It's an exciting time to play Modern. The format shifts and twists on a weekly basis, with the 15-20 different tournament decks all jostling for position. Updated card choices can affect existing archetypes (for example, Sai, Master Thopterist in Krark-Clan Ironworks combo or Militia Bugler in Humans), but every now and again we have a "new" deck enter the scene.
While ultimately missing out on a Top 4 performance at the Pro Tour, various Vengevine strategies nonetheless had a breakout weekend. Historically speaking, undercosted or free creatures tend to perform very strongly in Modern – Gurmag Angler, Death's Shadow, Hollow One, etc. – and Vengevine looks to be the next to add its name to this list.
The core conceit of the deck is, obviously, to get an early Vengevine into play with the use of discard outlets like Faithless Looting plus a ton of one-drops. All these one-drops further synergize with the deck's gameplan, with the newest addition being Stitcher's Supplier, and some further support the second angle of attack: Bridge from Below. Flooding the board with several 2/2s can happen as early as turn one – this deck has no shortage of explosive potential.
Just as Hollow One established its credibility as a playable Modern deck at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, so too has Vengevine demonstrated its capacity to run with the big dogs. As a result, one of the most interesting and engaging things to take place in competitive Modern will shortly unfold before our very eyes in the coming weeks – the streamlining and optimization of a new archetype.
Currently, there is a common core of cards shared by every flavor of Vengevine, but the jury is still out on how best to fill out the remainder of the deck. Do you play Viscera Seer or Greater Gargadon? Hangarback Walker or Endless One? How heavily do you commit to green, if at all? These questions will be answered as the cutthroat nature of competitive Modern Winnows out the best Vengevine build. Let's investigate how things might turn out!
Having a sacrifice outlet is very important for this deck, for several reasons. The main one is to make the most of any copies of Bridge from Below in the graveyard – being able to "upgrade" a one-drop into a 2/2 Zombie at instant speed can be very powerful. Further, the creatures being sacrificed will usually provide some benefit when sacrificed – Stitcher's Supplier mills more cards, for example, or Gravecrawler can simply be recast and re-sacrificed. Finally, if an opponent lines up some blocks that might cause one of their creatures to die, having a sacrifice outlet allows you to protect your Bridge by removing your creature from combat entirely.
Decks at the Pro Tour were split between Viscera Seer and Greater Gargadon, and rather obviously, there are pros and cons to both. Viscera Seer helps to trigger Vengevine in a timely manner, while Gargadon provides an enormous, hasty threat with relative ease. The cards are virtually interchangeable, with neither having a particular reliance or synergy with any other card in the deck. So which do we choose?
While it's very close, I think Viscera Seer has a greater upside and is therefore the better pick. Firstly, as mentioned, as a one-drop it can help trigger Vengevine in the early turns and adds to the overall explosive potential of the deck. Secondly, it provides a tangible, immediate benefit when sacrificing creatures, as scrying (especially repeatedly) can be incredibly useful.
Thirdly, it attacks and blocks while still providing a sacrifice outlet, which Greater Gargadon does not. Gargadon may be huge, but a 9/7 your opponent can see coming from a mile away can be chump blocked, removed, etc., while Viscera Seer provides real value much quicker. Finally, Viscera Seer doesn't limit the number of times you can sacrifice things to it – if you have a Bridge, a Gravecrawler and a million mana, Viscera Seer will let you flood the board to a much greater extent than Gargadon. For all these reasons, I like including Viscera Seer instead of Greater Gargadon, just as Nathan Holiday did this weekend.
While I like the fact that Holiday's list featured Viscera Seer, I don't agree with the inclusion of Endless One instead of Hangarback Walker. It's very important for this deck to have seven or eight creatures that can be cast for zero and die as soon as state-based actions are checked, but I believe the right mix is four Walking Ballista and three or four Hangarback Walker.
Why? Again, it comes down to potential upside. Just as both Viscera Seer and Greater Gargadon are, for the most part, free sacrifice outlets, these X-cost creatures are in the deck to be cast for zero and die immediately to trigger Vengevine and Bridge from Below. Most of the time, there's no difference between Hangarback Walker and Endless One, as they'll both be cast for zero 90% of the time.
However, that other 10% is very important, and in those cases Hangarback Walker is the clearly superior card. With the exception of Endless One being castable for a single mana, Hangarback Walker is a better card on basically every relevant metric.
Hangarback Walker for two generates two bodies, and while only one of them triggers Bridge from Below, both attack and block and the Thopter even has evasion. Endless One scales cleanly as a 2/2 for two or a 3/3 for three, but casting a Hangarback Walker for four produces a card that has actual gameplay impact, generating multiple fliers which are terrific on both offense and defense.
Because of Hangarback Walker being a much better creature than Endless One when not cast as a zero-drop, it gets the nod here – and the Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura agrees.
Nakamura also chose to include "real"green cards in addition to Vengevine. Many Vengevine pilots played zero green sources, making it effectively impossible for them to ever actually cast Vengevine properly. This didn't seem to be too much of an issue throughout the weekend, but then again, tweaking the mana base to include green isn't too difficult.
Nakamura abandoned Bloodghast to instead play Grim Flayer and Grisly Salvage, in addition to Ancient Grudge and Destructive Revelry in the sideboard. The main deck cards aren't particularly exciting, although both fuel the graveyard. There's little doubt, however, that these "green" sideboard cards can be high-impact in the right matchups, but do they ultimately justify stretching the mana base to cover three colors?
Let's examine a black-red sideboard as opposed to a Jund one. My favorite Vengevine sideboard was built by Jacob Nagro:
3 Ingot Chewer
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Lightning Axe
This flexible, robust sideboard covers most of the important angles of the Modern format. Hard-hitting graveyard hate in Leyline of the Void, extra interaction in the form of Thoughtseize and Lightning Axe (discarding a card is scarcely a penalty), and the highly innovative Ingot Chewer as a way to trigger Vengevine and Bridge while still blowing up artifacts. Bitterblossom, too, is a cute hedge against unanswered graveyard hate.
Compare this with Nakamura's Jund sideboard – what can Nakamura achieve that Nagro cannot? Blowing up enchantments with Destructive Revelry is all well and good, but in which matchups is it critical to have Collective Brutality? This deck can be much faster than Burn and Thoughtseize is the better card against blue-based control – and Ancient Grudge, while efficient, lacks the synergy offered by Ingot Chewer.
Ultimately, I don't consider stretching the deck across three colors to be worth it. It's so rare to want to cast Vengevine, the deck functions perfectly well without Grim Flayer and Grisly Salvage, and the sideboard doesn't need green to cover all its bases (and Destructive Revelry isn't going to flip the Bogles matchup on its head, anyway).
We haven't seen the perfect iteration of this deck. There are yet more angles to consider, technology to uncover, and innovative cards to include. For example, Eric Severson played two copies of Bloodrage Brawler, while Brennan Decandio played Haunted Dead and Yuuki Ichikawa chose to include multi-format all-star Bomat Courier!
Clearly, Vengevine decks aren't "finished." We've seen Humans, Hollow One and now KCI become further and further refined in the weeks and months since they debuted, and you can expect to see a similar thing moving forward as this deck picks up more and more attention and steam.
Right now, I'm sticking with a "classic" build. I'm not interested in flashy, frilly creatures - I like the deck when it's at its leanest and meanest. Cheap creatures that are ready to die, plenty of ways to make the most of the deck's two huge payoffs – I want to be triggering both Vengevine and Bridge from Below very early and very often.
Make no mistake - this deck is here to stay, and it's yet to unleash its final form. It offers consistency, resilient, and a good deal of explosive power. I've said it before, and I'll say it again – don't leave home without plenty of graveyard hate!
- Riley Knight