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Playing with Fire – Once in a Blue Moon

We are going for an enormous change of pace in Playing with Fire this week. While you will not need to put away your Lightning Bolts to continue on, you will need to be at peace with slinging some counterspells…

The Modern Pro Tour Qualifier season has been under way for a while now and I have been experimenting with various Blue-Red strategies, seeing as they most strongly reward my player strengths. It may surprise many, but my history as a Magic the Gathering Online grinder started with Pauper Mono Blue Control, so it takes only the smallest opportunity for me to revert to my roots. Changing format was easily enough motivation for me to pick up some blue cards.

I started preparing for the season with UR Splinter Twin. I liked this version of the deck as it was the most consistent and at the time was putting up better numbers online than the RUG variant. Splinter Twin, like Birthing Pod, has two strong and complimentary strategies, which is a huge part of why they are the best performing decks. Attacking from multiple angles poses a lot of difficult questions for your opponent and they can easily go wrong and lose immediately. Both decks also have draws on the play that are almost unbeatable. Finally, I really enjoyed having the option of transforming into a solid control deck after sideboard if the matchup called for that.

After playing modern for a few weeks, it increasingly became clear that the format rewards proactive strategies. There are a few reasons for this, but primarily they distil down to:

  • The format is very open. Even when we talk about Splinter Twin, Pod or UWR Control being the dominant decks of the format, they each respectively are only about ten percent of the metagame. When you attend any large event, you can and will face all sorts of fringe decks, each of which are doing something powerful. Building a Control deck to combat such an open environment is not really possible – many have tried and failed. The most successful control shells in the format are Splinter Twin and UWR Control, both of which are very proactive; Splinter Twin can kill you as early as turn four while UWR Control is a glorified “burn” deck.
  • Decks in the format are relatively inconsistent, even when compared to Standard not that long ago (Ponder and Preordain both had recent runs in Standard, but are banned in Modern). Pod decks are night and day when they draw Birthing Pod and when they do not. I experimented with the more tempo-oriented control decks, but the inconsistencies with those shells were very off putting; unlike Legacy where Ponder and Brainstorm give you a constant stream of spells, in Modern the cantrips are so much weaker that you can get ahead of your opponent early and then be quickly behind after a few poor draws – whereas your Pod opponent only has to draw Birthing Pod and then you are cooked. When you get ahead, you want to just end the game immediately – Splinter Twin does that.

I primarily worked on UR Splinter Twin with team Sneak and Show semi-pro Sam Loy and many of the small innovations belong to him. The deck was further refined by Joe Fox. I played the deck at Australian Nationals, where I finished 20th, losing my win and in to the Top 8 (after been improperly awarded a game loss in the previous win and in round by an erroneous judge) and subsequently went 5-2 in a large PTQ. Here is the deck list:

Blue Red Splinter Twin by Sam Loy and Joe Fox

We were finding in testing that everyone in the local metagame was prepared for the combo plan, so we strengthened our fair strategy as much as possible. A Burst Lightning, second Electrolyze, a Sleight of Hand and two Spell Snares are the results of this and they all performed very well for me at both events. The only change I would make if I were to run the deck again would be to switch a single Batterskull for a Keranos, God of Storms in the sideboard.

I do think that Splinter Twin variants are the best decks in Modern. Not that “being the best deck” means too much, as again, the format is extremely open. Splinter Twin has a slight edge against Pod decks which are the other top contender; Affinity is pretty much a bye and most importantly in a metagame as open as Modern, the matchups against most of the fringe decks are very favourable – Splinter Twin wrecks Tron, Living End and the like. However, Splinter Twin has a relatively poor matchup with UWR Control and Jund, which are seemingly very overrepresented in Australia. Playing those matches most rounds at events meant that I was losing the vast majority of my game ones. Funnily enough, I did actually win every match against those archetypes in tournaments, on account of sideboarding into a UR Blood Moon deck. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to switch to playing actual Blue Moon. Unfortunately, this switch has consumed the last few weeks of my life, as there are few more things I enjoy more than drawing all of the cards, while my opponent is discarding.

Winning and Losing with the One Card Combo

Blue Moon is a strange deck. It has favourable matchups against most of the “Tier One” decks in Modern: UWR Control, Jund, Splinter Twin and Affinity, while having a decent matchup against Birthing Pod. While that sounds great, as mentioned previously, these decks do not even make up half of the Modern metagame, and Blue Moon’s other matchups range from unfavourable to completely horrendous – so be warned, this is not a deck for the faint of heart.

The core of the deck is the namesake card, Blood Moon, and much like Splinter Twin, it does give you a lot of free wins. Many decks in Modern are extremely greedy, or your opponent will just not be prepared and you will be able to manoeuvre the game in such a way as to resolve Blood Moon and lock your opponent out – it does not need to be on Turn 3 and even a late Blood Moon is often sufficient.

When compared to Splinter Twin, there are some notable advantages and disadvantages:

  • Blood Moon is a one card combo that can be played as early as turn three; Splinter Twin is a two card combo that goes off at best on turn four. After playing both decks, at least in my local environment, it is easier to force through a Blood Moon than it is to assemble the Splinter Twin combo. However, any time you assemble Splinter Twin, the game immediately ends while the opposite is true with Blood Moon.
  • Most removal has no interaction whatsoever with Blood Moon (the relevant exceptions are Abrupt Decay, Maelstrom Pulse and Celestial Purge). Modern is a format dominated by creature strategies, so your opponents may have a lot of dead cards in game one.
  • Blue Moon can be similarly punishing of opponents who try to tap out at inopportune moments, but not always. Basically, when the card is good it is immediately game winning, when Blood Moon is not relevant it is much worse than Splinter Twin.
  • Blue Moon wins incredibly slowly, unless your opponent concedes to the Blood Moon after a few frustrating turns. Because your opponent is locked out with the enchantment in play, you need to dedicate more of your deck to winning without the enchantment; this has been problematic in events because I simply could not win quickly enough sometimes and rounds would go to time.
  • The bigger problem with Blue Moon winning slowly is that you have no way of punishing the combo decks in the format. While some of them are nevertheless very good matchups for you anyway (if they are weak to Blood Moon or Remand), some of them are horrendous. For example, Blue Moon really struggles against Storm, will never beat Mono Red Burn or Infect, whereas I feel Splinter Twin is well positioned against all of these.

Putting the distinction as simply as I can, both decks are Blue-Red Control decks with an enchantment win condition – Blue Moon just appeals to a much more conservative sort of player because you will not be blown out going for the combo. After talking with team Sneak and Show and in particular Nick Watson, I have an honest suspicion that a large contributing factor in my relatively unsuccessful run of game ones with Splinter Twin was because I was too cautious in going for the combo – I would always convince myself to wait and keep waiting until there was a better opportunity, unless my opponent almost certainly did not have a way of interacting. Perhaps too confidant, I was sure that I would just outplay them if the game went on long enough, but I was not playing a deck that gave me enough tools with which to achieve that. Blue Moon does.

The r/Spikes community was a huge aid in developing this deck, so a huge thank you to them. While I started with the Pro Tour Blue Moon list, I immediately hated it. There are too many changes to list, so I will just give you the current list:

Blue Moon Control by James Fazzolari

This deck is still a huge work in progress, but also a tremendously fun project. I will run through some of the major departures from the Pro Tour list:

  • There are only three Blood Moons in the deck. This is decision was made for a few reasons: Blood Moon is not good in multiples, it is not good in every matchup and it is not necessary to always play it on turn three, even when it is good. You will still draw the card more than 50% of the time by turn three, and the deck is designed to function without it as much as possible.
  • Vendilion Clique over Master of Waves. Frankly, I do not understand Master of Waves at all. While it is immune to Lightning Bolt, there are no shortage of other ways to kill it and to even deploy Master, you need to tap four mana at sorcery. Without Blood Moon in play, that is an incredibly risky prospect. Master of Waves also raises the curve of the deck, when played in addition to Batterskull and Vedalken Shackles and I found that I was getting too many clunky hands. Vendilion Clique is a tried and tested card in control decks and was a natural switch.
  • I think that my mix of counterspells is slightly wrong. The numbers of Cryptic Command and Spell Snare are correct, but I might have Remand and Mana Leak numbers wrong. Owen published a recent article about UR Control in Modern that featured four copies of Mana Leak. Remand is stronger in Splinter Twin where you are just trying to create to dig into combo pieces and force a timing window in which to resolve the combo; it does not have quite the same function in Blue Moon. Because Blue Moon cannot win quickly, Remanding a problem card back to your opponent’s hand just means that you will usually have to still deal with it some time in the future – Mana Leak just puts the card in the graveyard. So if you are going to pick up this deck, try out this switch. My rationale for running Remand was that it didn’t become dead when games inevitably went long, and it is much stronger against other Control strategies. Nevertheless, I do think Mana Leak is probably correct (Owen knows a lot more than I do after all).
  • Magma Spray started out as a sideboard only card (these were Burst Lightnings previously), but after testing, it slowly crept into the maindeck. Burst Lightning was appealing because it was almost additional Lightning Bolts (especially in the current metagame where there are very few x/3 creatures, but there are some extremely relevant x/4s that you can kick Burst Lightning to kill), but I almost never needed the additional reach – when you are winning with Blue Moon, you are almost always crushing. It made sense to hedge for one of the harder common matchups – Birthing Pod, by including Magma Spray in the maindeck as an answer to Voice of Resurgence and Kitchen Finks (their best two cards after Birthing Pod against you). With four copies in the 75, the matchup improved dramatically.

This version of Blue Moon’s matchups are as follows:

  • Very good (60% or better): Twin variants, UWR Control (without Geist of St Traft), Affinity, RUG Scapeshift
    good (about 55%): Jund and Rock decks, all Pod variants, random creature decks that cannot beat Snapcaster, Lightning Bolt and Vedalken Shackles
  • Average (about even): UWR Control (with Geist of St Traft), Living End, Merfolk, RG Scapeshift
  • Bad to downright awful: decks that do not care about Blood Moon (Storm, Burn, Tron, Ad Nauseam combo) and other decks where you really need to apply pressure quickly

Before I finish for the week, I want to be honest. I do not think that Blue Moon is a good choice for any PTQs you want to attend. This is because, ultimately, Blue Moon is a metagame deck designed to beat the top decks of the format. The deck does nothing inherently powerful or proactive and you are unable to punish the weaknesses of the fringe decks. I attended one PTQ with the deck, finishing with four wins against tier one decks, and four losses to fringe decks. This does not make the deck bad at all – it did exactly what it should have done given the opposition I faced; a more experienced player than myself would have understood that already. Where Blue Moon is an excellent choice is at a Pro Tour or at a Grand Prix where you have two byes going in; in these environments you will face a much more predictable portion of the metagame and the deck will perform much better. It does feel great to just cast Blood Moon on turn three against an unsuspecting opponent though.

If you have read this far, thank you very much for reading along. I hope that you found it interesting and are perhaps inspired to try out the deck. It has been incredibly fun for me and a great learning experience.

I will be back in the near future with some M15 Sealed and Draft content as I prepare for Grand Prix Sydney in five weeks.

Regards

Zemanjaski

No one can fight the tide forever.

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