Recurring Nightmares – Focusing in Modern

In the wake of GP Minneapolis, and with the Modern PTQ season looming on the horizon, I find myself more interested in Modern Constructed than Journey into Nyx Limited, despite the upcoming (or perhaps concurrent) Pro Tour featuring the newest set. Although Modern is in some ways a “solved” format, insomuch as there are no new contributions coming between the advent of the PTQ season and today, I can’t help but be intrigued by the allure of playing reasonable and powerful decks with something tangible on the line.

Much has been said of the virtues of picking a deck in Modern and sticking with it. Players like Sam Pardee, Jacob Wilson, and Pro Tour champ Shaun Mclaren have made a name for themselves by doing just that. Learning the ins and outs of a deck to the point where your standard lines of play become second nature, and allow you to passively participate in a given match is an excellent way to ease the pressures of a long and laborious tournament. For a long time I advised the same strategy in Legacy, even if my particular brand of deck ADD didn’t afford me the ability to practice that particular sermon.

These days, I feel that the advice is doubly worth paying attention to, as many players are largely priced into deck rigidity by the alarmingly escalating price of Modern staples. Where once the cost of changing between deck archetypes throughout a season was high, but not unreasonable, it is now prohibitive.

So, for these reasons, I’ve been trying to determine which deck I’d like to be playing during the upcoming season—well ahead of the time when I’ll actually be bringing the deck into competition.

At first, my attentions were focused almost entirely on Melira Pod. As the arguable “best deck,” Pod has the kind of flexibility and broad spectrum appeal that I tend to gravitate toward. The fact that it can combo off in a few separate ways to win has it advantaged over similar style decks, and the utility of Birthing Pod has me waxing nostalgic for pre-Vengevine Survival of the Fittest decks in Legacy (aka, when that card was good and fun, but not broken). Since the deck has been around since the onset of the format, I’ve played against it and tested with it enough to know the major plans and interactions, and the fact that it has a high level of customization has an advantage over many other decks.

There are two major obstacles to playing the deck, as I see it. First, as the de facto best deck, Pod is enemy #1, and has a target on its back. In order to play the deck, I’ll need to slog through 8+ rounds of players who have tested the matchup and have a strategy in mind to beat it. While Pod does have a pretty good track record of being capable of beating the hate—largely because the deck is not linear—it sounds arduous to face well-prepared opponents each round. Second, the mirror exists, and is intricate and skill-testing. While I’m confident in my capabilities with the deck, I’m not as sure that I have the raw repetitions put in to ensure that I’m favored in a mirror. And again, because the deck is considered the best deck in Modern, the mirror match is guaranteed to be prevalent.

So, I meditated on the situation for a while and tried to determine if I’d rather just push through the difficulties of becoming more than adept with the deck, or if I’d defect to another deck and try to approach the format from another angle. It’s then that I considered where I’ve been successful in the past.

Prior to my foray into the mainstream Magic formats, my main focus was on Legacy. In that format, I had something of a reputation for piloting decks that were good, but never great—largely because I had a difficult time convincing myself to just play the best deck. My best performances in Magic have always been when I was piloting a solid deck that has a powerful but somewhat fragile game plan that circumvents a large portion of the field, and that attacks from an angle that many players aren’t prepared for.

Cephalid Breakfast, for example, is a combo deck that is much worse than many alternative options, but has an angle that can be difficult to disrupt for traditional control strategies. I played the deck at a time when the best deck was Landstill, and when you lead with a turn 1 Aether Vial, setting up a combo that can be put into play without playing another spell and can win in response to removal, you are at a distinct advantage.

UWG Threshold, in a format largely dominated by Solidarity and UWR Threshold, allowed me to play Meddling Mage in a field where it was actively a great card. I played Jötun Grunt in a pre-Tarmogoyf environment when it was bigger than any threat at its cost, and reduced the effectiveness of all the opposing creatures.

UW Enlightened Tutor control featured a largely beatable win condition (in Thopter/Sword), that won mostly due to the format being underprepared for a deck that could win through a Humility or a Moat.

Elves (featuring Patriarch’s Bidding) in an Extended format that was mostly focused on grinding with Life from the Loam and Faeries. No matter how many Elves you kill, I can always rip a Bidding from the top and put 40 power into play. Turn 2 Bitterblossom? Turn three win. Thanks for tapping out.

And GW Trap, my first major Modern deck, used the explosive mana creatures of the format to power out Primeval Titans—a difficult threat to answer via non-Path means, or to simply blast an Emrakul into play via Windbrisk Heights. Many decks in Modern still have very little ways of interacting with an Emrakul, and though the deck is nowhere near playable, I can’t help but consider how effective the strategy of “put the win on the stack. Can you deal?” tends to be.

What this means to me is that I should be looking for a way to attack the metagame in a fashion that may not be completely invulnerable, but affords me an opportunity to avoid the more focused interactions that make up the typical matchups.

A few decks stand out to me in those terms:

1.) Storm. While I haven’t played much with the UR Storm decks since the banning of basically everything, I did spend some time playing the deck when it first came to being. I have some general familiarity with the lines of play, and I’ve played enough Storm combo in my life (in literally every format it’s been legal) to know the basics. My biggest issue with Storm is its linearity. It’s the kind of deck that you go all-in on, and they either have it or they don’t. While this kind of strategy appeals to the gambler personality, I tend to be pretty risk averse, and this isn’t where I want to be. Combine that with the fact that because the speed of the deck has been nerfed so many times that now you can’t just blast through hate by winning on turn 2, and I’m less interested in playing the deck.

2.) Goryo’s Borborygmos. I won’t lie, this deck has some strong appeal to me. When I was first introduced to the deck via Sam Pardee’s videos, it immediately struck a chord. It has all the hallmarks of a certifiable Barnello special—garbage combo that costs two mana; reliance on the graveyard; a shaky mana base that requires you to stretch to the limit; a 2-card combo that’s really a 5-card combo; discard spells you want to use on yourself… the list goes on and on. And yet, though my interest is certainly up there, I can’t justify to myself putting anything on the line with this deck in my hands. The spirit is willing, but the mind just says, “You’re wasting your time.” Once more, the linearity of the strategy makes me hesitate to put all my eggs in this basket.

3.) Affinity. The explosive nature of the deck combined with its ability to close out a game with evasive and difficult to remove threats makes me interested, but not in love. The fact that Ancient Grudge exists and is played, and that cards like Kataki, War’s Wage and Shatterstorm lurk in the sideboards of wary planeswalkers makes me balk at the idea of bringing 50 artifacts to play. I admit I have some bias, as many of my best-beat stories from ages ago include activating Pernicious Deed for 0 against an unsuspecting Affinity opponent. Though Deed is not in the format, there are plenty of cards that exist and see play that wreck a robot nearly as well.

4.) Splinter Twin. While this deck goes up and down on the scale of decks people can’t stand losing to, it never really goes away. There are a few cards that make me very anxious when I consider seeing them facing me—Linvala, Spellskite, Abrupt Decay, Slaughter Pact—these are spells that put the brakes on in a major way. Still, the deck has the chops to win an event, and the instant-speed nature of the majority of its lines reminds me of Faeries, and that’s something that plays into the goal of dodging typical lines of interaction. While Twin is fairly linear, much in the way that Affinity and Storm are, it has the capability of preventing interaction with its primary strategy since it plays protection in the form of counter magic.

So, I think I’ve settled on Twin (or variations thereof) as the focus of my attention for the upcoming Modern season. While I don’t believe the archetype is the “best,” I think it plays to my strengths and has the ability to compete at a high level with any of the other strategies. There is added value in the flexibility of the combo to be incorporated into a number of different shells, having been combined with white and green to great success recently.

What really drew me to the deck recently was Owen’s article about adding Twisted Image to the lineup of cantrips. This was a revelation to me in a way, as it showed me just how flexible the deck can be. While many players have been concentrating on “value” cantrips like Peek and Gitaxian Probe, the idea that there is a card like Twisted Image that can have niche applications and still advance your game plan in an appreciable way had me scouring Gatherer for hours looking for other possibilities. When that kind of inspiration hits, you need to run with it.

For the purpose of gaining intimate familiarity with the deck, I plan to begin with Owen’s list, but I do intend to opt for a few changes:

I don’t have much to say about the slight changes to the main deck, other than that Cascade Bluffs seems like a reasonable adoption over the fourth Sulfur Falls in a deck that wants to hit triple blue and triple red. I wasn’t quite certain why the singleton Tec Edge was available, though perhaps further testing could uncover a need for it. Also, Cryptic Command, while one of the strongest spells in the format, isn’t required as a four-of, especially when Snapcaster Mage is can rebuy, and I wanted to find room for a pair of Gitaxian Probes. They may be training wheels, but I feel like I could use some.

The board is pretty generic, though I want to try out a new toy that I’ve seen in a couple of lists online. Keranos will likely never turn on in the deck, but having access to another angle of attack from the board allows you to lessen focus on the combo and have some alternate route to victory. Much like the Batterskulls, it changes the dynamic of the matchup to reward you for playing a more controlling game plan, and forces the opponent to interact in a paradigm they may not be prepared for, as they are likely overloading on hate for the combo.

Ultimately, the goal of this discussion is to encourage you to consider which of the decks in the format play into your own particular strengths as a player. While many would urge you to select the objective best deck and jam games with it until you know it by heart, I’m not convinced that objectivity is as hard-and-fast as some may believe. I’m more interested in the subjective best deck for me, that I’m most interested in playing on a more visceral level, and that I think gives me the most opportunity to take advantage of my personal skills. While this may not be the same choice for you—perhaps you’re more comfortable playing Zoo, for example—I maintain that identifying this trait within yourself and putting the work in with a particular archetype or strategy will pay dividends for you throughout a season in a format as open and broad as Modern.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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