Five Lessons to Learn From Modern

Feature Article from Seth Manfield
Seth Manfield
3/21/2018 11:02:00 AM
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This Modern format has been giving me fits. First the Pro Tour, then the Modern Super League, and just last weekend I played in Grand Prix Phoenix. In each event, I failed miserably. I would like to think that there are some takeaways that can be learned here, because despite poor results I have been playing a ton of the format. Practice doesn't always pay off, that is clear. I want to go over some key lessons that can be applied to Modern.

1: Playing Popular Decks Has a Real Cost

Going into a Modern event and playing a deck that is considered one of the top five decks in the format is actually very risky. The first reason is that even if you are playing a deck that is a bit better than many other decks, that gap in power level can never be by a huge amount. Results have shown that there are a wide variety of decks in Modern capable of putting up big results in an event. By playing a deck that is popular, without any major innovations, there is already a huge target on your head.

Since there are so many decks in Modern it isn't really possible to be prepared for all of them. Players are going to load their sideboards up with cards for the matchups they expect to face. This makes sense, since it is always correct to be the most prepared for the decks you are most likely to face off against. When playing a popular deck, you go into the event knowing that your opponent likely is going to have sideboard cards specifically geared towards beating you. Beyond that, your opponent will likely have already playtested the matchup, therefore knowing how it plays out.

I took Jund to the Grand Prix in Phoenix last weekend. The reason was is because I thought that it was the best deck, even if only by a small margin. I also felt since it is a midrange choice it would create complicated games, and that might give me the room needed to outmaneuver opponents. Unfortunately, as the tournament grew closer and closer I had a sick feeling Jund wasn't a good choice, but didn't have enough time to find something else I really liked.

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I regret the deck choice. After getting run over by Eldrazi in the first round, I lost to Paul Rietzl who was playing a White-Blue Midrange deck that seemed geared specifically towards having a strong Jund matchup. One mirror match later and I was out of the event without winning a match. I had even geared my deck specifically towards beating the mirror, but it turns out other players were doing the exact same thing.

2: Don't Gear Your Deck Specifically to Win a Mirror Match

Playing mirrors can be a ton of fun, but that doesn't mean that playing lots of sideboard cards specifically for a mirror is a good idea. The day before GP Phoenix I stumbled across a Jund list that Owen Turtenwald posted that looked pretty heavily geared towards the mirror. This was scary for me since I didn't want to play a ton of cards for the mirror, because that would take away from cards for other matchups. At the same time, I realized that I would now be at a disadvantage if other players showed up with lists like the one Owen posted if I did happen to run into a mirror.

This put me in a lose-lose situation. Either I tech my deck out for the mirror, and sacrifice somewhere else, or I just admit to playing mirrors where I am a bit of an underdog based solely on decklists. As soon as I realized how far players were going out of their way to beat Jund, including mirrors, I should have switched decks. Anyway, I didn't do that. I ended up including some of the mirror tech at the last minute including two copies of Obstinate Baloth. This was my list:

This list isn't too far away from the typical Jund lists, but there are a few major differences. I decided to play six creature lands in the deck, but in retrospect I wish I hadn't done that. I tried to squeeze in another Treetop Village, but wish I had only played two. By adding the third Treetop Village I ended up trying to compensate for colored sources in other spots, and cut the Stomping Ground because it doesn't produce black mana. Please don't do that! It was a last-minute decision and beyond the fact that I don't think it was correct, it also lead to a decklist error. Making last-minute decisions that are untested is oftentimes not a good idea, it has worked out for me before, but here it certainly didn't.

I wouldn't change the actual main deck spells; they are pretty typical as far as Jund lists these days. I really liked the one Unravel the Aether in the sideboard, which is a unique addition to this list. It helps versus Wurmcoil Engine, perhaps the actual best card you can cast against Jund. Beyond that, having additional enchantment and artifact removal is nice, and I preferred it to the second Golgari Charm. Part of me wanted to have four copies of Fulminator Mage to help versus Tron, but I ended up having to make room somewhere for the two copies of Obstinate Baloth I ended up adding.

Since I only got to play three rounds of the GP and hadn't played much with Obstinate Baloth before then, my results are inconclusive. It should be one of the best sideboard options in the mirror because it protects you against discard effects like Liliana of the Veil and Kolaghan's Command. It is also clearly good against Burn and other decks that cause you to discard cards like Smallpox decks, and potentially even Hollow One because of Burning Inquiry. In the mirror I lost, my opponent actually had an Obstinate Baloth while I didn't have mine. It turns out they are good in the mirror.

3: Pay Attention to Trends in Sideboard Cards

Being aware of what sideboard cards are going up and down in popularity. These trends help determine where there might be a hole in the metagame worth exploiting. For example, if Affinity and Lantern are popular we are more likely to see lots of cards like Stony Silence. However, the most popular artifact removal spell in the format right now is Ancient Grudge thanks to the many red-green strategies. This lead to one of the best deck choices from Grand Prix Phoenix – the Ironworks Combo deck that Matt Nass and a handful of other pros arrived with.

Matt was one Dark Confidant trigger away from being in the finals with this deck. The Ironworks combo deck is not something many players have had a chance to play against, so it does tick that surprise factor box. It also happens to be much more vulnerable to Stony Silence than Ancient Grudge. Scrap Trawler shenanigans allow you to oftentimes be able to return the artifacts needed from the graveyard. Wurmcoil Engine is also an alternative gameplan that can take opponent's completely off guard.

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This is the exact type of deck that is going to be great for one tournament, but may not remain as great once players start to understand it more. Talking to Ben Weitz, another player who ran this deck, he dodged Stony Silence for the entire tournament. The deck wins by creating loops with Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler, until you essentially have as much mana as you could possibly want. Then a huge Hangarback Walker or casting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn finishes off the opponent.

The deck is quite vulnerable to specific hate cards, but when left undisrupted it is one of the fastest combo decks in the format.

4: High-Variance Decks Can Pay Off

After getting smashed by Gabriel Nassif in the Team Modern Super League with Hollow One, the deck gained a lot of respect from me. I have played it a bit myself and because it is naturally high variance, I always thought it was not that great. Once I started struggling to beat it with any type of consistency is when I realized that sometimes in order to be very powerful, you need to also throw in some variance. The deck has some really awkward draws for sure, but on the flipside it can look straight busted.

This is the list that Nassif played to great success in Team Modern Super League.

This deck even beat bad matchups like Lantern Control. The fact is that your best draws with Hollow One are better than the best draws of pretty much any deck in the format, while the worst ones mean you can't function – sometimes that's a gamble worth taking.

5: Bloodbraid Elf and Jace are Good For Modern

Right after the unbans, there was an uproar about these two cards being too strong for the format. Now that the excitement has died down, I think we can confirm that these are simply two more cards in a huge format. Yes, Jace, the Mind Sculptor fits in a lot of blue decks, but looking at the results it doesn't make the control decks that much better. If anything, it makes decks like Temur Scapeshift playable again. This particular version from the Top 8 of GP Pheonix also takes advantage of the Bring to Light package as well.

Bring to Light means that you not only get to essentially have more copies of Scapeshift itself, but there are also silver bullets in both the main deck and sideboard that can be found with a Bring to Light. Bloodbraid Elf has made its way into Jund and various other red-green midrange decks, but those decks have proven to just be another part of the metagame. In fact, it turns out that Humans – a deck that didn't gain anything from unbans – was able to take down the largest Modern event since the unbannings.

Thanks for reading,

Seth Manfield




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