Last week I traveled deep into the rabbit hole and shared tournament decklists for twenty Modern archetypes, many of them brand new in Modern. It was one of my most popular articles ever, and I am definitely as excited about Modern as everyone else is!
Banning Deathrite Shaman has certainly opened up the diversity of the format. The unbanning of Wild Nacatl has not brought about the rise of a dominant Zoo deck as many predicted. Bitterblossom has yet to enable a tier-one Faeries deck. Wizards did well, and I expect the Modern metagame will continue to be fun, interactive, and diverse throughout the upcoming Modern season.
The largest Modern event since GP Richmond was held last weekend. GP Minneapolis drew nearly 1700 players, and sitting as king of the hill when all games were played was South Korea's Jun Young Park, piloting Scapeshift.
As far as combo decks go, Scapeshift is pretty simple. Assemble seven or more lands, sacrifice them all to Scapeshift, and search up a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle or two along with six or more Mountains to deal lethal damage to the opponent.
When Modern was first created prior to Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was banned, but a year later the error was corrected and the card was unbanned before the next Modern Pro Tour, Return to Ravnica, where it reached Top 8. Scapeshift combo has been anything but dominant or broken, but it has remained a player in the metagame for the entirety. With the recent opening up of the format, Scapeshift has proven itself as a top-tier archetype.Innovation
Park's list has some unique improvements over recent Modern Scapeshift lists. It actually resembles the original Scapeshift list his teammate Li Shi Tian used to Top 8 Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, and it has brought back technology that seems to have been lost in the year and half since.
The most eyebrow-raising card in the deck is Telling Time. Recent Scapeshift decks have typically used Peer Through Depths, which has significantly more digging power than Telling Time. On the downside, it's restricted to just finding instants and sorceries and excludes all other classes of cards; this includes creatures and lands, both of which can be important to the Scapeshift strategy. While it's often important to dig for Scapeshift, Peer Through Depths is quite rigid and cuts off options. It also carries the very real option of whiffing completely.
Telling Time is flexible, and it generates options. The usual mark against Telling Time is that it keeps one of the three cards on top, often forcing its controller to draw a weak card. The Scapeshift deck mitigates much of that risk with a healthy number of shuffle effects, not only green land acceleration but also fetch lands. This turns Telling Time into a mini-Impulse, but with a possible upside of finding two cards. Telling Time is particularly excellent post-sideboard, when it will often be important to dig for various classes of cards.
In his Top 8 profile interview, Park called Repeal his most valuable card. He said that he used it throughout the tournament to remove critical permanents. These critical permanents range from hate cards against Scapeshift, to opposing combo pieces, to simple aggressive creatures.
Much like Remand, Repeal can be used to blank an opposing play and buy time while simultaneously digging for more action. In this sense Repeal can act as a Time Walk: a valuable asset for a deck that is simply trying to stall long enough to generate a critical mass of lands. Consider the parallels between Repeal and a Cryptic Command with modes of bouncing a permanent and drawing a card.
Four years ago when I won an Extended Grand Prix with Thopter-Depths, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa made the Top 8 playing Scapeshift with three Repeal in his deck. That format had combo decks like mine, control decks like Faeries, and aggressive decks like Zoo. Repeal was a great answer to a variety of permanents in an open format. Today's Scapeshift deck is similar to that old Extended list, and today's Modern format is even more diverse than that format. Repeal makes sense as a catch-all card against nearly every deck.
While past lists have played either zero or one Electrolyze, and perhaps one in the sideboard, Park played two in his maindeck. Scapeshift is not a fast combo deck, and in the early turns it operates as a control deck before comboing off in the mid game. Electrolyze is excellent for slowing down opposing aggression and buying time to reach a critical mass of lands. It also draws a card, meaning it helps dig through the deck to find more action. In Scapeshift, Electrolyze also plays the unique role of speeding up the combo by dealing two damage to the opponent and bringing them to 18 life, meaning Scapeshift is lethal with just seven lands rather than the usually required eight.
Electrolyze has proven itself to be among the best cards in Modern. It's excellent for disrupting the creature strategies of Affinity and Birthing Pod, arguably the two most popular and successful archetypes in the format. It also destroys many commonly played creatures including Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique, Pestermite, and Delver of Secrets. Two of the UWR Control decks in the Top 8 of the GP ran a full playset of Electrolyze, and their success was in no small part due to the card. As pseudo-control deck, Park also found great success with the instant.
Notably absent from the decklist is Explore. While a strong card, Explore comes with problems. For one, it's not true acceleration because it requires a land in hand to be effective. The times where it does not have a land, it simply cycles for two mana; a poor proposition. In practice, Explore is either an effective one-mana acceleration spell (because the land comes into play untapped) or a temp-wasting blank. Also consider that Explore was effectively just swapped out for Repeal, which slows the opponent down rather than speeding Scapeshift up, but it's a much more flexible card and fits well into the various roles the Scapeshift deck plays. Removing Explore and Peer Through Depths goes a long way in making this list more reliable than recent versions.Controlling the Opposition
The cards supplementing Scapeshift break down into a few major categories: mana ramp, card selection, and a class of cards that slow down the opponent and cantrip. This latter group contains Electrolyze, Repeal, Remand, and even Cryptic Command, which can be used to tap opposing creatures before combat to act as a Fog. These cantrip cards provide interaction to disrupt the opponent while doubling as card draw. These cantrips are the core of the deck and the key to its success. Scapeshift simply needs to tread water with its opponent because it will inevitably win given enough turns.
The success of Scapeshift last weekend is not surprising. By operating as a control deck until it combos, Scapeshift brings a lot of game against the format. The Counterspells go a long way in fighting against combo-oriented decks like Splinter Twin, Storm, and even RG Tron. The suite of removal spells ensure that Affinity and Birthing Pod aren't able to win before Scapeshift comes online. Scapeshift is the best home yet for Izzet Charm, because it's a split card that acts as removal against creature decks and as a Counterspell against the combo and control decks. In a pinch, it can even dig for Scapeshift.
Adding redundancy and a bit of power to the control plan is Snapcaster Mage. It's among the best cards in the format and a necessity for control decks. It doubles up on whatever spell is ideal in a given matchup or situation, and it generates a lot of mileage here. In this deck it can even flashback a Scapeshift that had been previously discarded or countered. It's also capable of sneaking in for two damage and speeding up the Scapeshift combo by a turn if they are at 20 life. It's also a fine blocker, whether it's chumping to save damage or picking off a smaller creature. It also plays a key role in the agro/control strategy Scapeshift sometimes employs post-sideboard.
Even one of the mana ramp cards, Sakura-Tribe Elder, can slow down aggressive opponents by blocking before being sacrificed.
I must also note that Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle can be used fairly, assuming the game goes long and Scapeshift does not happen. Each Mountain after number five does three damage, which can be effective for controlling creatures. It's also possible to play a long, drawn-out game against control and win without ever resolving Scapeshift.Sideboard Strategy
Park developed an improved sideboard tuned for the realities of the Modern metagame.
Vendilion Clique is an excellent piece of disruption that works against combo and control opponents. It also comes with a lot of upside, including the ability to cycle one of Scapeshift's own cards should it be weak in a given game situation.
Opponents are going to bring in various hate cards against Scapeshift, whether they be anti-searching cards like Aven Mindcensor and Shadow of Doubt, or more general disruption like Counterspells, discard, or land destruction. Vendilion Clique is a proactive answer to these cards.
Vendilion Clique is also ideal for disrupting opposing combos, such as against Splinter Twin decks or the Scapeshift mirror. In these matches disrupting the opposing combo is an important aspect of the game, and Vendilion Clique fills the role perfectly.
The best benefit to Vendilion Clique is the aggressive body, and combined with the control elements in the deck, it can give the Scapeshift deck an agro/control feel and is completely capable of winning the game by itself. In the face of overwhelming hate, it's possible for Scapeshift to put the combo on the backburner and win with the combination of Vendilion Clique, Snapcaster Mage, and the suite of Counterspells. In this sense, Vendilion Clique allows a semi-transformational sideboard.
Batterskull is another element of a transformational sideboard. It's best against the most aggressive opponents like Zoo and Burn, which are vulnerable to lifelink. It's also strong against control decks like UWR, which are unlikely to have good answers for it post-sideboard. While Batterskull stands by itself, it's in fact an equipment. Both Snapcaster Mage and Sakura-Tribe Elder can effectively wield Batterskull, as can creatures from the sideboard.
Another key source of lifegain and another creature to transform with is Obstinate Baloth. Against aggressive decks, which are likely to sideboard out cards like Path to Exile, it's a very strong blocker that Erases early aggression with its lifegain. It's also a dedicated sideboard hate card against Liliana of the Veil. This planeswalker can be tough to deal with once it hits play, but catching their +1 discard ability with an Obstinate Baloth may win the game outright, as Obstinate Baloth can go on to attack and kill Liliana of the Veil while putting the opponent into a very disadvantageous position.
Some of the sideboard cards allow Scapeshift to turn into more of a control deck:
Anger of the Gods
Anger of the Gods is among the strongest and most efficient sweepers in the format. It's strong against aggressive decks like Affinity and Zoo, and it's crushing against Birthing Pod creatures like Voice of Resurgence and Kitchen Finks. Anger of the Gods allows Scapeshift to transform into even more of a control deck against the opponents most vulnerable to the strategy. Previous lists have had a copy of this card maindeck, but in a balanced metagame it makes more sense as a sideboard card.
A copy of Engineered Explosives supplements Anger of the Gods against aggressive decks, but it comes with additional applications. It can remove cards like Cranial Plating and Liliana of the Veil, or even sit in play on three to proactively deal with combo creatures from Splinter Twin. It's strong against Storm combo as a way to deal with Pyromancer Ascension, and it potentially deals with any number of tokens from Empty the Warrens.
The rest of the sideboard is composed of general hate cards and disruption against the format.
Swan Song is a very broad answer to combo decks in an open, diverse metagame. Swan Song comes in against other combo decks and potentially against control decks, where it can answer all sorts of problem permanents and spells. At one mana it is quite efficient, and it helps Scapeshift morph into a very disruptive counter-control deck. It is assumed that Swan Song is devastating enough that it will significantly disrupt the opponent, and Scapeshift is designed to win before the opposing 2/2 flyer becomes relevant.
Relic of Progenitus
Relic of Progenitus is general graveyard hate. It's excellent against Storm combo, where it shuts down both Pyromancer Ascension and Past in Flames. It also heavily counteracts Living End combo. It's also quite useful turning off Snapcaster Mage against control decks.
Ancient Grudge is dedicated hate against Affinity, which is otherwise capable of racing the relatively slow Scapeshift deck. Conley Woods brought out a Krark-Clan Ironworks deck to the GP, and Ancient Grudge would be quite effective there too. It also has some potential against Birthing Pod as a way to control their namesake artifact.
The final sideboard card is Spellskite, which is simply one of the most versatile and hateful cards in the format. It's particularly great in this deck because opponents are unlikely to have any dedicated creature removal post sideboard, particularly not removal capable of dealing four damage. Spellskite is strong against Splinter Twin, and it outright hates out more fringe strategies like the GW Auras Bogles deck and Infect. It also generates some mileage against Burn by blocking creatures like Goblin Guide or soaking up burn spells.Sideboard Guide
Here's how I would board against some of the more popular archetypes in Modern:
Affinity-4 Remand-1 Telling Time
+2 Anger of the Gods+2 Ancient Grudge+1 Engineered Explosives
Birthing Pod-2 Remand
+2 Anger of the Gods
Splinter Twin-1 Electrolyze-2 Repeal-3 Izzet Charm
+2 Vendilion Clique+2 Swan Song+1 Spellskite+1 Engineered Explosives
Jund-2 Electrolyze-1 Telling Time
+2 Obstinate Baloth+1 Engineered Explosives
UWR Control-2 Repeal-2 Electrolyze-2 Sakura-Tribe Elder-1 Telling Time
+2 Relic of Progenitus+2 Vendilion Clique+2 Obstinate Baloth+1 Batterskull
I watched Park play against UWR in the Top 8 and he boarded differently against different opponents. Against one opponent he used Swan Song, and against the opponent with Crucible of Worlds and Spellskite, he even brought in an Ancient Grudge. My best advice for this matchup is to stay flexible.
Tune in tomorrow, where I will be piloting this deck through some Magic Online events!