This past weekend there was a ton of Modern action going on, and while I was in Charlotte there was another Grand Prix going on in Los Angeles! There are a variety of decks in the format, many of which are very strong. Personally, I believe that while there is no single best deck in the format there are archetypes that will always be popular. For instance, Black/Green Midrange and Affinity have long been Modern staples, and both of those strategies put up good results this past weekend.
On the other hand there are some niche strategies that while they may have been around for a while, those archetypes may not be as well known. Many of these archetypes happen to be combo decks, and in general combo decks were very successful this weekend, especially in Charlotte.
Let's start with the deck that won Grand Prix Charlotte: Ad Nauseam. I played Nahiri Jeskai in Charlotte and got destroyed when I went up against Ad Nauseam combo.
Many of the reasons why this deck didn't see a lot of play until now is its bad matchup against Splinter Twin, and to a lesser extent Amulet Combo, the two decks that recently got banned out of the format. Criticisms of Ad Nauseam are that it is a turn four combo deck, and other combo decks can be faster. This is true; the deck often wins on turn four, as that is when Lotus Bloom comes off suspend. It is much more likely to have six mana on turn four than on turn three, though it is possible to win on turn three. The deck doesn't have much early interaction, but what it does have are ways to protect the combo.
There aren't many decks that run a lot of Counterspells, and the ones that do are also fairly slow. The Ad Nauseam deck is able to run Pact of Negation in order to win through countermagic, and has the ability to go off at instant speed. Sometimes it is necessary to cast an Angel's Grace before Ad Nauseum and other times Phyrexian Unlife will already be in play, and Counterspells like Remand will just delay the inevitable. Once an Ad Nauseam resolves the game is usually over. Lightning Storm or Laboratory Maniac can finish the job from there. Sometimes it is necessary to use Simian Spirit Guides to make some more mana. Some versions of Ad Nauseam only play one Lightning Storm main as the only win condition, but that means that one discard spell from the opponent nabbing Lightning Storm can end the game on the spot.
The other aspect about the combo that makes it so consistent is the pieces are pretty redundant. There are only two different cards needed to win, so Ad Nauseam, and either Angel's Grace or a Phyrexian Unlife in play is all that is necessary to win. There are also multiple card draw spells to filter through the deck and find that missing combo piece. Spoils of the Vault, while risky, is also another way to find a needed combo piece. The idea behind the Ad Nauseam deck is quite straightforward, so once it becomes clear how the deck works, it is not too difficult to play. This is a strategy that is better the slower the format is, and at the moment even other popular combo decks are not all that fast, so killing on turn four consistently is impressive.
Ad Nauseam is a deck that players may not know a ton about, but Scapeshift has been a mainstay in Modern for a while. Scapeshift has new form of redundancy: Bring to Light.
Speaking to Jack in Charlotte, he had zero byes, which makes the accomplishment of making Top 8 that much more impressive. Winning with a Scapeshift does require seven or eight lands in play, which is definitely a lot. Seven lands ends up being 18 damage, whereas with eight lands in play you can find an additional Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, yielding 36 damage total with six Mountains. That doesn't mean you need to wait until turn seven or eight to win, as there are a few ways to ramp out lands a bit faster. That means that usually, the deck is actually able to kill around turn five.
A turn five combo kill is even slower than the Ad Nauseum deck, so what the deck lacks in speed it needs to make up in other areas. Unlike many other combo decks in Modern, Scapeshift has a variety of ways to interact with an opponent and slow them down. First off one of the ramp cards is Sakura-Tribe Elder, the perfect chump blocker. There are also a few different burn spells. Since this deck runs four copies of Bring to Light there are some cards that are meant as bullets you can find with Bring to Light, so there isn't a huge incentive to play a full playset.
Anger of the Gods, for instance, is good against certain decks, but there is only a single copy. There aren't even a full four copies of Scapeshift, since drawing two generally isn't great, and with Bring to Light there are effectively seven copies.
Bring to Light adds a new element to the Scapeshift deck that wasn't there before. There is no longer as much of an issue in finding Shapeshifts; before Bring to Light, not finding a Scapeshift meant losing the game, but now there isn't the need for as much card filtering with seven ways to cast Scapeshift.
The reason why Scapeshift decks can have a bunch of ways to interact with the opponent, is that it is a one card combo. This is basically the only Modern deck that goes off by just casting a single spell. There is a need to make some sacrifices with the manabase in order to include a number of Mountains alongside Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, but these sacrifices aren't that significant. Scapeshift plays a bunch of Counterspells, and cards like Cryptic Command, that can be used in a variety of ways, but a lot of the time you are just simply tapping the opponent's creatures for a Fog effect. The deck simply needs to survive and then cast a Scapeshift, which is why it is very good against midrange decks and weak to Counterspell strategies. Scapeshift is another deck that benefited from the recent bannings.
Both Scapeshift and Ad Nauseam are decks that you should expect to potentially play against in a typical Modern event, so let's talk about one completely off the radar, Blue-Black Mill!
This deck is crazy! I have seen mill lists in Modern, but seeing one that performs very well in a Grand Prix is a different story. This deck can win by running the opponent completely out of cards, but many of the cards become turned on the more cards get milled from the opponent. Jace's Phantasm can be a win condition that doesn't require completely milling out your opponent. Going turn one Jace's Phantasm and following up with a Glimpse the Unthinkable means all of a sudden you are attacking with a five-power flyer on turn two!
Without Jace's Phantasm though, the deck does need to mill all 60 cards. The other creatures in the deck, Hedron Crab and Manic Scribe, do a nice job at continuously chipping away at the opponent's library, but they are vulnerable to opposing removal. The deck has ways of stalling the game or completely controlling the game, depending on the opposing deck. We know that Ensnaring Bridge can completely shut down some decks, and this leaves plenty of time for milling. Once the opponent has a bunch of cards in the graveyard Crypt Incursion can gain a huge amount of life to help prolong the game.
In terms of straight-up mill spells, there is of course Glimpse the Unthinkable, but we also have Mind Funeral and Archive Trap. Archive Trap costs zero mana a large percentage of the time with all the fetchlands and search effects in the format. Mind Funeral can be high-variance, but against decks that play lots of fetchlands there are often few lands left in an opponent's deck late in the game, so Mind Funeral has a lot of upside. There is one other continuous mill effect: Mesmeric Orb. While vulnerable to artifact removal, it is not vulnerable to creature removal like the other continuous mill effects. In many ways, Mesmeric Orb is the most important card in the deck as over the course of the game lots of permanents need to be tapped.
Visions of Beyond is often Ancestral Recall, and once Spelldock Isle gets turned on it is pretty easy to close the game out. Spelldock Isle is one of my favorite lands ever, and it is a great way of having that last mill effect once you have cast all of your other cards, as generally you do want to hideaway something like a Glimpse the Unthinkable.
The sideboard could likely use a bit of work since there are only four cards in it, though those spells definitely seem like they can be very effective. If the opponent does have any cards that benefit once in the graveyard, those are very good against you. Extirpate and Leyline of the Void can disrupt the opponent's graveyard or provide a free win depending on the deck you are up against.
I am going to talk about one more deck that has recently gotten some press due to the addition of Prized Amalgam, and that is Dredge.
A few different variations of Modern Dredge have surged in popularity. Some of them opt to play Vengevine. Since there are Vengevines there is more of a focus on cheap spells to make sure it can return them from the graveyard. Prized Amalgam is a perfect fit in this type of Dredge deck; Shadows over Innistrad has given this deck a boost. Another unsung hero of this deck is Insolent Neonate, which is another turn-one discard outlet.
This deck is the real deal and warrants more sideboard graveyard hate. There are cards that the deck completely folds to, but the deck is quite explosive, though it depends what the first couple of dredges yield. Dredge has recently become more powerful so if players don't start playing more graveyard hate, expect this to be one of the best metagame choices in the format. Winning using the graveyard attacks the format in a completely different way, which may be appealing to players with previous Dredge experience, or players looking for a different type of combo deck.
Thanks for reading,