One of the funnest things about GP Chicago was when people asked me what I was playing and I answered with Red/Green Tron. Most of their responses were something to the effect that I was either very brave, very crazy, or both. In fact I'm quite a coward, and while my sanity has occasionally been questionable, I feel like Tron was an extremely sane choice for the GP and will continue to be so. I personally like playing decks where the goal is always as clear as possible, and Tron certainly has a clear goal: Stay alive, and eventually your endgame will be bigger and better than your opponent's.
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If you're interested in going as big as possible in modern, hopefully this article will be of some help.
I first tried the deck out at Gen-Con earlier this year, having played almost no modern up to that point. I was pretty impressed with how it ran, especially considering the fact that I copied the decklist wrong and played it without any Expedition Maps (all the while wondering why on earth the deck didn't play any of that card). I convinced my friend Stephen Berrios to play the deck at the Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and he went 7-3 with it. He returned the favor by convincing me to play it in the GP. I was waffling due to what I thought might be a larger than average amount of combo decks, since they'd done quite well the previous week in GP Lyon.
The deck tends to struggle against most kinds of combo decks, since their strategies can usually ignore the heavy hitters in the deck: Wurmcoil Engine, Karn Liberated, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Storm, Eggs, and Scapeshift can usually combo off before Tron does anything, as Tron can't really apply any pressure or really interact with these decks in game 1. Karn is the best way to interact, but the previously mentioned decks can weather an exiled land or hard in hand fairly well. Tron does have Relic of Progenitus against Storm and Eggs and Pyroclasm against Infect, but these aren't usually enough. If the Epic Experiment version of Storm becomes popular, Relic is even worse. If you land an Oblivion Stone against Splinter Twin, you could delay them enough to take over with one of your big spells, but it's an uphill battle.
So that's the bad news about the deck. However, the more I thought about the good news, the more appealing an option Tron seemed. And the good news is this: Against any deck trying to grind out a mid to late game advantage, Tron has the upper hand. As a legacy player, I've noticed that Europeans tend to be much more combo oriented and Americans like their midrange and control decks and I figured this would carry over for modern as well. It did, and I see no reason why this trend wouldn't continue into the upcoming PTQ season.
Finally, the most convincing reason was related to the reactions of my fellow players described at the beginning of the article. Tron was almost totally off the radar, so any hate for it would hopefully be minimal. The other two decks I was testing Kiki-Pod and Infect, failed to particularly impress me, so I went with what I had the most experience with and the deck I thought the field would be underprepared for. I knew I was taking a gamble, but I also knew that if I guessed right I'd be rewarded.
The decklist is fairly standard but there are a few odd choices which I'll talk about.
3 Sylvan Scrying I know this looks strange. Basically, this was a change I made just based on feel from playing the deck. I really didn't think you needed the 4th scrying to reliably assemble Tron and wanted to replace it with a card that did something else. In this case it was a maindeck Spellskite as a hedge against Infect, since I thought it would be the most popular combo deck and game 1 it's pretty hard for them to beat.
What I didn't realize was that while I think I was right about scrying in general, it's not the case when your opponent is disrupting you with either discard or land destruction. In cases like these, you do want the 4th scrying so you can assemble or Rebuild Tron. Therefore I'd either go back to the 4th in the main or run it in the sideboard. However, if your opponent isn't going to be harassing your hand or lands, I think it is probably safe to board out 1-2 Sylvan Scryings.
1 Explore Every Tron list I'd seen had played 2 Explores. I constantly hated them when I played the deck, but I figured everyone else couldn't be wrong about it, so I compromised by cutting down to 1. After playing the GP, I do think everyone was wrong and I wish I'd played 0. Basically the only time this card is good is when you are behind and you need the extreme jump in mana to assemble Tron and plop a wurmcoil/karn/o-stone into play. However, since you'd typically only play 2 explores, you aren't particularly likely to have it when you're way behind, and the rest of the time you need an extra land to make explore more than a 2 mana cycler. Since the deck only plays 19 real lands, you often have to gamble on drawing the land in order to get to play an extra, which is a risk for which there is no real need. Whenever I was given this option, I always wanted to play a different card in my hand that would be guaranteed to do something rather than nothing. Speaking of which
3 Oblivion Stone The 3rd and 4th copies of this card were being boarded in against almost everything so I just ran a 3rd in the maindeck. It is good against almost everything in the field and if I had to play the tournament over, I'd play 4 in the maindeck.
1 Ghost Quarter This isn't completely standard yet but it probably should be. There are a lot of creature lands in this format you want to hit and the mana eggs make the colorless mana not that big of a deal. This is also a very unlikely but still relevant way to protect against getting sowing salted out of the industry.
The sideboard ended up being great for the event and I'll go over it briefly.
4 Nature's Claim This card is fairly standard, but I can't emphasize enough how great it is in this deck. One of the big selling points of the deck is that you get to play a dual land with no drawback ( Grove of the Burnwillows) and a 1 mana Disenchant with upside in the sideboard. Not only do you not care about your opponent gaining life, but I've had the lifegain be relevant when I needed to claim my own permanents in a pinch. There are other reasons to play claim on your own cards as well. In my loss against the mirror match, I missed the line of claiming my own Wurmcoil Engine in order to get two creatures to attack a Karn. It's also sometimes good to do in response to a Path to Exile on a Wurm, though not always. Being able to hit Inkmoth Nexus at instant speed is extremely relevant, since punching through with Infect damage is a lot easier than dealing 20 regular damage against this deck.
1 Electrickery Thanks to state champ Lee Cote this joke/troll of a card ended up evolving into a sideboard all-star. This was intended as additional hate against Infect and Affinity and it served this purpose quite well.
1 Vandalblast This card was good but if you wanted to cut something from the board it might be this, as I think the current sideboard is solid enough against Affinity without it and it doesn't have any other use really.
1 Grim Poppet This was intended as an anti-Infect card but it also ended up being great against Affinity, since the nexuses are sort of hard to deal with otherwise, and it takes out fresh Steel Overseers and various other robots. I also think it's good against Pod or other decks with a lot of mana creatures. I'd keep it, but if Scarecrows frighten you too much, you could cut it. You also might be a crow, so I'd get that checked out by a doctor.
2 Thorn of Amethyst These were a concession to Storm and Eggs. Stephen and I concluded beforehand that Mindslaver was just too slow to matter against these decks, whereas Thorn really puts a damper on their ability to combo. Since I never played against either one, this theory remains untested and if you come up with a different answer, by all means change these slots around.
There are a few other cards I've seen played and considered myself.
Batterskull I sort of like this idea, since the decks you'd want it against try and harass your mana with Spreading Seas or land destruction, making it a bit easier to cast than Wurmcoil Engine. I waffled between this and the 4thWurmcoil Engine for a while, but I think the Engine is just worth the extra cost.
Grafdigger's Cage This card is good against Pod, but I don't think that deck will typically be a big enough part of the metagame to make it worthwhile.
Beast Within I tried this card for a while and I found the 3/3 to be surprisingly relevant. The old Cloudpost deck could easily ignore a 3/3, but this one isn't quite so powerful. It's almost always the case that you'd just want to Nature's Claim whatever you are targeting with it, unless it's a land. If it is a land, you're probably playing against Tron and Scapeshift a lot in the most bizarre metagame imaginable, and I'd go ahead and board Sowing Salt in that strange illusionary dream world.
Here's a brief overview of my match record from GP:
Soul Sisters 1-0
BW Deadguy 1-0
RG Tron 0-1
UW Midrange 1-0
Spirit Jund 1-1
Kiki-Angel Pod 1-0
4 Color Gifts 1-0
And two intentional draws. As you can see, the gamble paid off and I didn't play against a single combo deck.
Now that that's all through with, there are two things left to go over: How to play the deck and how to beat the deck.
Playing it optimally takes some practice. All decisions with the deck need to take into account the fact that the deck is about a quarter cantrips. This includes mulliganing. This means that you have to keep some hands that seem risky and rely on percentages of drawing whatever card you need off the top. As a general rule of thumb, if a hand has a Tron piece, a way to get a Tron piece, and the ability to cycle through to some more cards, I'll generally keep it. Of course, it's possible for hands to be much better than that. According to my own logic, I possibly should have mulliganed the hand I kept in game 2 of the quarterfinals, which was: Chromatic Star, Chromatic Star, Grove of the Burnwillows, Urza's Power Plant, Wurmcoil Engine, Karn Liberated, Oblivion Stone. Though it had a lot of great threats, the threats are not so important, since once you have tons of mana, you can generally draw into those.
Remember, Tron is a control deck against almost everything. This means that even though unlocking Tron is important, it isn't as important as staying alive. Sometimes you are better served playing a grove and pyroclasming away a bunch of threats. Similarly, think about the spell you want to draw when you are cracking a mana egg and add the appropriate color. If your only out is Pyroclasm, add a red. If your out is Ancient Stirrings into Oblivion Stone, add a green. It's also ok not to crack an egg if you don't immediately need the card. Usually this is more common in the mid to late game, where you can end up with Tron and a stable board but no colored mana producing land. The same goes for Relic of Progenitus. One mistake I made early on playing the deck was cycling this card too early against decks where it was relevant.
In terms of sequencing, you usually want to lead with a first turn egg if you can and try to play Tron pieces and use the eggs to cast your colored spells. If you have Expedition Map, you'll usually lead with that. If you have to play a non-Tron land though, it's ok. A turn 4 Tron is still great, and sometimes functionally the same as turn 3 since if you need to play and explode an Oblivion Stone, it's going to cost 8 mana total.
Speaking of Oblivion Stone, you don't necessarily have to explode it the first chance you get. Against decks without reach, leaving it up for a turn or two and taking some damage can be best, as it can give you time to cycle through the deck and assemble all the cards and mana you need to completely lock up the game.
Another subtly important thing is to try and fetch Urza's Tower last. Since you often need to tap the Tron lands to cycle eggs or activate expedition maps, often your first two Tron pieces will be tapped when you get the full 3. If you get tower last, you'll have 3 mana when you achieve it instead of 2, which is good for playing an Oblivion Stone or one more cycle of an egg.
Try to be aware of cards you've shipped to the bottom with Ancient Stirrings, and cards you've cycled through already. This is another thing that's important because of the high amount of cantrips in order to figure out the odds of drawing a particular card. For instance, in my match against Josh Utter-Leyton, I had an Urza's Mine in play and cracked an egg to play Ancient Stirrings. I found an Urza's Tower, but also had to put another Urza's Tower on the bottom of my library from stirrings. I then played an Urza's Power Plant I had in my hand instead of the Urza's Tower. Even though this gave him extra information, it was worth it because if he'd had a Fulminator Mage for my land, I would rather it hit a non-tower Tron piece, since I had lower odds of drawing another tower than the other two with a tower already on the bottom of my library.
I won't go over exact sideboarding plans, but when sideboarding make sure to keep the ratio of lands to defensive cards to big spells in mind. Against Affinity for instance, Karn is good game 1 as a way to deal with Inkmoth Nexus, but can also be slow against Affinity's fastest draw. It can deal with one problem permanent but then usually dies to angry robots. After sideboard, you'll have 4 Nature's Claim, a Grim Poppet and an Electrickery to deal with Nexuses, so there's less of a need for Karn I boarded out two. Similarly, a Wurmcoil Engine can be plenty to stabilize and win a game, so there's no need to keep in a card that could potentially be dead most of the game like Emrakul.
Consider what your opponent might board in. During the GP, I played against a control deck and saw no creatures in game 1, boarded out my Pyroclasms, and promptly lost to Geist of St. Traft. I should have looked at it from the other player's perspective: He isn't going to win the long game against me even though he's a control deck, so his goal should be to morph into aggro and kill me quickly.
Finally here's a rundown of some common anti-Tron cards and their effectiveness against the deck:
Spreading Seas / Blood Moon I'm grouping these together because they basically do the same thing. They are great if you have an aggressive clock to back them up with, but they are instantly undone with a timely Nature's Claim or Oblivion Stone, and then the Tron player will be back to casting game breaking spells. The other problem is that against decks that play these cards, the Tron deck is typically becoming less reliant on Tron postboard. I'm not totally convinced these are better than additional threats against Tron.
Stony Silence This is the same as above, except they shut off the eggs instead of Tron itself. I actually think this might be better, though typically the decks that play it have fewer ways to take advantage of the tempo it provides (except maybe a GW Haterator type deck). It's answered by Nature's Claim and Karn rather than Oblivion Stone.
Fulminator Mage / Stone Rain / Avalanche Riders Again these are basically the same card. These are more effective than the above because they can't be undone by the Tron player as efficiently. Yes, Tron can just play more lands, but that takes time. It's certainly possible to recover from one of these, but two or more and it gets pretty difficult.
Sowing Salt Tron can't beat this card. Even discounting never being able to get Tron again, taking out any 4 lands from a deck that only runs 19 would be devastating. If you're playing Tron and your opponent casts this against you, and you aren't overwhelmingly ahead already, my best advice is to take a deep breath and close your eyes. Think about the siege of Carthage. Picture yourself vainly defending your city from the Romans for years on end, your friends and loved ones slowly starving as the port is blockaded. Imagine the Romans breaching the walls, sacking the city, and (supposedly) sowing the ground with salt. Then open your eyes, and maybe you'll feel not quite so bad that you're only about to lose a children's card game.
In general, the best way to beat the deck isn't with specific cards but with a strategy that either races it or ignores what it is trying to do. That way if you don't draw your specific hate card, you'll still have a good matchup. But as I said before, these strategies tend to be unpopular, which makes me think Tron will continue to be a strong choice going into the PTQ season. Who knows, it might even get something good from the surely oblivious Gruul guild once Gatecrash rolls around.
Hopefully this has been helpful, and if you decide to play the deck and happen to meet a universe-annihilating giant tentacle rock monster on your path, tell it I said:
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