The State of Modern | April 2019

state of modern (1)

With Modern occupying an ever-present aspect of competitive Magic, understanding the changes to the format are as important as ever, and every Month I like to revisit the State of Modern. Last time, we looked at the top decks heading into Magic Fest Los Angeles and what important changes had taken place. This time, we’re looking at the State of Modern prior to the Mythic Championship in London, and what caused the radical changes to many of Modern’s dominant archetypes. With most top decks in Modern entering the scene within the last year, keeping up with Modern is more difficult than ever. Change in Modern is exemplified by adaptation to a homogenized format, and since the introduction of Arclight Phoenix understanding the reasons for changes is easier than ever. My goal with this article is not to give a rundown of the primary decks to beat in Modern, or to necessarily explain how to beat other decks. Highlighting the changes to various archetypes, as well as why those changes took place is my goal.


Izzet Phoenix

Arclight

A mainstay of the Modern format since the deck’s inception with Guilds of Ravnica, constant iteration and modification of the archetype has been a hallmark of its success. With Blue and Red having access to a wide variety of sideboard cards, Arclight Phoenix is able to utilize an array of early game cantrips to consistently outmaneuver opponents. Sporting a variety of card choices, Izzet Phoenix is an archetype that until recently demonstrated wide variety among pilots, but the consolidation of the Modern metagame around Phoenix resulted in a near stock list as shown above.

It’s important to note the general lack of Pteramander and Gut Shot as a whole and wide acceptance of Pyromancer Ascension. These are all considerations for the mirror matches, while Surgical Extraction and Echoing Truth get the nod as utility spots in both the mirror and Modern as a whole. Echoing Truth often is supplanted by Set Adrift, and this flexible interactive spell slot is largely a response to the worrying number of Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge that would otherwise shut down the deck in Game 1. Likewise, sideboards have become relatively stagnant, with two planeswalkers occupying spots in most sideboards. These planeswalkers are either Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Ral, and largely act as threats that fight through most sideboard hate while acting as removal for mirror matches.

Shatterstorm and Blood Moon are options that are meta dependant. With Amulet Titan and Whir Prison on the rise, the need for more impactful sideboard cards rises, and we see a shift away from Alpine Moon and Ancient Grudge. Ravenous Trap and Beacon Bolt are two pieces of tech responding to an uptick in Dredge and Golgari Rock decks, respectively. Spell Pierce and Dispel are being shaved for more one-ofs, as Burn’s presence has been significantly diminished.

Dredge

Dredge

For an introduction to Dredge, you can check out my deck tech here.

Once the format oppressor, Dredge came to prominence once again with the success of Arclight Phoenix. With Creeping Chill revitalizing many otherwise close matchups, Dredge gained important metagame percentages as the format solidified. By leaning heavily on a favored Arclight matchup, Dredge maintains its status as an ever-present threat in the format, despite an increase in the number of Relic of Progenitus and Bojuka Bog. As the main question in the format becomes “How do I beat Arclight Phoenix?”, Dredge positions its sideboard to mitigate the splash damage of Grafdigger’s Cage and Rest in Peace.

Noticeably absent from sideboards is the additional copy of Conflagrate, as most decks going wide in the format are already weak to Dredge. Spirits has a poor Dredge matchup, while Hardened Scales is less vulnerable to Conflagrate than ordinary affinity, which itself has picked up Experimental Frenzy to mitigate the impact of sweepers. Darkblast earns a consistent spot in the main deck, as removing one-drops is more important than prior. Noble Hierarch and Champion of Parish contribute to many losses for dredge that would otherwise be trivial games, and Darkblast can interact with problematic man lands such as Inkmoth Nexus.

Shriekhorn is an automatic four-of, as it can threaten instant speed payoffs while allowing Dredge to play around graveyard hate. Dredge often needs to use mana to remove Rest in Peace of Grafdigger’s Cage, and Shriekhorn lets the deck immediately capitalize on that window by developing its board up front. Shriekhorn is also similar to an additional four copies of Faithless Looting, enabling busted Turn 2 starts. In the sideboard, the bevy of artifact removal is a nod to an uptick in problematic Artifacts like Ensnaring Bridge and Grafdigger’s Cage, while Assassin’s Trophy is a flexible answer for both Thing in the Ice and Rest in Peace. Nature’s Claim gets the nod over most sideboard cards due to the life gain aspect when targetting your own Leyline or Shriekhorn, and Lightning Axe is prominent due to the prevalence of Thing in the Ice.

Tron

Tron

If you want to learn more about Tron, you can check out my deck tech here.

With a Deck Tech in the books, Modern articles here are no stranger to everyone’s favorite Big Spell archetype. With Arclight decks trimming sideboard slots for Tron to get an edge in the mirror, this colorless icon has experienced a resurgence in recent weeks. While it may struggle against format newcomers Amulet Titan and Whir Prison, Tron boasts decent matchups across the board. Increasingly the problem Tron needs to solve is Damping Sphere or Blood Moon, rather than Ceremonious Rejection and Lava Spike. This change in hate distribution increases the strength of Nature’s Claim while giving Tron the ability to lean on colorless sideboard cards like Thought-Knot Seer or Warping Wail.

As discussed in my Tron deck tech, the decklists for Tron are remarkably stock for how diverse Modern is. The primary deviation is in the acceptance of three main deck Relic of Progenitus as additional answers to Arclight and Dredge. With both of these matchups boasting large sections of the metagame, the ability to presideboard drastically increases Tron’s win percentage in the format. This change then frees up additional spots in the sideboard for Crucible of Worlds or Warping Wail. This important addition lets Tron navigate through Spellskite or removing a troublesome Thing in the Ice. Pithing Needle is an old piece of tech making a resurgence in a metagame rife with effective cards to name. With Whir Prison on the rise, having access to an answer for any artifact through Welding Jar can turn the tide of the disruptive prison deck. Pithing Needle still is an ineffective answer to Chalice of the Void or Damping Sphere, and the continued dominance of Tron will require solving the Whir Prison matchup.

Humans

Humans

Supplanting Spirits as the disruptive creature deck of choice, Humans’ popularity is largely the same as it was prior to Magic Fest Los Angeles. With Chalice of the Void serving as a more important sideboard card, Humans gains the ability to have the same sort of sideboard disruption that made Spirits the hallmark aggro deck of the KCI era. With a fast clock and a better Arclight matchup, Humans has the ability to adapt to nearly any metagame. With multiple Auriok Champion making the sideboard of most lists, this version showcases a more recent adaptation of the Humans sideboard.

Grafdigger’s Cage acts as an important tool against Dredge, while Chalice of the Void serves as interaction for Hardened Scales, Whir Prison, and Arclight Phoenix. Three copies of Damping Sphere act as an additional piece of disruption in the Arclight matchup while serving as an important tool against Tron. There is merit to Damping Sphere against Amulet, as it shuts off the huge mana development provided by bouncelands like Simic Growth Chamber. Deputy of Detention acts as a flexible piece of removal against a variety of permanent based archetypes and serves as an additional Reflector Mage against Wurmcoil and Thing in the Ice. Against Hardened Scales, Deputy functions similarly to Knight of Autumn but can clear multiple threats at a time. Kessig Malcontents allows the deck to kill through Ensnaring Bridge, and trimming a Kitesail Freebooter makes sense with less control and combo decks in the format.

With these changes come important updates to the mana base. Normally reliant on the full playset of prismatic lands like Ancient Ziggurat, Cavern of Souls, and Unclaimed Territory, the prevalence of both noncreatures and nonhumans in the sideboard warrants a shift in priorities. Trimming Ziggurats for lands that can cast noncreatures lets the deck still cast a majority of its cards, and the singleton Gemstone Mine functions similarly enough to Ziggurat for Mantis Rider and Kitesail Freebooter. Replacing the other Ziggurat is a Mana Confluence, trading the temporary nature of Gemstone Mine for life loss. This change puts more pressure on trimming Horizon Canopy, as a critical mass of damaging lands can lead to more losses. Trimming Canopy for a second Seachrome Coast lets the deck preserve the same number of relevant sources while avoiding more painful land choices. Removal of Knight of Autumn and Gaddock Teeg from the sideboard entirely makes sense with this mana base shift, as the primary creature in the sideboard requires blue mana.

Whir Prison

Whir Prison

For an in-depth look at Whir Prison, you can check out my deck tech here.

Deviating from the expected version of Susurrus_mtg’s popular Whir Prison archetype, Dimir focused versions have been successful as of late. With the four-color version earning its place as a known archetype, the race to solve problematic matchups ensued. This particular version opts for the once-banned Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo. Similarly to Goblin Rabblemaster out of Mono-Red Prison, Thopter Foundry can generate a swarm of low power threats that can enable quick wins through your own Ensnaring Bridge. The primary reason for this change is due to the poor Azorius Control matchup, and the uptick in difficult to answer sideboard cards like Consulate Crackdown or Shatterstorm. While previous versions have had access to Jester’s Cap and Unmoored Ego, playing counterspells and hand disruption was impossible, leaving the deck vulnerable to targetted hate.

Search for Azcanta serves as an additional means of assembling lock pieces, and the main deck Collective Brutality gives a crucial interactive element. Removing counterspells or Lava Spikes can steal a game, and the life loss can matter when racing with Thopters. With the addition of a faster clock comes the loss of a hard lock, and we can see a reduction in Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives. Out of the sideboard, a full four copies of Unmoored Ego reside. This gives the Dimir prison version the ability to strip away crucial combo pieces, without having to wait until later turns of the game. Alongside this change is the counterspell suite. Swan Song, Muddle the Mixture, and Negate are flexible counterspells that solve a variety of problems. Swan Song can counter Abrade, Shatterstorm, or Stony Silence at one mana, while Negate can counter Chalice of the Void or planeswalkers. Muddle the Mixture is narrower in scope than either of these but makes up for it by acting as an additional combo piece due to Transmute. Battle at the Bridge and Fatal Push round out the sideboard as removal spells that can deal with many aggressive creatures in the format.

As a consideration to the bevy of colored spells, the mana base must change. Trimming a couple of Tolaria West and Spire of Industry in place of Fetches and Shocklands gives smooth U/B access in the early turns. This does come at a small life cost and limits the effectiveness of Engineered Explosives. Cutting Glimmervoid for Darkslick Shores is a natural shift when evaluating the importance of early game Blue and Black mana. While not a mana source, Nihil Spellbomb gets the nod over Tormod’s Crypt in this variant, as early Black mana turns this piece of graveyard hate into additional card filtering. With less of a focus on hard locking the opponent, Dimir Prison seeks to align itself with an ever-changing Modern format ahead of the Mythic Championship in London.

Amulet Titan

Amulet

Catapulting nearly to deck to beat status, Amulet Titan showcases how Modern can have a deck with both no bad matchups and a high level of difficulty. The onset of Coalition Relic in Amulet Titan came out of the inclusion of Blood Moon into more sideboards, and this cyclical nature of flex slots warrants closer inspection. With this list largely representing the stock Amulet lists, the sideboard is the primary deviation from normal trends. Emrakul, the Promised End earns a spot in the sideboard, as this once dominant force in Standaard can be found off of Ancient Stirrings. Proving crucial in the Tron, Whir Prison, and Azorius Control matchups, Emrakul gives Amulet Titan a trump card in both Combo and Control matchups. Four Path to Exile also earn spots in the sideboard, largely a response to the aggressive creature oriented Modern format of current times. Chameleon Colossus reprises its role as a Death’s Shadow killer among Green decks but also gives Amulet an additional threat to pressure opposing planeswalkers.

As a response to a shifting metagame, former mainstay inclusion Hive Mind is making a resurgence in Amulet Lists. While this list neglects to register any, Hive Mind alongside Slaughter Pact can give Amulet a combo kill difficult for both Control and Whir Prison to deal with. This also gives the deck the ability to kill through an Ensnaring Bridge, as well as demonstrate a one turn kill against powerful sideboard cards like Blood Moon. Long gone are the days of Explore and Serum Visions, so trading consistent early game filtering for more frequent payoffs is a hallmark of Amulet’s development. Knowing what Amulet brings to the table in a deck with more sideboard options than nearly any other is difficult, so understand the trends is the most important aspect of overcoming this unique combo deck.

Hardened Scales

Hardened Scales

Last time we visited the state of the Modern format, Hardened Scales had largely supplanted Experimental Frenzy as the default Arcbound Ravager deck. While a shift in the opposite direction is underway, Hardened Scales has critical adaptations as the metagame has consolidated into a Phoenix vs the World format. Much like Humans, this shift in priorities comes with an adjustment in mana. A poor matchup against the dominant Thing in the Ice strategy has led to a prioritization of removal spells and Damping Sphere in the lists of Hardened Scales. While by no means a regular addition, some lists have begun running Scavenging Ooze or Path to Exile as supplemental disruptive elements. This list runs Warping Wail, and with that change in mana requirements comes an adjustment to the normal mana base. Hardened Scales is known for running 5-8 Forests, and the regular acceptance of Llanowar Reborn largely comes as the importance of casting Nature’s Claim increases.

With an abundance of the mirror matches and the explosiveness of Amulet Titan, the pressure to cast Nature’s Claim in the early turns is higher than ever. While the only additional Green sources of mana are Llanowar Reborn, additional room for Brushland comes at the cost of Blinkmoth Nexus and Forests. As with the mana base considerations for Humans, cutting Horizon Canopy is an acknowledgment of the dangers of a painful mana base, while opening up innovative sideboard options like Warping Wail. Path to Exile as a response to Thing in the Ice and Primeval Titan requires more white sources than the default Horizon Canopy and Mox Opal can provide, so the addition of Brushland is a requirement for balancing enough sources.

Moving into the sideboard, the increase in Damping Sphere is more of a response to Arclight and Amulet Titan than Tron, though the splash damage is relevant. Shutting off bouncelands like Simic Growth Chamber while slowing the pace of Thing in the Ice can turn around an otherwise poor matchup, while the addition of Surgical Extraction showcases the importance of removing specific cards more than targetting Dredge. Less priority on beating Dredge to focus on percentage points in the Arclight Matchup justifies this change.

Ad Nauseam

Ad Naus

Absent from the State of Modern prior to Magic Fest Los Angeles, Ad Nauseam is a combo deck that has recently been galvanized by a strong Arclight matchup. With the ability to win the game through most disruption, Ad Nauseam is both consistent and powerful. With a lopsided Game 1 win percentage against most decks not playing counterspells, Ad Nauseam assembles Phyrexian Unlife/Angel’s Grace alongside an Ad Nauseam to kill immediately. This package is backed by multiple Pact of Negation and a Lotus Bloom/Pentad Prism acceleration package that can enable Turn 4 kills. The main changes Ad Nauseam lists have made with regards to the Modern metagame have been a movement towards the full 4 Pact of Negation in the list. Fighting through Dispel and Spell Pierce from Arclight, while ensuring enough interaction against aggressive strategies to win is crucial, and Ad Nauseam’s poor aggro matchup shows with its sweeper heavy sideboard.

Leyline of Sanctity warrants a 4 of status due to the prevalence of Thoughtseize out of Death’s Shadow/Rock, and the utility against Burn is valuable as well. Supreme Verdict and Bontu’s Last Reckoning are concessions to aggressive strategies, and Supreme Verdict gives Ad Nauseam a way to remove Grixis Shadow’s board states through a Stubborn Denial. Godhead of Awe takes the spot of Grave Titan or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in recent lists, as it functions similarly to a Supreme Verdict but as a creature. Shrinking the entire board to 1/1 lets Godhead brick wall the powerful threats of Grixis Shadow while winning the race against Tarmogoyf. The inclusion of Ad Nauseam into this State of Modern is due to the high win rate boasted by any deck with a strong Arclight and Azorius Control matchup and understanding the trends for this fringe archetype can be crucial for format positioning.


 

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