Modern is a dynamic format that evolves from week to week. Sometimes, these changes are large and obvious, such as a breakout performance of a new archetype; sometimes, the changes are more subtle and require a little more digging to uncover. Today, we're going to go over ten small-scale changes in Modern, all of which are subtly influencing the format on a wider scale.
Blue mages around the world are living in fear of the mighty Carnage Tyrant, given the Dinosaur's current position of dominance in Standard. The bad news is that this trend is now spreading to Modern, where the 7/6 is seeing increasing play in the sideboard of some high-tier Modern decks.
Modern is not a particularly friendly format for six-drops, so it's unsurprising to see one of the premier ramp decks, Scapeshift, starting to run Carnage Tyrant (as it's a deck that can deploy Carnage Tyrant in a timely fashion). I was surprised, however, to see the card in the sideboard of Yoshihiko Ikawa's Top 8 Tron deck.
Tron, which is something of a post-board dog against White-Blue Control, is looking to settle that score by including this huge anti-control threat. It's not just blue decks that need to worry – outside of Liliana of the Veil or a truly massive 'Goyf, Jund can have a its hands full against Carnage Tyrant.
The only issue for Tron is the double-green casting cost, which is sometimes challenging for a deck running four Forests. In any case, for players hoping to load up on post-board Counterspells to contest the massive haymakers from Tron, be mindful that Carnage Tyrant may turn up and ruin your day.
Scapeshift and Tron aren't just limiting their innovation to Carnage Tyrant, however. Both these decks – blissfully unreliant on the graveyard – are both freeing up sideboard slots and improving the majority of tier-one matchups by including Relic of Progenitus in their main decks.
This is a very smart move, for several reasons. When you consider the number of decks that hope to snag a "free" game-one win before fighting through graveyard hate in game two, it makes a lot of sense to contest that "free" win with main deck hate cards.
Of course, you're limited in which cards you can include in the main deck; Relic of Progenitus and Nihil Spellbomb are the best candidates and both have drawbacks (you can't be reliant on the graveyard for Relic, and you have to play black for Spellbomb). Still, it's a worthwhile investment, and will pay dividends in all your game ones against Dredge, Hollow One, KCI, and the like.
If you can't play graveyard hate in the main deck, ensure you have a no-holds-barred approach to it post-board. Rest in Peace is close to the best sideboard card in the format right now (probably second only to its natural predator, Nature's Claim). There are so many top-tier decks with all-in graveyard reliance, and Rest in Peace is the best at what it does.
We're seeing Rest in Peace in greater and greater numbers. White-Blue Control is shaving Snapcasters and Logic Knots for it, Humans is stretching its mana base to play it, and even Burn – a famously uninteractive deck – has picked it up. Ernest Lim, playing Burn, finished in 11th place at GP Atlanta with a playset of Rest in Peace in the board.
If you can't play Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void is another terrific option, especially in decks that themselves rely on the graveyard. Martin Juza and Yam Wing Chun, playing Hollow One and Dredge respectively, both played Leyline in their sideboards in Atlanta, recognizing the threat of opposing graveyard decks while not neutering their own.
We saw a complete absence of Jeskai, White-Blue Control, Jund, Abzan, and other similar decks in Atlanta's Top 32 – Mardu Pyromancer snuck into 17th place, but apart from that there was heightened scarcity of "fair" decks. These decks aren't dead in the water to the hyper-linear strategies that dominated the GP – so what went wrong?
These decks need to reposition themselves against the format to ensure their fortunes don't continue to wane. This means cutting grindier cards like Ancestral Vision and Tireless Tracker to instead bolster the disruption suite, helping to ensure things don't get out of control early. Spell Snare is a card I'm looking to include in White-Blue Control, as well as extra non-graveyard-based removal like Condemn.
As for Jund and Abzan, now isn't the time to be playing with flashy new toys like Risk Factor, a card that is seeing play in Jund. It's time to get back to the roots of hand disruption and powerful removal – as well as the Nihil Spellbombs we discussed before!
Affinity, as we knew it, seems to have finally been laid to rest. Cranial Plating and Master of Etherium have hung up their hats and allowed a new generation of artifact strategies to rule the roost in Modern. Christopher Larsen racked up a back-to-back GP Top 8 piloting this strategy in Atlanta, powered on by both Hardened Scales and the most busted cantrip in Modern, Ancient Stirrings.
Beating this deck isn't trivial, but there are certainly great places to start and unsurprisingly they involve white two-drop sideboard enchantments. Not only Stony Silence – an all-star against artifact strategies since it was first printed – but also, somewhat surprisingly, Rest in Peace.
Only a particular kind of graveyard hate is good against this deck – Relics and Spellbombs don't do much – but if you can remove the graveyard from the game altogether, all of a sudden there are no modular triggers from Arcbound Ravager and Arcbound Walker and Hangarback Walker becomes an over-costed Endless One. Be sure to build your sideboard with this deck in mind, by including plenty of artifact and graveyard hate.
Five-Color Humans has been the premier aggro deck in Modern since the Ixalan block brought Kitesail Freebooter and Unclaimed Territory, but that seems to be changing. Core Set 2019's Supreme Phantom thrust Bant Spirits into the spotlight, and now we're in a position where it's the most successful deck being played at Modern GPs.
Peiyuan Zhang's GP-winning list isn't particularly revolutionary, but it offers a good snapshot of why the archetype is succeeding. Spirits outpaces Humans on three fronts – evasion, instant-speed gameplay and resilience against sweepers.
Firstly, almost all these Spirits can push through extra damage very easily thanks to their evasion, meaning tight races can be won more readily in the air. Secondly, while Humans has Aether Vial, Spirits has that plus Collected Company and Rattlechains, meaning the disruptive quality of cards like Reflector Mage and Mausoleum Wanderer is heightened, as they can be deployed at instant speed.
Finally, sweepers are a lot worse against Spirits. The instant-speed nature of the Spirits deck this makes opposing sweepers a lot less scary, as an end-step Collected Company is a great way to rebuild after a sweeper effect. Secondly, Selfless Spirit is an absolute house against cards like Supreme Verdict and Anger of the Gods, often helping to keep sweepers at bay by a full turn.
As we see the format adjust to the aggressive onslaught of Spirits, the need for exile-based removal and the advantages offered by catch-all disruption, it will be very important to play a good number of basic lands. The connection isn't immediately obvious, but it's there.
Settle the Wreckage, as an instant-speed sweeper, is tremendously well-positioned against Spirits, and moving forward white control decks will pick this card up in favor of Supreme Verdict. Similarly, Path to Exile is top-notch removal against Hollow One, Dredge, and the like (so much so that Zheng played two main deck copies). Finally, Assassin's Trophy is still out and about and should be played in increasing numbers in black-green midrange due to its power against uninteractive decks.
Ultimately, these cards punish those who are skimping on basic lands. Don't be that person! Even if you're playing three colors, try to find room for four to five basics. Clever Humans players have even stretched their mana base to include two basics, a wise move indeed. Work to ensure the downsides of your opponents' cards remain downsides by playing plenty of basics.
I wrote about the role of newcomer Creeping Chill in Modern a few weeks ago, and since then, the card has only increased in popularity and success. It's now an industry-standard four-of inclusion in all successful Modern Dredge decks, and that isn't going to change any time soon.
As I mentioned in my previous article, regardless of what you're playing in Modern you need to renew your perspective on the Dredge matchup. Your life total will be under siege like never before, and the range at which you can safely stabilize has been significantly lowered thanks to the presence of Creeping Chill.
Remember that they have up to 12 points of free, uncounterable burn in their deck and play accordingly. Dispatch removal more aggressively to preserve your life total. Keep a close eye on what they've milled over to get a general idea of how likely they are to hit a Creeping Chill. Bear in mind that damage races will change thanks to their capacity to gain life.
Dredge isn't unbeatable, and isn't incontestably dominant – although Creeping Chill has done nothing but strengthen the deck and improve its matchups across the board. I'll say it one more time – play graveyard hate, and plenty of it.
History is a circle. Time and time again in Modern, we've seen cards enter the format, lay dormant for a while and then all of a sudden single-handedly power entire archetypes that go on to be enormously powerful and dominant. It took people years to figure out how good Death's Shadow was, and even cards like Hollow One and Hardened Scales were kicking about the fringes of Modern for ages before finally breaking through.
For that reason, I'm not sleeping on Arclight Phoenix. This card is getting it done in the Leagues, regularly appearing in both blue-red and mono-red decks filled with cheap instants and sorceries. A blue-red version has now snuck into a GP Top 32, in the hands of Andrew Schneider.
In my view, this is only the beginning. We saw un-tuned Hollow One decks run around for a long time before the deck finally had a breakout performance earlier this year, and I believe the same thing is in the pipeline with Arclight Phoenix. This deck has such a high concentration of Modern powerhouses – Faithless Looting, Lightning Bolt, Serum Visions – that its pedigree speaks for itself.
It's only a matter of time until the rest of the pieces fall into place. In the coming weeks and months, we'll see more and more Arclight Phoenix in Modern, and with it, better and better lists until the archetype is "solved," much like Death's Shadow and Hollow One. Watch this space!
Modern has been enjoying a golden age of health, diversity, interesting decks and engaging gameplay. Happily, there aren't any strong indications that that is set to change, either. One thing to look for in situations like these is how rogue strategies perform at big events, and there were a few high finishers at GP Atlanta that indicate Modern is wide open to attack from all angles.
Faeries was the talk of the town this weekend, with Yuta Takahashi running back his favorite archetype to a 12th-place finish. Is it fair to call this deck "rogue"? Perhaps not (although Bitterblossom does make Rogues), as it's a reasonably well-known strategy. Still, it hasn't put up meaningful numbers at any point in its Modern history, yet here it is, one match away from a GP Top 8.
The German superstar struck again this weekend with his super-weird brew, bolstered by Guilds of Ravnica marquee mythic Ral, Izzet Viceroy. This is an immensely complex deck that involves making infinite mana with an active Pyromancer Ascension alongside two Noxious Revival and two Manamorphose. You use the Ascension's copies of Noxious Revival and Manamorphose to draw through your deck and find a win condition, such as milling them out with Thought Scour or a million Bolts to the face.
These rogue decks have a few odd similarities, however. Both the decks are complex and intricate, requiring a lot of preparation and practice to master. Both Takahashi and Tobiasch gain significant percentage points not just for playing "rogue" archetypes, but for having mastered them so thoroughly.
So while Modern is open to attack from decks that come out of left field, be completely sure you've done your homework and know every tiny corner-case interaction that may come up with your list. You're trading established power for catching opponents flat-footed with a rogue brew, so be sure to capitalize on the advantage you create for yourself by knowing your deck and its gameplay inside and out.
The golden age of Modern will continue into the foreseeable future, with a wide range of powerful decks all jostling for position in a format that ebbs and flows from week to week. Staying on top of small-scale developments will greatly improve your chances of success in the format, as you'll either be one step ahead of the competition, or on equal footing with the sneaky Tron player trying to catch you off-guard with Carnage Tyrants. Knowledge, my friends, is power!