any disruption has to be exceedingly flexible. Historically, this has meant playing a card like [card]Thoughtseize[/card] or [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] over something narrow like [card]Lightning Helix[/card] or even [card]Path to Exile[/card]. Your disruption needs to be both cheap and versatile; a tall order considering the relative weakness of the Modern card pool when it comes to spells. Path is dead against Ad Nauseum. Helix is poor in control mirrors. Even [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card], one of the hallmarks of Modern disruption, doesn’t always interact well with AV. If your deck actively wants your opponent to be hellbent when you’re turning the corner, then drawing Inquisiton of Kozilek, land, and [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] is a pretty poor payoff for all your hard work.

So in terms of disruption, black decks without AV are still the gold standard. They, more than any other deck, can combine the potent combination of offense and disruption. In terms of interaction we can still play blue decks, but we are starting from a disadvantage. Strike two.


Drowned

If we can’t race, or disrupt effectively, it would seem that AV decks are dead in the water. But just because we can’t match the speed of the format doesn’t mean we can’t get the speed of the format to match us. What if we could slow the format down instead of trying to race it? What if we could engineer a situation in which [card]Ancestral Vision[/card]s wasn’t too slow, or too fast, but always just right?

People have, of course, already tried this. Jeskai players lean towards cards like [card]Lightning Helix[/card] and [card]Mana Leak[/card] to slow down the game. Grixis players go full board on [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card]s and Bolts, but still struggle to make that sweet, card drawing juice, of AV worth the squeeze. So either the cards players use to delay the game are insufficient in slowing opponents down or the cost of putting early interaction in our decks is proving to be not worth the sacrifice of late game power. (Drawing [card]Mana Leak[/card] off a T9 Vision is pretty bad).

But don’t despair blue mages! There is another way to approach AV, even if the format is too fast. As Moshowitz notices, the Fundamental Turn doesn’t just apply to the macro level of the average format as whole: it also applies on the micro level of individual cards, opening hands, and match ups between particular decks. While the format as a whole gives us a good standard to measure against, it is only a theoretical average, and by no means dictates how every game will play out. This is precisely why a deck like Tron can exist in the format at all: even despite being too slow, Tron is so decisively good against the slower parts of the format that it can pick up wins against decks trying to play the “control” against those same fast decks that it loses to.

If the FT is decided by the average speed between two decks, and even between two opening hands (and the possibilities of the cards added to them), then we actually have a great deal of control over what that turn is. This is why we sometimes mulligan perfectly good hands depending on the MU. Against a deck like burn, if our hand measures up unfavorably against the average turn in which the game will be decided, we should throw it back for something better. It also explains why it’s usually a good idea to keep 7 against Jund: because the FT is so late in this MU, we need as many cards as possible to be in a favourable position when Jund tries to take over the game.

Yet the point at which we have the most control over the fundamental turn, and the point at which people haven’t yet experimented with AV, is actually during sideboarding. Decks like Affinity have already figured this out: by slowing down post-board Affinity realigns the speed of the MU to be more favourable by making its threats slower, and more durable, and by eliminating cards that lose value against hate (see ya later memthing, hello Shiny Grey Ogre [[card]Etched Champion[/card]]). These decks try to match an expected decrease in the speed of the game when going to post-board games.

My theory is that if games already tend to slow down post-board, and if we have a great deal more control over the pace of the game after we bring in specific cards for specific MUs, then isn’t [card]Ancestral Vision[/card]s going to perform best post-board?

If we can sideboard effectively in variety of MUs and push back the FT, then why would we start a 60 card deck that is, on average, worse against the field by virtue of containing [card]Ancestral Vision[/card]? If Modern in general is hostile against it, why not start experimenting with Vision as a sideboard card and as part of a coherent post-board strategy?

Ask Not What your Vision Can Do for You: Ask What You can do for Your Vision

5888e687593bdede073368797aa2472b-1
I am confident that rethinking [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] in this way can improve the decks that want to play it. However, I am not sure of how best to execute this plan, or if this is enough to make [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] part of a viable, tier 1 strategy. What I want to do next is outline some scenarios in which [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] is good, bad or somewhere in-between. This should give us some idea of the broad applications of the card so that we can start to optimize its inclusion pre and post-board. It is too easy to think of AV as a hammer: a super powerful draw engine that puts you miles ahead of the opponent. I am beginning to think it is more like a Swiss army knife that has variable uses and applications depending on context.

Ancestral Vision seems good under the following circumstances:

  1. When cards are more important than tempo. Against decks like Jund, or control mirrors, we know we will have the time and space to resolve it and that those cards will help us win the game. These are also MUs in which additional copies of AV will be live draws.
  2. When we are on the play. This is a big deal in many match-ups because it increases the odds of us being able to use the cards we draw before dying by a full turn.
  3. When we mulligan. If I go down to six or five I am just praying to draw a [card]Ancestral Vision[/card] in my opener. Of course this means we will have one fewer interactive cards, but the odds of recovery after resolving a Vision probably make up for this in any situation where you would leave them in.

Ancestral Vision seems bad when these things happen:

  1. When it is too slow. If it is set to resolve after we are dead then it will do us no good even if it is in our opening hand (especially on the draw).
  2. When tempo is more important than cards and we have to race rather than control. Against Affinity and Burn this will often be the case, as well as with decks like [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card] where a small amount of disruption is often enough to win.
  3. When it is drawn late in the game. Sometimes you can’t afford more than the necessary amount of dead draws (lands, conditional counterspells). Some people have tried to mitigate this by adding cards like Jace, Vryns’s Prodigy, [card]Desolate Lighthouse[/card], or [card]Izzet Charm[/card]. Playing these cards in a control shell may be worthwhile, but also comes at a cost.

There are also many situations where AV can be a strange combination of good and bad:

  1. Match ups that are generally slow, but end decisively; think of [card]Scapeshift[/card] or Tron. Having extra cards in these MUs are fine, but Vision can be bad if it isn’t played on 1.
  2. Against a random opponent. If we don’t know the MU AV is the definition of swingy.
  3. When we are unsure of who’s the beatdown. Against a deck like [card]Jeskai Ascendancy[/card] with a Mentor package, we can’t be sure if we are racing or controlling. AV will vary in power level depending on how the opponent chooses to play.

Well then. You probably want a decklist. Here’s where I would start:

Jeskai Midrange
[deck]
[creatures]
4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
2 Vendilion Clique
1 Baneslayer Angel
[/creatures]
[spells]
4 Serum Visions
4 Path to Exile
4 Lightning Helix
3 Anger of the Gods
2 Spell Snare
2 Cryptic Command
2 Logic Knot
2 Negate
2 Electrolyze
1 Remand
1 Ancestral Visions
[/spells]
[lands]
4 Flooded Strand
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Arid Mesa
3 Celestial Colonnade
2 Sulfur Falls
2 Steam Vents
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Rugged Prairie
2 Island
1 Mountain
1 Plains
[/lands]
[sideboard]
3 Ancestral Visions
2 Kitchen Finks
2 Stony Silence
2 Eidolon of Rhetoric
2 Negate
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Izzet Staticaster
1 Teferi, Mage of Zalifir
[/sideboard]
[/deck]

Some choices here are meta dependent. Brimaz and the Angers are my response to the apparent rise in CoCo and Zoo strategies. The one AV in the main is there because the first copy has a very low opportunity cost considering you won’t draw redundant copies after it resolves. The Eidolons in the board are also an experiment, but seem applicable in a variety of MUs (combo in particular could be a problem for this configuration, though it also provides some splash damage against Burn, Infect and [card]Living End[/card]). Also: [card]Logic Knot[/card] is very good. Play it!

This is just one example of a possible configuration. With some knowledge of when AV is good and when it is bad, we can start to think about optimizing its inclusion in our deck. My theory is that if AV is better on the play, and better after sideboard, then we want a main deck that is as consistent as possible against an open field to allow us to win game ones. If we can win pre-board games at a rate at or above 60% against the field (dubious, I know), then we can maximize the opportunities to be on the play in one of the post boarded games. With 4 Visions in the deck, on the play, after configuring our control deck for a given MU, I believe we could be at a distinct advantage against all but the fastest draws in the format.

I’m not yet sure what the ideal starting 60 and I don’t know if I should be playing Planeswalkers or creatures. I’m not sure what the correct removal/countermagic suite should be. But what I do know is that this deck is built on principles that will help us test and optimize when Vision is good and when it is not. By starting Vision in the board we get to control and measure its effectiveness in various situations. This makes all sorts of experimentation worthwhile.

Ultimately this list is just one step towards figuring out how to make AV work, and there are many other lists that might do the same. Grixis seems as viable to me as Jeskai. Both have challenges to overcome, especially considering how fluid the Modern metagame can be week to week. It is possible that these challenges cannot be met given the Modern card pool, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Go blue mages! Test! Draw all the cards!

Thanks for reading.
-Richard Welch

Brewing in the Zoo: The Birth of “Pokemon Invitational”

“Pay no attention to that (wo)man behind the curtain.” – The Wizard of Oz (sorta)

At this point folks I’m starting to wonder if I have a disease. It must be an illness of the mind, a malady that prevents me from playing nice with the other children at recess. I’m not even sure there’s a medical term for it, but I have a deep-seated, overwhelming urge to punch people in the mouth at Magic tables. I don’t mean literally; they’ll arrest you for this sort of behavior and there’s no way someone as crazy as I am would survive prison for any extended period of time. No ladies and gentlemen, I get my bloodsport fix by playing Modern Magic. While I’m sure some would disagree, to me Modern is the ultimate heavyweight fight in Magic. You don’t have time to dance; two decks square off and trade vicious blows with ridiculously powerful cards until someone staggers. Standard may be a wrestling match, Legacy a delicate ballet of combo decks and [card]Force of Will[/card]s but Modern is definitely a Mike Tyson fight; 30 seconds of thunder and some blood on the canvas. As a Magic player, this is my wheelhouse and until recently I was playing the deck I felt had the best knockout punches in the format: Jund. In my opinion there was no better 1-2-3 combination in Modern than [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] into [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] into [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card]. Unfortunately the DCI agreed and [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] isn’t in the format anymore. Overall, this was probably the best decision for the health of Modern; BBE was seeing more and more play all the time and she was definitely suppressing aggro and control strategies simultaneously.

This left me without a deck for the remainder of the PTQ season and I was forced to scramble to find something elswild-nacatle. I tried new versions of “Jund” decks but as I’d initially suspected the loss of [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] had morphed Jund into something that no longer interested me. Without the Elf, Jund was a grindy control deck that tried to mix and match answer cards until the opponent’s hand was emptied. While this may be a perfectly viable strategy for some, I felt it was underpowered and most definitely not about punching people in the mouth. I moved on to Junk and then BUG before I realized that I just didn’t like Midrange Decks in Modern without [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card]. While these decks were capable of some explosive draws they were equally capable of durdling around for four turns playing answer cards before flooding out or drawing stone nothing. They were far too dependent on [card]Dark Confidant[/card] for card advantage and [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] for mana acceleration. When my opponent went out of his way to kill those creatures, these decks simply fell apart. Frustrated, I began tweaking a Jund list to become more and more aggressive until it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually building a “new” type of Zoo deck.

I should warn you that the article you are about to read is about brewing a new kind of Zoo deck in Modern. This is important because I have not actually played this deck in a sanctioned Magic tournament. While from a theoretical standpoint I’m sure this deck is fundamentally sound and it has performed well in playtesting; it is still unlikely to be a completely finished product at this point. The important part here is the process that went into brewing the deck and how you can brew potential variations of your own. Personally I’m growing less and less interested in writing articles about decklists and more interested in writing about how you can build your *own* quality decklists. It is my hope that by sharing the process that went into building my deck I can inspire others to go out and make their own brews. If the decklist we examine below suits you, please feel free to copy it wholesale but I’d much rather you tweak up your own version and try that out instead.

Building a Mystery:

For those of you new to the Modern format the term Zoo is probably quite confusing. At this point the definition has grown to encompass virtually any 3-5 color aggro deck that runs some cheap dudes, and the standard Bolt, Helix, Path removal package. Many of the “Zoo” decks in this format have eschewed aggressive 1 drops altogether and as a result look a lot more like 5 color mid-range than anything an old-timer like myself would call Zoo. From a traditional perspective however Zoo is usually a hyper efficient aggro deck built around under-costed 1 drops and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]. For an archetypal example take a look at Pat Cox’s Zoo deck from the fall of 2011:

[deck title=Pat Cox PT Philadelphia, Modern Constructed]
[Land]
4 Arid Mesa
1 Blood Crypt
1 Forest
1 Godless Shrine
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Plains
1 Sacred Foundry
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
4 Verdant Catacombs
[/Land]
[Creatures]
2 Gaddock Teeg
2 Grim Lavamancer
4 Kird Ape
4 Loam Lion
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
3 Path to Exile
4 Thoughtseize
4 Tribal Flames
[/Spells]
[Sideboard]
2 Aven Mindcensor
2 Deathmark
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Gaddock Teeg
1 Path to Exile
2 Qasali Pridemage
1 Ranger of Eos
1 Rule of Law
1 Sword of Body and Mind
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

Now to be fair, this wasn’t the best Zoo deck at that Pro Tour. Team ChannelFireball tore up the tournament with a Blue variant called “Counter-Cat” and ultimately I believe this is why WotC banned [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]. In my opinion however Pat’s deck is a more pure expression of traditional Zoo:

  • He has 12 powerful 1 drops
  • His deck is split almost evenly between Lands, Spells and Creatures
  • The entire build curves out at 2 mana pre-sideboard

Of course Pat didn’t win the Pro Tour; Samuele Estratti did with a [card]Splinter Twin[/card] build. Additionally once the DCI stepped in to ban [card]Wild Nacatl[/card], Zoo was forced to adapt or die. For the most part it simply died and despite the brave efforts of many brewers, Zoo ceased to be a real presence in the format for a while. These barren times were eased with the printing of [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] but Zoo wasn’t really back as a player in the format until WotC added [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] to the mixture. Geist is powerful, but a turn two Traft backed up by a seven point [card]Tribal Flames[/card] is absolutely monstrous here in Modern. As a Jund player I have lived in fear of this opener for the past five months and I knew that if I was going to brew up a Zoo deck this combination would definitely be part of the equation.

Steve_Argyle_Deathrite_Shamantest-featuredOnce I’d decided to build around [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and Traft the question became how to support them with the rest of the build. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, mulling is something of a tricky science here in Modern. Most of the best decks do in fact mulligan well because of the preponderance of cheap, powerful spells in the format. Unfortunately due to sheer greed and a lack of easy ways to generate card advantage it’s actually extremely difficult to mull towards specific cards in the format. You simply aren’t shipping hands with good opening cards and all your colors to find a specific knockout opener or meta card. Additionally, even if I were to mull towards these cards every game there’s a good chance my opponents would figure it out eventually and just kill the Shaman. I’m not going to turn my nose up at a turn three Geist but the truth is that he’s infinitely more powerful if you cast him on turn two. Finally of course, a maindeck Pyro would completely blow me out if my only opening line was Deathrite into Traft.

The trick was to keep the deck fast without depending on the Geist. There were plenty of cards that worked well with my established best line in place but I felt they were mostly unnecessary. Assuming you kept the path clear of blockers, Traft would win the game by himself and so I immediately rejected cards like Elspeth and [card]Restoration Angel[/card] as off topic. What I wanted was another 1-2-3 punch that could be executed as quickly as possible; preferably while being immune to [card]Pyroclasm[/card]. This naturally lead me to towards [card]Kird Ape[/card] and [card]Loam Lion[/card] but it was actually a new card from Gatecrash that completed the trifecta; [card]Experiment One[/card].

Now before you get excited please allow me to state for the record that [card]Experiment One[/card] is more of a Nacatl-like substance than [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]. The basic idea is to lead with a turn one Experiment and then bring down two other one drops on turn two that evolve it to a 3/3. In this way the 3 toughness on [card]Kird Ape[/card] and [card]Loam Lion[/card] becomes extremely relevant and if you play your cards right you end up with three creatures in play on turn two that can’t be “Pyro’d”. The downside is that a late game [card]Experiment One[/card] is the worst possible topdeck unless by some miracle you’re holding onto a couple of dudes to evolve him. Of course, this problem is substantially mitigated when you play [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] because the 4/4 Angel will in fact grow your Experiment.  Trust me, a 4/4 one drop that can shrink to regenerate is nothing to sneeze at but even if you just cast him before you attack with Traft, it’s easy to get value out of a topdecked [card]Experiment One[/card].

After settling on my optimal lines the rest of the deck started to get a little clearer. I knew I’d be running some combination of [card]Path to Exile[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] and [card]Lightning Helix[/card] to clear the path for Traft. I also knew that I was going to need at least eight Fetchlands to power the [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and ideally I wanted to splash a Black source to eventually activate him. Once it became clear that the deck would eventually establish Domain, it was hard to turn down the raw power of [card]Tribal Flames[/card] as a finishing option. Finally I decided to add [card]Goblin Guide[/card] as a way to generate speed and consistency in the early game. This allowed me to lead with [card]Experiment One[/card], cast [card]Goblin Guide[/card] and then an Ape/Lion to present the fastest possible clock on turn two and I was pretty excited once I saw this line in action.

The Shadow of Doubt:

Unfortunately the last few slots threw a monkey wrench into the gearbox. At first I’d settled on [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]Tarmogoyf to round out the deck but he vastly underperformed in early iterations of the build. For starters, there are only 4 card types in the deck: Instants, Lands, Creatures and four copies of [card]Tribal Flames[/card] (Sorcery). Further complicating matters; the deck actually just hates [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]. The overall greed of the build generally forces [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] to exile lands every turn, one of your best removal spells doesn’t put a creature in the Graveyard (Path)and you tend to hold back [card]Tribal Flames[/card] until the very last turn of the game. In practice this meant that my [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s were often 3/4‘s, sometimes 2/3’s and never 5/6’s without my opponent’s help. Goyf wasn’t actively bad in the deck but he wasn’t good either and this sent me scrambling over the next week for another answer.

This was a volatile time for the build as I began to try every on-color power card that cost three or less in the format to round out the deck. Thalia went in, which in turn demanded I remove [card]Tribal Flames[/card] which itself forced a reworking of the mana base. This version was good against midrange and combo but lacked the punch to outrace aggro and was basically stone dead if they managed to cast a sweeper. I started messing around with the removal numbers to accommodate [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] and eventually ended up with a deck that was 18 land, 29 creatures and a whole lot of pain. Unfortunately this pain was mostly shared; the exotic manabase required to support such a low land count frequently left me on 11 life without any help from my opponent. At some point I’d changed the deck so many times that all the games were beginning to blur together and I was losing confidence in the build. I needed some help and I turned towards a small group of brewers, friends and teammates to help me solve the puzzle.

With a Little Help from My Friends:

Once these guys set me straight the road ahead became very clear. [card]Tribal Flames[/card] was simply a better card than Thalia and since they were mostly incompatible she had to go. Once I’d settled on [card]Tribal Flames[/card] as the 3rd line of attack, I knew I wanted to get [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] into the deck somehow. This necessitated a move to 19 land to increase our chances of hitting four mana which then made it possible to consider [card]Dark Confidant[/card]. I ultimately decided on a 2/2 split of the Invitational cards but this might be incorrect; I’ve been tempted to try three [card]Dark Confidant[/card]s and a single Snappy at times. The basic idea is that Bob helps us draw more [card]Tribal Flames[/card] (or burn in general) while Snappy lets us reuse the copies we’ve drawn.  With these final modifications in place I build the manabase and ended up with the concoction you see below:

[deck title=Pokemon Invitational]
[Creatures]
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Experiment One
4 Kird Ape
4 Goblin Guide
2 Loam Lion
2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Dark Confidant
4 Geist of Saint Traft
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Path to Exile
4 Lightning Helix
4 Tribal Flames
[/Spells]
[Land]
4 Arid Mesa
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
1 Plains
1 Forest
1 Blood Crypt
1 Breeding Pool
1 Godless Shrine
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
[/Land]
[Sideboard]
15 Mountain
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

To be fair, this exact version of the deck may not be perfect. As I mentioned earlier I’m not sure [card]Dark Confidant[/card] isn’t just better than [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] in a deck with so few lands. It’s nice to have the option of casting the same [card]Tribal Flames[/card] twice but in practice this only happens when you’re about to win. The issue for me is that Snapcaster also tends to recycle a lot of [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s and [card]Path to Exile[/card]s along the way; Bob is probably better with [card]Tribal Flames[/card] but Snapcaster is infinitely more versatile. Additionally I am somewhat disappointed with having only six 2/3’s in the build to grow [card]Experiment One[/card] and I have been tempted to cut a Path or maybe even a Helix to get back to three Loam Lions. Finally the manabase is a glorious mess; at least half of the time I’ve spent on this deck has involved reworking which shocklands you can fish off which fetches depending on which line of play you’re trying to pursue. Ultimately I settled on the above 19 land for the following reasons:

  • I couldn’t run 20. Originally I stared the deck with 20 lands and found myself habitually flooding. At first, I assumed this was variance but after trying it on 18 and examining my mana curve there was evidence to support the idea that 20 was too many. Unfortunately 18 land would only allow us to run nine fetches and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] demanded four mana sources in play so I settled on 19 total land.
  • I wanted enough basics to have a hope of playing through a surprise [card]Blood Moon[/card]. While not ideal, the inclusion of a Plains and a Forest makes it possible to cast [card]Ray of Revelation[/card] or [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card] post sideboard after the Moon had been cast. This is also why I didn’t bother including a Mountain.
  • I needed an even number of Red, Green and White sources to facilitate the ridiculous draws our one drops could generate while simultaneously making it possible to cast either Bob or Traft on time. As result the deck contains four lands that produce our primary colors and two lands each for Bob/[card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and Traft/[card]Snapcaster Mage[/card].
  • I preferred to play as many Fetchlands as possible in order to never be caught with a DRS in play and no way to make Traft on turn 2.
  • I wanted to avoid sending myself to 9 life with my own Fetches/Shocks. For the most part I accomplished this objective but due to variance it still happens once in a while.

pokemon

When the dust settled I looked at the deck I’d created and smiled a bit with inward pride. Naturally all mothers think their babies are beautiful but I was impressed with the deck’s raw power and remarkable synergy. All three primary paths to victory (Traft, Weenie Swarm and [card]Tribal Flames[/card]) blended perfectly together while still allowing me to play with a number of cards that were also individually powerful. This is important because it allows Zoo to remain viable in the face of faster, more aggressive aggro/combo decks like Affinity and Infect. These decks depend almost entirely on synergy but are typically very fragile and have horrible sideboards. Zoo isn’t the best topdeck build in Modern but it certainly isn’t the worst and with a genuine 5 color manabase you can run virtually *any* 3CC or less sideboard card in the format. In a moment of pure self indulgence I decided to name the deck “Pokemon Invitational” in honor of the Evolve mechanic, the fact that you “gotta catch all 5 mana types” and because Bob and Snappy are Invitational cards. This is pretty corny but somehow the cheesy nature of the name seems to fit the deck perfectly.

Reinventing the Wheel:

Of course, this isn’t the only way you can build the deck; as I mentioned above I tried a ridiculous number of cards in the deck’s “open” slots with various degrees of success. If you broke the deck down to just its skeleton it would probably look like this:

4x [card]Experiment One[/card]
4x [card]Goblin Guide[/card]
6x 2/3 Beatstick (Ape/Lion)
3x [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]
3x [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]
2x [card]Path to Exile[/card]
4x [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]
3x [card]Lightning Helix[/card]
4x [card]Tribal Flames[/card]
18x Land: at least 9 of which should be Fetchlands.

Naturally, shaving the numbers on key spells like Shaman, Traft, Path and Helix creates a problem in its own right but the above list represents the “essential” cards you probably can’t live without. I guess you could play [card]Steppe Lynx[/card] in the [card]Experiment One[/card] slot but I’ve never been fond of being completely dependent on Fetchlands to attack, myself. The question then becomes what can you do with those remaining nine slots? Unfortunately it’s a complicated question because as soon as you pick one card it greatly influences your remaining choices. If you wanted to add [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] for example, you’d probably need to find at least two more Sorceries. There are a number of attractive three drops in the format that work well in the deck but adding any of them requires you to reinsert [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and a 10th Fetchland. Nobody said this was going to be easy, let’s take a look at some possible “variations” of this decktype:

“Ack Hans Run Remix”

+4 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]newtarmo
+2 [card]Call of the Conclave[/card]
+1 [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card]
+1 [card]Thoughtseize[/card]
+1 Fetchland (And swap a [card]Blood Crypt[/card] for an [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card] in the Shocks)

This version is built to maximize the effectiveness of [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] and increase your up-front Damage potential. You could also add a Sword just to get a potentially killable artifact but I wouldn’t bother. The [card]Thoughtseize[/card]/IoK split is about making your opponent think you might have more discard than you do and saving you a little life. You could make this a 2/2 Split and skip the Calls but that’s less cute/less good for [card]Experiment One[/card].

“Boros Remix”

+3 [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]Boros-Reckoner
+2 [card]Boros Charm[/card]
+1 [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]
+1 Fetchland
+2 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]

Everyone and their moms are brewing with [card]Boros Reckoner[/card] and Charm, why should we miss out on all the fun? This version of the deck is more explosive but also more dependent on a [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] surviving to untap. Personally, I feel [card]Boros Charm[/card] is a great sideboard card for Zoo but if you wanted to maindeck it, this is probably how you’d do it.

“After Dark Remix” 

+4 [card]Dark Confidant[/card]td171_bob
+1 [card]Lightning Helix[/card]
+1 Fetchland
+1 [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]
+2 [card]Tidehollow Sculler[/card]

This is a Black Zoo deck that allows for more discard and control effects in the sideboard. We’ve reinserted the Shaman and Helix to help offset Bob and Sculler is just Zoo’s version of [card]Thoughtseize[/card].

“Little Things that Kill Remix”

+2 [card]Loam Lion[/card]vexing
+2 [card]Path to Exile[/card]
+4 [card]Vexing Devil[/card]
+1 [card]Ranger of Eos[/card]

Just a warning, this deck needs at least three [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card]s in the sideboard to function. [card]Engineered Explosives[/card] and more frighteningly [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] do in fact exist. Theoretically, this deck could operate on 17 lands but I’m not sure I’d even bother with the [card]Ranger of Eos[/card] in that case.

“Waterworld Remix”

+3 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]
+1 [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]snapcaster
+1 [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]
+1 Fetchland (and rework the Shocks to get at least 1, maybe 2 more Blue sources)
+1 [card]Unified Will[/card]
+1 [card]Spell Pierce[/card]
+1 [card]Elspeth, Knight-Errant[/card]

This version ventures into “Counter-Cat” territory without giving up the essential aggressive openers. The downside is; the deck is more dependent on the Shaman/Traft combo to win and it’s hard to cast even minimal counters in a deck that wants to vomit its hand onto the table.

“Here Come the Elephants Remix”

+1 [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]smiter
+1 Fetchland
+3 [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card]
+2 [card]Path to Exile[/card]
+2 [card]Rancor[/card]

I’m fond of this version of the deck; it combines the best parts of Tribal Zoo and the best elements of Bigger Zoo builds without relying heavily on Exalted. Frankly I have very little faith in Exalted in a format with so much good removal and while I like cards like [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] and [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card] on their own I have no desire to build entire decks around them. Once again this deck is dependant on DRS to throw down three drops and I might be tempted to drop the 4th path or maybe even a [card]Goblin Guide[/card] just to get back to 20 lands.

As you can see there’s no shortage of ways to mix and match the various spells you can run in a 5 color Zoo deck in Modern. No doubt many of you are thinking of cards I didn’t try as you read this and frankly that’s part of what makes Zoo so strong in a new/unknown format. Assuming a rough skeleton of just over 30 cards it’s possible to attack virtually any metagame in Modern but for now I’ve chosen to focus on simply improving this deck’s power, synergy and damage potential. My thinking here is that early in a new format (significant bans plus the addition of Gatecrash) you want to be the person asking the questions more than the person providing the answers. Eventually that will change however and Zoo’s manabase and strong chassis lead me to believe it will adapt just fine. Really; Zoo is the new Jund.

I’ll have a Side of Screw You:

This brings us to the sideboard and as I’m sure you already guessed I was joking about running 15 Mountains in the list above. Frankly, I’m trolling the people who skim through my articles and post in the comments; forgive me just this once folks? =) Jokes thaliaaside, it’s difficult to properly build a sideboard for a new format without playing in a bunch of tournaments. Unfortunately, due to health concerns and my inability to score rides to events this option isn’t available to me and therefore I’m forced to build diverse sideboards in a vacuum. This is fine as a starting point but again I urge you to tinker with your sideboard and even maindeck as you start to figure out what *your* environment looks like. There’s no point in building a deck to win a Pro Tour in San Diego if you’re going to be taking it to a Grand Prix Trial in Ohio; build your deck to win the games you will actually play.

To me, the primary decision required to figure out the sideboard for Pokemon Invitational is to decide if you’re a Thalia Deck or a [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] deck. What I mean is, do you intend to sideboard in creatures (which work well with Thalia) or are you going to focus on cheap instants (which work well with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]). This decision is important because in a deck with 26 creatures and only 15 spells it’s significantly easier to switch creatures in and out of the sideboard than it will be to use spells. This suggests a bunch of cheap Hate Bears (like Thalia) would be the easier sideboard but the downside is this makes you “answer” cards vulnerable to removal. If I we’re going down the Thalia road my sideboard would look something like this:

3 [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card] Stops [card]Engineered Explosives[/card], [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]/[card]Wrath of God[/card]/[card]Damnation[/card]. This card is important regardless of which type of sideboard you run.
3 [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card] – We’re bringing this in against Combo and some midrange decks. This card shapes many other decisions in the sideboard; if we’re building around [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] she obviously can’t be here.
3 [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card] – Standard Enchant/Artifact Hatebear
2 [card]Kataki, War’s Wage[/card] – We’re slower than Affinity, which forces us into a control role in games 2 and 3.
2 [card]Tidehollow Sculler[/card] – [card]Thoughtseize[/card] for decks that run Thalia
2 [card]Spellskite[/card] – Splash hate for Infect and Boggle

Unfortunately this isn’t perfect; I’m tempted to cut the Kataki’s for a couple of [card]Rest in Peace[/card] just in case I’ve read the demise of combo incorrectly. This combination of cards does however allow us to easilytd41_gaddockSplash board out Snapcaster and [card]Tribal Flames[/card] to bring in a variety of effective Hate Bears in most of our matches. The upside is that this makes it easy for us to become a Thalia based-beatdown deck in games 2-3 while the downside is we lose the reach from [card]Tribal Flames[/card]/Snapcaster. This type of sideboard is also easy to modify because at this point it’s easy to find a cheap creature based option to combat nearly any deck in the format. If for example [card]Scapeshift[/card] becomes a major player we could easily include [card]Aven Mindcensor[/card] while if Tempo/Control decks were to dominate I’d turn towards [card]Grand Abolisher[/card]. Naturally all of these answers are vulnerable to removal but in this sort of deck we’re likely to be presenting more problem creatures than our opponents can possibly handle in a single game.

While there’s nothing wrong with the Thalia deck, I personally would rather be a [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] deck post board. This approach allows us to play a 3rd Snapcaster in the sideboard and 2 copies each of up to 7 key cheap instants/sorceries to help fuel our engine. The downside is that we must be more precise with our choices in this type of sideboard because we can’t just turn unneeded answer cards sideways for damage.  Additionally since many Zoo decks do run [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] it’s possible our opponents will board in graveyard based meta cards, which isn’t great news for our [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s. If I were going to build this kind of sideboard it would look something like this:

1 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] – The engine that lets us run the rest of this sideboard
2 [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card] – You still need to beat Sweepers/Explosives/Chalice.
2 [card]Boros Charm[/card] – Hates sweepers
1 [card]Ray of Revelation[/card] – Hates out enchantments with no Snapcaster Required
1 [card]Back to Nature[/card] – Back up [card]Ray of Revelation[/card]; Boggle Destroyer.
1 [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] – Hates out artifacts with no Snapcaster Required
2 [card]Rakdos Charm[/card] – Awkward but effective answer to a variety of Graveyard based combo decks and works as a backup [card]Ancient Grudge[/card]
2 [card]Unified Will[/card] – Utility Counterspell, very difficult to use with Snapcaster unless you have a [card]Deahtrite Shaman[/card] in play as well
2 [card]Thoughtseize[/card] – The most effective Discard spell in the format
1 [card]Devour Flesh[/card] – Hexproof/Emrakul meta.

Of course, both of these sideboards were built in a relative vacuum for an environment that may exist only in my head. In fact it’s highly likely that if I were going to a tournament this weekend I’d throw together some combination of the two lists you see above. This is because once again I need to build my sideboard (and deck) to win the games I will actually play and not “games in a vacuum.” I can’t stress enough how important it is to build your deck with the event you’ll be entering in mind if you are serious about playing competitive Magic on any level. I’d even advise doing so if you’re playing in something as meaningless as a FNM with a $5 entry fee; small time gambling is still gambling and there’s no reason to burn our money.

Well gang, there you have it; a detailed account of my journey from rejected Jund Jockey to the completion of my newest Zoo Brew. Truthfully, I know that many of you will copy this deck wholesale and then keep or reject it based on your own testing results. That’s fine; I’ve been known to do the same when I needed a quick change of pace for an upcoming tournament. It is however my sincere hope that by focusing on and revealing the process by which this deck was built, I’ve helped you become a better deck-builder in some way. Winning lists will come and go as formats rotate and new cards are printed; the ability to build a fundamentally sound Magic deck will stay with you for the rest of your life. As always, thanks for reading folks and keep it weird.

-nina

PS – I would like to thank Scott MacCallum, Luis Acosta, Seth Burn, Isawa Chuckles and Team Dickwolf for all of their help in building and tuning this deck. It’s a good thing to have such talented friends isn’t it? =)

 

Summer of Magic

Let me start by explaining, this summer I decided I wanted to travel a bit for Magic because I decided that the more opportunities I gave myself to test myself, the better I can understand if I wanted to continue playing or move on to something with far less variance. I thought it would also help me step my game up if I was going to continue.

First up was the Grand Prix in Columbus, Ohio. The format was Modern and, despite being dominated by Naya Pod, it was a wide open format which let me play whatever I felt most comfortable with. The deck I had decided to play was WU Tempo. The list looked similar to the deck that Tzu Ching Kuo piloted at the World Magic Cup at least up until the week before I left. Then I had discussed [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] with my test group. We came to the conclusion that most of the decks in the format couldn’t beat an Elesh Norn on board; simultaneously we were talking about how fast [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] can threaten lethal so I put them together and this is what it got me.

[deck title=Bant Aggro Gifts]
[Creatures]
4 Noble Hierarch
3 Birds of Paradise
4 Geist of Saint Traft
2 Kitchen Finks
2 Vendilion clique
2 Qasali Pridemage
3 Restoration Angel
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Path to Exile
2 Bant Charm
2 Spell Pierce
3 Gifts Ungvien
1 Unburial Rites
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sword of Fire and Ice
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
[/Spells]
[Land]
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
3 Razorverge Thicket
3 Celestial Colonnade
2 Breeding Pool
1 Temple Garden
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Watery Grave
3 Tectonic Edge
1 Forest
1 Plains
1 Island
[/Land]
[Sideboard]
3 Ethersworn Canonist
3 Negate
2 Krosan Grip
2 Phantasmal Image
2 Mindbreak Trap
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Kitchen Finks
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

This deck was really rough on the numbers because I built it three days before the tournament and built the sideboard the night before, but the idea behind it is to stick a turn two Geist to pressure them and/or Gifts Combo them. Having only one bye and the only testing being 6-0ing Naya Pod on Thursday against Morgan who wanted to quit Magic afterwards, I decided to play in a grinder. I lost Round 2 to my opponent’s double [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] on my [card]Sphinx of the Steel Wind[/card]. It was pretty depressing but was still excited to try my deck in the tournament.

I managed to scrap together an 8-1 record going into Day 2 losing only to WUb Control and beating poor Dan Lanthier who only lost to me and Noah Long on Day 1. This gave me my first Day 2 at a GP and was pretty excited just to play the next day but it didn’t go well as I went 2-4. Before this tournament I had been apathetic about Magic. I have gotten the hunger for more competitive Magic and to bring my game up.

Next on my list of stops was the SCG Open Weekend in Buffalo where I planned on playing the WUr Midrange I’ve been playing for quite a while now:

[deck title=WUr Midrange]
[Creatures]
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Blade Splicer
4 Restoration Angel
2 Zealous Conscripts
2 Phantasmal Image
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Ponder
4 Vapor Snag
2 Gitaxian Probe
3 Bonfire of the Damned
2 Gut Shot
1 Pillar of Flame
1 Dismember
1 Negate
1 Mental Misstep
2 Mana Leak
[/Spells]
[Land]
1 Moorland Haunt
1 Slayers’ Stronghold
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Sulfur Falls
3 Glacial Fortress
3 Cavern of Souls
2 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Island
[/Land]
[Sideboard]
3 Celestial Purge
2 Combust
2 Ghost Quarter
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Mental Misstep
1 Negate
1 Dismember
1 Revoke Existence
1 Divine Offering
1 Phantasmal Image
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

This list changes from week to week and this was my configuration for this particular event, for my most recent build:

-1 Bonfire

-1 [card]Negate[/card]
-1 Misstep
-1 Pillar
-1 Stronghold
-1 Cavern
+1 Lighthouse
+1 [card]Evolving Wilds[/card]
+1 Plains
+1 [card]Mana Leak[/card]
+1 [card]Dismember[/card]
+1 Gideon

This event didn’t pan out so well as I was still exhausted from coming back from Columbus and working non-stop during the week. I went 3-0, 0-2 and decided to go get some rest for the next day. I hadn’t really found the deck for me going into the Legacy the next day. I had a pile I built the night before, which was a UG Monstrosity with [card]Exploration[/card], Crucible, [card]Life from the Loam[/card], and Jace, but was convinced to play RUG Delver that looked like this:

[deck title=RUG Delver]
[Creatures]
4 Nimble Mongoose
4 Delver of Secrets
3 Tarmogoyf
2 Scavenging Ooze
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Chain Lightning
4 Ponder
4 Brainstorm
3 Spell Pierce
2 Spell Snare
4 Force of Will
4 Daze
[/Spells]
[Land]
4 Wasteland
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
2 Polluted Delta
[/Land]
[Sideboard]
4 Submerge
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Surgical Extraction
3 Red Elemental Blast
2 Tormod’s Crypt
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]
*I also had two Cards you would never expect in a sideboard

RUG Delver lists are very similar, after trying it out and ending up 6-2 to finish 20th that day I don’t feel like it should ever be playing [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] main. That card was terribad, it’s too mana intensive for this deck and I’d rather have Snapcasters or [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] over it if I planned to play it again.

After that I took a break from Magic as I was travelling for work, showed up to a PTQ in Rochester for two wins to lock in 2-byes for the rest of the year, did so, and dropped. I went to sleep in the car. When I woke up my buddy Maksym was in Top 8 and ended up taking down the whole thing so the trip was worth it. The icing on the cake was the judges were saying all day how Canadians come down there to throw their money away.

My final stop was a Grand Prix an hour outside of Boston which was Core-set sealed. Normally I wouldn’t travel long distances for a sealed Grand Prix unless it’s in Montreal or I’m judging but I had the means/hunger to do it. Somehow we survived the drive despite going through a monsoon in Vermont, almost hydroplaning off the highway, and seeing endless Moose/Bear/Deer crossing signs.

After building my pool I felt really good about being able to Day 2 as I had 2-byes and my deck looked like this:

[deck title=Sealed]
[Creatures]
1 Duty-Bound Dead
1 Silvercoat Lion
1 Knight of Infamy
1 Knight of Glory
1 Ajani’s Sunstriker
1 Aven Squire
2 Duskmantle Prowler
1 Battleflight Eagle
1 Griffin Protector
1 Guardians of Akrasa
1 Intrepid Hero
1 Liliana’s Shade
2 Servant of Nefarox
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
1 Murder
1 Pacifism
1 Public Execution
1 Crippling Blight
1 Jayemdae Tome
1 Dark Favor
1 Mark of the Vampire
1 Ajani, Caller of the Pride
[/Spells]
[Land]
1 Evolving Wilds
8 Plains
8 Swamp
[/Land]
[/deck]

Notable sideboard Cards
1 [card]Rise from the Grave[/card]
1 [card]War Priest of Thune[/card]
1 [card]Ring of Kalonia[/card]

I ended up only going 4-3 including my byes but felt like my draws were very poor all day and had to work really hard for all of my games. Even though I didn’t quite get the result I wanted I still had fun, it’s really hard to go to a Grand Prix and not have fun trust me.

Next up for me is Grand Prix Chicago, my second home and Grand Prix Toronto, my actual home. Hopefully we get more Canadians out to bigger US events. Thanks to everyone who made this summer possible, fun and memorable.

Twitter: @MTG_Reinhardt

M13 Incoming

Standard has changed a lot in the last few weeks.  We’ve gone from a metagame dominated by Delver to one where different GRx Pod decks have favorable match ups against the deck at large tournament series.  Now, we haven’t gotten to the point that Delver isn’t the most popular deck by a pretty reasonable margin at bigger events, but there have been a few daily events that have had more Naya decks than Delver decks at the top tables.

Now, the unfortunate thing is that there really isn’t time to take advantage of this information before M13 comes in a shakes the format up.  Because of that, I don’t really want to focus on what I think the metagame is going to look like based on this week.  I want to talk about some more generic things about how the format is now, and on how M13 is going to impact the format.  To be fair, only 200 of the cards are spoiled at this time, but there are still a handful of cards that I think are going to have a huge impact on the format.

The most important thing to talk about is where Delver is going to have to go.

 The State of Delver

I think we’re finally starting to see decks that actually attack Delver from angles that it has difficulty beating.  These Naya decks just flood the board with guys, most of which are uncounterable.  Most of their creatures produce two bodies, or are value creatures in some more traditional way.  As a consequence, they get way ahead on cards in the midgame, and all Delver can really do is try to race with an early flipped Delver or hope to get in a few free hits with [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card].

I think that the response to this is to switch back to [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card] and Green swords to force your creatures through [card]Thragtusk[/card]s and Huntmasters.  The other important thing to recognize is how you can try to stay advantaged in the mirror without devoting too many slots to it; since these GRx decks are becoming almost as popular as Delver, you can’t focus as much on teching out the mirror.  Now, before we go on to the Delver mirror, there is a card from M13 that I think changes how Delver can interact with GRx decks, and that is [card]Downpour[/card].

Now, this isn’t that different than [card]Frost Breath[/card], but it does tap down an extra guy and does so for one less mana.  These Naya decks swarm the board and make it very difficult to get in with Geists, and I think the ability to deprive them of a combat step and force through a Geist hit is a huge deal, especially since the effect can be Snapped back for even more value.  As these decks have developed to the point that [card]Vapor Snag[/card] just isn’t forcing through as many hits, I think something like this may become more necessary to swing the aggro match ups back in your favor.

On the topic of the mirror, I think that the answer to the Delver mirror is just to play more [card]Unsummon[/card]s.  The matchup is so much about tempo that [card]Vapor Snag[/card] is the defining card.  If you’re ahead, you just want to get more hits in.  If you’re behind, you want to force them to reflip their Delver, not just lose to Swords, or just take less damage from [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card].  I’ve been playing one copy of Unsummon in the sideboard of my midrangey UW deck and I’ve been very happy with it, and some of my friends locally have been picking up on the [card]Unsummon[/card]s for their aggro delver lists and just smashing people with them.

The other direction that Delver decks are going in is towards Esper midrangey decks, which seem sweet to me.  Being able to play both the beatdown and have the inevitability of [card]Sun Titan[/card] appeals a lot to me.  One of the cards I’m most excited to see in this kind of shell is [card]Augur of Bolas[/card].  I mean, look at this guy.  If there was a card designed to play well in a shell with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] and [card]Phantasmal Image[/card], it was this guy.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that the metagame is in a place where this guy is that good.  I think we need to wait for a place where control is on the rise again in response to these Naya decks that are reasonably soft to [card]Day of Judgment[/card].  Once that happens, being able to filter through your deck for more cantrips, [card]Negate[/card], and [card]Duress[/card]es seems very important since it lets you stick the threat at the top of your curve.

Speaking of [card]Duress[/card], that’s a card that has the potential to just crush Delver, since it hits most of the cards that let them stay ahead and makes sure you resolve your sweeper or Titan.  I’m curious to see how the combination of [card]Duress[/card] and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] affects the format, though I don’t think it’s going to do a ton.  The format is way too creature-based right now, but if control ever does get good some kind of UB Delver could be sweet!

Besides these cards, however, Delver doesn’t get too many new tools to play with, which doesn’t bode well for the menace of the format.  Other decks are already on the rise, and they’re all getting new toys to play with, while Delver looks like it’s going to stay in pretty much the same spot.

 Getting Angry

The decks that I think stand to gain the most from M13 are GR aggro and GRx Pod decks.  We’ve got a ton of cards that are ready and able to fill the holes that each of these decks have had in their curve.  GR has been a little short of 2’s and 3’s, having resorted to [card]Daybreak Ranger[/card] who is terrible against [card]Vapor Snag[/card] and [card]Wolfir Avenger[/card], who just doesn’t do very much in a format that’s defined by [card]Blade Splicer[/card] and [card]Restoration Angel[/card].  Enter [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card].

This guy has the same stats as [card]Wolfir Avenger[/card] assuming you’re GR, but for one less mana, which is a huge deal.  Alternatively, he can come down at the same cost as Wolfir but with Haste as opposed to Flash, which seems way better to me right now.  Sure, you’re going to need some way to make sure you can get through [card]Blade Splicer[/card]s, but I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch in the color of [card]Incinerate[/card] and [card]Ancient Grudge[/card].

Alternatively, for the [card]Birthing Pod[/card] decks, we get two new five drops to mess around with: [card]Thragtusk[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card].  Up until this point, these decks have had access to [card]Wolfir Silverheart[/card] and [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] which are both insane in their own right, but I think that these two newcomers deserve some discussion as well.

Now, the issue with something like [card]Wolfir Silverheart[/card] is that it’s soft to [card]Vapor Snag[/card], coincidentally one of the cards which defines the format.  I think that with the printing of these two, Silverheart will become a sideboard card for match ups where the game is decided by who has the giantest creatures instead of who has the most tempo and biggest board presence.

[card]Thragtusk[/card] will certainly be at least a one-of in all of these Pod decks, likely with one to two extra copies in the board depending on how good Delver stays.  These decks are already playing a ton of [card]Restoration Angel[/card]s and that interaction is just completely unfair, and will crush any aggro decks trying to go underneath the Pod deck while giving you resiliency to the sweeper decks that try to go bigger.

[card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] fits a similar role in that it does the same sort of thing as [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] and [card]Hellrider[/card]/[card]Hero of Oxid Ridge[/card].  It gives you an open to just kill them dead.  Fortunately, I think this guy is at a better spot in the curve and does a better job of it than any of those cards.  This is an ETB effect, not a trigger on attacking, which is a huge deal against the Delver players of the world.  This also comes with a huge body, and you can Pod into it off of a Huntmaster.  Now, it is worth mentioning that I think this guy is much better in aggro Pod as opposed to going-up-the-chain Pod.  If you want to hit your [card]Sun Titan[/card] or [card]Inferno Titan[/card], [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] is way better, since it gives you the same potential to just kill someone, but also lets you go straight from Huntmaster to Titan by untapping your Pod.

 White Aggro

So, these decks have been at the bottom of the metagame for awhile now.  UW Humans used to be a huge deal, and it’s been starting to make a come back locally.  Now, I don’t know if the Blue or Red splashes that we’ve seen in these decks are really necessary at this point.  I think you can make a strong case for mono-white versions of these, just for the sake of consistency or to try out [card]Cathedral of War[/card].  That said, that card isn’t the reason that I’m excited about this deck.  These two are:

Now, I’m sure Ajani is obvious.  You get obscene curves involving [card]Champion of the Parish[/card] and this guy and you can very easily just kill someone on turn four.  Considering you can also get real big with [card]Angelic Destiny[/card], I think this finally gives the white decks the reach they need to be able to compete with the other aggressive decks that are just a little bigger.  Being able to jump your guys and present a one turn clock is absolutely insane, and one that Humans is well-poised to take advantage of.  When you also take into account the added utility of “killing” undying creatures and [card]Phantasmal Image[/card]s, this guy is going to be a big deal for the next few months.

Now, my second choice is probably a little more controversial, but I really like Odric in this format.  Sure, he’s weak to [card]Vapor Snag[/card], but you don’t want him against those decks anyway.  You want him against the decks that clog the ground as another way to force through damage.  The difference is that this time you force your team through instead of just one guy.  This is a lot like [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] in that sense, but I think the comparison is much closer than you might think.

Sure, you don’t get guys, but your entire team is either unblockable or eats most of their team, which seems just insane to me.  He’s a lot like [card]Gideon Jura[/card] in that sense; he either forces them to make terrible attacks, starts eating their guys, or forces your team through for lethal.  All of these seem pretty good to me.

Lastly, I think the token decks pick up a sweet tool in this set in [card]Healer of the Pride[/card].  This guy seems like he could be huge if green decks start taking over, though he’s pretty miserable against Delver.  Turning all of your [card]Midnight Haunting[/card]s into [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] is insane, even if you don’t have any anthems in play.  Sure, this one’s a little bit of a long shot, but I’m confident that there are metagames that this guy can just dominate.

 Infect

This is the deck that I think people are going to be the most afraid of after rotation, and for good reason.  [card]Rancor[/card] is a terrifying card from this deck especially in a format with [card]Mutagenic Growth[/card].  This could just be my experience in Pauper talking, but I’m pretty used to seeing this on the second turn:

Oops you’re dead?  To be fair, we don’t have any of the really absurd enablers like [card]Invigorate[/card], and we survived a format with poison and [card]Groundswell[/card], but [card]Rancor[/card] pushes this a lot harder.  I mean, just think about [card]Rancor[/card] with [card]Ichorclaw Myr[/card].  The interaction just feels unfair.  This combined with the moderate success that UG Infect has had in Daily Events recently may mean that it’s a real deck for the next three months.

Even if you don’t think that the deck is real, you can expect that some people will.  The ability to turn 3 someone with any kind of regularlity is going to draw a lot of people to the deck, and it will affect the metagame in tangible ways.  If there’s one thing that you take away from this, it should be that [card]Gut Shot[/card] is going to be a very big deal in this new format as a way to pick off Poison guys, [card]Blade Splicer[/card]s, and Delvers.

 A Modern Interlude

It’s been a pretty long time since I’ve played modern, but looking at the results from GP Yokohama last weekend and these spoilers, I can’t help but notice the prevalence of Islands in the format.  Even looking at MTGO results, a UW [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]/[card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] deck has been dominating the format for the last few weeks.  This makes me feel pretty good about this guy:

Now, the only two decks I’ve played a lot with in Modern are Ub Merfolk with [card]Dark Confidant[/card] and UW Tron.  I don’t know if the GR Tron decks that were picking up towards the end of last season are too rough for Merfolk to deal with, but I doubt it.  You have infinite lords now, and all the tools to beat up on the decks that are trying to go bigger.  [card]Vapor Snag[/card] is great against [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] and [card]Splinter Twin[/card] combos, and both [card]Spell Snare[/card] and [card]Spell Pierce[/card] are very good cards in the deck.

It’s also important to note that [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] is a pretty big deal, since it lets you have [card]Aether Vial[/card] 5-8 against the more controlling decks in the format.  Top your curve off with 2 or so [card]Cryptic Command[/card]s and I think you have a deck that can dominate the field.  You’re a little weak to [card]Vedalken Shackles[/card], but you’re going to have to board cards like [card]Steel Sabotage[/card] and [card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card] against Affinity anyway, so I don’t see that being too big of a deal.

Merfolk seems very well positioned right now, and is at the top of the lists I want to start testing games with for local modern events.

Here’s hoping that we see M13 contribute further to breaking Delver’s stranglehold on the format!  I’m looking forward seeing what happens in the three months before rotation!