Back in the day, one of my favorite roleplaying games – the pen and paper kind, not the console or computer kind – was Ars Magica. The first and second editions were published by Lion Rampant, who went on to form White Wolf Games, publishers of Vampire and the third edition of Ars Magica. The fourth edition was published by Wizards of the Coast, who picked it up in the wake of Magic’s initial success. These days, you can get the fifth edition from Atlas Games.
One of my favorite books from the Ars Magica line was the Medieval Bestiary. Instead of being another Monster Manual, the Bestiary apes the style of genuine medieval bestiaries – that is, it’s an impressionistic take on the known and mythical creatures of the world, with meanings and morals attached to creatures amidst more than a little bit of misinformation. The leopard, for example, is the misbegotten offspring of a Lion (Leo) and a Panther (Pard), which explains its evil nature. And so forth.
Right now we’re in what we might like to call the “preseason” for the coming Modern PTQ season. Although we have a nascent stream of Daily Events on Magic Online, we are far from having a defined or even solid metagame.
But there are still decks, and we still want to playtest, or even play in those Dailies.
With as little information as we have to go on right now, it’s a good time to check in, bestiary-style, on what everyone is playing in Modern. It’s only natural that this will be an impressionistic take, colored by the lists that catch our eye, and lacking the churning of a PTQ season or a large event series to really shake out the chaff and clarify which are the best decks.
So, with that in mind, welcome to this Modern Bestiary and a brief but hopefully enlightening view of the players in these early days of the very first Modern PTQ season.
The supposed truism is that aggro is the clear best choice in the early days of a format or season because you don’t know what you need to tune a control deck against. This isn’t actually true, for all sorts of reasons, but it might be correct to say that aggro is the apparent easiest choice.
Note that “apparent,” since I think the sense of ease is deeply misleading, especially in a format such as Modern where your opponent may just be dumping Emrakuls on your head all day long.
There are four major contenders so far in the aggro branch of Modern, starting with…
The Affinity deck has a lot to recommend it, even if it’s among the most hate-able of all the aggro choices.
On the plus side, the deck combines two excellent traits – killing out of nowhere and topdecking into endurance. The former trait is pretty obvious, as Affinity has those “vomit your hand onto the board” draws and can slap some Cranial Plating on an Ornithopter and just murder you out of hand. The endurance is a touch more subtle, but comes in the form of having access to quite a few creature lands and being able to topdeck into that same Cranial Plating, making every R2-D2 a threat to your mortal existence.
Here are two Affinity variants to watch out for:
Red Affinity (as played by armlx, aka Ari Lax)
These is classic aggro Affinity, featuring red for reach in the form of Shrapnel Blast and Galvanic Blast, as well as those Atogs in the side. You also get access to Blood Moon, which can be a key card for locking an incautious opponent out of the game.
Erayo Affinity (as played by drVendigo)
Erayo Affinity was a decently major player in Extended of years past. Access to blue gives you the reload power of Thoughtcast as well as the ability to play the deck’s namesake Kamigawa legend, [card erayo, sorotami ascendant]Erayo[/card]. The general idea is to do the Affinity thing and drop a bunch of spells in one turn, flipping Erayo and gaining a shield of continuous disruption while you go for the kill.
If Erayo Affinity tries to buy time to go for the kill via disruption, Martyr Aggro takes the simpler approach of “having a high life total.” Essentially a Modernized version of Conley’s classic Soul Sisters deck, this is effectively a white weenie build that will incidentally and continuously crank of its life total even as it beats down.
The net effect, of course, is to make a deck that is cockroach-like in being hard to kill while still spoiling your day.
Martyr Aggro (as played by Danilo88)
One major variation to the Martyr Aggro base involves adding Aether Vial to the mix. It’s up to your view of the metagame whether you think there’s enough control to merit that addition, or if you’d just prefer to have more cards that attack and build your life total.
Also known as “burn” or “I didn’t want to spend money on Ravnica duals.”
RDW is a deck that, at least in the Extended format, seemed to let you win some decent portion of your matches while still falling short of taking home the prize. As such, it might be a decent choice for grinding MTGO Dailies, but I’m not a fan of it for the PTQ season.
You have a tremendous range of burn cards and burn-like creatures to choose from in designing your variation on RDW, so there’s a surprisingly big area in which to tinker with your build.
Also, you aren’t bound to a purely red deck, as the following design shows.
RDW (as played by TheYostWithTheMost)
Rounding out the aggro wing of our bestiary we have the other obvious choice, Zoo. Even with the pasturing of Wild Nacatl, Zoo decks remain profoundly powerful, and a good “clock test” for any of the combo entries in today’s article.
The big choice facing a Zoo player is whether they want to deal 5 damage for 2 mana or not – that is, are you playing domain zoo with the bloodiest mana base in the game, or something more limited like a strict Naya build?
Domain Zoo (as played by Dlbarros22)
In a post-Fires world, Steppe Lynx is a very solid fast aggro critter. That’s especially true in a Domain Zoo build whose mana base is roughly 60% fetch lands. This deck also packs a highly respectable burn suite including the full set of Bolts, Helixes (Helices?) and Flames…with three [card snapcaster mage]Snapcasters[/card] to get extra duty out of each of them.
Blue Naya Zoo (as played by kaOz.Zeh, aka Jose Dantas)
This almost Naya list yields some of its Naya purity in exchange for access to Geist, Snapcaster, and a smattering of counterspells. It does not, however, go all-in to try and get Domain, preferring to confine its reach to Bolt and Helix.
Combo is the most diverse category in the current Modern Bestiary. That’s no surprise in these early days as players tinker and try to break the metagame ahead of their first PTQs (or just because it’s fun). The absence of the powerhouse card selection options (Ponder, Preordain) can make for some dicey, unstable combo builds – which was pretty much the point, of course.
If Ad Nauseam Tendrils is ANT, it seems only reasonable for this archetype to be ANG.
There are various final kills in ANG, but the core engine remains the same – cast Angel’s Grace, then cast Ad Nauseam and draw your deck. Once you have all those cards in hand, use them to kill your opponent, whether that’s via Seismic Assault, Conflagrate, or as in this case, Lightning Storm.
ANG (as played by EdB)
Hive Mind in Legacy has access to Show and Tell as well as all manner of broken mana acceleration. In contrast, Modern Hive Mind has to work really hard to get its namesake Enchantment onto the battlefield, and unlike its Legacy counterpart it has no Eldrazi-based backup plan.
Hive Mind (as played by bozidar2121)
I’d initially expected all Birthing Pod decks in Modern to focus on the Melira combo, but as it happens, this isn’t the case. Although the majority of Pods are churning up infinite life via Melira and some persist creatures (for more on that you may want to look here), there’s another branch that follows in the footsteps of a recently bygone Standard format and uses Birthing Pod to deploy infinite Exarchs.
Let’s look at the “traditional” Melira branch first.
Melira Pod (as played by xflema)
This is a pretty standard take on the Melira combo. As befits a deck that has eight tutors, it also packs in a fair collection of utility creatures.
Kiki Pod (as played by Th00mor)
Melira and friends in the sideboard suggest a natural next step for this deck – just wrapping both combos into the same deck.
Modern Pyromancer decks are really hybrid Pyromancer / Past in Flames builds, able to win via either route or a combination of the two. Crossing Pyromancer with some other combo has a fine backing in Standard of recent years, and the ability to go for a storm kill in a deck that has extensive recursion is pretty powerfull all on its own. In terms of pure combo that nonetheless has a lot of endurance for its game plan, Pyromancer / Past in Flames may be the leader.
…and much like Ad Nauseam Tendrils in Legacy, it’s a deck that demands that you have a good understanding of your cards, your likelihood of drawing into them, and the kind of look-forward thinking and rapid mental arithmetic that support understanding whether you can combo off this turn or not.
Pyromancer Ascension (as played by Samwise_GeeGee)
The combo is nonetheless still functional, and you still have the option of packing up to eight cards for each half of the combo into a single deck. Our example Splinter Twin deck goes in for seven of those potential eight cards.
Splinter Twin (as played by mlmcc1)
Owen just wrote about this concept here, but the basic concept is “cheat an [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] into play,” where the “cheat” aspect actually translates into “cast it and get that extra turn” a significant portion of the time. Although the deck is crushing when it works, it is a little structurally shaky right now, which may speak to a need to run some additional lines of attack, or possibly just the need to optimize some card counts.
Here’s a list other than Owen’s for comparison’s sake:
Sun Breach (as played by qazwsxedcrfvtgbyhnuj)
You’ll want to read Owen’s article for more thoughts on the deck.
Remember that Open the Vaults combo deck in Standard? Remember all those Second Sunrise decks in Extended? Ever wanted to combine those two very similar concepts into one super-artifact-recursion-combo deck?
Here you go:
Sunrise Vaults (as played by Thejjuggler10)
The basic concept of this style of deck is to play lots of cheap artifacts that cantrip (draw you a card) as they enter or leave the battlefield. In combination with mana generating artifacts and Second Sunrise plus Open the Vaults, they let you use various methods (such as Krark-Clan Ironworks) to set up either giant mana turns or actual infinite cycling, allowing you to draw your entire deck and kill via Banefire or a massively recursive Pyrite Spellbomb.
In my limited attempts at playing the deck, it’s seemed like it might be a little slower than the format’s Affinity aggro clock allows…but then, that’s an issue faced by many of these early season combo decks. Much like the Pyromancer / Past in Flames deck, it certainly does demand that you be able to run the combo math in your head and have a solid understanding of the cards in your deck.
Contrary to the received wisdom of early metagames, the control contingent has been putting in a decent showing on Magic Online – although this is notably different from its distinct absence at Philadelphia and during side events at Worlds. Although the loss of Punishing Fire may seem like a hit to control conceptually, it has expanded the deck building space for control decks generally, since you no longer have to start by explaining why you aren’t running the Grove-Fire combo.
I wrote about this archetype as a port from Extended in my most recent In Development. In that case, I envisioned running the full port, which includes keeping green for Tarmogoyf and a few other cards. In contrast, the Cryptic Control variations that have proliferated through the actual metagame stick to the pure W/U base, eschewing color splashes that give access to cards like Engineered Explosives in favor of the relative purity of a U/W mana base (which, as we’ve seen, can be a big deal).
Cryptic Control (as played by bobjackson)
This list covers all the conceptual basics, featuring the de rigueur four packs of Mana Leak and Cryptic Command, alongside some life gain, removal, and a full pack of Tectonic Edges – again, allowed by that two-color mana base.
One of the questions around control in Modern has been the potential paucity of effective card advantage. In this take on Cryptic Control, we have card advantage from the eponymous card, of course, alongside a couple Jaces…and not much else. So maybe that lack isn’t such a big deal?
One of my two long, grindy matches from Worlds was against some form of Cruel Control build. Like its Standard and Extended forebears, Modern Cruel Control runs a suite of Vivid lands alongside Reflecting Pool, giving it access to pretty much any spells you’d like.
Given the wide range of spells available in Modern, “any spells you’d like” means that a Cruel Control list can end up being a greatest hits album of all sorts of cards, such that it’s not at all weird to find the same deck casting Cryptic Command, Lightning Helix, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, and, of course, Cruel Ultimatum.
Cruel Control (as played by Guderian86)
This take on Cruel Control crosses the basic CC archetype with Teachings because…hey, why not? Essentially the entire point of the Cruel Control deck skeleton is that you take a tempo hit in exchange for running all the best cards, so you pretty much can do whatever you want as long as it’s powerful enough to warrant being a continuous turn behind for much of the early game.
Death Cloud has always felt like an awesome and yet not-quite-there deck to me, at least in Extended. However, in Modern there may be the combination of cards to make this a decently reliable choice, especially if you aren’t colliding with combo decks every other turn.
Certainly, as long as aggro is so prevalent in the format, Death Cloud will be a reasonable choice. One thing to keep in mind if you decide to give Death Cloud a spin is the fact that you don’t need to resolve its namesake spell to win, especially against aggro where you often play the part of “grinding control” and win by the usual combination of removal and life gain.
Death Cloud (as played by Joao_Dannemann)
In the past, at least in Extended, a “Gifts” deck was probably more properly a “Gifts Rock” deck, meaning that it had a lot in common with Death Cloud – clearly able to crush aggro, but vulnerable to combo and control. Being vulnerable to two thirds of the metagame isn’t a great way to beat the odds at any given PTQ, and as a consequence, Gifts Ungiven was not necessarily the best choice, despite my personal affinity for it.
Right now, Gifts decks have little in common with the Gifts Rock decks of the past. As I’ve written about already, Gifts in Modern is a control deck with a powerful finish in the form of Unburial Rites + the fatty of your choice. Iona is most obvious, but I’ve seen any number of completely understandable selections among Gifts decks out there.
Gifts (as played by _ShipItHolla, aka Michael Hetrick)
The finisher fatty of choice here is Empyrial Archangel, which is a pretty solid all-around solution to many metagame problems. She’s a wonderful damage sink, a powerful finisher in her own right, and the shroud helpfully invalidates much of your opponent’s likely removal.
In terms of the rest of the deck, this build involves more disruption than the one I presented, and I think that’s a perfectly solid direction in which to take it. It’s also less dedicated to stomping aggro, which seems fine given the general versatility of the build.
Teachings was the obvious control choice for Modern players who were so inclined at Worlds. This, like Zoo, was probably an artifact of the paucity of overall playtest time rather than any strong inclination toward Teachings as the “best” control deck available.
It’s possible that the silver bullet aspect of Teachings isn’t powerful enough to compete with the pure W/U Cryptic deck lists or the Tron lists that we’ll go into next, so that may account for its relative absence from the recent Modern metagame. Alternately, it could be that this silver bullet aspect simply demands a thorough understanding of the metagame, so Teachings decks will follow the “control takes control” concept through the coming PTQ season.
Teachings (as played by DoubleDrain)
Tron is short for the “Urzatron,” which is itself slang for having the three different Urza lands in play. So yes, it’s an abbreviation of a colloquial term for an archetype.
I talked in a bit more depth about Tron decks here, stating my own preference for U/B Tron over W/U Tron. The metagame, however, has taken to white as the backup color for Tron in Modern, and that has led to builds like this one:
Tron (as played by BDeCandio7)
Tron (as played by MagicDevil666)
This build actually does maintain the Slaver lock option, but it also gives you the ability to funnel all of that Tron mana into simply casting ridiculously large eldritch horrors, which are likely to be decent finishers on their own.
Although the classic triad is aggro-combo-control, these are just notional categories of course, ones we use to make it easier for us to conceptualize the game. Many decks clearly fit into these categories, but others stand in positions that seem to bridge them, especially those that we’d like to call “midrange” or “tempo.” These are two different categories that play quite differently, but neither one cleanly fits into one of the classic triad groupings.
Several midrange options and one big tempo choice will round out today’s Modern Bestiary.
What we tend to call “Bant” decks are those white-blue-green builds that feature efficient creatures and other threats, light removal, and a smattering of countermagic-based disruption. Although it’s not a requirement that they strictly be white-blue-green, those deck style requirements are most likely to yield choices across that color suite.
Bant (as played by TuSaiPas)
If Bant is about efficient attackers, light removal, and countermagic-based disruption, Jund is about efficient attackers, extensive removal, and discard-based disruption. Although the primary driver for playing the traditional black-red-green color triad of Jund was the Punishing Fire / Grove combo, those colors continue to have a lot to offer in terms of attrition, attackers, and disruption.
Jund (as played by kaOz.Zeh)
So what if you don’t feel compelled to keep the red in Jund following the loss of Punishing Fire? The most obvious option is to simply ditch red entirely and focus on the options provided by green and black.
Although this removes access to easy reach via burn, and perhaps more noticeably to Bloodbraid Elf, it obviously gives you a cleaner mana base and the ability to tap into other handy mechanics such as retrace, which might lead you to the Pox archetype, as shown here:
Pox (as played by ovmlcabrera)
This is a deck that plans to carry on the Jund “attrition” theme to an even greater degree, using Life from the Loam to reload for those Raven’s Crimes and to recover more amicably from your own Smallpoxes.
It’s been an open question whether Merfolk would emerge as a playable deck in Modern. Certainly, the presence of Fire / Grove was keeping the deck down, since so many of its creatures are tiny and consequently quite flammable. After the loss of Fires, it seemed to reasonable to expect Merfolk again…and indeed, here they are.
Merfolk (as played by googly)
This deck is what you’d expect to see in Modern Merfolk, even going so far as to include Aether Vial in the same vein as its Legacy precursor.
Note the four copies of Disrupting Shoal, playing the role of Force of Will in a FoW-less environment. The blue spells in the deck support Shoaling spells with CMCs from one to three, which seems just fine for most early-turn “Force of Will” applications in Modern.
We close out the Bestiary with an alternate take on this mythical race:
Merfolk (as played by mrgrahamg)
This deck is significantly less all-in on the Merfolk theme, having traded them out for cards like Dark Confidant and Phantasmal Image. All the same, it does run a quad of Sivlergill Adept alongside twelve Merfolk lords, so it clearly remains “a Merfolk deck.”
The addition of black gives you access to removal and disruption to back up your blue-based disruption. In this case, the main deck actually has no countermagic at all, relying on discard-based disruption instead.
Closing the Bestiary
As I said in the intro, we’re really in the Modern PTQ pre-season right now, so there is no such thing as a defined metagame. Instead, we have snippets, samples, ideas, and conjecture. It’s a time when it’s useful to see what your fellow players are playing and what they are trying, both to figure out what the early season metagame may look like and what you might want to play.
So there it is – your pre-season Modern Bestiary. Enjoy.
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