I have a confession to make: I love Modern more than Legacy.
Phew, that felt good to get that off my chest.
Before you break out the torches and pitchforks, hear me out. I am many things — the owner of a hot sauce store in Toronto; a consumer of many types of alcohol; a snappy dresser. But first and foremost, I am a brewer.
And there is no format more punishing to brewers than Legacy. In Legacy there is a drastic gap between Tier 1 decks and everything else. A well-tuned deck can do well in a single event, but consistently beating RUG Delver, Dredge, Reanimator, Maverick and Stoneblade can border on impossible. It’s a format of tuning, not new concepts. Even Sam Black’s BRW Zombie deck, one of the most innovative decks I’ve seen in ages, was hated out of the format within a week by an influx of graveyard hate and the rise in popularity of UW Miracles.
Some of my absolute worst experiences playing Magic have been Legacy events. The Elves deck that durdled around for so long I had time to take a nap. The Storm deck that killed me before I could play a single card.
So imagine my joy when Wizards of the Coast announced GP Toronto would be the Modern format. It’s the eternal format with no decidedly Tier 1 decks, but dozens and dozens of Tier 1.5 decks. Virtually any deck can stand a chance even against the more popular archetypes. Hell, one of the first Modern Grands Prix was won by Aggro Loam, and then another with Affinity (sorry, “Artifact Aggro”).
Because of the aggressive banlist, anything is fair game. All stupidly broken or abusable cards such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Blazing Shoal are nowhere to be seen. Not only are the big dumb powerhouse cards not around, it forces players to adapt to playing the slightly weaker versions, such as Serum Visions over Preordain. These restrictions breed creativity, which is why Modern is a brewer’s paradise.
One of the strongest decks in the Modern format is UR Storm. The original incarnation was so powerful, it could go off on Turn 2. This was a big no-no for WotC, so they dropped the banhammer on Rite of Flame, but even that wasn’t enough to stop it from being a top contender.
The first Modern event I played in was a PTQ in Kitchener, Ontario, that Noah Long demolished with Storm, seemingly unfazed by the bannings. I decided to give the deck a chance about five months later at a Power 9 tournament after a bit of coaxing from my buddies at my local game store. But while it was powerful and borderline unstoppable at times, it was a monumental pain in the neck to play. Often I would find myself one mana short from continuing my combo before falling flat on my face.
But this summer I had an epiphany while playing Commander. The Azami, Lady of Scrolls player was facing down a lethal Banefire, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. That’s when I remembered Banefire was a card. The last time I had seen Banefire in a Constructed deck, it was mirror tech for 5 Color Control as a followup to Cruel Ultimatum. The card really hadn’t had its moment in the spotlight, and I figured that there was a way to abuse such a powerful effect.
This list plays similarly to UR Storm, but with greater priority on digging out Pyromancer Ascension. Thought Scour and Faithless Looting are great for dumping spells into the graveyard to trigger Ascension, and Reforge the Soul is amazing for reloading your hand after casting all your spells.
It’s also worth noting that with Ascension active, you can resolve the copy of Reforge the Soul, cast all the rituals in your hand (which happen to all be instants), then resolve the original Reforge the Soul and get seven new cards to cast with your massive amount of mana. This play will usually get you some combination of Seething Song, Past in Flames and Banefire, which should win you the game then and there.
Banefire vs. Grapeshot
- It goes off faster. With an active Pyromancer Ascension, you only need to reach 11 mana for lethal damage, which amounts to roughly one copied Seething Song.
- Banefire can neither be countered nor prevented if X is 5 or greater, meaning there’s virtually nothing the opponent can do to stop it once cast. It’s the Randy Savage elbow drop of the Magic world. There are only a few cards that actually stop Banefire: Mindbreak Trap, Leyline of Sanctity and Redirect effects. The first two can be dealt with by our sideboard, and Redirects are too narrow to see any real play.
- There are considerably fewer hoops to jump through. We need far fewer spells to actually combo off, so the decks runs much smoother when it’s time to actually win. With an active Ascension, all we need is one Seething Song to make Banefire lethal. Seething Song will get copied and produce 10 mana, which considering the number of shocklands running around the format, is enough for Banefire to be lethal after being copied. Two cards for the kill, as opposed to chaining 20 together for Grapeshot.
- It recovers better than the Grapeshot version. With traditional Grapeshot Storm, you either go all in on the combo or you fail to kill them and are left with nothing. Because this is primarily a Pyromancer Ascension deck, our goal is to get Ascension active. Even if we have to end the turn mid-combo, as long as Ascension is active we can go off the following turn from just two or three spells.
- We are much harder to disrupt. A well-placed Spell Pierce early into the Storm can often be a two- or three-for-one. Because we don’t have to chain 20 spells together, countermagic becomes less effective. Pyromancer Ascension triggers when you cast the spell, so you still get the copy even if they counter one spell.
- We are more resilient to the common hate cards for Storm. Two of the best counters to Storm combo are Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Ethersworn Canonist. Thalia completely shuts off the value of your rituals by making them cost as much mana as they produce. By relying on Ascension more and copying our rituals, we care less and less about them costing one more mana. Canonist is still a pain in the neck, but we can use Banefire to kill Canonists, which can’t be done with Grapeshot. That’s right, an actual out to Canonist!
There are weaknesses to Banefire where Grapeshot would be better. Grapeshot combo works even if you don’t have a Pyromancer Ascension, so you can go off slightly faster with an above-average hand. That version of the deck also doesn’t need Pyromancer Ascension in the first few turns, whereas we fall behind without the card in play by Turn 3. And the Grapeshot version tends to run Empty the Warrens as a viable Plan B.
One thing to note is the one Hallowed Fountain in the deck. Hallowed Fountain can be found with all the fetchlands while being a blue source for your cantrips, but more importantly it produces white mana. Why is this relevant? Our deck is roughly a turn slower than traditional Storm since we focus on getting Ascension active instead of chaining spells. Enter Silence. I typically run three Silence in the sideboard for countermagic decks and Storm, and it serves a different purpose for each. Despite our overall resilience to countermagic, hard counters such as Remand and Negate can screw us up. Casting Silence before going off can make our life much easier. Against the Storm matchup, it takes on a much more sinister purpose. Casting Silence in response to a Seething Song or Past in Flames is essentially a Time Walk for W, and renders several of their spells useless.
I tend to include sideboard cards that hose many of the format’s more common decks. Torpor Orb is imperative against Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker decks like Splinter Twin or Team ChannelFireball’s Naya Pod list from GP Columbus. Those decks rely heavily on enter-the-battlefield abilities for their combo, so Torpor Orb forces them to play an awkward beatdown game with their 1/4s and 2/2s. Pyroclasm is also great against Naya Pod, but it’s also a nice sweeper for decks like Affinity, Delver, and Naya Through the Breach. Spell Pierce is great against Delver decks, Tron and the mirror because it handles some of the more broken plays of the format, such as Turn 3 Karn Liberated.
Blood Moon is an all-star in Modern, as people tend to get greedy with their manabases, so it hurts them more than it hurts you. There are some decks that only run one or two basic lands, so sticking Blood Moon can shut off a deck completely if they’re not careful. Another option is Magus of the Moon, which is the same effect on a Grey Ogre. This can be used as a “gotcha” play because the majority of players will board out their creature removal against Storm decks.
My favorite piece of tech against Tron and the mirror is Telemin Performance. I used to run this in Standard Turbofog for the mirror, and the principle is the same for Storm. It mills their entire deck because they have no creatures. For Tron, since they usually focus more on casting Karn, they only run one Emrakul, the Aeorns Torn and one Wurmcoil Engine. This means Telemin Performance has a 50/50 chance of getting you the largest creature in the game. Basically, for 3UU, you win the game.
That’s why I came up with some ways to speed up the deck without that pesky blue. First and foremost, cut the Thought Scours and Serum Visions, and replace them with four Simian Spirit Guides and four Wild Guesses. Simian Spirit Guides allow us to drop the Ascension on Turn 1 and potentially combo off on Turn 2. They’re also great for when you’re one mana off from your next spell, such as when you pay for a Spell Pierce, or sandbagging them for Faithless Looting fodder.
The other real change is Wild Guess. This gem from M13 may not look like much at first. On the surface, it just trades two cards from your hand for two new cards. But what happens when you cast it with an active Pyromancer’s Ascension? For RR and a useless card, you get four cards! Not a bad deal, eh? You also no longer have to worry about always having blue mana available when combing, which can be annoying hoop. This version trades consistency for explosiveness, but it’s definitely a fun alternative if you don’t want to hunt down shocklands.
With GP Toronto right around the corner, I’m going to be running both these decks through the wringer and getting as much practice as possible. Some of my favorite stories have come from testing on Cockatrice, which can be a pain in the ass to play Storm on because you have to keep track of your storm count and mana manually. Every time I’d play my spells, I’d get messages like “Count your storm, noob!” or “You only have two cards in hand, I win on my turn, right?” only to be shut up by a lethal Banefire. Let me tell you, the silence is golden.
If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional Storm, give this list a try.
Until next time, may all your tech be spicy.
— Tyler Priemer
Twitter and Cockatrice: @tylerthefro
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