It’s a question that comes up time and time again for tournament players. Should you play the deck that you’ve known and loved for a long time? Or should you play the exciting new deck that’s taking the format by storm? I wavered between these two options–my old favorite, Jund, or the powerful new Hogaak–leading up to Mythic Championship Barcelona.
Jund is strong right now. It has good matchups against some of the most important decks in Modern, and it’s been putting up good finishes at every level of competition. I’d even played Jund at the previous Mythic Championship (albeit to mediocre results), and it’s gained a lot of great tools since then. Given my history with the deck, it felt like I’d be overthinking things if I didn’t play Jund when it was at such a high point in power level.
But then there was Hogaak.
This deck is incredibly powerful and consistent. At its best, it can have nearly 20 power and toughness on the battlefield on turn 2. At its worst, it’s a deck that plays 30+ creatures which you can simply cast and attack with, in case your draw isn’t cooperating or your opponent is prepared with graveyard hate. Crucially, unlike other “combo” decks that feature lots of moving parts, Hogaak can usually afford to sideboard in six or eight cards without compromising its main gameplan too much.
Along with Paul Rietzl and Logan Nettles, I worked a lot on Jund. (Deck guide coming soon). We were all very excited about Wrenn and Six, while Paul’s pet card was Seasoned Pyromancer and mine was Plague Engineer. We were doing well in the Magic Online Leagues, and all was right with the world. Jund became an even more appealing choice when Hogaak began to spike in popularity, suggesting that there would be a lot of hate at the Mythic Championship.
Sadly, the last two days of preparation discouraged me from playing it. I simply couldn’t put up good numbers in practice games against my teammates playing Hogaak. Sure, Leyline of the Void was doing a lot of work, but the problem was that I’d almost always lose game one, and then it would only take one thing to go wrong in a sideboard game before I’d lost the match.
For the previous Mythic Championship in London, Dredge had proven to be a tricky matchup. However, the difference was that when I wanted to improve against Dredge I could always just add more graveyard hate. If one Nihil Spellbomb wasn’t enough, two often would be. The experience against Hogaak was much different. The Spellbombs weren’t super effective; the graveyard player had plenty of answers to Leyline; they had creatures they could hardcast from their hand; and they had answers to my Goyfs and Oozes. It felt like I needed to have a great hand with a Leyline if I wanted to be sure of beating them.
And looking at things from the opposite perspective, if I was struggling to beat Hogaak even with 8-10 graveyard hate cards, then what was I afraid of!? Nobody likes to choose a strategy with a target on its forehead, but it’s generally a mistake to identify such an incredibly powerful deck and then not play with it yourself.
Here’s the deck that many of my teammates and I brought to Mythic Championship Barcelona:
Hogaak at MCIV, Reid Duke, Top 16
2 Blackcleave Cliffs 2 Blood Crypt 2 Bloodstained Mire 1 Blooming Marsh 2 Marsh Flats 1 Nurturing Peatland 2 Overgrown Tomb 3 Polluted Delta 2 Swamp (339) 2 Verdant Catacombs 4 Bloodghast 4 Carrion Feeder 2 Cryptbreaker 4 Gravecrawler 4 Stitcher's Supplier 4 Satyr Wayfinder 4 Vengevine 2 Lotleth Troll 4 Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis 4 Faithless Looting 2 Lightning Axe 3 Leyline of the Void Sideboard 1 Leyline of the Void 1 Ancient Grudge 2 Force of Vigor 2 Plague Engineer 2 Abrupt Decay 3 Assassin's Trophy 2 Nature's Claim 2 Thoughtseize
In constructing the decklist, our priorities were: (1) to maximize the number of opening hands we were comfortable keeping, and (2) to be in the best shape possible against graveyard hate. To achieve these goals, we wanted to make sure there were as few moving pieces as possible. We restricted ourselves to a solid three-color manabase, and left out cards like Golgari Thug, which are great to have in your graveyard but annoying to draw in hands without Faithless Looting.
Cryptbreaker keeps the Zombie count high for Gravecrawler and Vengevine, and can help you win games against graveyard hate. Lotleth Troll is a way to discard Vengevines and Bloodghasts while also being a massive threat on its own. Finally, after we’d filled in all the “essential” slots, we made the judgment call to round things out with three maindeck Leyline of the Void.
Maindeck Leylines were a gamble, and there was a very real possibility we’d wind up looking foolish for that decision. But there was also a possibility that it would pay off big. If Hogaak was really as powerful as we believed it to be, then it would be a big share of the metagame, it would be disproportionately popular among the big teams, and it would be disproportionately successful. And at worst, we would at least free up a couple of sideboard slots!
Well, in this particular case, the gamble paid off. In 10 rounds, my matchups were six mirror matches, one Classic Dredge, one Mono-Red Phoenix, one UrzaSword, and one Jund–a pretty good field for maindeck Leyline of the Void! In combination with two recent rules changes (open decklists and the London mulligan), I was able to find my Leylines in game one quite a few times and score some easy wins.
With good draws and good matchups, I was able to put up an 8-2 record in Modern. And as crazy as it sounds, I felt like all 10 matches were winnable. Poor sideboarding cost me a close match against Dredge. A couple of subtle errors on my part, plus tight play from my opponent allowed Mono-Red Phoenix to barely edge me out.
I had two unremarkable decks in the booster draft portion, going 2-1 with U/R-splash-white and a multicolor green deck, respectively. This was good enough for a 16th place individual finish, and a strong enough performance as a team for the Ultimate Guard Pro Team to make the finals of the Team Series. (We’ll have a chance to defend our title as last year’s champions).
Hogaak is not an unbeatable deck, but it is undeniably very, very strong. The most concerning thing is its remarkable ability to fight through sideboard hate. If you have an important Modern event coming up, my advice is to either play Hogaak yourself, or to choose a strategy with inherent strength against it.
Combo decks, Phoenix, and Humans are fast enough to race Hogaak, especially with the help of a well-placed sideboard card. UrzaSword or any other deck with Ensnaring Bridge is the best way to actually win game one against it.
What you don’t want to do is put a bandaid on the problem. Throwing a couple of Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace in your sideboard isn’t likely to yield the results you want.
In many ways, Modern is in a great place right now. Modern Horizons, M20, and War of the Spark have yielded a lot of new toys to play with, and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea of brewing new decks. However, Hogaak looms large over the format, and it represents a very defined problem which Modern players need to solve. Personally, I’ll be searching for any way I can to use Wrenn and Six while not being too weak against the Arisen Necropolis.