At Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia I played BW Tokens. This probably came as little surprise to most people since that is the deck I have been playing in nearly every modern tournament over the past two years. I went 7-3 with it at the last modern Pro Tour (PTRtR in Seattle), made Top 16 with it at GP Portland, cashed GP Chicago with it, and narrowly missed Top 4 with it (2-1) at Worlds in Amsterdam. I ended up only going 6-4 with it in Valencia (finishing in exactly 100th place), but if I recall correctly I have had a winning record with it in every single professional level tournament I have played it in. So it has at least performed consistently above average for me over a reasonably large sample size.
In light of GP Richmond happening this weekend, I'd like to offer a primer for BW Tokens.Why I chose BW Tokens at the Pro Tour
As a member of Team TCGplayer.com, my role on the team was to determine the best aggressive deck in the format and also to work on BW Tokens. Essentially what I said about BW Tokens in the beginning was that its worst matchups are Tron and Burn and that Storm is also tough but can be made close if we need it to be. Its best matchups were Jund, Affinity, Twin, and Birthing Pod, which happened to be four of the five most popular decks in Modern. Our early testing as a team, including our mock tournaments, proved that Storm and BW Tokens were our top performing archetypes. Storm had a bad Jund matchup, so barring changes to the banned list or something drastic getting printed in Born of the Gods, I was prepared to convince the rest of the team to play Tokens.
Then Deathrite Shaman got banned and Wild Nacatl got unbanned.
Suddenly Storm's worst matchup (Jund) got neutered, which happened to be my best matchup, and it was replaced by a deck that Storm performs very well against (Zoo) but that tokens was going to have difficulty with.
As the aggro expert on the team, it was primarily my responsibility to figure out the best Zoo deck, which ended up taking a lot of time away from my work on BW Tokens. By the time I solved the Zoo matchup in such a way that did not significantly worsen our other matchups, we only had days before the tournament started and not enough time to adequately re-test all its matchups. So I was hesitant to strongly advocate it to other members on the team, but I was at least clear that I was 100% set on playing tokens and why.
As it turned out, half the team played Storm (which I agreed was an excellent choice, for the reasons described above), some played Bogles, Conley played Melira Pod, and I was the only one on BW Tokens.
Here is the final list I decided on:
The revelation for how to beat Zoo was Sword of War and Peace. I needed a win condition capable of ending the game quickly that did not die to Path to Exile and also a way to get out of burn range against Zoo. Sword of War and Peace filled both those roles adequately. In addition to the four Path to Exile, four Doom Blade, and two Engineered Explosives, Sword of War and Peace made the Zoo matchup not only winnable but favorable!
The biggest question I got asked after the tournament was, "Why no Bitterblossom?"
For most people, the appeal of BW Tokens was the unbanning of Bitterblossom. But for someone who has been having success with Tokens for the past two years, the primary appeal was the decline of Tron, which I expected would result from an influx of Zoo decks (a matchup very difficult for Tron to overcome). Given that Storm, Tron, and Burn are our only bad matchups, and I expected these three decks to together comprise less than ten percent of the field, I saw no compelling reason to play anything else.
Ok, so I didn't actually answer the question. That was a red herring for those unfamiliar with formal critical thinking. To answer the question simply, Bitterblossom did not improve any of our matchups whereas it actually hindered a few of them. Allow me to explain further.
Against Zoo Bitterblossom is essentially a blank Magic card that does not help in any way. At best it is a Forcefield, which is not very good. But it is often not at its best. The second copy is too much of a liability to cast (and oftentimes the first one is too), and it is horrible beyond the second turn (aka dead topdeck in the midgame). Lastly, given that our plan is to gain life off Sword of War and Peace, we would rather have Squadron Hawk to fill our hand instead of Bitterblossom which keeps our hand low and drains our life total. Squadron Hawk is also a great midgame draw whereas Bitterblossom is not. Put simply, Hawk is overall better in BW Tokens than Bitterblossom, even if the latter allows you to play Intangible Virtue over Honor of the Pure. Vigilance is usually only relevant against Affinity, which is already one of our best matchups.
The only change I would make to the deck is replacing the fourth Tectonic Edge with the fourth Liliana of the Veil, in response to the rise of Bogle decks.Matchup Analysis and Sideboard Guide
We have lots of cheap instant speed removal (Path to Exile, Doom Blade) to disrupt their combo in any permutation (Deceiver Exarch, Pestermite, Splinter Twin, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker). We also have six hand disruption spells to break up the combo and to know exactly what resources they have for trying to resolve their combo. Beyond this it basically just takes any kind of pressure to close a game. An anthem and any of our twelve threats is usually enough, and a lot of times the anthem isn't even necessary.
One play that comes up not infrequently is setting them back on mana with Tectonic Edge. Games where they have lots of redundant combo pieces, enough to fight through our disruption, are often games where they have lots of spells and not many lands. So when we path their creature, putting them on four lands, we then Tec Edge (or sometimes double Tec Edge) them back to three or two lands to prevent them from going off, or at least to prevent them from having open mana to Swan Song or Dispel our removal for the win.
The Disenchants in the board give us more ways to disrupt their combo, hitting Spellskite or Splinter Twin. We mostly board out the least relevant cards in the matchup.
+3 Disenchant+1 Tectonic Edge+2 Stony Silence (unless they don't have Spellskite)
-1 Vault of the Archangel-2 Engineered Explosives-3 Sword of War and Peace
Engineered Explosives, Doom Blade, and Path to Exile buy us time in the early game to set up a token maker and a way to pump the token(s) (Honor of the Pure, Vault of the Archangel, or Sword of War and Peace). The latter spells help stabilize the board. Explosives are especially good against the fast Zoo decks that run Kird Ape and Loam Lion and having one is nearly essential for beating their fastest starts. The slower Zoo decks that try to resolve Knight of the Reliquary are easier because we can keep pace with their threats by one-for-one removing them in the early game and then taking over the game with token makers and pump effects in the mid to late game. They also typically run fewer burn spells, which again is good for us.
I designed the deck to be preconfigured for the Zoo matchup since I expected Zoo variants to be the most popular archetype, so I typically sideboard zero cards. Sometimes I'll bring in a Rest in Peace for their goyfs if they also have Lingering Souls, Snapcaster Mage, or Grim Lavamancer. Also Liliana if they have Geist of Saint Traft or Disenchant if they have something important to Disenchant such as a Sword or Batterskull. Most of the time I board zero though.
Melira Pod (favorable)
We have early discard to see what plan they are on, which usually enables us to sculpt a winning line against them. They'll often keep otherwise loose hands that contain Birthing Pod, so an early Thoughtseize can sometimes be crippling. Other games involve timing a removal spell or two to break up their Melira or Spike Feeder combo on a key turn. The fact that our creatures fly is important in the matchup because their anti-Zoo defenses (Wall of Roots, Kitchen Finks, etc.) can't block us. Combined with the fact that they often deal themselves a fair amount of damage with lands and Birthing Pod, one token maker and one anthem or sword can put them on a pretty fast clock, fast enough where our hand disruption and point removal can close the door before they set up a winning board.
Orzhov Pontiff is one of their best cards against us if we don't have an Honor of the Pure on the battlefield, so always consider that a possible target for Chord of Calling or Birthing Pod.
+2 Grafdigger's Cage+1 Tectonic Edge
-2 Engineered Explosives-1 Vault of the Archangel
Don't be tempted to bring in Stony Silence or Disenchant, even if they beat you with an unanswered Birthing Pod. We have four ways to answer their four Birting Pods (two Grafdigger's Cage, two Thoughtseize) and can often beat an active pod anyway, and there will be more games where having a dead Disenchant in hand loses us a game than an unanswered Pod wins them a game they would otherwise lose. You'll just have to trust me on this one. It's pretty close, but better EV to not bring them in. All our other cards are better.
UWR Midrange (favorable)
I tested against Flash and Control variants quite a bit in testing, mostly against Harry Corvese, and it got to a point in our testing where I had to trick him into playing me because he dreaded being on the UWR side of the matchup. I would say "Hey Harry, can you test UWR against me?" and he would say "You're not on Tokens are you?" And I'd be like "Just play me some games. My deck is a surprise." Then he would agonize through long drawn out games he would rarely win. Sorry Harry!
They play lots of Lightning Bolts and Lightning Helix and Path to Exile type cards that are great against Wild Nacatls but terrible against token makers. Our hand disruption typically aims at removing their Sphinx's Revelations, board sweepers, or Cryptic Commands while our point removal handles their Celestial Colonnades or Restoration Angels. Tectonic Edge is a way to keep them low on mana or to Threaten to kill a Colonnade.
+1 Tectonic Edge+3 Liliana of the Veil+2 Disenchant
-2 Engineered Explosives-4 Path to Exile
Snapcaster Mage makes it tempting to bring in Rest in Peace or Grafdigger's Cage but don't do it! Lingering Souls is just as valuable and it's not worth a card to generate that effect.
Plan to eventually out-grind them in the long game.
Zealous Persecution used to be one of our best cards in the matchup, but that card is so bad against Zoo that I can no longer advise running it. Removing it made the Affinity matchup more like 67% instead of 80%, which is still a good place to be, and it's not worth playing more anti-affinity cards since Affinity numbers are declining anyway.
Affinity has three different relevant things it does: (1) It plays small dudes, (2) it plays cards that pump the smaller dudes, and (3) it plays Etched Champion. The first one is easily solved by our Squadron Hawks, Lingering Souls, and Spectral Processions. The second one is solved by our Path to Exiles and Doom Blades (in the case of Master of Etherium or Steel Overseer) or also solved by flyers if it's Cranial Plating. The third one is the trickiest, but as long as they can't pump him real big, we can usually race it.
+3 Disenchant+3 Stony Silence
-3 Sword of War and Peace-1 Tectonic Edge-2 Engineered Explosives
Game 1 is about 50% whereas post-board is quite favorable once we bring in three Stony Silence and three Disenchant.
I even recently played a match online where I mulliganed to three and still beat an Affinity opponent. It was rather entertaining watching him tilt off, so if you're interested in watching the six-minute clip, you can do so here.
Bogles (even matchup)
Pre-board is rough without Liliana of the Veil or any way to reasonably stop them from going crazy. With that said, we are probably at least 50% to win game one if we're on the play. The key is to have a first turn discard spell. If you can take their lone hexproof creature, they'll often be stranded without a target for their auras or they'll have to suit up a Dryad Arbor or Kor Spiritdancer, which are each prime targets for Path to Exile or Doom Blade.
Engineered Explosives is our other way to potentially win game one. EE for one can blow up their hexproof creature, but if it already has an Umbra on it, the controller can choose to have the Totem Armor's effect keep the creature alive even though they are both destroyed by the sunburst artifact. Also their Rancors will return to their hand. You can at least kill a Daybreak Coronet with an EE, which can swing a game too.
+3 Disenchant+3 Liliana of the Veil
-3 Sword of War and Peace-1 Tectonic Edge-2 Doom Blade
Post-board the matchup gets a lot better and we can win a reasonable amount of the time even on the draw. We have Disenchant for their Leyline of Sanctity or for a lifelink aura if they don't start the game with Leyline. We have Liliana to get rid of their hexproof creature, assuming we can clear the way with Path to Exile and Doom Blade. And we also have all our game one cards (six discard spells and two EEs). Even with all these tools, the matchup is still fifty-fifty. It can be made better by adding a fourth Liliana of the Veil to the board. And if you want to make the matchup very favorable, you can also run Patrician's Scorn. I don't think this is necessary though. The most I would do is add a fourth Liliana.Conclusion
I'm not fully decided on what I am going to play in Richmond this weekend, but BW Tokens is clearly my trusty fallback plan. It is a solid choice and is slightly favored against most of the top decks. It's not great against Storm, Burn, or Tron, but none of those decks comprise a large part of the metagame. If BW Tokens is a deck that interests you, I would recommend playing my version and sideboarding as outlined in this article. If you have any questions or comments, leave them in the notes below and I'll do my best to respond, unless they are "Why no Bitterblossom?"
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter