Modern is a big format. The number of important questions that need answering is almost limitless. Should you play Through the Breach in your Valakut deck? What’s the best way to use Collected Company? The fraction of these questions that any individual is qualified to answer is going to be small. But I want to be sure that I’m doing my part.
Over the next few weeks, my goal will be to hone in on just one of these important questions. Make no mistake: it’s still an ambitious exploration, with a lot of ground to cover. My quest is bound to be fraught with dangerous traps, hard lessons, and bitter disappointments.
My question: What’s the best way to use Thoughtseize and Fatal Push in Modern?
These are incontrovertibly two of the best cards in the format. (High in the running for best cards in MTG, no less.) The more powerful a format is, the more critical it becomes to have interactive spells that cost 1 mana. When your removal spell is Terminate, the extra damage Goblin Guide deals you can be the difference in the game. When your disruption is Eidolon of Rhetoric, your Storm opponent might simply Remand it and win the game. Equally important is the ability to play catchup in the mid-game by casting two spells in the same turn.
But the best way to use these cards is a deep question that will likely take months to answer properly. Just within the category of “black midrange decks,” you can span any combination of 2, 3, or 4 colors (not to mention 1 or 5). You can abuse the graveyard with Traverse the Ulvenwald or Snapcaster Mage. You can carefully manage your life total with Death’s Shadow, or play fast and loose with it via Dark Confidant. You can go for a quick kill, or go bigger with planeswalkers and board sweepers. You can emphasize swarms of tokens or potent single threats.
Each week for the next 5 weeks, I’ll choose one black midrange deck to explore and write about, including its strengths and weaknesses, and how it compares to other decks in the family. I won’t be able to cover every strategy and color combination, but if there’s a particular deck that you really want to read about, please let me know in the comments. If I’m seeing clear patterns in what people are asking for, it will most definitely influence the directions I choose to explore.
What’s Good About Black Midrange
Black midrange decks, many of which are called “Rock decks,” have the reputation of being “safe” choices, with few very good or very bad matchups. They’re difficult to attack and have strong sideboard options. A wide variety of answer cards gives them game against everything, and even when you run into something you can’t handle, you can either hope to Thoughtseize it away, or switch gears and try to end the game quickly.
I particularly love playing this type of deck. I don’t like the feeling of having lost the match as soon as the pairings are posted, which I sometimes get when I choose a more polarized strategy. I like the degree of control over the game that you get when you play with discard, removal, and creatures that can both attack and block. But I often find that nonblack decks that share these qualities—think U/W or Jeskai Control—can be too reactive. Black midrange decks can always offer up that opening of Thoughtseize into a potent threat, where you’ll feel good about your chances no matter what opponent you might be up against.
Big Mana Decks, The Sworn Enemy
Unfortunately, for as many great things as I could find to say about these strategies, this was a very bad week for them. The Top 8 of Grand Prix Oklahoma City featured 5 big mana decks (Tron and Valakut) as well as two graveyard decks (Dredge and Living End). These two categories of decks are the worst matchups for black midrange, since removal is ineffective and they don’t need to hold cards in their hand in order to win.
Typically with black midrange, you’ll have a few matchups that are inherently favorable (usually creature decks like Infect or Hatebears), and then you can gear your sideboard for a small handful of matches that you decide you want to beat most. The big mana decks are the nightmare intersection of being inherently bad matchups, and not being particularly rewarding to sideboard against. Whereas you’ll win a majority of games where you draw Ancient Grudge against Affinity, Fulminator Mage simply doesn’t not have the same effect against Valakut. We’re talking about sideboarding a full playset of Fulminator Mages in order to change a matchup from being a disaster to being “still bad, but not a complete disaster.”
I do have a few morsels of good news. The first is that I believe that it’s highly exaggerated how bad of a matchup black midrange decks have against Tron. (I believe that Valakut and Living End are worse matchups.) Tron is a deck with a failure rate, and you get to enhance that failure rate by playing with Thoughtseize. Cheap, potent threats (especially Liliana of the Veil) will punish the Tron player badly when they do not come out smoothly.
Additionally, the sideboard cards are more potent against Tron than against other big mana decks. They tend to have an easy time beating a single piece of disruption, but if your first three turns involve two angles of attack between discard spells, Stony Silence, and Fulminator Mage, then you have a great chance to win. I believe that a skilled pilot who knows how to mulligan and play the matchup, and who comes prepared with a decent sideboard, can win nearly half of their matches against Tron.
The second piece of good news is that it’s now solidly worthwhile to devote sideboard slots to these matchups. Things are most annoying in those snapshots of time when big mana is unpopular, but you wind up paired against them anyway because then you might not have your playset of Fulminator Mages in the sideboard. But in this case, you know in advance that you’re going to have to face big mana strategies. Moreover, Celestial Colonnade decks are popular also, and that gives Fulminator Mage extra utility as a sideboard card.
For the third piece of good news, I give you one word: Storm. Storm is excellent against big mana decks and will help keep them from becoming an unreasonable share of the metagame. Storm, in turn, is a fantastic matchup for black midrange decks because you have a dozen cards that cost 1 mana and disrupt their combo. In this way, black midrange can become part of a rock, paper, scissors type of metagame and have as good a chance of success as anybody out there.
The final piece of good news is that players who like black midrange don’t necessarily need to feel married to the old Jund and Abzan takes on the archetype. (I know there are some purests out there who will feel attached to these decks, and I promise that I’ll be trying my best to make them work!) There are plenty of options to choose from and some, like Death’s Shadow, have a bit more game against the decks that are bad matchups for Jund and Abzan.
A Rough Overview
There are many different builds of Death’s Shadow, plenty of variety within the Jund and Abzan archetypes, and dozens of other fringe strategies that use Thoughtseize and Fatal Push. In the coming weeks, I’ll be trying to come up with an answer for which of these decks I believe is the best choice for a Modern tournament. But it’s a fact that all of these decks will continue to see play, and will likely all have a foothold in the format for a very long time.
Here’s a simplistic way of understanding their relative niches:
Jund is best against small creature decks. Its cards are the most mana efficient, and red removal spells help you dismantle decks like Infect, Affinity, and Collected Company. Creatures like Grim Lavamancer, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Olivia Voldaren only add to your firepower.
Abzan is best against control and opposing midrange decks, thanks to Lingering Souls. You raise your curve and sacrifice efficiency in order to gain staying power and resilient threats.
Death’s Shadow is best against the rest of the field. When what you really need is a fast clock, nothing that this family of decks can offer is going to be better than the card Death’s Shadow. Combined with the speed of Temur Battle Rage or the extra disruption of Stubborn Denial, the good draws from Death’s Shadow decks can steamroll the bad matchups, even in game 1. The power level is higher, but it’s also a more one-dimensional strategy that can be attacked when it has too big of a target on its head.
After today, I’m going to dive straight into exploring the individual decks. In the next installment of the series, I’ll discuss Abzan Midrange, which is the deck I piloted last weekend at Grand Prix Madrid.