The State of Modern: MagicFest Los Angeles Primer

state of modern bbit

Magic Fest Los Angeles is this weekend, and with Modern sporting dozens of playable archetypes, I felt it prudent to give insight on attacking the popular decks of the format. Each deck listed below consists of 3% or more of the expected metagame, and while not comprehensive, serves as a successful starting point for navigating a competitive landscape. I’ll give an overview of the general game plan of each archetype, followed by general sideboarding advice on how to approach each matchup, as well as effective sideboard cards. For those who want a cliff notes approach to metagaming, I’ve included a small list of bad matchups for each deck.


Burn

Representing the most played archetype at GP Toronto, Burn has a redundant game plan resembling that of a combo deck. Early board presence and punishing draws involving Searing Blaze allow Burn to quickly snowball an advantage. While most of Burn’s power comes from redundancy, this also represents its greatest weakness. Haymaker sideboard cards like Leyline of the Sanctity, Dragon’s Claw or even Auriok Champion prove difficult for the deck to overcome. The deck lacks powerful card selection and is unable to transition into an effective backup plan in sideboarded games.

With a relatively free ability to splash multiple colors, Burn beats dedicated hate by leaning on Destructive Revelry or Smash to Smithereens. By dedicating its sideboard to mostly narrow answers, Burn has the ability to overcome most sideboard cards in the format. Against Chalice of the Void, Smash is effective, while against decks that play Auriok Champion or Thragtusk, Skullcrack can give you that extra draw step needed to win the game.

Burn

Beating Burn

Most decks in the format have the ability to beat Burn, as multiple forms of disruption are effective. Every deck can play Dragon’s Claw or Sun Droplet, which are low impact compared to most anti-burn cards, but easy to cast.

Incremental life gain is effective, as are counterspells and bursts of life gain. Bursts of life gain, like Obstinate Baloth or Thragtusk, are vulnerable to Skullcrack and often lack utility in other matchups. Incremental or incidental life gain in the form of Radiant Fountain, Kor Firewalker, or Dragon’s Claw has the largest effect when backed by a quick clock. For faster decks, presenting an impressive board forces Burn to utilize its mana, gaining enough life to mitigate multiple spells. Counterspells are similarly effective when paired with life gain, but can be overloaded quickly.

Keeping in mind the context of the matchup is important for understanding why Tron plays Thragtusk instead of Dragon’s Claw, or why The Rock plays Collective Brutality instead of more efficient life gain. Sideboard equity is an important concept for Modern, and choosing versatile sideboard cards can improve matchups against the field. Noting this, we can see that most decks have a couple sideboard cards against Burn, and some decks need few sideboard cards due to the strong Game 1.

To summarize which sideboard cards to choose, fast decks favor incremental life gain, while slower decks favor bursts of life gain, often backed by counterspells or Chalice of the Void. Exceptions can be made for overlaps with game plan, as we can see from Humans or Spirits. Generally, they favor life gain attached to creatures, even if Knight of Autumn doesn’t fall in the category of incremental life gain.

Popular Sideboard Cards: Kor Firewalker, Dragon’s Claw, Chalice of the Void, Auriok Champion, Thragtusk, Eidolon of Rhetoric, Kambal, Consul of Allocation, Knight of Autumn

Decks to beat Burn: Hollow One and Colorless Eldrazi

Izzet Phoenix

The new kid on the block, Izzet Phoenix represents both an incredibly powerful and immensely popular archetype. Boasting some of the most consistent Day 2 conversion rates of any deck, no modern player should come without a plan against Phoenix. Using a suite of cantrips, Phoenix has the ability to find solitary cards and control the board state with ease. Serum Visions, Opt, and Faithless Looting all mitigate the drawback of including narrow cards in the deck, while sculpting away excess lands. In this fashion, Izzet Phoenix expresses a consistency in line with Burn, but it sacrifices closing power while doing so.

Phoenix

Beating Phoenix

With overlapping game plans that utilize a spell heavy base, Izzet Phoenix is resilient to most sideboard options. Rest in Peace and Grafdigger’s Cage are powerful tools against Arclight Phoenix, but fail to stop Thing in the Ice or Crackling Drake. Conversely, Path to Exile has a reasonable overlap in dealing with threats, but only answers one Arclight. Chalice of the Void stops them from chaining spells but doesn’t stop spells from being cast. Even prison cards like Ensnaring Bridge have limited effectiveness, as the Phoenix player can sculpt a hand capable of winning through it.

Understanding role and threat prioritization are important for determining optimal sideboard options against Phoenix, as picking the wrong game plan to attack may spell disaster. Azorius Control favors Surgical Extraction, as beating the slower Thing in the Ice or Crackling Drake draws are easier than grinding out a match against recursive threats. Conversely, Affinity and Spirits prefer answers for Thing in the Ice, as their primary game plan lines up well against 3/2 flyers. Extra removal spells like Dispatch or Path to Exile accompany Eidolon of Rhetoric or Chalice of the Void.

Seeing these trends, you can make the determination that creature heavy decks want answers to Thing in the Ice, while removal heavy decks want answers for Arclight Phoenix. Most decks that can afford to play Eidolon of the Great Revel, Cindervines, or Kambal, Consul of Allocation are in a unique position to benefit most from Phoenix’s metagame share, as taxing cantrips is an approach effective against both Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix.

Decks to beat Phoenix: Burn, Whir Prison, Titanshift

Humans

Dominating the format upon the release of Unclaimed Territory, Humans is one of the premier tribal decks of Modern. Filling the shoes of successful Thalia decks in  prior formats, Humans is a disruptive aggro deck utilizing a five color mana base to present both a clock and tempo creatures. Kitesail Freebooter, Meddling Mage and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben contribute to a positive combo matchup, while Noble Hierarch and Aether Vial afford the deck the velocity necessary for racing other aggressive strategies.

With a wide range of sideboard options, Humans has the ability to win any matchup, and can viciously punish opponents who stumble. While the mana for Humans is good at casting creatures, the deck is unable to consistently cast noncreature spells, and thus is limited to playing creatures in the sideboard. This gives most decks a straightforward angle of attack against Humans, and forces Humans to win each game by attacking. This is in contrast to Spirits, which can win off the back of a silver bullet sideboard card like Stony Silence or Rest in Peace just as easily as it can by putting multiple lords into play.

Humans

Beating Humans

Humans is vulnerable to conventional removal spells, as well as big mana strategies. Wurmcoil Engine, Primeval Titan, and Anger of the Gods are all common aspects of Modern that give the deck pause. In addition, Affinity can invalidate many of the creatures that Humans plays, while presenting a difficult to answer clock. Due to the impact of Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage, Humans can fight through most single sideboard cards but can fold to a varied removal suite. For fast decks, cheap removal is more important than varied amounts of removal, as limiting Humans ability to use Noble Hierarch or Champion of the Parish stymies the aggressive output. For slower decks, a similar sentiment is expressed, but overloading them with removal is the most important aspect. Abrade is exceptionally effective, as it can answer both Aether Vial and Kitesail Freebooter.

Decks with powerful game-winning top decks are well positioned against Humans, as operating well off of the top of the deck lines up favorably against the hand disruption of Humans. Often, Meddling Mage is used as another copy of Kitesail Freebooter, but can also be used to overcome powerful sweepers like Anger of the Gods. Engineered Explosives is uniquely powerful against Humans, as it is a sweeper that can be put onto the board early and acts at instant speed.

Decks to beat Humans: Hardened Scales, Titanshift, Burn, Infect

Amulet Titan

Boasting a combo engine so powerful that Summer Bloom was banned, Amulet Titan utilizes Amulet of Vigor alongside Ravnica bouncelands to generate enough mana to cast a Primeval Titan. From there, an 8 power double strike attacker quickly closes the game out. When the deck fails to find the requisite pieces, it uses a toolbox package to find specific cards. Tolaria west can find interactive elements like Engineered Explosives, Walking Ballista, or Bojuka Bog, or a Primeval Titan through a Summoner’s Pact. Trinket Mage doubles as an extra couple copies of Amulet of Vigor, while doubling as a means for finding Engineered Explosives or Tormod’s Crypt.

By using overlapping tutors and redundant engine pieces, Amulet Titan proves capable of keeping pace with an evolving Modern. When finding effective strategies against Amulet Titan, a variety of options are available. Relying on combat to win the game, Amulet is vulnerable to removal spells, timely countermagic, as well as artifact destruction. No one sideboard card shuts down Amulet Titan more than Blood Moon, but with the ability to tutor for almost its entire sideboard, Amulet can fight through it.

Amulet

Beating Amulet Titan

As with most decks, which sideboard cards to play depends on how fast your deck is, but with Amulet a variety of sideboard cards is also effective. Spell Pierce, Abrade, and Knight of Autumn are effective against certain draws, but nothing is quite as impactful as Blood Moon.  Chalice of the Void can prove potent, as putting it on X = 0 shuts off Summoner’s Pact, while X = 1 shuts off Amulet of Vigor and Ancient Stirrings. Ensnaring Bridge prevents Primeval Titan from attacking, but does little against Ruric Thar, the Unbowed and is vulnerable to Engineered Explosives.

For decks that have a quick clock, small pieces of disruption like Destructive Revelry, Spell Pierce, or Path to Exile are enough. Getting just one or two extra turns can mean the difference between victory and defeat. For slower decks, relying on generic answers is important. Vendilion Clique, Thoughtseize, and Path to Exile are important for answering Primeval Titan before it gets cast, and early removal spells for Azusa or Sakura-Tribe Scout can buy a crucial amount of turns. Regardless of the deck, the most successful way to beat Amulet Titan is to pressure them. The deck has answers for everything, but it can take time to set up those answers and every turn Amulet has to answer a permanent is one less turn it can dig for the combo cards with.

Decks to beat Amulet Titan: Spirits, Humans, Grixis Shadow, Blue Moon

Tron

Persisting as the premier big mana strategy for years, Tron seeks to assemble one of each Urza’s land alongside a powerful colorless threat like Wurmcoil Engine or Karn Liberated to invalidate the opposing game plan. An early Wurmcoil can prove to be an unbeatable threat in many aggressive matchups, while Karn stunts the mana development of slower decks. Boasting a bevy of cheap cantrips in the form of Chromatic Star and Sphere, Tron can quickly find the pieces it needs. Showcasing the full power of Ancient Stirrings, Tron utilizes the early turns of the game drawing cards and searching for lands, and it can do so with incredible consistency. With its win rate closely tied to the quality of cards in the opening hand, Tron mulligans quite often and boasts a high win rate while doing so.

Tron

Beating Tron

Possessing a streamlined game plan and perhaps the best inevitability in the format, there is no one card that hoses Tron in the way that Rest in Peace does Dredge. However, there are a number of strategies that prove effective versus Tron. With its entire early game devoted to finding lands and threats, aggressive strategies are best positioned to beat Tron. Curving a one drop into a two drop forces the Tron player to find an answer quickly, and when backed with disruption can prove problematic. Stony Silence can lock down Tron’s cantrips as well as Oblivion Stone — clearing the way for large board states to fight through Karn or Wurmcoil.

A fast combo can prove troublesome for Tron, as Storm and Semblance Anvil can capitalize on a lack of interaction. Stunting Tron’s early game development and mana velocity only matters in matchups with a clock, as Blood Moon does nothing against a hardcast Wurmcoil or Karn. In addition, Tron has access to Nature’s Claim in sideboard games, limiting the effectiveness of Moon and Stony Silence. Varied sideboard plans, like Ceremonious Rejection and Vendilion Clique are effective for slower decks, while Fulminator Mage and Assassin’s Trophy can give aggressive decks the time needed for that final blow.

Infect and Burn beat Tron by invalidating most of Tron’s cards. Oblivion Stone and Karn have limited effectiveness against instants and sorceries, and the unfettered ability of Burn and Infect to be as fast as they want to contribute to their high win rate. Destructive Revelry and Smash to Smithereens are ineffective at stopping Tron, but provide just enough disruption for Burn’s creatures and spells to finish them off.

Decks to beat Tron: Burn, Infect, Storm, Spirits

Grixis Shadow

Taking the format by surprise in GP Vancouver in early 2017 proves that Modern is a deep and engaging format, and shows that there is always room for another angle of attack. Combining hand disruption with efficient threats, Shadow decks fill a unique niche of Modern. Backing early Gumag Anglers or Death’s Shadow with cheap countermagic and versatile hand disruption spells, Grixis Shadow can overcome nearly any interactive element. The bulk of Grixis Shadow consists of one mana set up cards, like Thoughtseize or Thought Scour. Each Turn 1 play allows the deck to either sculpt its hand or slow the opponent down, contributing to a versatile game plan bridged by a quick clock. Snapcaster Mage provides the deck with a late game mana sink, while also leveraging the ability to operate at instant speed. Snapcaster plays an important role in most matches, as it doubles as removal or disruption based on matchup needs. As demonstrated by two Magicfest wins in two months, Grixis Shadow is a deck to be taken seriously, and like many successful Modern decks, no singular sideboard card defeats it.

Shadow

Beating Grixis Shadow

Grixis Shadow relies on efficient answers to problematic permanents and backs this up with powerful threats. A big weakness of Grixis Shadow is the inability to close the game quickly enough. Gurmag Angler and Death’s Shadow end the game over three turns typically, giving some decks enough time to find either a removal spell or a game-ending threat. The deck also lacks an effective answer to noncreature permanents, relying on Stubborn Denial and discard spells to answer such cards. As such, resolving a permanent is the best way to beat Shadow.

Engineered Explosives is problematic for the deck to beat when relying on Death’s Shadow, but Gurmag Angler can fight through it just fine. The most effective removal spells tend to be Supreme Verdict or Path to Exile. Neither of these care about the size of the creature, and both line up well against countermagic. Another avenue for success is ensuring your sideboard boasts powerful topdecks. Strong four and five mana plays can swing the game in your favor, as Grixis Shadow is usually forcing a low resource game. This weakness contributes to a poor Azorius Control and Scales matchup, as those decks are well suited to overcoming a single piece of disruption. Effective sideboard cards can include Entrancing Melody, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Rest in Peace. It is important to keep in mind the ability of Grixis Shadow to board into a slower, more controlling deck in sideboard games. This flexibility is often off of the back of Kolaghan’s Command or planeswalkers, two card advantage engines that give players time to deploy higher costed threats.

Decks to beat Grixis Shadow: Azorius Control, Hardened Scales, Humans, Titanshift

Hardened Scales

Hardened Scales trades away the consistent aggressive game plan of traditional Affinity for a more robust game plan utilizing Hardened Scales. With Hardened Scales in play, quickly burning the opponent out with Walking Ballista or Inkmoth Nexus plus Arcbound Ravager is easy, and Ancient Stirrings plus Welding Jar give resiliency against traditional removal spells. Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista give a board control element to the deck rivaling that of Humans or Spirits, and this ability to decimate creature decks is part of what contributes so heavily to the archetype’s success. Unlike traditional affinity, Scales has multiple flood mitigation mechanisms, allowing the deck to full use all of its mana at every stage of the game. Horizon Canopy can turn excess mana into a card, while Animation Module generates extra creatures. Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista are powerful at any stage of the game and give the deck powerful topdecks.

Scales

Beating Scales

Unlike Traditional Affinity, Hardened Scales is even more vulnerable to Stony Silence and removal, as it plays fewer payoffs. In recognition of this weakness, we see 4 Nature’s Claim and 4 Welding Jar in every list, as well as a couple copies of Spellskite. With an inability to play more than one color, the sideboard options are limited to mostly artifacts and Nature’s Claim, with a couple copies of Dismember rounding out the interactive elements.

Stony Silence is the most effective way to beat Hardened Scales, but Hurkyl’s Recall, Shatterstorm, and Shattering Blow are nearly as effective. Strong sideboard plans extend beyond merely boarding into artifact hate, as Anger of the Gods and Path to Exile can prove as game-winning as anything else. Ceremonious Rejection allows blue decks to interact at a favorable mana ratio against Scales, and can effectively “destroy” a troublesome permanent even through a Welding Jar.

While the repeated pattern to beat most synergy decks is to present a quick clock, Scales finds itself strong in that regard. With Walking Ballista and an almost unbeatable midgame, interaction is more important against Hardened Scales than against traditional Affinity, as the snowballing nature of Hardened Scales threatens to end games through most board states. Backing up removal with a clock is more important than a clock itself, as we can see from Scales favorable Humans and Grixis Shadow matchups. The deck also lacks interaction itself, leaving it vulnerable to combo decks such as Storm in Game 1. When building a sideboard to improve the Hardened Scales matchup, having a clock is less important than interaction, so prioritizing the efficiency of the artifact hate is better than the versatility of it. Favoring Shatterstorm over Reclamation Sage is the best way to attain success, though versatile answers such as Engineered Explosives exist.

Rest in Peace also works against Arcbound Ravager and Hangarback Walker, though the deck can win through this.

Decks to beat Hardened Scales: Azorius Control, Whir Prison, Storm, Titanshift

Dredge

Persisting as the premier graveyard deck of the format, Dredge utilizes powerful looting effects alongside graveyard payoffs like Bloodghast and Prized Amalgam to quickly end the game. Possessing both an inevitability as well as an aggressive game plan, Dredge is uniquely positioned in the Modern Metagame. By controlling the game with Creeping Chill and Conflagrate, Dredge can buy enough time to find Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams. When not under pressure, these cards can be used to pressure the opponent, resulting in a versatile plan of attack that evades most forms of interaction.

The inevitability of Bloodghast and Conflagrate, paired with powerful enablers like Faithless allows Dredge to have an incredible Game 1 against the field, but the vulnerability to graveyard hate dampens this win percentage in the postboard games. The flexible mana base allows Dredge to have access to a smooth three colors, giving it the tools to navigate through almost any sideboarded game. While it may take many resources to do so, Dredge will eventually find all of its answers and win the game. This inevitability would ordinarily pose a problem for sideboarding, but the potency of answers allows many paths to victory against Dredge.

Dredge

Beating Dredge

The primary means of beating Dredge is through powerful graveyard hate pieces like Grafdigger’s Cage, Rest in Peace, or Leyline of the Void. These cards problem troublesome for Dredge, as they shut off the primary threat base of the deck — Bloodghast, Prized Amalgam, and Conflagrate. Barring these cards, a variety of strategies have overlapping effectiveness against Dredge. If you have a quick clock like Affinity or Arclight, a timely Surgical Extraction or Tormod’s Crypt can slow Dredge down enough to push for lethal. Anger of the Gods can interact with the creatures of Dredge, and like Surgical Extraction is immune to Nature’s Claim.

With sideboard plans that involve these disruptive cards, it is exceptionally important to have either an aggressive strategy or a win condition that is not vulnerable to Dredge’s pieces of interaction. Spell based combos like Scapeshift or Past in Flames are more powerful than permanent based win conditions, due to the prevalence of cheap removal in the sideboard of Dredge. Popular sideboard plans against dredge involve both Burn and Spirits sideboard plans, as attacking creatures and buffering life total are both important.

Decks to beat Dredge: Titanshift, Amulet Titan, Azorius Control

Azorius Control

Proving itself a mainstay of the format after its success at GP Santa Clara, Azorius Control uses a mana denial package along with catchall answers to disrupt most decks in the format. By limiting itself to two colors, a basic land heavy mana base allows the deck to have smooth mana, wincons, and disruption packaged together in its lands. This allows the deck to feature almost exclusively controlling elements in the main deck and increases the potency of many sideboard cards. By utilizing a mana denial strategy, Azorius Control can play a higher curve than most of the format and justify a variety of conditional interactive spells in Game 1, held together by Cryptic Command and Opt. While Azorius Control boasts few great matchups, it is unique in Modern for having few poor matchups.

UW Control

Beating Azorius

If Azorius Control has any weakness, it is likely due to its glacially slow ability to win. With its primary wincons tied to four, five, or six mana plays, most decks will have enough time to find reach. In addition, the deck utilizes most of its cards to interact with permanents, resulting in weakness to the big mana decks of the format, as well as spell heavy combo decks. Lands are a good way to beat Azorius, as well as a redundancy of burn spells to supplement permanent based pressure. Conventional sideboard strategies against Jeskai or Grixis Control are weaker against Azorius, due to the amount of powerful interactive elements available. By leaning on Teferi and Detention Sphere, Azorius presents multiple ways to interact with any card forcing opponents to overload the control player’s defenses. Presenting a quick clock is a good way to beat Azorius, as the more time they are given the more likely they are to have found a sweeper.

Decks to beat Azorius Control: Storm, Titanshift, Tron, Blue Moon


Thanks for reading this outline of Modern, and I hope to see you there. If you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to let me know below.

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