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Modern Mixed Bag

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The letter T!his past weekend saw quite the diverse Top 8 for Grand Prix Chicago and its featured Modern format. In fact, there was only one duplicate archetype in all the Top 8!

Like so:


Jund

Jund, the most popular deck of the recent Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, was the only deck to show up twice in this Top 8. Two things to note about this particular Jund-phenomenon: (1) this is not your father's Jund deck, and (2) it's probably pretty good given that it faced off against itself, first-against-second.


Josh Utter-Leyton's Jund
Finalist – Top 8, Chicago Grand Prix


The only difference between champion and finalist was the Plains in Josh Utter-Leyton's deck (over Wilson's second Swamp).

By now, after its longtime boogeyman status in Standard two years ago and recent performances in Modern tournaments, you probably know how Jund works. This is a deck that combines fast drops like Deathrite Shaman (turn one), Tarmogoyf, and Dark Confidant (two of Magic's most well-considered two-drops), with a toolbox full of utility answers. Jund has great one-mana interaction in Lightning Bolt and Inquisition of Kozilek and can remove all kinds of permanents with Terminate, Abrupt Decay, Ancient Grudge, and Maelstrom Pulse. All of it is held together by the hasty Bloodbraid Elf, which is both an initiative-grabbing attacker and a pretty good utility spell setup man.


That's nice... So, what's different?

Utter-Leyton and Wilson played a little something called Lingering Souls. Previously, we have seen Lingering Souls spawn two different White-Blue Delver of Secrets variants in Standard, solidify the grinding White-Blue Jace, the Mind Sculptor archetype in Legacy, and piggyback the graveyard-filling momentum of Mulch for games when Unburial Rites was not immediately available. Now, this white card with the black flashback is breaking new ground in making a pretty successful black-red-green deck just a bit better.


Affinity is less of a problem for the Jund deck that can flip a Lingering Souls. The card makes two, and then four, 1/1 flying tokens... half—even a quarter—of a Lingering Souls outclasses a Memnite or trades cleanly with a Vault Skirge. And hey! You can all of a sudden block a Signal Pest!


Other Jund decks being quite popular (and quite good at trading cards and coming off having pocketed a little value), Lingering Souls can give you the edge in the mirror. Lingering Souls puts you in a position where your Tarmogoyf has quite the advantage against your opponent's Tarmogoyf. In a fair matchup, it gives you fliers to race or a string of chumpers to block.

All in all, a pretty groundbreaking innovation for what could otherwise have been a stale—if colossally popular—archetype.

Affinity

Alex Majlaton's Affinity
Modern – Top 8, Chicago Grand Prix


"Affinity" here has really only one card with affinity for artifacts (Thoughtcast), but that was a strong signal for Majlaton to go with a solo basic Island in his land count. In addition to Thoughtcast, Majlaton could summon Master of Etherium with his blue.


The strength of Affinity, of course, is in its non-reliance on colored mana. Memnite and Ornithopter may not look like much... but they also don't cost very much. The deck has tons of high impact one- and two-mana spells, including Signal Pest and Steel Overseer (which can buff your numerous cheapies); the big bomb twos are Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating. Cranial Plating is effective with so many artifacts, but especially so with lands like Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus.


How many hits from an equipped Inkmoth Nexus to win the game?

Birthing Pod


The Modern Pod deck is a deck with many options... which should be obvious. In addition to namesake Birthing Pod, the deck has Chord of Calling to go find whatever creature on demand. Ergo, you can quickly set up an Ethersworn Canonist or a Glen Elendra Archmage against combo; Avalanche Riders to break up the Urzatron; or Linvala, Keeper of Silence to stop another deck with Birds and Elves, perhaps disrupting the mirror. Hovis had Izzet Staticaster to mop up little 0/1 and 1/1 creatures.


But what gets you to the final tables is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker!

This deck can combine creatures at three, four, or five with Kiki-Jiki to deal infinite damage (convenient for Birthing Pod, allowing for catalysts at two, three, or four).

Both Deceiver Exarch and Zealous Conscripts give you the ability to use Birthing Pod more than one time in a turn... which might be important to jump mana costs or get you to the combo you need.


Like a couple of combo decks in today's Modern, Birthing Pod lets you deal infinite damage by creating an unending stream of token creatures (not just "a lot" of damage).

Exarch Twin

Speaking of decks that can deal infinite damage... Exarch Twin!

Michael Simon's Exarch Twin
Modern – Top 8, Chicago Grand Prix


Exarch Twin can put together similar Kiki-Jiki combinations as Birthing Pod, with either Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite as the Mirror Breaker's pick-and-roll partner. However, in addition, it can go ho-hum three-into-four-into-infinite by enchanting either Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite with Splinter Twin, again to set up an infinite damage attack.


Rather than playing the midrange toolbox Plan B of Splinter Twin, Simon's deck has the shell of a blue-red control deck. He has some removal and he has some permission. I like how he can pick off, say, a combo containing Soul Warden with Grim Lavamancer. Cyclonic Rift is in a sense the ultimate trump. It can short-term answer almost any permanent (and a deck that can set up an infinite damage attack doesn't need a huge window)... and given sufficient mana it can do anything and everything from "making the opponent discard cards in excess of seven at the end of turn" to "making an opposing infinite attack deck pick up, say, 999 attacking Zealous Conscripts."


In addition to Cyclonic Rift, Simon incorporated Mizzium Skin as a new helper from Return to Ravnica. Mizzium Skin gives a creature hexproof, so it can be like a one-mana counterspell that can protect a key combo component from removal... even when that removal is, say, Abrupt Decay!

Simon's sideboard has quite a few of his deck's most impressive gems. A Stomping Grounds powers up Ancient Grudge, a Watery Grave is his point discard, but the most powerful of them is Blood Moon. Look around the mana bases of some of these decks. They will not do well with all basic Mountains! Simon's Blood Moon can slow down the majority of decks in Modern and completely work over a deck like Gifts Ungiven or anything Urzatron. Meanwhile, Simon's own deck requires but a single blue mana to go infinite.


Gifts Ungiven


This deck can do a little of everything and can do a fair number of things pretty well. Most of its cards are solid on their own... but in concert with one another they can set up synergies ranging from empty-handed lockdown to fast, Tinker-like (and oppressive) beatdown.

Gifts Ungiven is the card that laces together many of the powerful combinations in McDermott's deck. You can play Gifts as a pure-value two-for-one (and then use Snapcaster Mage to recoup something if you wanted it more, perhaps even putting Snapcaster Mage in the Gifts Ungiven)... Or you can put together specific combinations of cards to gain disproportionate advantages.


Gifts Ungiven—this intricate version with mostly one-ofs in particular—appeals to a certain kind of mage. Do you like to make lots of decisions in a game, some of them very difficult? Do you like having lots of different angles of attack and defense? Do you like to suffocate the opponent's strategy, maybe poking him or her 2 points at a time with Deathrite Shaman, more than dropping an unfair hammer yourself?

Gifts might be the most fun (and still effective) deck for you!

Red-Green Tron

David Gleicher's RG Tron
Modern – Top 8, Chicago Grand Prix


Third.

Turn.

Karn.

Cool, right?

This is a deck with only twenty lands that can pop out one of the most expensive Planeswalkers in the game, or casually tutor up Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. It might only have twenty lands, but some of them tap for three mana!


Ancient Stirrings, Expedition Map, Sylvan Scrying, and even "cantrip" effects a la Chromatic Star are what gets this deck the lands it needs to dominate. Again, once it does, all the Tron deck's plays seem degenerate (you know, like lacing together the Urzatron and playing Karn Liberated on the third turn).

Once Karn is on the battlefield, it is a dominant force. You can crush your opponent's hand over several turns, then reset the game (but with a massive preexisting advantage) or you can cripple the opponent's development, Sinkhole-style. Imagine you went first and played an Urza's Tower and a Chromatic Star. On your second turn, you drew, made Green Mana, drew again, played an Urza's Power Plant, and finished the triumvirate with a Sylvan Scrying. On your third turn you played the Urza's Mine that completed the set and cast Karn Liberated (of course), at which point you removed your opponent's second land from the battlefield.


To be clear:

  • You: Insane mana engine + Karn online.
  • Opponent: One land

The alternative plan is to find Eye of Ugin, power that up, and then hard-cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. You take the extra turn, attack the opponent with Emrakul; it's about as easy to interact with for some decks as it sounds.

And yes, only twenty lands in this one... but boy does each one pack a value!

White-Blue Control

Rounding out this Top 8 of midrange and combo terrors is Edgar "onetime shows up in this column every week with Caw-Blade" Flores, again with a white-blue deck. Edgar made his umpteenth StarCityGames Open Series Top 8 recently with a Standard WU Control... He joked that yes, he really only ever plays white-blue:

Edgar Flores's WU Control
Modern – Top 8, Chicago Grand Prix


Edgar lifted this deck from Emanuel Sutor and his recent performance at Grand Prix Lyon. Essentially, this is a midrange white-blue creature deck with a little enters-the-battlefield, a couple of control elements, and ultimately topping up on Baneslayer Angel.

Blade Splicer, Wall of Omens, and to a lesser extent Vendilion Clique and Snapcaster Mage ("lesser" in this deck, at least) combine well with the blink enters-the-battlefield on Restoration Angel. Geist of Saint Traft, given sufficient time, is elite on offense; Blade Splicer is elite on defense. The spell slots kind of tie everything together...


Cryptic Command is a bit of card advantage and an important hard counter in a world of fast kills, multiple routes to infinity, and the grinding advantage of Bloodbraid Elf or Lingering Souls. Dismember, Mana Leak, and Path to Exile are the catch-alls. None of them are overwhelmingly powerful but they are good at breaking up hyper-focused plans, have generally good coverage across the various realistic threats in a format, and—above all—are fast (you'll note that the design choices like one Island in Affinity in part anticipate the presence of a Path to Exile in the format). Spell Snare is fast and essentially always trades up against Dark Confidants, Tarmogoyfs, or Arcbound Ravagers; it might not be a perfect long-term solution to Life from the Loam, but Spell Snare can certainly buy a body a turn.

It is interesting that the more restrictive Supreme Verdict has taken the place of traditional 2 ManaWhite ManaWhite Mana sweepers in a deck that can muster the blue mana... If you aren't worried about having a single Blue Mana, it is certainly an upgrade to Day of Judgment.


Baneslayer Angel, once called the best large creature of all time by a Hall of Famer upon taking down his first Pro Tour win with it at the top of his curve, does similar work in Edgar's deck. Baneslayer Angel is the catch-up card, clean-up crew, and best thing possible to tap out for.

Baneslayer Angel | Art by Greg Staples

Make no mistake: WU Control is not as powerful as some of the other strategies. It can't go infinite like the Kiki-Jiki decks, and although it can grind, it lacks much of the individual card efficiency of a Jund (especially in topdeck situations). But if you want to play an interactive game with a traditional game plan, a deck like this one proves that the strategy can still perform in the face of Modern's mighty mixed bag.


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