About a month ago, I wrote an article outlining ten small-scale changes to the Modern format. Since then, we've had plenty of events and a ton of important new developments have taken place in this short period. Particularly after a weekend featuring Modern GPs on both sides of the Atlantic, it's worth re-examining some of our base assumptions about the format, as well as recognizing some key changes still afoot.
While there are still pockets of resistance to the idea, it's becoming clearer and clearer than Bant Spirits is, after all, the premier Aether Vial/Cavern of Souls deck. The numbers don't lie – online, Spirits is almost twice as popular as Humans and was strongly represented in last weekend's top decks.
There are many reasons for this, but the principle ones are certain key cards: Collected Company, Spell Queller, and Drogskol Captain. Collected Company is obscenely powerful, offering all kinds of instant-speed interaction (with hits like Reflector Mage) as well as being a great way to rebuild after a sweeper. Spell Queller contests the stack, rather than the battlefield, enabling a much better tempo-oriented game than Humans. Finally, Drogskol Captain – particularly in multiples – outshines Thalia's Lieutenant as a lord effect, as it also works double duty by nullifying opposing removal.
It's unlikely that Humans recovers from this position (outside of a spicy new addition to the Human tribe), as the hivemind seems to have finally determined which is the superior deck. Humans will remain a strong contender and very worthy second fiddle, but it's clear from this point that in the abstract, at least, Spirits is the better deck.
KCI Combo lists always had a good deal of internal consistency, but we're now seeing this trend taken to its final stage. KCI lists are becoming more and more homogenized and identical, to the point that the six KCI decks in the Top 8 of GP Liverpool were all within four or five cards of one another across the 75.
This is an important point in KCI's history, as it represents a point at which the "best" version of the deck has well and truly been set in stone. This amount of internal consistency means that the deck is more or less "finished." Think of other established Modern decks – Tron, Burn, Storm – and you'll quickly realize that you basically know their full list as soon as you sit down across from them. Now, KCI has reached that point.
The final changes made to KCI are the addition of a single Spine of Ish Sah (useful for returning KCI with Scrap Trawler triggers), Sai, Master Thopterist in the main deck (useful for contesting the board and beating main deck graveyard hate), and only playing a single Myr Retriever (useful for not having multiple 1/2s for two in your deck). Take note of the latest iterations of KCI, as it might be the last time you have to.
Then again, if you only play online, you might not even need to. Playing KCI on MTGO is a living hell, baiting more clicks out of its pilot than this list of 7 Things You Should Never Light On Fire During A Job Interview (HR departments hate it!). As a result, KCI's online presence is heavily suppressed, as sane people presumably don't want to given themselves carpal tunnel syndrome every time they play a game of Magic.
This is an important point to note, however, given the strong performance that KCI put up this weekend. At GP Liverpool, a large majority of the Ancient Stirrings deck on each team was, indeed, KCI Combo. The fact that KCI is much more popular in paper rather than online means that you should plan accordingly when building sideboards and building a picture of the expected field.
Again, KCI's relative scarcity online has very little to do with its power level and is instead much more closely related to how miserable it is to play on MTGO (it's also miserable to play in paper, too, but for different reasons entirely). It's still a very powerful deck, and one you should have a plan for - but on balance, it's less important to have this plan when playing on MTGO, purely because you're that much less likely to face it.
Last time, I talked about how the up-and-coming Izzet Phoenix was destined for great things. Then, it was sneaking into Top 32s here and there, as unrefined lists did their best to break through. One month later, we have streamlined, developed lists that are much closer to being "finished" – and as a result, we saw a breakout performance from Arclight Phoenix and friends this weekend.
Working hand-in-hand (er, well, wing-in-claw?) with Thing in the Ice, Arclight Phoenix represents an incredibly potent threat - especially in multiples - that is hugely powered up by Modern staples such as Faithless Looting and Manamorphose. Blue selection spells aid the overall consistency of this deck, and its most explosive starts are very difficult to effectively contest.
One important dimension of this deck is its resilience to graveyard hate. Unlike many other graveyard-reliant decks, this deck can quite easily win through a Rest in Peace. Thing in the Ice doesn't care about Rest in Peace at all, and at the end of the day Arclight Phoenix can also be hard-cast. Don't expect to be able to rely on Leyline of the Void, Grafdigger's Cage, and the like to beat this deck.
Nonetheless, we still see internal inconsistencies within the archetype. Some people play Monastery Swiftspear, some play Crackling Drake. I don't like Swiftspear much, and Drakes are expensive and therefore a liability in multiples. I do, however, very much like the inclusion of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. I expect future successful Izzet Phoenix decks to heavily feature this card - it's at the top of my Modern's Next Breakout Card list.
He actually did it, the absolute madman – Yuta Takahashi actually made the Top 8 of a GP with Faeries. Last time, I brought attention to the deck as a "rogue strategy" – and in all honesty, nothing much has changed on that score. This off-the-wall masterpiece seems to be beyond the ken of mere mortals - you need over a decade's experience casting Bitterblossom to get it done with this list.
It's interesting to see the different trajectories of this deck and Izzet Phoenix. After all, it's no secret that Bitterblossom, Liliana, Jace, and Snapcaster Mage all have excellent pedigrees – why don't we see more of this deck, if Takahashi is able to succeed with it so consistently?
This may be the deck with one of the highest skill ceilings in the format – in any case, it definitely has one of the highest learning curves. Specifically-built answers must be deployed with surgical precision; switching between offense and defense must be done unhesitatingly, and at the drop of a dime.
With a card as punishing as Bitterblossom can be, with no sweepers to catch you back up, with razor-thin margins between victory and defeat, this deck is amongst the most challenging you can possibly choose to play. I'm definitely not smart enough to play it, as sweet as it is – be sure you actually are, before committing to picking it up!
With the addition to Creeping Chill to Modern, Dredge surged to the top of the format and has remained in a position of dominance ever since. While the sun certainly isn't setting on the Dredge Empire any time soon, it's clear that the format is much more hostile to the deck than it was before.
We see this in relatively small ways. More copies of main deck Relic of Progenitus in Tron, Anger of the Gods instead of Sweltering Suns in Scapeshift. Even Rest in Peace has started to see play in the main deck of White-Blue Control, relegating Snapcaster Mage to the sideboard. Sideboard, too, have been properly reconfigured to fight Dredge effectively – Leyline of the Void, Grafdigger's Cage, and Surgical Extraction are being played in huge numbers. Even Yixlid Jailer is seeing play in Abzan Company!
It's not time to give up on Dredge, not by a long shot. The deck is still incredibly powerful and can fight through a fair bit of disruption, so it's not time to put those Prized Amalgams out to pasture. Instead, just recognize that your free win percentage has fallen sharply since the deck has become re-established as one of Modern's heavy hitters, and don't be surprised when they have turn-two Rest in Peace every single game two.
The creature combo of Devoted Druid and Vizier of Many Faces is used in Abzan shells to generate infinite mana, activate Duskwatch Recruiter to find Walking Ballista, and dome and opponent for a squillion damage. Chord of Calling and Eldritch Evolution are included to offer more consistency to the deck, but there's now another card bolstering this deck's fortunes further.
Postmortem Lunge started as a spicy one-of in some fringe lists but has been steadily adopted until it features as a four-of in virtually every recent list. The reason for it is very simple indeed – Devoted Druid and Vizier of Many Faces naturally act as lightning rods for opposing removal, and opposing Pushes and Bolts usually send them packing quick smart.
Now, however, Postmortem Lunge just becomes a copy of whichever part of the combo you're missing – and even gives Devoted Druid haste so as to go off then and there! The fact that it can also be cast for two mana is also hugely important, allowing the deck to go off on turn three through a removal spell.
I also want to highlight another inclusion in Riecken's list – Commune with Nature is this deck's take on Ancient Stirrings. Given that this deck all about finding and assembling a combo as fast as possible, this seems like an excellent way (alongside all the others) to provide another layer of consistency to the deck.
It couldn't live up to the hype - Assassin's Trophy didn't split the format in two, as many anticipated. Assassin's Trophy seemed the natural partner to a card like Bloodbraid Elf, and was promising a Jundpocalypse of midrange decks. Well, now the card has halved in value, and doesn't really see play outside of Green-Black Rock and the sideboard of Dredge. What happened?
It may not be a problem with the card so much as it is a problem with the decks it naturally fits into. Despite regaining its beloved Bloodbraid Elf, Jund has hardly run roughshod over the format – neither has Abzan, or just straight Black-Green. Grind-'em-out midrange decks have been caught in the crossfire between blinding-fast linear decks and slow, go-big controlling decks - there just isn't all that much midrange in Modern at the moment.
We can revisit Assassin's Trophy should midrange decks like Jund and Abzan be better positioned in the format – but for now, it seems like we were all wrong about Assassin's Trophy – it's good, but not the stone-cold, archetype-reviving powerhouse we expected it to be.
That's it for this week – Modern continues to be one of the healthiest, most dynamic, and downright fun constructed formats to play, and keeping these small lessons in mind will help you on your road to success while playing it. With a format that changes so readily, it always pays to keep an eye on all the latest developments!