A while ago I thought I might be done playing in Star City Games Invitationals. They announced a plan making it harder to qualify right around the time I found myself playing less competitive magic. Nothing ever goes as planned however and I quickly found myself qualified after my first of only two opens for the season. Despite mediocre performances at the first few I attended, Invitationals have ranked among my favorite events to play in. I love the higher competition. Even though it might not be great for my ego, playing with better players is how we get better, and that makes it rewarding to me, win or lose. That being said, I’d like to actually try winning this time around. The timing for the invitational is a little unfortunate for me as between judging GP Vegas and some family stuff I won’t really be home any beforehand to test with my friends. This is especially dangerous for someone like me who refuses to play the perceived best deck but I have a plan. I’m hoping it’s a good one. The first step is identifying “the best deck.”
It’s pretty clear that Grixis Death’s Shadow is the deck to beat. If I were a rationale person this would be great news for me. I truly enjoy playing the deck and am quite comfortable with it. In fact, if I can’t figure out something else I’m happy with; this will be my backup plan. I feel reasonably confident in a variety of matchups and the power of the deck is certain to come with a non-zero number of free wins which is great for an event like this. The biggest issue with playing Grixis is I got off the deck before it became the most popular deck so I have played a grand total of zero mirror matches. Going into an event likely to play mirror matches with people who are just as good or better than I am and more prepared for the mirror sounds awful. It’s possible that maybe I could make up for that by playing a version slanted to win the mirror. Red is the least important color in the deck. If one were to splash white they could replace Lightning Bolt with Path to Exile giving them better removal in the mirror. The loss of Kolaghan’s Command is unfortunate but we can replace it with the versatile Orzhov Charm. Another potential mirror breaker is the inclusion of Dark Betrayal in the 75. While too narrow for the field it kills all three treats the deck plays. Ari Lax played he deck with Sleight of Hand over Thought Scours in Vegas. The reasoning makes sense. Neither is card advantage in the traditional sense, Sleight of Hand gives actual selection whereas Thought Scour fills up the yard better for delve creatures. The deck is plenty capable of filling up its yard without the one extra card that Scour provides. The biggest issue I see with the swap is that Sleight of Hand is a sorcery meaning that casting it might take you off Stubborn Denial at times but I can definitely see the Swap being good. If I were to register Shadow his weekend it would look like this:
Grixis Deaths Shadow
Step two is figuring out what else to expect and how to beat them. Targeting decks always feels a little silly. The numbers (in Modern) are usually small enough that you should only be expected to run into the most popular deck two times during an event. That being said, at the invitational I expect those numbers to be compounded. I would not be surprised to play against Shadow variants in three out of the eight rounds. After Shadow I think there are a distinct four decks to target. The other decks I would come prepared for our Affinity, Eldrazi Tron, Dredge, and the new Abzan Company decks. The two colorless decks were running rampant near the top tables of the GP this weekend while I was walking around. Dredge and Abzan Company have both been tearing up the SCG Circuit.
Eldrazi Tron has also been a force there as well with Todd Stevens pretty convincingly taking down the last Open with the deck, boasting a 14-1 record through the swiss with the loss being the mirror. Unfortunately despite being colorless, decks that enjoy attacking Affinity and Eldrazi Tron operate pretty differently. Engineered Explosives is really good against Affinity but not so much Eldrazi Tron. Ensnaring Bridge is really good against Eldrazi Tron, but not so much against Affinity. A good catchall for both is Ceremonious Rejection. Being able to trade with basically any spell out of either deck for one mana is great. Rejection being so mana efficient makes it easy to leave up an answer while still advancing your gameplan. Stony Silence is also good if you don’t have access to blue or just need more options. A lot of people play Blood Moon as an answer to Eldrazi Tron. While this plan worked fine against the Tron decks of old, it’s not great against this version. Being pure colorless means they have access to Wastes, which helps to cast stuff through Blood Moon. They also don’t have to reach as much mana as the predecessors to be powerful. To clarify, I don’t think Blood Moon is bad against the Spaghetti Menace, I just don’t think it’s enough on its own and I know Todd Stevens agrees. A much more powerful play against Eldrazi Tron is to actually destroy their lands. A card like Fulminator Mage is very helpful for that. Against Affinity the best plan is to remove their threats and present a clock. This is generally not hard to accomplish as long as you are mindful during deck construction. The real problem this deck presents is Etched Champion with either Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating. A board wipe would also be good against both of these decks.
Speaking of decks board wipes are good against, there’s nothing an Abzan Company player hates more than having their board wiped. The annoying thing about traditional board wipes against this deck is that they are not a clean answer to Kitchen Finks. They’re also not a clean answer to Matter Reshaper or any of the Dredge creatures sans Narcomoeba. Having effects that clear the board while not filling the graveyard seems huge right now. Anger of the Gods, Flaying Tendrils, Hallowed Burial, and Terminus all sound great to me right now. Terminus does have the whole miracle mechanic but any time that card gets miracled against dredge, it has got to feel good. Spot removal is also good against Company decks, but usually feels anemic against Dredge. Having access to grave hate is also very good against these decks. A single Scavenging Ooze can sometimes singlehandedly keep a Company player from comboing and is a beating against Dredge. Graveyard hate also does happen to be incidentally good against the various flavors of Death’s Shadow, attacking their ability to delve, cutting them off delirium, and stopping Snapcaster Mages.
So now that I’ve analyzed what kinds of cards I want in order to attack the decks I expect to see, the question becomes what deck do I wish to play them in. I struggled with this for a while. I could play them all in some kind of control deck but Modern is a format that certainly rewards proactivity. I was trying out various green-white decks incorporating the new devoted druid vizier combo but they didn’t quite answer all of the decks I’m trying to cleanly enough. That being said, I still think Devoted Knightfall is an excellent choice for this weekend. If that were what I was planning this would be my list.
As much as I enjoy Spell Queller, the list is definitely better without it. The Reflector Mages, despite being bad in combo matchups have been so good. They’re so good in both Company mirrors and games against Shadow variants. They’ve quickly become one of my favorite cards in the deck. The cards I’m not 100% sold on are the 3rd Chord of Calling and the Retreat to Coralhelms. It’s weird, having multiple ways to get turn 3 kills is obviously very good but I find most of the wins have come from Devoted Druid in game one anyway. When they don’t come from the little elf that could they usually are grindfests, and I don’t think Coralhelm shines in those matches. It’s certainly possible they are correct but they might be better off as Voice of Resurgences. I think that would help the Shadow matchups. Renegade Rallier is another possible inclusion, but I’ve also been super high on that card since it was first spoiled. The version I was playing didn’t have any graveyard hate in the 75. I think Bojuka Bog is a natural fit though, considering it can be fetched at instant speed with the Knights. Dredge is a difficult matchup and I think having some sort of answer would be nice. The Bog comes at the cost of cutting an Izzet Staticaster but I think three was a bit much anyway. It is also worth noting Staticaster gets slightly worse with the cutting of the Retreats anyway. The deck is very powerful and consistent. I just think it’s Shadow matchup, while super close is just worse than where I want it to be, and the same is true for Dredge. A tip for anybody who does play this deck. If you have mana dorks and Company against dredge in games two and three, wait until turn two to deploy the dork if you can help it. If you flood your bird early it is more likely to get blown out on two by Conflagrate. Also, if you play your mana dork on two, they often have to choose between advancing their plan through Cathartic Reunion or killing your creature. They’ll usually advance their board. This means on turn three, you have Coco mana and if you hit well they will die to that Company a lot.
So now that I’ve talked about Bant for a minute, let me introduce the deck I’m planning to play, assuming I get the cards in time.
You might have thought this deck died with the banning of Summer Bloom. Not quite, it just can’t kill on turn 2 anymore. Well I think it could be designed in a way where it could but it wouldn’t be very consistent. This deck is very strong. I have been playing games with it on MTGO for the past week. I started because I like Primeval Titans and crazy combos but I was quickly impressed. In the past week I have dropped zero games to Shadow decks. This makes sense because a few weeks ago when I played the matchup with Zach Cramer from the Shadow side he mopped the floor with me repeatedly. Unfortunately, I haven’t really run into the decks I would like to test against in the leagues but I can say I started 8-1 before getting Blood Moon’d a lot and turn 3’d by Storm. Despite a turn for the worse I was hooked. I played awful in most of those games and it did not matter. I wasn’t 100% on the list so I reached out and got a list from Bobby Fortanaley, who is known for getting Summer Bloom banned. The inclusion of Relic main is odd but makes sense. It should shore up the Dredge matchup and also helps noticeably against Shadow and Storm. The ability to instant speed Bojuka Bog in with Sakura-Tribe Scout is also very nice.
The deck is surprisingly good against aggressive decks like burn and affinity for two reasons. The ability to tutor up Engineered Explosives or find it off Ancient Stirrings is very nice but also you take zero damage off the lands which is kind of huge. In my games against Tron it felt like they just didn’t have any meaningful interaction. It’s very easy to go over the top of most decks and it feels a little like you’re playing a different game which is where I like to be. The deck is very hard to play so I recommend getting a good amount of practice in if you’re going to play it. I also highly recommend you play it. Almost all my losses have been due to misclicks or me missing lines. The way I see it, is if I can beat people when I’m clearly horrible at the deck, that’s a good sign that I’m doing something powerful.
As happy as I am with my Modern choice I still need to figure out Standard. As of right now I’m between playing UR Emerge or whatever my friend Billy registers. I trust his thoughts on Standard quite a bit but I’m also very comfortable with UR emerge, a choice he said he supports even if he won’t play it himself. If any of you readers think you’ve broken one of the formats please don’t hesitate to ship me your list. Otherwise, good luck in any upcoming events.
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