Two Modern Grand Prix in June put Modern in the spotlight, and players continue to competitively play Modern in Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and in Magic Online events. I can't speak for every area, but Modern is very popular locally, and the nearest card shop hosts two Modern events each week. All of these events, large and small, drive innovation and impact metagames. I have been paying close attention to Modern, and recently there has been a trend developing that is indication of where the format is headed.
On Magic Online, where the metagame moves the fastest, blue control decks - specifically blue control decks capable of playing an aggro-control game plan with a mix of threats and disruption - are experiencing a renaissance. These aggro-control decks combine efficient and flexible disruption spells with powerful aggressive creatures to create a total package that has the potential to win any game against any opponent.
Most Modern decks are highly focused and relentlessly execute their own game plans, so it's necessary to have something that closes the opponent's window of opportunity. By playing threats, aggro-control decks have a proactive plan of their own and that sets a timeline for the opponent and pressures them into action.
With the Modern metagame transparent in the wake of major events, control players are able to accurately predict and exploit the metagame with a suite of reactive spells that efficiently disrupt the opponent. Aggro-control decks heavily feature a tempo element because their ability to spend mana and develop the board more effectively than their opponents.
The disruption suites of aggro-control decks heavily counter spells, which can disrupt any and every strategy. Aggro-control decks in Modern play a mixed assortment of efficient Counterspells that are effective for disrupting the synergies that Modern decks rely on. Counterspells are often used create a tempo advantage by setting the opponent back more mana sunk into the countered spell than the control deck paid for the Counterspell.
Aggro-control decks in Modern play a large creature removal suite, which is necessary against a metagame where essentially every deck relies on creatures to win, including combo decks. The creature removal comes in two forms: dedicated creature removal and more flexible burn spells, but both of them can create a tempo advantage by efficiently containing the opponent's board.
Control decks typically take better advantage of sideboarding than their opponents do, and control decks tend to gain win percentage in sideboard games over more linear and exploitable combo and aggressive decks. Control decks in Modern have access to a wide assortment of extremely powerful and efficient hate cards for attacking any conceivable strategy, and skilled control deckbuilders are able to accurately predict the metagame of a tournament and attack it with the appropriate sideboard cards. Aggro-control decks seamlessly shift during sideboard to combat the opponent at hand by sideboarding out the most ineffectual maindeck cards for a variety of sideboard cards that typically include Counterspells, creature removal, and an assortment of dedicated hate cards that prey on the various linear strategies in Modern.
Delver of Secrets
On Independence Day, DeepFinesse won this season's Magic Online Championship Series with Grixis Delver, the archetype that exemplifies aggro-control in Modern:
This past weekend, chiralane won the Modern Pro Tour Qualifier Finals on Magic Online with Grixis Delver:
Grixis Delver's namesake is Delver of Secrets, whose inclusion in any deck is a strong sign that it occupies the aggro-control niche. Arguably the best aggressive blue creature of all time, the "blue Wild Nacatl" puts a fast clock on the opponent early in the game, and it demands that they execute their game plan or die. Grixis Delver plays nearly 50% spells so it has a reasonable chance of flipping Delver of Secrets on any given turn, but Serum Visions gives the deck the ability to set the top of its library and guarantee the flip. This deck can also effectively use the upkeep trigger of Delver of Secrets as a card-selection effect. When the top card is not a good draw, Thought Scour or fetchlands will put a random card on top.
Grixis Delver is also able to create significant board presence with its package of powerful delve creatures, Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. These creatures are large, dodge many of the most commonly played removal spells, and either shut down opposing offense or quickly apply pressure. These creatures do a fine imitation of Tarmogoyf, an aggro-control staple in every format it has been legal. While their high delve costs make these cards restrictive, the combination of fetch lands and cheap spells, including Gitaxian Probe, makes them a reality. These creatures are supercharged by Thought Scour, which reduces their cost by three mana and allows them to be cast as early as turn two. This two-card combo is a backbone of the archetype and a key reason why it has been so successful.
Young Pyromancer is another way to develop the board. Rather than go big, like the delve creatures, it goes wide, and generates a swarm of creatures that opponents relying on pinpoint removal spells will not be able to deal with. Uncontested, Young Pyromancer will take over the game, but often just a couple of tokens is all that is required to Turn the Tide of battle.
Snapcaster Mage is another key feature of the archetype; it is a card that's equal parts board presence and disruption. It applies that extra bit of pressure the deck needs to win games, and it's a defensive stalwart. It's a flexible jack-of-all-trades, and it's also notable for its strength when recycling sideboard cards.
On the disruption side, Terminate is a strong incentive for playing Grixis as a flexible and powerful removal spell that will efficiently destroy any threat in the format. Every deck in Modern plays creatures that need killing, and Terminate does the job.
Lightning Bolt is the main removal of Grixis Delver because it doubles as win condition. It's never a dead card against any opponent because it can always go to their life total.
Kolaghan's Command generates card advantage when it makes the opponent discard or a card or returns a creature from the graveyard, and its ability to destroy a creature and/or an artifact can be a strong tempo play.
Grixis Delver is able to wage a full-fledged attrition war over a long game because of the interaction between Kolaghan's Command and Snapcaster Mage, which can chain into each other and generate massive card advantage. Grixis Delver also has a land count of just 18, many of those being fetchlands that further thin the deck of lands; Grixis Delver is dense in action and, over a long game, will draw more spells than its opponent.
The Grixis Delver sideboard includes a mix of Counterspells, some archetype-specific hate cards, and Blood Moon. Dispel and Negate are excellent against control opponents, Burn decks, and most combo opponents, so these flexible cards highlight the sideboard of nearly every decklist. Against Affinity I recommend Vandalblast which, when Overloaded, destroys Etched Champion, as does Engineered Explosives. Burn is among the worst matchups so players turn to cards like Dragon's Claw, Tribute to Hunger, Death's Shadow, and Vampiric Link for relief.
Bitterblossom is an interesting piece of tech that has been picking in popularity; it's best for attacking grindy attrition matchups like the mirror match and Grixis control.
It's also possible to play aggro-control in a different style. Many players are forgoing Delver of Secrets in favor of Geist of Saint Traft.
Geist of Saint Traft
In the finals of last weekend's MTGO PTQ was a Jeskai deck featuring Geist of Saint Traft and Restoration Angel:
This deck is a throwback to Modern decks of old, which forego black for the best that white has to offer. Instead of playing Delver of Secrets, which is aggressive and efficient but very flimsy, this deck turns to Geist of Saint Traft which, with hexproof, is very robust. Modern is increasingly disruption heavy and is moving towards black removal spells and burn spells everywhere, so having a threat immune to all of this is immensely powerful. Grixis decks simply lack ways to interact with Geist of Saint Traft beyond Counterspells and blockers, and that leaves them in a tough spot.
Creating a 4/4 Angel Token, Geist of Saint Traft is effectively a six-power creature. This deck is full of removal spells, including playsets of Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Path to Exile, so its easily able to Clear a Path into the red zone for Geist of Saint Traft. Against combo opponents it's unlikely to meet much resistance, so it's free to attack, and will end the game in just a few turns at most.
Restoration Angel is an incredible aggro-control card that fills many roles. One, it has flash, so it can always be cast at the optimal time, often safely slipped into play at the end of the opponent's turn. It also has synergy with the other creatures in the deck. It can target Snapcaster Mage to flashback another spell, and it can also be cast on Geist of Saint Traft after it has attacked to save it from blockers. It can also get another trigger from Vendilion Clique. Restoration Angel also dodges Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay.
The feature of burn spells as removal doubling as a win condition is magnified here compared to Grixis Delver, because Lightning Helix gives the deck twice as much burn potential, and it will be going to the dome against opponents more often. The card is simply excellent against aggressive decks like Zoo, Burn, and Affinity, where the life gain goes a long way towards winning the game.
Path to Exile is the most efficient removal spell in Modern, and is half the cost of Terminate. For one mana it deals with any creature, and it's great with Snapcaster Mage. Giving lands to the opponent is a big deal, especially on turn one, but in many situations lands from Path to Exile just don't matter, especially as games draw on.
This deck also includes Cryptic Command, which gives the deck a powerful and flexible tool for interacting with the opponent. The ability to tap opposing creatures is especially notable for its ability to send Geist of Saint Traft past blockers.
Compared to Grixis Delver, this deck also includes manlands. Celestial Colonnade is mana fixing that turns into a powerful flying threat in the late game. Celestial Colonnade is essentially a Stormbreath Dragon: a 4/4 Flyer that hits instantly and quickly closes the door on the opponent. By having a land serve as a threat, this deck is better in attrition battles and is less likely to run out of action, and it's more threat dense than it looks. This feature of the deck is a distinct strategic advantage of the deck compared to those lacking manlands.
White is the best sideboard color in Modern, and white control decks have the best sideboards in Modern. Rather than being forced to play mediocre burn hate, white decks can include Kor Firewalker, a Dragon's Claw that impacts the board and is immune to artifact removal, and an impossibly good card that gives red decks fits. Celestial Purge and Wear // Tear are other good examples of what white has to offer.
Finishing in fifth place of the PTQ was a UW Geist of Saint Traft Control deck
This deck gives up red altogether and sticks to a UW shell. The manabase is strong, including four Seachrome Coast, and the two-color deck is able to support four colorless lands in Tectonic Edge, which give it extra disruptive power compared to three-color decks.
Without red, this deck turns to Dismember to supplement Path to Exile. This deck doesn't have as many cheap removal options as do decks with more colors, so it plays a heavy Counterspell suite with a full playset of Spell Snare. This card helps the deck to control the game and allow its more powerful expensive spells to win the game.
With a full playset of Kitchen Finks, this deck plays a heavier creature suite than the Jeskai Geist deck. This extra board presence against life gain is crushing against aggressive decks like Burn and Zoo, and with Persist, it's a nightmare attrition card for other control decks to deal with, especially Grixis decks that rely on burn and black removal.
This sideboard features some of the more potent white cards available, including Stony Silence and Aven Mindcensor. Sunlance is a great option that gives white decks a very efficient removal spell against some opponents.
The Aggressive Mindset
In a Modern world where everyone is out to eat you, the best defense is to eat them, and it's no surprise that the most successful control decks are those that take on an aggressive stance and fight fire with fire. Delver of Secrets and Geist of Saint Traft are uniquely positioned to attack the metagame because they are incredibly efficient and effective when decks are built around utilizing them. Backed up by disruption, these creatures are capable of winning the game without help from any other creatures, so they provide aggro-control decks with a base on which to build the rest of their strategy. As the Modern metagame develops and becomes more stable and predictable, control decks will continue to thrive, and aggro-control decks utilizing creatures like Delver of Secrets and Geist of Saint Traft will be at the forefront.