Ladies and gentlemen, I think at this point it’s now safe to say that there is a war going on out there in the Modern format. It is a war being waged on multiple fronts: at GPs, trials, Pro Tour Qualifiers and on MtGO. Recently this battle has even raged across the heretofore sacrosanct ground of Friday Night Magic. For a long time, my friends, we’ve been losing this war as often as not. Those of you who’ve represented the “fair” decks may dimly remember a time when we rode the back of Wild Nacatl Zoo before the DCI cruelly ripped her from our bosoms. We licked our wounds in the darkness and promised to grow stronger then, but the ever present threat of combo remained. In order to keep our place among the contenders we were forced to turn towards dark alliances.
In our anger and our shame, we embraced Jund and found a welcome ally in destroying the combo heretics. The victories began to pile up but in the process, something was lost; only a fool would ever describe Bloodbraid Elf as fair. I’m not here to judge anyone. I partook of that foul brew myself, but by decree of the dreaded DCI our alliance with the Elf must end here and now. There is hope for the so-called “fair” decks, however, because we do not fight alone. With the release of Return to Ravnica, WotC blessed us with cards like Deathrite Shaman, Rakdos Charm, Rest in Peace and Abrupt Decay to begin taking the battle to our enemies. Now with Gatecrash, we find that even the breath which denied us Bloodbraid Elf brings tidings of Seething Song’s demise, and with it the house of Storm. What’s more, the bounty does not end there; WotC has provided a vast array of new weapons to help propel “fair” decks to the forefront of Modern again here in Gatecrash. The time for speeches has ended. Gather round and let us examine the tools before us:
Let’s start with Illness in the Ranks, shall we? At first glance this card does very little to impress and one can be forgiven for overlooking it during spoiler season. To the lazy eye it seems like an over-reaction to Lingering Souls and one of the more fair decks in the format: B/W Tokens. Frankly, it’s not even the best answer to Lingering Souls in Modern; cards like Zealous Persecution and Thundermaw Hellkite offer more versatility and overall power, for example. In its favor, it can be said that at a mere B mana, Illness in the Ranks is probably under-costed despite its narrow application. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at cards like Engineered Plague, Night of Soul’s Betrayal and Curse of Death’s Hold to provide a historical reference.
Simply being cheap is a good start in Modern but it’s not enough to guarantee a place in our 75 for a poor card. Where Illness in the Ranks becomes interesting, however, is when we use it as a weapon against combo decks that make a ridiculous number of tokens; namely Splinter Twin. For those of you new to our struggle, let’s take a look at how current Splinter Twin decks win games in Modern:
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, do you see the problem here for the Twin decks? If they attempt to combo off with Pestermite, they will simply send an infinite number of tokens to the void as they are created. Remember folks, creatures with zero toughness die immediately in Magic. Deceiver Exarch provides no relief either because Illness in the Ranks makes them all 0/3 do-nothings that can’t win the game without another card. It is currently impossible for Modern Twin decks to combo off with a single Illness in the Ranks in play. What’s more is traditional Splinter Twin builds have very few answers to counter our enchantment; Dispel and Mizzium Skin do nothing, and it’s remarkably easy to slide this card under a Spell Pierce or over a Remand. This leaves us battling sideboard copies of Echoing Truth, but this card is neither ubiquitous nor commonly run in packs of four at the moment. All things considered, it seems safe to say the odds currently favor the player running Illness in the Ranks.
Of course Twin will adapt; I would naturally expect to see more four-packs of Echoing Truth in their sideboards for starters. It’s also safe to say splashing another color for enchantment removal won’t be extremely difficult in Modern. The problem is that for every answer they include the Twin player runs the risk of diluting the combo post-sideboard. When you play primarily fair decks it’s easy to forget that not everyone can bring in eight cards in a given match to directly counter their opponent’s sideboard. Slots are extremely precious to any combo deck, and the idea is to attack from multiple angles and overload his potential answers. It’s not like we’ll be removing our Path to Exiles or Abrupt Decays, and our opponents can only produce so many Echoing Truths, Mizzium Skins and Dispels over the course of a match if he wants to combo off. Even if he does answer our answers, he must slow down and commit mana into doing so; for a fair deck, a longer game against Splinter Twin is without question a better game.
Running Illness in the Ranks takes the pressure off “fair” decks and plants it firmly on the shoulders of the Twin player; we finally get to ask him “do you have it” instead of the other way around. Frankly, when you consider the power of this card against Twin, the fact that Illness also blanks Lingering Souls and Empty the Warrens is an afterthought; although this versatility does make it easier to sideboard three or four copies in Modern.
One card that Illness in the Ranks will not help contain is Zealous Conscripts, which could find its way into Splinter Twin builds. This works in a Birthing Pod combo deck by repeatedly untapping and “taking control” of your own Kiki-Jiki or Zealous Conscripts (wearing Splinter Twin) until you make enough 3/3s to kill your opponent. While Illness would make all the Conscript tokens 2/2, the fact that the combo is infinite makes this pretty irrelevant. The downside of course is that Zealous Conscripts costs a whopping five mana and running it in Splinter Twin will likely slow the deck down significantly. This is not a problem for Birthing Pod decks, however, and as a result I suspect you’ll see a general shift towards Kiki-Jiki Pod decks and away from Splinter Twin as time passes. Those who do remain in the U/R shell will likely be forced to include at least one (and maybe as many as three) copies of Zealous Conscripts. Either way this is a win for the legions of “fair” decks in Modern.
Did I mention Kiki-Jiki Pod combo? Our next weapon of choice promises to harass some combo decks and completely destroy others, including Splinter Twin, Birthing Pod and especially Eggs. I’m talking about Blind Obedience, and if you haven’t laid eyes on this menace yet I assure you it’s only a matter of time. In Standard this card’s future is likely as a sideboard option against mono-Haste decks and as “gadget” in Esper Control builds. But in Modern it fulfills an important role by containing and in some cases eliminating combo decks that depend on one big turn.
For Splinter Twin, this is simply inconvenient; they can and likely will respond to a Blind Obedience by creating all of their tokens during your end step. This is problematic because the exile trigger on both Twin and Kiki-Jiki tokens occur at the beginning of the next end step, which has now already passed. In other words the monsters will survive until his next end step and he will be able to untap them all and kill you. What Blind Obedience does do is force the Twin player to cast his enabler and ship the turn, which gives you a chance to kill the creature wearing Twin or Kiki-Jiki. This is certainly relevant, but if you’ve ever lost to the Kiki-Jiki half of the combo you know sometimes you just can’t kill the necessary enabler. Your odds are slightly better against Birthing Pod; with no flash creatures and Pod activations restricted to his main phase, he will have to expose his creatures for an entire turn and he can’t lean on countermagic to protect his combo.
Where Blind Obedience truly shines, however, is as a weapon of mass destruction against the most annoying combo deck in Modern: Eggs.
While this is a simplistic view of the deck, it does a good job of conveying how Eggs actually wins games in Modern. You cast a bunch of cantrips and baubles to generate deck velocity before Reshaping into a Lotus Bloom and eventually casting Second Sunrise or Faith’s Reward. This will then return all your sacrificed lands and artifacts into play untapped and devoid of suspend counters so you can repeat the entire process. This works because the Eggs player is actually netting mana on each cycle with Lotus Bloom while simultaneously digging deeper and deeper into his deck with cantrips and baubles. Eventually he’ll cast enough copies of Second Sunrise and Faith’s Reward to kill you with infinite storm triggers (Grapeshot), a giant direct damage spell (Banefire) or most infuriatingly, the same Pyrite Spellbomb after it’s been recycled nine times.
If you were hoping to simply outlast his combo, Conjurer’s Bauble allows Eggs to put its Sunrises and Rewards back into his deck; barring an exceptional run of bad topdeck luck, the combo is infinite. He can even shuffle the deck with his own Ghost Quarter and actually profit from this play when he casts his next Sunrise. Unless of course all of his precious artifacts come back into play tapped. Read the decklist, gang. Virtually every single bauble, jewel and trinket in the Eggs deck requires you to tap it before sacrificing it, including Lotus Bloom! I can assure you that your opponent is not going to find a way to go off with Elsewhere Flasks and a Pyrite Spellbomb. We can safely say that if Blind Obedience remains in play, Eggs simply can’t win.
Naturally, combo decks will respond to the threat of Blind Obedience with answers of their own. In the case of Birthing Pod, this will likely be a creature that destroys enchantments; War Priest of Thune and Harmonic Sliver both come to mind. I’ve also known Pod players to run the occasional three-pack of Nature’s Claim. But Twin and Eggs will likely fall back on Echoing Truth once again. The idea is to Truth your Obedience away during your end step, untap and immediately combo off for the win. There are of course legitimate answers but yet again it raises the question, “do you have it” since these decks will find it difficult, if not impossible, to combo off with a Blind Obedience in play.
The best way to answer this problem is likely to mix and match our sideboard cards for these various matchup, forcing the combo decks to spread themselves too thinly simply to “not lose.” This means combining Blind Obedience with cards like Stony Silence or Rule of Law to minimize our vulnerability to Echoing Truth or enchantment removal. This is all beside the point because even if Blind Obedience merely slows these decks down for a turn or two, that often is enough to push through their paper-thin defenses. Blind Obedience is not a death-knell for combo, but it’s another nail in what is becoming an extremely well-built Modern coffin.
As an added bonus, Blind Obedience is one of the more versatile sideboard cards in Modern. Any deck with cheap spells can grind marginal value off its extort trigger. It’s also very good against mono-red’s suite of haste creatures, stifling Goblin Guide and making cards like Hellspark Elemental, Ball Lightning and Hell’s Thunder completely irrelevant. Blind Obedience also works reasonably well in base white aggro decks to negate the impact of potential blocking creatures. While this might not seem relevant, anyone who’s ever had to run a bunch of weenies into Tarmogoyfs and Kitchen Finkses can tell you this situation does come up in the format. One of my fellow Twitter-ites even suggested combining Obedience with Gideon Jura or Royal Assassin, although I would be leery of Gideon’s five-many cost and the Assassin’s 1/1 body. Blind Obedience also is likely a reasonable option in Slippery Bogle decks if only because it’s a relevant sideboard card that also happens to grow your Ethereal Armors.
For our brothers and sisters who can’t escape the seductive allure of Mountains, WotC has provided not one but two new answers to age old problems. Skullcrack is clearly the greater weapon, and I daresay it will see quite a bit of maindeck play in the coming weeks let alone as a sideboard option. Red/Rakdos Deck Wins remains a powerful force in Modern but is forever hounded by a myriad of frustrating lifegain effects. In the past, red mages have been forced to resort to Flames of the Blood Hand but its 3CC made it inefficient in a primarily four-turn format. This tended to push Flames into the sideboard (and in some cases, out of the deck altogether) in favor of cards like Rain of Gore or Leyline of Punishment.
Skullcrack, however, only costs two and this makes all the difference in a tightly-curved deck running about 20 lands. It also plays better with Bob, Deathrite Shaman and other burn spells than Flames ever did. What really puts it over the top is how much easier it is to leave up two mana to thwart a potential lifegain effect while simultaneously furthering your victory condition! As a former Rakdos mage myself, I can assure you there is nothing more frustrating than losing to a deck with Kitchen Finks while starring at Flames of the Blood Hand and three tapped lands. Sometimes it’s all about numbers, and in this case Skullcrack just has better overall numbers than Flames of the Blood Hand.
In addition to Skullcrack, WotC has also seen fit to include a proper “red” answer to the eternal bugbear that is Wurmcoil Engine. Shatter effects are no good because they simply spread the problem out over two tokens; an exiled creature doesn’t actually die or go to the graveyard. The Engine is worded very specifically. No dead wurm means no wurm tokens. White mages have long been able to exile the monstrous artifact without penalty, but until now red has been forced to rely on cumbersome answers like Shattering Spree or Into the Core. No more. The next time some overconfident Tron jockey slams down his giant mechanical wurm, tell him to get stuffed and strike it down with a Shattering Blow.
Gatecrash also brings us a new round of charms. While not all of them suit our purposes in Modern, two hold at least some promise. Boros Charm likely will find the most immediate use, particularly in creature-based swarm strategies. It slots particularly well into Affinity decks because it acts as a “counterspell” against Shatterstorm and Creeping Corrosion while threatening to combine with Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating for a one-shot kill. Orzhov Charm is less powerful but shows promise for its sheer versatility. I envision it serving primarily as a kill spell that occasionally trades off to reuse a Deathrite Shaman or other key one-drop. If the creature you want to preserve costs more than one, you simply use the “bounce” mode of the charm and cast it again on your next main phase. Simic Charm may even see occasional play in BUG decks, although likely as a singleton or two-of because of its lack of overall power.
Of course not all of the weapons we’ve received in Gatecrash are sideboard material; two cards in particular stand out as potential maindeck staples. Devour Flesh is a card that has been desperately needed in Modern to counteract Geist of Saint Traft and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. It’s one less mana and infinitely more splashable than Liliana of the Veil, and most importantly it’s an instant so you can actually cast it before Emrakul kills all your permanents! On the creature front, Experiment One might have the potential to replicate Wild Nacatl in the right sort of Zoo deck. You’ll probably have to settle for a 2/2 mutant on Turn 2 followed by a 3/3 mutant on Turn 3. But considering the effect Nacatl had on the format before she was banned, Experiment One likely merits further testing.
In closing, the time to weep over the loss of Bloodbraid Elf has passed. While it’s true we will miss her contributions to the struggle, it’s also true that a new day is dawning. The day of “fair” decks may well be already upon us at long last. Storm is reeling from the loss of Seething Song and Gatecrash provides even more answers for combo decks in Modern. When combined with the cards we’ve already been given in Return to Ravnica, it seems clear Wizards of the Coast is desperately trying to make Modern a fair format after all. Only time will tell if they have succeeded, but I am very encouraged with my testing so far. Until next time, always remember to keep it weird and say a little prayer at night for our fallen sisters: Bloodbraid Elf and Wild Nacatl.
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