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Frank Analysis – The Island of Misfit Modern Toys

I just returned from Valencia, where I finished the Pro Tour in 41st place. As I have a lot of topics to tackle, I’m going to split up my Pro Tour report into three parts. Today, I will go over interesting Modern decks that I brewed up, playtested, and eventually discarded. Next week, I will discuss the Affinity list that I actually registered for the Modern portion of the event. And in two weeks from now, I will present and discuss my pick order list for Born of the Gods Limited.

Although I ended up playing Affinity, it was merely my plan B from the beginning. The deck was solid and I had prior experience with it, but it was nothing special. I only ended up running it because plan A (break the format and find a novel, powerful deck with excellent matchups across the field) failed.

Born of the Gods didn’t bring many relevant cards for Modern except for [ccProd]Courser of Kruphix[/ccProd] and a few fringe cards, but the unbanning of [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] and the banning of [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] shook things up quite a bit, and I hoped that it would open up new opportunities in the Modern format. This article will treat my failed attempts.

Bitter Vengeance

Breaking [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] was one of the first things I tried. The obvious home was Faeries, but that didn’t really work out. PV and Kenji tried various Faeries builds, but they were very unimpressed. Our best version splashed red for the efficient [ccProd]Lightning Bolt[/ccProd] and the one-sided [ccProd]Firespout[/ccProd], but the key Faerie cards ([ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd], [ccProd]Spellstutter Sprite[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Mistbind Clique[/ccProd]) just felt individually weak in Modern. On top of all that, [ccProd]Voice of Resurgence[/ccProd] out of Melira Pod randomly hosed the deck.

We considered Bitterblossom in a black/white token shell, but were similarly unimpressed. It was just slow, clunky, and underpowered. I once went turn-1 [ccProd]Inquisition of Kozilek[/ccProd], turn-2 [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd], turn-3 [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd] against Zoo, and didn’t even get close to winning.

So I went deeper and took Bitterblossom in a different direction. The banning of [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] opened up the way for graveyard-reliant decks, and Bitterblossom was in the same color as [ccProd]Goryo’s Vengeance[/ccProd], so I brewed up this beauty:

[ccdeck]4 Bitterblossom
4 Zombie Infestation
4 Lingering Souls
4 Thoughtseize
4 Polymorph
4 Goryo’s Vengeance
4 Emrakul, the Aeon’s Torn
4 Serum Visions
2 Muddle the Mixture
3 Griselbrand
4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Marsh Flats
3 Verdant Catacombs
1 Godless Shrine
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Watery Grave
1 Plains
2 Swamp
1 Fetid Heath
4 Darkslick Shores
1 Seachrome Coast[/ccdeck]

My thinking was that Bitterblossom synergized well with [ccProd]Polymorph[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Windbrisk Heights[/ccProd] and that [ccProd]Emrakul[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Griselbrand[/ccProd] are among the most powerful creatures in Modern. This deck may have been a bit wild, as it contained three different ways to sneak Emrakul or Griselbrand into play, but it was a ton of fun.

The first route to victory is to get any token on the battlefield (via [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd], [ccProd]Zombie Infestation[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd]) and to subsequently Polymorph it into a bigger legendary creature. It is a little awkward that Polymorph does not cough up the same card every time, but it is still a good deal for 4 mana.

The second game plan is to hide a fatty under Windbrisk Heights, produce three attackers, and profit. Turn 1 Windbrisk Heights (hiding Emrakul), turn 2 Godless Shrine into Zombie Infestation (discarding 6 cards to make 3 guys), turn 3 Emrakul is pretty sweet. You even get the extra turn! Alternatively, a second-turn Bitterblossom plus a third-turn Lingering Souls activates Windbrisk Heights by turn 4.

The third way to sneak Griselbrand or Emrakul into play is to discard them (to Zombie Infestation or your own [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]) and subsequently reanimate them with [ccProd]Goryo’s Vengeance[/ccProd]. Although Emrakul shuffles itself back into your deck, you can cast Goryo’s Vengeance while that trigger is on the stack. [ccProd]Muddle the Mixture[/ccProd] acts as a tutor for either Zombie Infestation or Goryo’s Vengeance.

The thing I liked about this deck was the overlap in its pieces. Zombie Infestation was both a token creator and a discard outlet. Thoughtseize doubled as disruption and a discard outlet. The deck could even play a fair game with Bitterblossom and Lingering Souls, draining an opponent of resources while setting up a combo kill. Zombie Infestation discarding double Lingering Souls was a nice value play as well.

I tested the deck in the Czech Republic with Martin, PV, and Shahar. It did reasonably well, but not as well as I had hoped. It posted an even to positive record against midrange/combo decks like Melira Pod, UWR, Splinter Twin, and Living End, but it was often a turn too slow to beat Affinity and Zoo. It was difficult to resolve Polymorph through [ccProd]Lightning Bolt[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Path to Exile[/ccProd], and Bitterblossom felt underwhelming; I won almost no games by attacking with 1/1s. I wanted a deck that could reliably beat Zoo, so I ended up discarding this Polymorph brew. I never even got to testing it after sideboard. Nevertheless, it was a blast to play, and it revealed the power of Goryo’s Vengeance, which felt like the most powerful part of the deck.

Tarmo-Twin

Although it is enjoyable to try offbeat decks, it is also important to figure out what to expect from the other competitors at the Pro Tour. Without a reasonable gauntlet of decks to test against, it is hard to know how good a new brew really is. Based on (i) the results of recent Grand Prix and Magic Online tournaments and (ii) the influence of the banning announcement, I expected the metagame at the Pro Tour to be dominated by Affinity, Splinter Twin, UWR Midrange, Zoo, and Melira Pod. I also expected various combo decks, such as Scapeshift and Living End, to show up in reasonable numbers. (This prediction was in line with the consensus within Team ChannelFireball, and it turned out to be largely correct.)

While Wrapter played around with Birthing Pod decks, Luis tried several UWR versions, Ben Lundquist tested Affinity, Brian Kibler and Pat Cox worked on various Zoo builds, and Ben Stark tweaked Scapeshift decks, no one was really paying much attention to Splinter Twin. So, I set out to build a good Tempo Twin deck for our gauntlet.

While the typical Twin deck is Blue-Red, I felt that the deck could improve with [ccProd]Tarmogoyf[/ccProd]. While commentating Grand Prix Prague earlier this year, I never saw a Twin player combo off even once—all games were won through regular damage. Tarmogoyf fits that alternative game plan very well, as it can pressure the opponent, thereby forcing them to spend resources on Tarmogoyf that won’t be spent on the [ccProd]Pestermite[/ccProd]/[ccProd]Splinter Twin[/ccProd] combo. In addition, Tarmogoyf acts as a great blocker against [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd], which would be even more important after sideboard. The post-board plan against Zoo was to put in [ccProd]Batterskull[/ccProd], [ccProd]Threads of Disloyalty[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd] and to take out Splinter Twin and Pestermite. The combo is difficult to assemble against Path to Exile and sideboard hate, and Tarmogoyf would help play a fair game.

This was the list that I had for most of the time during testing:

[ccdeck]4 Tarmogoyf
4 Deceiver Exarch
2 Pestermite
4 Snapcaster Mage
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Grim Lavamancer
4 Serum Visions
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Splinter Twin
3 Remand
2 Cryptic Command
1 Izzet Charm
1 Electrolyze
1 Burst Lightning
1 Sleight of Hand
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Island
1 Forest
1 Mountain
2 Steam Vents
1 Breeding Pool
1 Stomping Ground
3 Sulfur Falls
2 Copperline Gorge
1 Tectonic Edge
—–Sideboard—–
3 Anger of the Gods
2 Molten Rain
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Batterskull
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Dispel
1 Dismember[/ccdeck]

It’s quite similar to the list that Patrick Dickmann piloted to an impressive Top 8 finish. The fact that we independently had the same idea of adding green suggests that it is a good direction for the deck to take.

Overall, I like Dickmann’s version better than mine, but I’m not convinced by all of his card choices. Let me go over the key differences one-by-one:

• He has 2 [ccProd]Scavenging Ooze[/ccProd] where I have 1 [ccProd]Grim Lavamancer[/ccProd] and 1 [ccProd]Vendilion Clique[/ccProd]. Grim Lavamancer definitely got worse with the introduction of the 3-toughness Wild Nacal, and it might even shrink your own Tarmogoyfs, so I can understand why he cut it. Vendilion Clique still provides some much-needed disruption, so I’m skeptical about that cut. Nevertheless, the idea of adding Scavenging Ooze never occurred to me. It is a fine maindeck card, and at the very least I should’ve had it over the Relics in the sideboard.

• He has [ccProd]Flame Slash[/ccProd] over [ccProd]Burst Lightning[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Gitaxian Probe[/ccProd] over [ccProd]Sleight of Hand[/ccProd]. Burst Lightning can kill Wild Nacatl on turn 1 and go to the face in the late game, but Flame Slash has the important advantage of reliably killing opposing Zoo critters on turn 2-4 for only a single red mana while adding a sorcery to the graveyard for Tarmogoyf. In the meantime, Sleight of Hand can provide useful card selection, but Gitaxian Probe costing zero mana and providing information may be more valuable. I’ll trust Dickmann’s choices here.

• His mana base is different. Most notably, Dickmann has 21 lands compared to my 23. I was happy with 23 during testing, so I’m skeptical about his land count. I would recommend cutting at least a Flame Slash, Remand, or Gitaxian Probe from his deck for a 22nd land.

• Dickmann’s sideboard has more one-ofs, so it must be better. That criterion has never failed me.

Although I liked the deck, I didn’t end up playing it because it didn’t do anything broken. It was just an iteration of the same old Splinter Twin deck, and if I was going to play a known deck, then I preferred Affinity because I had more experience with the robots. I did recommend the deck to other ChannelFireball members, but the few people who tested Splinter Twin reported that it didn’t feel great against fast Zoo. Any hand without Lightning Bolt was just way too slow, and comboing off wasn’t realistic because the deck had so little protection. Tarmogoyf was fine, but it was still nearly impossible to win a fair game against Zoo before boarding. Batterskull, Threads of Disloyalty, and Anger of the Gods were all quite good after sideboard, but in the end, the team strategy appeared to be to ignore Splinter Twin. Too bad.

Flying to Valencia

The decks I described so far were built and tested before I arrived in Valencia. I was initially planning to meet up with the team on the Saturday before the Pro Tour, but I ended up arriving a day later because I missed my flight. My alarm clock simply failed, and I had no choice but to re-book for the next day. To make the best of it, I playtested a few games of Modern against myself, and relaxed by reading a book. Speaking of books, I recently enjoyed “So Do You Wear a Cape?” by Titus Chalk; it’s about the history of Magic: the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast, and the community surrounding the game.

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Valencia on Sunday morning, where a boardroom was booked for Team CFB’s testing efforts. This is how we were welcomed in the lobby:

pic1

And this is where the Magic happened:

pic2

I’m still curious what the cleaning ladies must have thought about this peculiar group of International Scientists and the cardboard they were doing research on…

Amulet of Vigor Combo

Martin Juza pushed me to try [ccProd]Amulet of Vigor[/ccProd] combo. It had been doing well online, and I started working on it immediately after dropping my bags. Although the list was continually changing every few games, here’s what I played most of the games with:

[ccdeck]4 Amulet of Vigor
4 Serum Visions
4 Ancient Stirrings
4 Summer Bloom
4 Summoner’s Pact
4 Primeval Titan
2 Explore
2 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
1 Hive Mind
1 Pact of Negation
1 Trinket Mage
4 Gemstone Mine
3 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Yavimaya Coast
4 Simic Growth Chamber
4 Gruul Turf
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Boros Garrison
3 Tolaria West
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Forest
1 Vesuva
1 Khalni Garden
1 Kabira Crossroads
1 Slayers’ Stronghold
1 Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion
1 Inkmoth Nexus[/ccdeck]

The deck is hard to play, but capable of fast starts. With an [ccProd]Amulet of Vigor[/ccProd] in play, [ccProd]Primeval Titan[/ccProd] can fetch [ccProd]Boros Garrison[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Slayers’ Stronghold[/ccProd] and attack on the same turn. [ccProd]Summer Bloom[/ccProd] allows you to ramp into 6 mana by turn 3 with ease. The problem is that the card selection to find the combo is relatively weak; [ccProd]Serum Visions[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Ancient Stirrings[/ccProd] can dig towards bounce-lands or Amulet of Vigor, but they are not very reliable. [ccProd]Explore[/ccProd] is much worse than [ccProd]Summer Bloom[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Trinket Mage[/ccProd] is a horribly slow way to find Amulet of Vigor.

Tweaks were continually made during testing. The initial version lacked [ccProd]Inkmoth Nexus[/ccProd], for example, but it was quickly added because you often needed an extra flying blocker against Affinity. Moreover, Inkmoth Nexus provided a game plan after Melira Pod gained infinite life: you could poison them out by pumping Inkmoth Nexus with Slayers’ Stronghold, returning it with a bounceland, replaying it via Summer Bloom, pumping again, and finally giving the Nexus double strike with [ccProd]Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion[/ccProd]. The deck was certainly capable of incredible sequences.

A point of contention was [ccProd]Hive Mind[/ccProd]. Martin didn’t like it in the main. He argued that between Serum Visions, Tolaria West, Summoner’s Pact, and Primeval Titan itself, you pretty much always have the Titan when you hit 6 mana, so there was no reason to add more expensive things that don’t help you find the combo. That made sense, even if Hive Mind would still be a relevant sideboard plan.

Unfortunately, the deck lacked resilience, speed, and power. Testing started on Sunday morning at approximately 10:30 a.m. with four people testing the deck in parallel matches. Roughly two hours later, at 12:37 p.m., I posted the following on the team forum: “Tested it vs Twin, Zoo, Affinity, and Pod. Beat none of those. Deck discarded.” Given that the deck had a very low win percentage on Day Two of the Pro Tour, I believe that was the correct decision.

Burn

After a standard 3-hour lunch break, we returned to the boardroom, and the next deck I tried was mono-red burn:

[ccdeck]4 Goblin Guide
4 Grim Lavamancer
2 Vexing Devil
2 Keldon Marauders
2 Hellspark Elemental
4 Lava Spike
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Searing Blaze
4 Rift Bolt
4 Skullcrack
2 Shard Volley
2 Magma Jet
2 Flames of the Blood Hand
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Arid Mesa
12 Mountain[/ccdeck]

I figured that this style of deck would be good against Zoo players that dealt a lot of damage to themselves via their mana base. Burn spells would also prey upon anyone brave enough to show up with Bitterblossom. Moreover, Born of the Gods provided [ccProd]Satyr Firedancer[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Searing Blood[/ccProd] as potentially relevant sideboard options.

I liked mono-red over splashing white for [ccProd]Boros Charm[/ccProd] and/or black for [ccProd]Bump in the Night[/ccProd] because the mana was more stable, because the splash only provided a rather marginal increase in card quality, and because the mono-red build was able to start the game at 2 more life, which is quite relevant against Zoo. [ccProd]Keldon Marauders[/ccProd], [ccProd]Hellspark Elemental[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd] are not great, but they fit with the game plan and sometimes mitigate mana floods to some extent.

The burn deck ended up losing to Affinity and Splinter Twin in testing, while going roughly even against Zoo, UWR, and Birthing Pod. That was not good enough. Mana floods and opposing [ccProd]Lightning Helix[/ccProd] were huge risks, and I didn’t see a way to solve that. “Burn is in the garbage bin,” I posted on Sunday at 7:53pm.

Only a few days remained to find something else.

Goryo’s Vengeance

My testing with the Polymorph deck revealed the power of [ccProd]Goryo’s Vengeance[/ccProd], and I decided I wanted to try it in a more dedicated shell. I was inspired by builds from Todd Anderson and Jan van der Vegt and set out to improve on their versions. Paulo Vitor tested [ccProd]Griselbrand[/ccProd]-only versions with [ccProd]Glimpse the Unthinkable[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Fury of the Horde[/ccProd], as well as Goryo’s Vengeance-only builds with lots of card draw spells, but I didn’t find them to be consistent enough and I usually hated drawing the win-more Fury of the Horde.

I went with a [ccProd]Goryo’s Vengeance[/ccProd] / [ccProd]Through the Breach[/ccProd] hybrid. I spent most of my Monday tuning the deck and testing games ones against the field, and most of the Tuesday testing post-sideboard games. Kenji Tsumura was quite enthusiastic about the deck, and we systematically tested it against the gauntlet. Here is one of the last versions:

[ccdeck]4 Goryo’s Vengeance
3 Through the Breach
4 Griselbrand
4 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
4 Faithless Looting
4 Serum Visions
4 Izzet Charm
4 Thoughtseize
2 Muddle the Mixture
2 Remand
4 Pentad Prism
1 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
4 Darkslick Shores
1 Steam Vents
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
2 Island
1 Mountain
1 Gemstone Mine
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Misty Rainforest
—–Sideboard—–
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Repeal
2 Shatterstorm
2 Hurkyl’s Recall
2 Torpor Orb
2 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
2 Lightning Axe
1 Through the Breach[/ccdeck]

The deck is fairly self-explanatory. [ccProd]Pentad Prism[/ccProd] turns on [ccProd]Through the Breach[/ccProd] on turn three, and [ccProd]Faithless Looting[/ccProd] discarding Griselbrand into a turn-two Goryo’s Vengeance is a powerful start, too. The maindeck [ccProd]Remand[/ccProd] was more or less an open slot that turned into [ccProd]Zombie Infestation[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lightning Axe[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sleight of Hand[/ccProd], and then back to Remand during testing. The idea behind Remand was to slow down opponents to the extent where a turn-5 Through the Breach would still be enough, especially when [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Izzet Charm[/ccProd] ran interference as well. Remand was also needed to counter a Pestermite that would tap down Emrakul. Yeah, that interaction made the matchup against Splinter Twin quite difficult.

The deck was powerful and reasonably consistent, but it still had some issues. First, there were games where you simply didn’t draw a big monster or reanimation spell. Second, a single attack by Emrakul or Griselbrand was not always game over. You usually had to use Griselbrand to deal some damage, draw seven cards, and set up an Emrakul kill for the next turn, but that was not always good enough to win the game. This could of course be mitigated by adding [ccProd]Fury of the Horde[/ccProd], but that would come at the cost of adding a card that doesn’t turn on the combo in the first place. The third and final issue was sideboard hate in the form of [ccProd]Grafdigger’s Cage[/ccProd] and the like. Through the Breach and Repeal from the sideboard helped fight it, but you’d still lose a few games to those cards.

The playtest results were approximately like this:

vs Zoo: 13-7 preboard, 7-7 postboard
vs Affinity: 7-9 preboard, 6-8 postboard
vs Pod: 10-6 preboard, 9-7 postboard
vs Twin: 6-4 preboard, 3-9 postboard
vs UWR: 6-6 preboard, 2-4 postboard

This wasn’t bad, but it didn’t provide a positive match win percentage against the field, so in the end, I had to be realistic and tossed the deck. I think that a deck like this could eventually be viable, especially if no one is running graveyard hate cards in their sideboard, but we couldn’t get it to work in time for the Pro Tour.

While I was testing all of the above-described decks, the other team members had been working on Zoo, UWR, and Scapeshift, and had found decks they liked. I was not convinced by any of their builds, so I decided to resort back to my plan B: good old Affinity. My final list was kind of a mix between the ones played by Ben Lundquist and Christian Seibold.

I hope this article has given you some insight into part of my testing process for the Pro Tour and perhaps a few nice ideas for upcoming Modern tournaments. I’ll analyze my Affinity deck next time, but for now, I have my eyes on the Team Limited Grand Prix in Barcelona, where I’ll be doing coverage with Matej Zatlkaj and Simon Goertzen this weekend. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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