Modern continues to be driven forward by experimentation and innovation. With a multitude of powerful established strategies all jostling for position, oftentimes this innovation will occur within the bounds of an existing archetype – and sometimes it involves something as simple as adding a single copy of a single card to the deck.
The results from this weekend's MOCS provide several examples of this in action. Modern is far from a settled or a solved format, and with canny players making these tiny changes to their 75, we see Modern change and evolve by inches. It's fascinating to see experimentation like this begin to catch on and run a hotly contested gauntlet towards becoming industry-standard.
Before looking at the individual card choices that stood out across different decks in the tournament, there are some general observations to be made from the weekend's results.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that amongst the decks that went X-2 or better, a full six of them were Black-Red Hollow One. Make no mistake, this deck is no longer a fringe player – Hollow One has been broken, and people are very ready to harness its power. Secondly, the threat of Bogles overrunning the format seems to be dissipating. As such a linear, "all-in" deck, Bogles is easy enough to account post-board, and the format seems to have adjusted.
Thirdly, Humans has demonstrated it has the staying power to hustle and bustle in Modern a little longer – plenty of finely-tuned lists put up the numbers this weekend. Lastly, the format remains as diverse as ever – there was an excellent mix of various archetypes with various approaches to winning. Modern continues to be excellent!
Let's talk about some individual lists and highlight some of the impactful and innovative singletons that saw play in various decks last weekend!
I think it's a fair assessment to say that Hollow One has well and truly been broken. Since the card's release in Hour of Devastation, people sought to exploit the 4/4 knowing full well that any cost-reduction ability has the potential to be bonkers (see delve). Now, however, we have a lean, mean, variance-based machine – since its breakout performance at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, players have been slamming Hollow Ones, Twos, Threes, and even Fours.
One of the Hollow One pilots had a terrific time in the MOCS - jono mizer lead the way with Goblin Lore highrolls and ended up 7-1. His list included a very exciting piece of technology, however, in Call to the Netherworld. Strange card, weird collection of abilities, didn't even realize it existed – sure enough, it's a common from Future Sight.
Looking over a list filled with Burning Inquiry and Goblin Lore, and it's easy enough to imagine that a deck like this loses to itself a significant percentage of the time. That percentage is a lot lower than most people realize, but it's still there – and for that reason, Call to the Netherworld is a terrific innovation to combat some of the lowrolls you'll get with random discard effects.
Returning a Gurmag Angler, Tasigur or even a Street Wraith offers a huge amount of value for essentially no cost. Discarding a Call to the Netherworld in many cases will simply turn your discard-three into a discard-two-and-draw-some-action. That's huge game!
Obviously, you need the right configuration of cards in your graveyard for this to go right, but imagine this line: Faithless Looting, discard Gurmag Angler and Call to the Netherworld. You can then return the Angler to your hand with the madness ability of Call to the Netherworld – you just halved the number of cards discarded to the Looting!
I won't be surprised to see Call to the Netherworld included in Hollow One lists moving forward. As a singleton, at least, it seems like it completely justifies its position in the 75; is it pushing the envelope to run more than one copy?
Steve Rubin – proud owner of a premium piece of MTGO username real estate in "Sturvedog" – put together a tidy 7-1 finish in the MOCS, piloting a teched-out Five-Color Humans list. He played a number of spicy one-ofs - Dark Confidant, Kessig Malcontents, Plains – but the card that really drew my eye is Whirler Rogue.
The Humans main deck has come to be relatively inflexible; there are a handful of what can be generously described as "flex slots," but these are generally populated with a lineup of the usual suspects. Ol' Sturvey, however, had other ideas this weekend and played a copy of the Magic Origins Limited All-Star, Whirler Rogue.
Given the mana curve of Humans generally has a pretty hard-and-fast stop at three (in the main deck, at least), this is a truly off-the-wall inclusion. What's going on with Whirler Rogue, and why is it seeing play?
While Humans does have some evasive beaters – Mantis Rider and Kitesail Freebooter amongst them – breaking through a board stall without them isn't the easiest thing for this deck. Being light on interaction means that a brick wall of Tarmogoyfs could be enough to hold off any onslaught. Enter Whirler Rogue – all of a sudden, that massive Champion of the Parish is free to get in there!
This card is expensive and relatively low-impact in a vacuum, but it provides an important angle for Humans to push through extra points of damage. It's also well worth noting that it finds a purpose for any otherwise useless lategame Aether Vial!
2017 English National Champion Autumn Burchett is the latest powerful mage to fall to the dark side, as she has embraced the power of Lantern Control and put up a respectable 6-2 finish with it. One thing that sets her recent Lantern lists apart from many of the others that are also performing strongly, however, is the main deck inclusion of Abrupt Decay.
Including any card that doesn't directly fuel the prison-style game plan of this archetype is risky business, but Burchett has found room for this powerful, (almost-)no-questions-asked removal spell to shore up potential weaknesses in the Lantern strategy. You'll often see Decay come in from the board to Fend Off problematic permanents, but giving it a berth in game one isn't something we often see.
I caught up with Burchett about her decision to play Decay in the main deck, and she was kind enough to offer some perspective on the choice. Burchett chose to only play three copies of Ensnaring Bridge, reasoning that the fourth copy worsens the mana curve and punishes you against hyper-aggressive decks. As a result, she was looking for a card to replace the fourth Bridge – one that fills some strict conditions.
"With Humans being arguably the best deck, this card needs to, specifically, be something that kills Meddling Mage," she explained. "In practice, this largely limits you to Abrupt Decay or Collective Brutality." Both are defensible choices, with Brutality having nice flexibility against the field (as well as absolutely hosing Burn), but ultimately there are a greater number of important targets to take down with Decay.
There are further benefits to the main deck Decay, too. "Running one of these cards has the additional upside that you essentially end up with one more sideboard slot," Burchett continued. "If it weren't in your main deck, it would be in your sideboard anyway."
From a practical, boots-on-the-ground situation, however, how has the Abrupt Decay performed? "In practice, the main deck Abrupt Decay is reasonably medium, but I've been happy enough with it."
Lantern Control continues to be a strong contender in Modern - and with a Pro Tour title under its belt, you can expect this strategy to stick around. All the same, it's good to see established archetypes like this still undergoing development!
The cat may already be out of the bag on this one, as Caleb Scherer—known on Magic Online as cws—isn't the only one to have included this unusual card in their Storm decks of late. Storm didn't have a terrific weekend – cws was the only player to break into the X-2 bracket – but nonetheless, the deck has maintained its position as one of the top dogs of the Modern format.
You sit down against any Storm player expecting to face Remand, but that's no use to them if you're able to somehow sneak past their countermagic. Something like a resolved Eidolon of the Great Revel is almost unbeatable for Storm unless they have a way to remove it – and often something like Lightning Bolt is found exclusively in the sideboard.
Enter Unsubstantiate. This card plays both sides of the disruption court – its Remand mode can help to bridge the gap towards the big "going off" turn, while its Unsummon mode can push wins through creatures that threaten to prevent the combo. Whether it's the ability of something like an Eidolon, or just a massive Death's Shadow getting in for too much damage, Unsubstantiate is a clean (albeit temporary) answer to what ails you.
A final thing to note about Unsubstantiate is the fact that it can target a Storm card while on the stack. This means that if they're a few points short of lethal with a Grapeshot, they can Unsubstantiate it and recast it for a squillion more Storm triggers.
It's worth keeping Unsubstantiate in mind when tussling with Storm, and recognizing that thanks to this innovation, a resolved creature is not as safe against Storm as it once was!
Modern will continue to shift and sway with every week that passes, and we may even have things changed up further with the introduction of cards from Dominaria. It's tiny, ground-level changes like these, however, that fuel the ongoing cycle of innovation and development that characterizes the format – and for that reason, it's worth sitting up and taking notice when early adopters are utilizing new technology!
- Riley Knight