It’s been a great month of playing Modern. I’ve learned a lot, and given myself a solid background for preparing for next month’s Pro Tour in Bilbao, Spain. Hopefully, I’ve also given some readers an extra tool for choosing the next Modern deck they’d like to try out. Here are the links for the series up to this point:
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes, Part I
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes, Part II: Abzan
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes, Part III: Grixis Death’s Shadow
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes Part IV: Traverse Shadow
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes Part V: Jund
Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes Part VI: W/B
This project started in early December when I chose Abzan for the Team Grand Prix in Madrid, Spain. I liked it, although a deck that slow can never be a terribly exciting choice for Modern. I played to a fine but unspectacular individual match record of 8-5-1. I set out to try and find something more powerful for next time.
One month later, I found W/G/R/B Traverse Shadow for Team Grand Prix Santa Clara, California. My hard work was rewarded as I was able to dramatically improve my performance to an individual match record of 8-4-2. Death’s Shadow did indeed feel more powerful, but also easier to attack and with a higher fail rate. I still like both decks, and see potential for slight improvements in each case.
The right deck for one player is not always the right deck for another. For the last installment of the Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes series, I’ll attempt to boil down what I’ve learned into a form that can help you decide which, if any, of these decks could be for you.
Required Skill Sets
The gameplay with Death’s Shadow decks is extremely challenging. The games are rarely one-sided, instead leading into close and interactive races. Managing your life total properly, and using the right answer card on the right threat will lead to winning these close games, while being reckless will lead to disaster.
Even beyond that, both Grixis Shadow and Traverse Shadow involve managing the graveyard and the top of the library. It’s never obvious how you’re supposed to navigate turns where fetchlands and Mishra’s Baubles are involved. Autopiloting these decks simply does not work.
If you’re the type of player who enjoys thinking hard on every small decision, then Death’s Shadow is for you. The archetype will come more naturally to Legacy players, and those proficient with combo decks. Jumping in from a background of Standard or Limited will be much harder.
If you prefer your early turns to be a little more scripted, and for the mentally engaging aspects show up in the midgame, then you’ll enjoy G/B/x Midrange. Knowing which land to play can matter, but most of your early-game decisions will come from Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. Later on, you’re often playing off the top of your library, especially if Liliana of the Veil is involved.
These decks aren’t easy to play, and the decisions do matter quite a lot, but there are fewer of them, and you instead get to focus on the bigger turning points in the game. Jund has more emphasis on shutting down your opponent, while Abzan and G/B play the most “normal Magic” where both players might stick creatures, and you’ll have to navigate combat steps and a limited amount of removal.
Finally, there are a variety of black midrange decks that will appeal to trickier players who prefer finesse over brute force. Any of the W/B decks (Eldrazi and Taxes, Tokens, Smallpox) fit this bill, as well as Faeries and 8-Rack. The cards in these decks have less individual power, but combine to create game plans that many decks struggle to combat.
Qualities of the Different Black Midrange Decks
By now, you know what a black midrange deck does. You’re probably sick of my buzz words like “balanced” and “flexible.” You know that they tend to improve after sideboarding. Now we need to get into how these decks differ from one another so that we can work toward our end goal of knowing which one to choose.
The first quality is an important one for Modern. The format is home to an almost-unbelievable variety of decks, and many of them kill you quickly. The slower you are, the more you commit yourself to having to answer everything the opponent throws at you.
Traverse Shadow with Temur Battle Rage scores highest in this category, with the Snapcaster Mage-based Death’s Shadow decks coming second. The Tarmogoyf decks are in the middle, and the non-Tarmogoyf decks like 8-Rack, Tokens, and W/B Smallpox score worst.
The bar for me is that I want a hard-hitting threat on turn 2. The Abzan deck I played at GP Madrid was too slow for my tastes, as I had to settle for a 2/2 Scavenging Ooze or a removal spell as my turn-2 play somewhat often. After I restructured the deck to support Grim Flayer in addition to Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant, it felt a lot better.
Lingering Souls and Temur Battle Rage are great cards that some of these black midrange decks will go out of their way for, but they are not disruptive cards. Jund and Grixis Shadow score higher in this category because they replace vanilla threats with cards like Grim Lavamancer and Snapcaster Mage, which can kill opposing creatures.
W/B Eldrazi and decks with Stubborn Denial or other permission are great because they offer multidimensional disruption against combo decks. They have a plan for beating topdecks, or an opponent who starts the game with Leyline of Sanctity.
Lingering Souls, Snapcaster Mage, planeswalkers, creaturelands, and basic lands are some of the things that I look for. Traverse Shadow scores the lowest (at least in game 1) because all of its threats can be answered on a 1-for-1 basis.
Some of the off-the-beaten path decks like Tokens, Aggro Loam, and Death Cloud have very impressive late games. But when my opponent plays turn-1 Celestial Colonnade, all I really ask for is a healthy number of basic lands and some Lingering Souls in my deck.
Categorizing Modern decks can be tricky, as each deck is unique, and many blur the lines that traditionally separate the groups. Nonetheless, making some generalizations is both valuable and necessary, since considering every Modern deck individually would be impossible.
For our purposes, the combo category also includes big mana decks and graveyard decks.
Naturally, disruption is helpful for beating combo decks. But I believe that speed is even more important. The problem is that the disruption required to beat each of Modern’s combo decks is so different that you can’t be prepared for all of them. All the Thoughtseizes in the world won’t help you when you’re on the draw against Dredge. Fulminator Mage is great against Tron, but does very little against Storm.
When combo is running rampant, Death’s Shadow is generally the best bet due to its speed. If there are specific combo decks that you expect to face, then you can begin to consider more deeply what tools you need to beat them. Does Stony Silence shut them down? Is Lightning Bolting their Goblin Electromancer the most important thing?
Small Creature Decks
Small creature decks can include strategies as diverse as Burn and Infect to Elves and Hatebears. I care less about how fast the deck is and what it’s trying to do. I care more about how good creature removal is against them.
Disruption is the most important quality, although the equation is complicated. Speed and staying power can be helpful too, and you need to make sure you have the right kind of disruption. I value cards like Dark Confidant and Scavenging Ooze in these matchups, since small creature decks tend to skimp on removal. Creatures that can sit in play and offer you more control over the game (either directly or indirectly) are incredibly valuable.
Quantity and efficiency of removal are important, and these are matchups where you’ll wish that your slower threats like Lingering Souls, Siege Rhino, and even Gurmag Angler were multidimensional cards like Grim Lavamancer or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet instead.
When you turn the dial to increase the number of small creature decks in the field, then Jund, Grixis Death’s Shadow, and dedicated control decks like Grixis become great choices.
The control category includes all decks that want to take you into the long game. That includes, for our purposes, the other black midrange decks. In case you hadn’t guessed, staying power is the important quality for these matchups.
With a few exceptions, what you want against control is the opposite of what you want against small creature decks. Efficiency matters less, and an overabundance of removal is a liability. (Especially if the removal is in the form of board sweepers, or spot removal that can’t kill bigger threats.)
With Path to Exile, Field of Ruin, and Blood Moon being popular, a high number of basic lands contributes a lot to a deck’s staying power. For this reason in particular, I hate playing Death’s Shadow decks against control.
Jund is also bad against most control decks because it has too many removal spells that fail to kill bigger threats. Although it is worth noting that any black midrange deck can improve against control by adjusting some individual card choices.
I’ve been impressed by Abzan (because of Lingering Souls), Sultai Midrange (because of multidimensional card advantage and disruption), and W/B Eldrazi (because of threat density) against control.
The World We Live In
I’ve offered these explanations as food for thought because it would be impossible for me to predict what you’ll face in your next Modern tournament. Even if I was qualified to do such a job, things might change based on your geographic region, your level of competition, and whether you’re reading this article on the day of publication, or looking back at it a few months later. But at the least, I can tell you a little bit about the experiences I’ve had over the past month.
The value of removal spells is at an all-time low right now. In the days when Affinity, Infect, Burn, and Collected Company reigned supreme, all I wanted was to pack my Jund deck full of as much removal as I could. Now, I shudder when I open on a hand with two removal spells against an unknown opponent since there are so many decks where that might be a liability. Go for the Throat was the most disappointing card in my Abzan deck at GP Madrid. Terminate was the most disappointing card in my Traverse Shadow deck at GP Santa Clara. You still need these cards for the handful of matchups that are hopeless without them, but it’s necessary to consider the risks and rewards, and to find the right balance.
It’s a good time to be proactive. Thoughtseize into a potent threat is a good plan against anyone from Tron to Jeskai Control to Burn, and that’s exactly what you want to see in your opening hand. It’s a good time to be proactive and threat dense.
In general, I think you should be gearing for combo (especially big mana) and control (especially Celestial Colonnade decks). It might be a worthwhile risk to skimp a little bit against small creature decks, Eldrazi, and midrange creature mirrors.
However many basic lands you think you need, add one to that number. Path to Exile and Field of Ruin are mediocre against you when you can find a land and use the mana, but they’re devastating when you get no value from them.
Liliana—both of them—are amazing. Liliana of the Veil is how black midrange beats control and Valakut. Those decks are simply too good at killing your creatures, but they can have a hard time removing a planeswalker, and they need their resources too much to be discarding every turn. Any deck with discard spells should strongly consider Liliana of the Veil.
Liliana, the Last Hope has gone up in value due to the change in the planeswalker legend rule. She pairs well with Fulminator Mage, which is also a card you want to be playing right now. Finally, she’s a great way to hedge against small creature decks and Lingering Souls without having to play narrow cards for those matchups.
Ranking the Decks
The point I’ve tried to make is that the ranking of these black midrange decks is not set in stone. Their value changes based on the metagame, and individual players may be better suited to one archetype than another. Nevertheless, as promised, here are my rankings of how much I like the various black midrange decks for an upcoming Modern tournament.
The first list includes only the decks that I covered in this series.
- Abzan. The importance of staying power is at a relative high, and I’ve been very impressed by Lingering Souls and both Lilianas. Abzan strikes the right balance between having a conservative mana base with basic lands, but still having access to good sideboard options. Adding the Grim Flayers (as suggested in Part II of the series) has made the deck feel smooth, reliable, and fast enough to compete with almost anything.
- Traverse Shadow. Access to many of the same cards as Abzan, but with a boost in speed and power level. I hate the matchup against the Celestial Colonnade decks, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a little in that matchup in order to gain the speed necessary to hang with Valakut and Tron, then Traverse Shadow could easily move into first place.
- Grixis Shadow. You really can’t go wrong by choosing Modern’s top deck. Even if Grixis Shadow isn’t at its absolute best, it’s still a great deck that’s hard to attack and gives you a ton of control over the games. Just make sure your game play is on point if you’re going to pick up Grixis Shadow.
- W/B Eldrazi. A deck that I consider slightly weaker in terms of raw power, but one that is very well positioned right now. I really appreciate the threat density, and how potent those threats are against control and combo.
- Jund. My favorite deck, and one that can still be made to compete. It’s just that the relative strengths of the red cards aren’t the relative strengths that I want right now. The one thing that could change this is if Lantern Control begins to dominate, then switching to Jund would be an effective countermeasure.
The second list is for decks I have less experience with, and is therefore highly speculative. The higher ranked decks are the ones in which I see potential, and the ones that I would encourage a friend or teammate to try out. This is not an exhaustive list, and I apologize if I leave out your favorite deck. (It might be because I have no experience with it and therefore can’t rank it).
- W/B Planeswalkers. Lingering Souls and planeswalkers win a lot of matchups right now, if only you can find a way to beat the big mana decks.
- G/B Rock. I love the simplicity, and a mana base that supports basic lands and Field of Ruin. I just don’t love limiting your sideboard options.
- Esper Goryo’s Vengeance. I’ve played against this deck a handful of times now and it looks pretty sweet. Discard, Liliana of the Veil, Lingering Souls, and additional angles of attack—what’s not to like?
- Mardu Bedlam Reveler. I like some of the things about this deck, and don’t understand some of the other things about it. It’s the weapon of choice for some of the very best Magic Online Modern players, and that can’t be a coincidence.
- Faeries. Faeries is always one of the decks that I’m most scared to be paired against, because it’s adept at beating Death’s Shadow and most of the other fair decks. I just worry about a low speed and power level.
- Grixis, U/B, or Esper Control. These are decks that highly-skilled experts can win with, but they’re ones that won’t give you any easy games.
- Black Devotion. One of my goals is to play the largest number of Lilianas that I possibly can, and Black Devotion is probably the place to do it. I’ve always wanted to try this deck, and the new planeswalker legend rule might make it possible.
- Sultai. Permission spells can shore up bad matchups, but I worry about a low power level and an inability to beat everything at once.
- G/B Eldrazi. Two good strategies that don’t exactly complement each other, but also can’t really be bad.
- Death Cloud. A pet deck of mine with some good things going for it, but a bad choice in a world of Cryptic Commands.
- 8-Rack. A deck that I’ve experimented with, but never really gotten to work. I know it has some great matchups, but I think it’s probably too cute overall.
- U/B/x Delver. Delver of Secrets isn’t a great card without Ponder and Brainstorm, and I don’t think you should choose this over Death’s Shadow.
- W/B Tokens. There’s a lot of appeal, and everyone always wants it to be good. Unfortunately, everyone has historically been disappointed.
- R/B Blood Moon. Black midrange decks need a lot of black mana, and also benefit from having creaturelands. More importantly, preventing your opponent from casting spells and making them discard don’t exactly go well together. Blood Moon is an amazing card, but black midrange isn’t the best home for it.
- Aggro Loam. Cool idea, but too slow in practice.
I hope you can find a deck that you like from somewhere on these two lists. Choosing a deck that I gave a low ranking is not only welcomed, it would make me happy to be proven wrong!
With that, Thoughtseizes and Fatal Pushes will be going on hiatus, but perhaps we’ll have more to discuss after the upcoming Modern Pro Tour. I don’t know whether or not I’ll wind up playing a black midrange deck, but I promise it will be one of the first places I look.