Back when I began playing Magic in 1995, the game was new and the Internet did not yet really exist. Everyone just built decks from the cards they owned, and every deck was a product of the imagination of its pilot. There were only about a dozen or so sets in existence, so the amount of possibilities was technically limited, but no one really understood Magic enough at that time to know which cards were actually the best ones, so the power level of decks varied greatly. It didn't really matter though because it felt like seemingly any deck could win. Every match was unique and you never knew what was coming next in each game or what deck would arise victorious. There was really no way of knowing what was happening in Magic circles in other parts of the country (or world), so the local metagame was really all that existed in the minds of its players.
I was fortunate that my local store in Nashville, Tennessee had a thriving scene and they held regular tournaments. There were a few decks that won recent tournaments, such as a White-Blue Control deck with Moat and Mana Drain that used Icy Manipulator to tap down their own Howling Mine and Winter Orb on end step so that their effects would be one-sided. There was also a red-green deck we called "Jungle Boogie" that ran Kird Ape, River Boa, Lightning Bolt, Stormbind, Balduvian Horde, and Erhnam Djinn. Eventually there was also a Mono-Black Necropotence deck that started winning. I remember the very first time I won a tournament (with a Mox Pearl as prize). It was with a black-green combo deck of my own design that won by generating infinite mana with Storm Cauldron, Fastbond and Swamps in order to cast a lethal Drain Life on the opponent (because back then you could go to negative life and wouldn't die until the end of the phase, so you would gain all the life back with Drain Life and only the opponent would die). I ended up trading the Mox Pearl back in to the store so I could build a Green-White Aggro deck (of course) based around Birds of Paradise, Swords to Plowshares, Llanowar Elves, Erhnam Djinn and Armageddon.
Modern today feels like Magic did back in 1995-1996. It seems that the possibilities are endless, and there is no shortage of creativity when it comes to what decks opponents are bringing to tournaments. Players are finding ways to win with combinations I've never imagined. People are bringing back old Standard concepts from years ago and incorporating new cards into them and winning. People are exploring ideas they had previously given up on years ago due to the recent unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf. And some people are downright trying out combinations of cards that have existed for years but that no one has ever thought to put together. Unlike in Magic's early days, we now have the Internet, so information is abundant rather than scarce. But we also have a much larger card pool. Together, these things facilitate a similar feel to Magic's early days because the possibilities for deck building feel endless and the variability of decks you face in tournaments reflects this ingenuity.
Today I want to share with you 10 decks that stood out to me that each went 5-0 on Magic Online last week, each of which reflects the spirit of exploration reminiscent of those early days. We have wacky combo decks like the Storm Cauldron deck I won my first trophy with, we have innovative control decks like the Icy Manipulator deck back in the day, and we have various "Jungle Boogie" type decks that have emerged in large part due to the unbanning of Bloodbraid Elf. Of course, these decks only represent a small sample of the possibilities Modern offers, and there are literally dozens of established strategies available as well, but today I want to highlight the constant emergence of new strategies. We truly are living in the early years of a golden age of Magic in Modern. If you haven't yet gotten into Modern, I highly recommend it!
There is lots of spice in this list. I've seen Bring to Light decks before in Modern, but they have mostly involved Scapeshift. This version instead wins with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Deceiver Exarch (or Restoration Angel) to generate infinite haste tokens to attack for lethal. While Bring to Light can find either combo piece, it can also find a variety of answers to whatever the game state might be. It also has a sideboard of 15 different cards since Being to Light allows you to find any of them consistently. The addition of Jace, the Mind Sculptor to the deck adds a level of consistency to the deck and also an alternate win condition in case the creatures somehow get shut down. It's also a way to throw back cards that are situational through the Brainstorm ability of Jace. If having Jace, the Mind Sculptor on the battlefield is the thing you want to do most, this deck can do that better than any other deck since it effectively runs eight copies of the planeswalker between the four copies of Jace himself and the four Bring to Lights that can find him on demand.
This used to be a Standard deck and it has finally found its way into Modern. The goal of the deck is to fill the graveyard with creatures that have lots of abilities so that it can delve them away with Soulflayer. It uses Sylvan Caryatid to provide hexproof and it uses Chromanticore and Drogskol Reaver to grant a million other abilities. It even uses the newly printed Zetalpa, Primal Dawn as another creature to delve away and grant a bunch of key abilities.
It uses Faithless Looting and Grisly Salvage to fill up the graveyard and find Soulflayer. It also uses Lotleth Troll to help fill the yard and Traverse the Ulvenwald to find Soulflayer. The deck has enough early creatures like Lotleth Troll, Bomat Courier and Flamewake Phoenix to make a game of things in case the Soulflayer plan does not work out for whatever reason, but the primary game plan is of course to resolve a giant Soulflayer with a million abilities.
I've been playing a lot of Modern lately in preparation for the Magic Online Championship this weekend and I actually played against the previous two decks in my testing. This deck, however, is something I've never encountered before. It is a modular deck that uses Hardened Scales to increase the amount of counters placed on each creature. It also uses Animation Module to "go off" by adding counters and making Servos to add more counters with Steel Overseer. It also uses Evolutionary Leap to turn Servos and other modular creatures into more modular creatures and thereby transferring the counters to another creature (and increasingly the amount of counters each time thanks to Hardened Scales). Walking Ballista and Hangarback Walker are also neat cards to use with Hardened Scales and are great targets for modular counters. Hangarback Walker in particular is a great creature to sacrifice to Evolutionary Leap.
The amount of value this deck can generate is very high. I don't see how anyone will be able to out-grind this engine, so I'd imagine it has a strong matchup against fair grindy decks. It can also win by placing a bunch of counters onto Inkmoth Nexus and attack for a lethal amount of poison in one hit, so it can also beat infinite life. This deck certainly looks impressive and also lots of fun.
Control decks are on the rise in a big way thanks to the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but ZYRNAK is proving that you don't necessarily need Jace (or even blue cards) to win as a control deck. This deck uses planeswalkers and sweepers to control the game and also Lingering Souls to protect the planeswalkers. It has Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize as hand disruption along with Fatal Push and Path to Exile as cheap and efficient creature removal. This deck looks like it has a great matchup against any of the creature-based strategies, especially Affinity. It also looks pretty strong at overcoming the midrange decks due to the inevitability its planeswalkers can provide. The sideboard seems to be dedicated to beating combo decks, which I'm sure is the main weakness of this strategy in game one. I've put some time into Orzhov Control and wrote a few articles about it in the past and am interested in taking this new version for a spin to see how it plays out.
Jeskai and Azorius seem to be the default Jace, the Mind Sculptor control variants, but there is good reason to run black in the deck: Lingering Souls. The other reason is Esper Charm, which gives the deck a way to complete the Jace lock. What you do is wait for the opponent to get down to three cards in hand. Then you have them discard two with Esper Charm. Then you untap and pass. On their upkeep you cast Snapcaster Mage targeting your Esper Charm and on their draw step after they draw, you flashback the Esper Charm having them discard their last two cards. Then you untap and cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor against an opponent with no hand. At that point you can start using the fateseal ability to really lock them out or you can start using the Brainstorm ability without worry of anything bad happening to Jace. You also have all the typical control elements in the form of Supreme Verdict, Path to Exile, and counters.
At first I thought this deck was Lantern, but upon closer inspection I realize it is actually a Tezzerator deck with Ensnaring Bridge and also the Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek combo. Whir of Invention and now Jace, the Mind Sculptor may be enough to makes this a legitimate deck again. While the other control decks in this category rely on Wrath effects to control opposing creatures, this one rests on Ensnaring Bridge. I'd imagine the Thopter Sword combo makes the Burn matchup reasonable as you can gain life faster than they can have you lose it once you assemble the combo. Whir being able to find Bridge or either half of the combo is a pretty big deal. Will this be Kenny Oberg's ticket back to the Pro Tour?
Another way to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor is alongside Tarmogoyf and Liliana of the Veil. People are talking a lot about how Abzan decks will be replaced by Jund decks due to the unbanning of Bloodbraid Elf, but it is possible that they move in the reverse direction, opting to replace white with blue for Jace, the Mind Sculptor instead of red for Bloodbraid Elf. You also get access to Snapcaster Mage, which has been in my estimation the best card in Modern since Eldrazi Winter.
Tribal Flames hasn't been seeing much love in Modern in recent years, but Bloodbraid Elf is trying to bring back Tribal Flames. This deck will cascade into a creature or a burn spell every time since that is all that is in the deck.
The idea of the deck is to be very aggressive and to take advantage of the haste ability of Bloodbraid Elf by capitalizing on the fast damage output of the creature. Cascading into Boros Charm, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix or Tribal Flames is perfectly reasonable when your first three turns involved playing aggressive creatures. And if you thought cascading into Liliana of the Veil or Lingering Souls was awesome, try cascading into Mantis Rider! That just feels dirty.
This is a slightly less aggressive version, but one that is nevertheless very interested in attacking early and often. It is less interested in burning out the opponent and more interested in playing a value game. I really like the three copies of Fiery Justice in the sideboard. It's a great card against all the aggro creature decks, including Affinity, and also great against Death's Shadow as you can have the opponent gain five life and thereby kill Death's Shadow while also dealing five damage to their Gurmag Angler. Did I mention you can also cascade into it with Bloodbraid Elf? Yeah, that's why that card is extra sweet in this deck.
If value is what you want from your Bloodbraid Elf, then what better value can you get than cascading into Ancestral Visions to immediately draw three cards? And why choose between Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor when you can just play both together?
As a bonus deck, this one combines pressure and value in seemingly equal measures. It has Tireless Tracker and Kitchen Finks for value but then all its creatures are aimed to attack. Between Strangleroot Geist and Kitchen Finks coming back when killed – and Tireless Tracker and Bloodbraid Elf to rebuild – this deck feels very resilient to Supreme Verdict. A single Pia and Kiran Nalaar or Huntmaster of the Fells post-Wrath is enough to merit casting another wrath the following turn. It can also lock an opponent out with Blood Moon, which can also be cascaded into with Bloodbraid Elf. Overall, this deck doesn't look especially interactive, but it hits hard and poses a combination of threats that are very difficult to deal with.
Modern is in a great place right now, as it has been ever since Eldrazi Winter. These decks showcase some of the ingenuity going on right now in Modern. The greatest part is that they represent merely a small percentage of what is possible in Modern right now. Out of the 80 matches of Modern I've played in the past few weeks, I've faced nearly 30 different decks. That's incredible and it makes the replay value of the format extremely high. You're not just facing the same handful of decks every round. There are so many different viable strategies available and new options are constantly emerging.