Last weekend we were treated to a ton of high-level Modern action, with a Modern Grand Prix, a Team Unified Modern Grand Prix, and an online Modern Pro Tour Qualifier. There was also the weekly online Modern Challenge, and plenty of leagues, so there are ton of new decklists to pore over. Together, they paint a picture of the metagame. Individually, they provide a great template on how to build specific decks, and they provide some spicy new card technology that we can adopt to bring our decks to the next level. There are even some new decks to consider.
Julien Berteaux's White-Black Zombies deck that he used to finish in the Top 4 of his Regional Pro Tour Qualifier a few weeks ago would have been easy to miss, and maybe even easier to dismiss as a fluke if you saw it. It might be just as easy to miss, and even dismiss, his 5th-place finish at GP Madrid with the deck, since his team missed the elimination rounds on tiebreakers. Looking at these two finishes back-to-back, however, makes a very compelling case that Berteaux has created a brand-new competitive Modern deck that deserves a heck of a lot more attention than it has garnered thus far.
Ixalan's Kitesail Freebooter has played a big role in bringing tribal Humans decks to the next level, and this deck taps into the same tribal potential of Tidehollow Sculler, a significantly more powerful card than Kitesail Freebooter, by putting it into a Zombies shell. It's critical for enabling Gravecrawler, which is otherwise only supported by Dread Wanderer and Mutavault. The Zombies combine with Bloodghast and Lingering Souls to give the deck a robust aggressive package that's nearly impossible to grind down through attrition. This means there is very reliable crew on-deck for Smuggler's Copter, which the deck uses to gain value from the graveyard cards by discarding them at no cost or even a benefit. From there the deck is focused on disruption, with Liliana of the Veil and Collective Brutality being disruption that acts as additional ways to discard cards for value.
The combination of disruption and relentless threats is very difficult for control decks to deal with, and it's an ideal combination for pressuring combo decks. In many ways the Zombie deck is similar to the nascent black-red Madness deck, which similarly uses the graveyard as a resource with cards like Bloodghast, but without the all-in aspect of Dredge. Recurring threats pose a huge problem for a large portion of the field, and the time-tested plan of aggressive creatures backed by loads of disruption is presumably enough to handle the rest.
Fulminator Mage in the sideboard is important disruption against the land-based decks that dominated last weekend, and I'd be quick to add the fourth copy given the results. The sideboard also contains Kataki, War's Wage, which doesn't turn off the deck's own Smuggler's Copter like Stony Silence would, and is also arguably even better against Lantern Control, where it pressures their mana and makes it difficult for them to keep many artifacts in play. Taxing their mana and artifact count puts pressure on Whir of Invention, but also on Ensnaring Bridge, because the deck won't be able to empty its hand if it's forced to spend its mana during its upkeep. I've also seen Kataki, War's Wage pop-up in the sideboard of Four and Five-Color Death's Shadow decks as part of a Traverse the Ulvenwald toolbox, and it was included in all of the successful Chord of Calling decks last weekend, including Counters Company and Elves.
The most surprising development of last weekend is undoubtedly the Living End deck that broke through to the top 8 of Grand Prix Oklahoma City.
Although the deck received a big boost from Amonkhet's cyclers, the deck had fallen off the radar to the point that most considered it to be a complete non-factor. It's very poor against Storm, and struggles against the disruption of Grixis Death's Shadow and Jeskai, but metagame shifts have brought some easy prey to the metagame. The creature-laden Human deck is very vulnerable to Living End, but the biggest reason behind the success of Living End is due to its natural strength against the land-based decks that have risen to the top of the metagame: TitanShift and Tron. It may seem counterintuitive, since these decks don't play vulnerable creatures, but a set of maindeck Fulminator Mage allows the deck to operate something like a land destruction deck by recurring them with Living End and threatening to destroy lands turn after turn, potentially locking them out of the game if they draw multiple Fulminator Mage. The deck also plays Beast Within as an additional way to destroy lands. Past versions of the deck have used Avalanche Riders to further pressure lands, and that could be the direction the deck moves, but it appears that it's not necessary.
The sideboard of the top eight list also includes Slaughter Games, which is quite strong against these same lands decks, especially Titan Shift, where it can strip Primeval Titan or Scapeshift from the deck. Slaughter Games also has gained stock due to how effective it is against the new wave of Through the Breach decks, which seems like a tough matchup otherwise. Living End isn't going to remain competitive forever, but it seems like a great option as long as land decks are on top and containing the blue decks that give Living End the most trouble.
Search for Azcanta has brought blue control decks to the next level in Modern, and it has been integral to the success of the new wave of White-Blue Control and creature-light Jeskai builds. The decks use Search for Azcanta, or more accurately, Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, as a win condition that gives them inevitability and buries the opponent in card advantage.
For a period, Grixis Control was doing very well in Modern, with big finishes in the hands of Corey Burkhart, and it was played to the finals of the Team Unified Modern GP San Antonio by Owen Turtenwald, but it fell from favor as Grixis Death's Shadow took over. With Corey Burkhart's Top 16 finish at Grand Prix Oklahoma City, the deck is back, and better than ever. Gone is Ancestral Vision, which was the deck's key card advantage engine, as Search for Azcanta does a better job by filtering cards in the early game as opposed to doing nothing, and once it flips, over time will generate even more card advantage, and more importantly, card quality, than Ancestral Vision would.
Fulminator Mage is also an important part of this sideboard, and the set of maindeck Kolaghan's Command, and a set of Snapcaster Mage to use them again, is ideal for recurring it and setting up a chain of land destruction to contain Tron and TitanShift. Two copies of Fulminator Mage gives the deck some game, but I'd look to add another copy or two to really hose the surge in land decks that is sure to come.
I recently took notice of Elves a few weeks ago after someone used it to Top 8 the MTGO RPTQ, and last weekend we saw evidence that it was no fluke. Elves finished in 10th place at Grand Prix Oklahoma City, and made it all the way to the finals of GP Madrid in the hands of Luis Salvatto, the reigning Constructed Master葉he player who won the most constructed matches across the four Pro Tours.
Luis didn't choose to play Elves by accident, and while it has obvious strengths in a team unified format where it doesn't require cards from other decks, there are plenty of other decks he could have chosen to play. As far as its position in the metagame, Elves goes over the top of fair decks like Humans, and it has the tools to race combo decks like Storm. It can struggle against midrange decks full of removal, like Jund and Jeskai, but these decks being contained by land decks means Elves is well-positioned.
One of the biggest strengths of the Elf deck is its ability to play a silver-bullet toolbox with Chord of Calling, which explains why its sideboard is typically full of one-of creatures to hose specific matchups, like Aven Mindcensor, which hoses land decks by shutting down their ability to search for lands. A copy of Tajuru Presever in the sideboard of the OKC list was a perfect call for hosing Through the Breach decks by shutting off Emrakul, the Aeons Torn's annihilator trigger and turning the combo into nothing more than a big burn spell, no problem for a deck that takes minimal damage from its manabase.
Including Vizier of Remedies to combo with Devoted Druid has become a staple at this point, since the deck has such a great mana sink in Ezuri, Renegade Leader. In an online match last week I learned the hard way that Devoted Druid also has its own synergy with Ezuri, Renegade Leader, since each activation of the +3/+3 ability gives Devoted Druid three more toughness to make three more mana, meaning it effectively brings the cost of the ability down to just two mana, and with two copies will actually go infinite, which can lead to easy wins.
A new piece of tech which is popping up in Humans decks, like the four-of played to the top 8 of the MTGO PTQ, is Phantasmal Image.
Phantasmal Image reliably finds creatures to copy in a deck that is essentially entirely creatures, and it's especially strong when copying any of the powerful enter-the-battlefield abilities on creatures like Kitesail Freebooter, Reflector Mage, and Thalia's Lieutenant, or even on post-sideboard creatures like Vithian Renegades. It's also quite useful with Meddling Mage to really lock down the opponent. It also offers a mana discount when used on three-mana plays, so it's a tempo play that is great for turning into a creature like Mantis Rider. It can also be very potent when copying the opponent's creatures, especially when snuck in with Aether Vial so it can even attack before what it copies is able to, so it plays well against big threats like Tarmogoyf and Gurmag Angler, and sometimes it will wreck players using massive creatures they Reanimate or otherwise cheat into play, even Emrakul, the Aeons Torn from Through the Breach. Phantasmal Image replaces Mayor of Avabruck, which was a nice effect for the deck but pales in comparison to the power and versatility of Phantasmal Image, even if it's not technically a Human and can't be cast with Cavern of Souls or Unexplored Territory naming Human.
A bit more surprising piece of tech for Humans is a full set of Chalice of the Void in the sideboard. There's obviously a lot of places where it could be effective, but it's not immediately clear where and when the card is best put to use. One thing to note is the card actually has a nice amount of synergy with the deck, because Aether Vial allows the deck to slip in cards that Chalice of the Void would counter, and Cavern of Souls allows the deck to simply cast cards through it without being countered. As far as matchups, I see Chalice of the Void doing its best work against decks that are filled with cheap plays, like Storm, but it seems like it's most important against the against the tough midrange opponents that play a ton of removal, making it ideal against Jeskai, and useful in the Death's Shadow matchup even though it's vulnerable to Kolaghan's Command. Chalice of the Void is also useful on the play against Affinity, one the deck's worst matchups, where it can catch Mox Opal and other zero-mana cards before they can be played, and on two counters will lock out most of their payoff cards.
What Super Secret Tech are you playing in Modern?