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Silvestri Says – Modern After PT Philadelphia

Philly Top 8 Heavy with Combo Decks – That was the headline this weekend and it certainly didn’t understate the current Modern format. Wizards really wanted to put traditional blue control in a hole and they did with the bannings of [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] and [card]Mental Misstep[/card]. Oddly enough though in the wake of the PT I’d be hardpressed to say unbanning those two cards would have a significant impact on control’s chances though.

Quite frankly there are so many angles to cover and the extremes of Twelve-Post to Splinter Twin to Shoal Infect to Zoo cover such a vast amount of design space that it may just be impossible to design a good control deck against them. To top it off, this falls under one of the pro tour events where the format was all about turn three wins and the fair decks were winning on turn four and five. The fundamental turn for most decks in this format shifted to turn two and if you couldn’t start disrupting or doing very impressive things very early, you were just dead in the water. [card]Chrome Mox[/card] may be helpful to combo but also may have been the savior to control if it were legal, as it allows control to jump into crucial spells and certain gimmicks such as [card]Blood Moon[/card] and [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] that much faster.

The funny part of studying Modern is that from week one people were talking about various combo decks and Twelve-Post floating around. In the end it turned out many of the initial impressions about what would be a valid deck ended up spot on for just about anyone who put any work into this PT. They may not have come up with the optimal builds, but practically none of the decks in the top eight or top decks was a true unknown quantity before the PT began. Even the people who were on certain tech found it leaked on MODO rather quickly, destroying any chance of a secret deck coming into the PT.

Some of you can really stop with the whole idea that control didn’t exist purely because they players didn’t know what to expect. First off that gives way too little credit to the good testing teams who I would bet had at a minimum 7 or the 10 most popular decks in their decks, if not all of them. Second you ignore the fact that plenty of PT’s without a public format have had successful control decks in them and certainly I’m hard pressed to remember one where control simply didn’t exist. Third, the tools just don’t exist in Modern for a control deck to successfully fight so many flavors of combo, 12-post and Zoo. Even when control had a centralized game plan like Counterbalance-Top there were points in the metagame where it had serious problems adjusting to the sheer number of proactive decks in the format.

Philly D1 deck % / D2 deck %/ T8 percentage:
Splinter Twin: 16.8%/ 18.5%/ 25%
Pyromancer Ascension: 6.5%/ 7.3%/ 25%
Infect Combo: 4.8%/ 4.6%/ 12.5%
Twelve-Post: 19.7%/ 12%/ 12.5%
Zoo: 15.6%/ 19.9%/ 12.5%
Affinity: 7.6%/ 11.3%/ 12.5%

So now that I’ve talked about the format a bit, let’s take a look at some of the most successful Modern decks.

Zoo aka: Counter-Cat

The most successful Zoo deck of the weekend was Counter-Cat, combining one of the only ground attacks quick enough to make an impact on the format while playing a heaping of removal and some countermagic. After all, if you can’t play cards like [card]Force of Will[/card] and [card]Wasteland[/card], you really have to speed up the Fish deck to have a chance of winning. And yes, this is a lot closer to a Fish deck in post-board games then a Zoo strategy, after all isn’t [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] the best Fish creature?

Counter-Cat
Josh Utter-Leyton
[deck]4 Arid Mesa
1 Dryad Arbor
1 Forest
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Horizon Canopy
2 Marsh Flats
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Plains
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Steam Vents
2 Stomping Ground
1 Tectonic Edge
1 Temple Garden
1 Gaddock Teeg
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Noble Hierarch
1 Qasali Pridemage
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl
3 Bant Charm
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Lightning Helix
4 Path to Exile
Sideboard
3 Aven Mindcensor
3 Flashfreeze
2 Gideon Jura
1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Rule of Law
1 Tectonic Edge
3 Unified Will[/deck]

Note that the entire deck is built more around utility and removal than traditional Zoo builds. The sideboard is a microcosm of the entire format if you trace the answer cards to their respective combo decks. The only thing that’s missing is the [card]Arena[/card] tech GerryT and a number of others were using in their own [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] decks in an attempt to battle [card]Splinter Twin[/card]. Between the counter-suite, [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card], [card]Aven Mindcensor[/card], [card]Bant Charm[/card] and copious amounts of removal the deck is reasonably well positioned against many of the combos that format possesses.

People unfamiliar with the format may wonder about having red or so much removal in the deck if the format is combo-based. The key is that many combos simply cannot beat a spot removal spell without help, let alone removal backed by counters and pressure. Similar aggro-control decks largely failed because they couldn’t put enough of a clock on their opponent to matter. It doesn’t matter if you can stop them once if the best you can do is put a 5-6 turn clock on them and hope they don’t draw out of it. Decks like Twin, Affinity and Infect all combo are all quite vunerable to large quantities of spot removal and the burn does the traditional double-duty of finishing people off.

I suspect this will be one of the few non-combo decks in the format until changes to the B/R list happen.

Splinter Twin
Samuele Estratti
[deck]1 Breeding Pool
4 Cascade Bluffs
5 Island
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Steam Vents
4 Deceiver Exarch
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
3 Pestermite
2 Spellskite
2 Dispel
1 Disrupting Shoal
3 Firespout
1 Lightning Bolt
2 Pact of Negation
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
4 Remand
1 Sleight of Hand
4 Splinter Twin
Sideboard
2 Ancient Grudge
3 Blood Moon
1 Deprive
2 Dismember
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Lightning Bolt
2 Spellskite
1 Vendilion Clique[/deck]

And the winner of Pro Tour Philadelphia is… A Standard legal combo deck! I kid though. The extra redundancy in combo pieces really does wonders for the deck and not having to worry about [card]Mental Misstep[/card] and removal in the same deck is a big boon. Oddly enough the deck actually loses some amount of search power by losing out on [card]Shrine of Piercing Vision[/card], but that’s offset by having more combo pieces and a better removal suite. It can even board [card]Blood Moon[/card] against various Zoo builds and 12-post, though how much help it really needs in that match is certainly debatable. Part of the problem with trying to beat a deck like this is that it’s impossible to lock it out of the game with the answers it has access too and it’s nearly impossible to race via normal means.

Aaron Forsythe was not thrilled and it was reported via Twitter that he walked out of the room shaking his head at the conclusion of one of the top eight matches Splinter Twin won.

While Twin won the Pro Tour, I’m not sure if it’s even the best UR combo deck in the format.

Ascension
Jon Finkel
[deck]4 Island
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Shivan Reef
2 Steam Vents
4 Desperate Ritual
2 Empty the Warrens
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Grapeshot
4 Manamorphose
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
1 Pyretic Ritual
3 Pyromancer Ascension
4 Pyromancer’s Swath
4 Rite of Flame
4 Seething Song
4 Sleight of Hand
Sideboard:
1 Dispel
2 Echoing Truth
1 Empty the Warrens
4 Kiln Fiend
3 Lightning Bolt
2 Pact of Negation
2 Shattering Spree[/deck]

This deck is actually disgusting and goes to show you the sheer lack of viable countermagic in the format as it stands. It wins entirely off cantrips and resolving a key Pyromancer piece and winning from there. It has no search engine, no amazing cheap draw, no recursion or any sort of defense. The deck is effectively all-in and the closest thing I’ve seen to [card goblin charbelcher]Belcher[/card] in a non-Eternal format. Most decks are just going to die to 20 Goblins on turn one or two and a few people will be lucky enough to stare at their ‘slow combo’ while dying to a lethal [card]Grapeshot[/card] instead.

The vulnerabilities of this deck are numerous and aren’t really worth listing in detail, Brian Kibler summed it up well when talking about Counter-Cat. He would simply counter a [card]Preordain[/card] or [card]Manamorphose[/card] and suddenly the deck wouldn’t have anymore gas to continue and just collapse in on itself. A [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] set at one annihilates the deck game one and it can’t necessarily race other all-in combo like Infect.
Speaking of Infect…

Mono Blue Infect
Sam Black
[deck]4 Inkmoth Nexus
8 Island
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Tolaria West
1 Watery Grave
4 Blighted Agent
1 Progenitus
4 Blazing Shoal
3 Disrupting Shoal
4 Dragonstorm
2 Gitaxian Probe
4 Muddle the Mixture
1 Pact of Negation
4 Peer Through Depths
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
1 Snapback
4 Spell Pierce
1 Summoner’s Pact
Sideboard:
2 Deprive
1 Dismember
1 Echoing Truth
2 Jace Beleren
1 Slaughter Pact
4 Spellskite
1 Trickbind
3 Vendilion Clique[/deck]

Welcome to die. Also known as the turn two combo deck with the most countermagic in the entire top eight. This deck is a contradiction and I’d love to see the article on this deck, because it’s an amazing piece of deckbuilding work. It was miles ahead of all the other Infect decks at the Pro Tour and had a very good shot of winning the tournament. While it can get hands that just win the game on the spot, the rest of the time this deck can afford to sit back and watch other combo decks blunder into a minefield of countermagic while setting up its own kill. This dual attack puts a good chunk of the metagame in an awkward position, they have to go off early to not die to a Shoal powered attack, but can’t beat multiple counters.

Out of all the decks at the PT, this and Counter-Cat definitely impressed me the most and are the closest to new and shiny decks. Unfortunately there’s not much else to say about the deck… Or any of these decks for that matter. In the end the format is all about trying to ignore your opponent while you goldfish. These are the only two decks that really don’t mind interacting for a couple of turns with the other pure combo opponents.

Future of Modern

The future of Modern is a shaky one, I’m almost certain that a number of modifications will be made to the ban list in the future, whether that’s banning more, unbanning or a mix is yet to be seen. What I can say is that a format based entirely around extremes and quick games has not traditionally been popular for any extended period of time. Players tend to treat it as more of a sideshow and some simply can’t adjust to the idea that 99% of creatures are useless in this type of format. Having this many types of combos also means it’s going to be very difficult for a true deck pecking order to be established. As long as you want to be proactive and can meet the fundamental turn of the format you’ll be in great shape.

While it wouldn’t shock me to see a valid control deck in the format eventually, as it stands I can only see aggro-control or combo-control decks with a real future. In that sense the format is closer to Vintage where instead of pure control decks you have decks that simply want to control long enough to win the game a-la UR Twin decks. If that’s the way the DCI and WOTC want the format to develop, fair enough, it would certainly be vastly different from any other format in Magic right now. What likely happened was overcompensation in terms of nerfing control and we got the expected result of that.

Rich Shay summed it up on Facebook:
“An [card]Atog[/card] made the top eight of the pro tour. What an awesome format.”
“Amazingly enough, if you ban all the good control cards in a format, combo does pretty well.”

Still an overreaction to this single tournament and leveling the ban-hammer on all these decks wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Hopefully the DCI sits down and battles for a bit with the newfound knowledge the Pro Tour provided before acting rashly.

Josh Silvestri

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