This time, I’m here to analyze Modern just before GP Oakland. Since the release of Guilds of Ravnica, Modern has been an exciting and rapidly changing format. This unprecedented rate of change is unlike any Modern has seen in years. With the printing of Creeping Chill and Arclight Phoenix, decks like Humans and Spirits needed to adapt. KCI, the former monarch of the format, switched around numbers to acclimate to a more aggressive format. To cap it off, Arclight Phoenix spawned its own archetype with life partner Thing in the Ice. Exactly how to build the Izzet Phoenix deck is up for debate, but the power level is undeniable.
In Week One of GRN legality, Modern was pummeled by newcomer Creeping Chill. Finding an easy home in Dredge, the early iterations of the deck began putting up numerous 5-0s in Magic Online Leagues. This early success quickly cemented Dredge as the deck to beat in the coming weeks, prompting some talk about bans. Last time Dredge was the best deck we saw a Golgari Grave-Troll ban, making Modern history by being the only card unbanned and then banned. Following the first week Dredge maintained its foothold on the format, as the life swings of Creeping Chill were buoyed by the aggressive game plan the deck is known for. Creeping Chill allowed the deck to play extra burn spells, while also allowing it the freedom to control the board by buffering its life total. When combined with Bloodghast and Conflagrate, the deck had the ability to quickly close out games at a pace largely unseen by the archetype. The speed and inevitability began to rival that of decks like Bridgevine, without sacrificing the consistency. In order to facilitate this consistency, lists began to play Shriekhorn as an additional 1-mana play. While Insolent Neonate was often a consideration prior to GRN, in a world of Creeping Chill and other aggressive decks like Humans or Spirits, not having to rely on a dredger in hand proved to be a successful piece of tech. Very quickly Dredge lists began to coalesce around maximizing the aggressive Creeping Chill draws — we began to see 4 Conflagrate in many lists to supplement the reach provided by this new shell. Looking at the lists now, we see a move away from 4 Conflagrate towards main deck Lightning Axe or Darkblast. This change is largely derived as a response to the newest member of the format — Izzet Phoenix.
Before understanding how Izzet Phoenix came about, it’s important to understand the recent history of the format. With Dredge as the primary villain of the format, an important question was asked of the format. Can the format adapt to Creeping Chill? While a rudimentary approach would be an uptick in rest in peace or surgical extractions, success in competitive Magic is often rested upon more than just a sideboard card or two. If it is possible to make changes to existing decks that fundamentally change the way a matchup is played, then one does not have to rely on drawing sideboard cards. In this vein, we can see the massive shift from Humans as the go-to Aether Vial deck to Bant Spirits. While Humans has an exceptionally aggressive game plan, it is inherently less disruptive than Bant Spirits. Humans has tribal payoffs that kill the opponent very quickly, such as Champion of the Parish or Thalia’s Lieutenant. While Spirits has lords like Drogskol Captain, it lacks the ability to go as wide as humans as quickly and is far more vulnerable to removal spells. Why then, is it a more prominent deck? With KCI winning multiple GPs and performing well at SCG Opens, as well as Dredge being faster than it was in the pre-GRN metagame, being more vulnerable to Engineered Explosives and Conflagrate became a liability. In addition, Spirits is afforded a mana base that allows for potent sideboard cards such as Stony Silence or Rest in Peace. This flexibility of postboard configurations allows for Spirits to navigate most match-ups. When compared to the sideboard options for Humans, Rest in Peace is superior to any graveyard hate option that humans has. Mostly reliant on cards such as Izzet Staticaster or Orzhov Pontiff to deal with Dredge, or Gaddock Teeg versus KCI, Humans is at a disadvantage when faced with matchups it has inadequate sideboard options for. In addition, the prominence of Hardened Affinity as the default Affinity deck makes traditional sideboard options for Humans less attractive. As such, the inability of Humans decks to play sideboard cards such as Rest in Peace or Stony Silence, mostly due to the mana base requiring Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory, is an important aspect of Spirits’ rise.
While the answer to many of Humans weakness may be to just play Spirits, many ambitious players opted for a different approach. Leading up to the RPTQ for Mythic Championship London, Humans began to 5-0 with more traditional mana bases. “Hot Bant” as it is referred to by much of the player base is a variant of Humans that is four color rather than five. Eschewing cards like Sin Collector and Kitesail Freebooter for Kessig Malcontents and better mana, this type of humans list is able to run more traditional sideboard cards. By moving back towards a fetchland/shockland mana base, Stony Silence and Rest in Peace are attractive options. With this shift comes a decrease in disruption in Game 1, so most lists chose to play Mayor of Avabruck to facilitate a more aggressive game plan. In addition, some lists chose to eliminate the red entirely, opting for cards like Spell Queller in the sideboard to supplement sideboard hate.
KCI, so named after its marquis card Krark-Clan Ironworks, involves looping artifacts from the graveyard. This strategy is disrupted in a myriad of ways. Without access to powerful effects like Stony Silence, many decks are reliant on slowing down decks like KCI. Gaining an extra turn can be a crucial component to victory. With the printing of Sai, Master Thopterist in Core 19, KCI began to streamline. Now it was afforded the ability to beat conventional hate in the form of Stony Silence or Leyline of the Void. With Sai providing a backup aggressive plan while converting cantrips such as Chromatic Star into blockers, KCI began to gain ground against traditionally poor matchups. Humans, Spirits, Hollow One and Dredge all lost percentage points versus KCI, as having to leave in creature removal against a combo deck as resilient and streamlined as KCI is a strategy prone to disaster. With the onset of Guilds of Ravnica, KCI players began to main deck Sai as an answer to a more aggressive Dredge, while also allowing the deck to stonewall Arclight Phoenix and Bant Spirits, as well as Gurmag Angler and Death’s shadow. With an increase in Spell Queller, and with KCI granted the ability to attack in the air, cards like Lightning Bolt and Galvanic Blast gained more utility over spots that were otherwise dedicated to countermagic. Pressuring Death’s Shadow with Sai affords enough time to assemble enough redundant combo pieces to win the game, while also presenting a reasonable clock when racing. Important innovations such as these are adaptations to shifting climates.
The last important innovation in Modern is irrefutably detailed by the success of Arclight Phoenix. With early versions seeking to abuse Gut Shot and Runaway Steam-kin, early versions of Arclight decks had consistency problems. Many iterations later, the first major tournament success of Arclight decks came during the SCG Regionals weekend, with Jake Flacksinski on Izzet Phoenix beating Robert Graves on Monored Phoenix in the finals of SCG Regionals Atlanta. This prompted many players to begin working on Izzet Phoenix, and since Jake was local to the area many of the Southern California players would be collaborating on lists. The next weekend my team took Izzet Phoenix to a Top 16 finish at SCG Vegas in the hands of our modern player Nicolas Johnson. Ross Merriam Top 8’d with Izzet Phoenix, while Christian Keeth Top 8’d with Mardu Phoenix. Arclight would continue to put up results, as Ross Merriam later on an SCG Open with it, and Jake and I put up strong finishes at the Modern RPTQ. By the time of the RPTQ, most lists had settled into one of two camps — Crackling Drake or Bedlam Reveler. While some lists on Magic Online continued to run both, new tech in the form of Monastery Swiftspear and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy encouraged players to make a choice. With Swiftspear you can supplement an aggressive game plan by having an early threat. In addition, Swiftspear pressures the opponent just enough so that a turn 4 Crackling Drake can present lethal on its own. When presented with Monastery Swiftspear and Thing in the Ice, most decks will not have access to enough removal to answer a big threat like Crackling Drake. On the other side of this archetypal line are the Bedlam Reveler variants. Reveler plays much better with cards like Noxious Revival or Pyromancer’s Ascension than with Swiftspear, as these cards want you to dump more spells into your graveyard as quickly as possible. With the tech of Pyromancer Ascension emerging, along with Noxious Revival seeing an uptick thanks to our finish at Vegas, cards like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Bedlam Reveler became more attractive options at fighting the removal spell heavy decks populating the RPTQ era metagame. With more of the mirror match populating the pre-Oakland metagame, innovations in the sideboard are the most important to look at. Recent lists are playing more countermagic in the sideboard, with Alpine Moon and Ceremonious Rejection to attack Tron. Spell Snare, Spell Pierce, and Disdainful Stroke make up a powerful angle of attack to supplement grindy postboard games filled with Ral, Izzet Viceroy and sometimes Firemind’s Research.
As lists become streamlined, attacking from different angles can be highly successful. Mileage from niche one-ofs is high in a format as diverse as Modern. In many situations your opponent will have prepared for the tournament by practicing against lists in the past, so adapting and analyzing the format in its current state becomes an important aspect to success in Modern. This is how I am approaching GP Oakland. I’ll most likely be playing Izzet Phoenix in the Main Event, with some spicy additions to our list. With a wide range of powerful cards in Izzet colors, Phoenix lists have the potential to vary by almost the entire sideboard. From white splashes for Stony Silence or Wear/Tear to Grafdigger’s Cage and Duress, additional shocklands can allow for weaknesses to be addressed. Even more controlling cards like Vendilion Clique, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Izzet Staticaster have shown up in lists, possibly recognizing the importance of transforming from a graveyard-based engine deck towards a more traditional Midrange deck. As spoilers for Ravnica Allegiance continue this week, GP Oakland and Modern might be overshadowed by the hype of a new Magic set, but progress and innovation never takes a holiday. Next week I’ll be analyzing mana bases and recapping my thoughts on the first week of Spoilers for both Modern and Standard.
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