The release of excellent new Aether Revolt cards like Fatal Push and the bannings of Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll have brought about significant change in the Modern metagame, but it wasn't until this past weekend that the format was put under the competitive spotlight of two Grand Prix for the world to see. Deckbuilders and brewers have been hard at work preparing over the past weeks, and now we can enjoy the fruits of their labor. Today I'll cover the important Modern trends to be aware of and the must-see decks from the Grand Prix weekend and recent Magic Online events.
The biggest Modern news of the week was the incredible performance of Death's Shadow. Most players thought the deck dead in the water after the banning of Gitaxian Probe, but Magic Online players have been quietly working on the deck and posting strong results. Things came to a head last weekend in Vancouver, where several pro players took hold of the deck and piloted it to the top of the standings, including Gerry Thompson, Sam Black, who has been advocating Death's Shadow Aggro decks for nearly a year, and Josh "Wrapter" Utter-Leyton, who ultimately won the event.
Rather than being positioned as an all-in hyper-aggressive deck like it was with Gitaxian Probe and Become Immense, the deck has been re-imagined as a Jund deck that uses Death's Shadow as something like a Tarmogoyf, which the deck also uses a set of to apply pressure and control the battlefield just in like a Jund deck. These threats are supported with a heavy disruption suite that allows it to play something like the traditional Jund game plan, with eight one-mana discard spells, Liliana of the Veil and Kolaghan's Command. Fatal Push gives the deck a piece of removal even more efficient than Abrupt Decay, and Tarfire is a Lightning Bolt stand-in that helps to boost Tarmogoyf and enable delirium.
The deck is held together by Traverse the Ulvenwald. It mostly functions as mana-fixing or extra copies of Death's Shadow, but also allows access to a toolbox of silver-bullets. Ghor-Clan Rampager pushes a Death's Shadow through blockers to end games, and Ranger of Eos out of the sideboard will find two Death's Shadow and punish anyone trying to play the control game with creature removal.
Lingering Souls is central to the sideboard plan, because it allows the deck to bring in the perfect threat against opponents that overloads on pinpoint removal to stop Death's Shadow and Tarmogoyf, and it overloads board wipes like Engineered Explosives.
The Death's Shadow deck had another big performance in the hands of Matt Nass on his way to winning the SCG Team Open last weekend, and it even reached the semifinals of the Modern Classic. The deck looks like one of the top decks to beat in the new Modern, and will demand that the metagame reacts. Non-interactive linear decks are the easier prey for this deck, including land-based strategies, combo and even Burn, so it will demand players move to more interactive options, like Bant Eldrazi, Abzan, traditional Jund decks, and control strategies like Grixis and Jeskai.
Urzatron decks had begun to see a resurgence before the bannings as a way to topple fair decks like Jund and Bant Eldrazi, and furthermore they were big winners from the banning of Gitaxian Probe hobbling their archenemy, Infect. The fastest-growing segment of Urzatron decks are Eldrazi Tron, which combines the typical curve of familiar Eldrazi creatures with the mana-producing power of the Urza lands to create a super-charged midrange creature deck that can go over the top with huge threats. People have been playing Eldrazi with Urzatron for as long as they have been in Modern together, but the deck hasn't been more than an interesting curiosity that lacked the tools to consistently compete with the best decks in Modern. The bannings, along with a fantastic new tool from Aether Revolt inWalking Ballista have pushed Eldrazi Tron to the top of the standings.
The impact of Aether Revolt on Modern is deeper than Fatal Push, and the Standard-defining Walking Ballista has also earned a place in Modern. It's a perfect fit into the Eldrazi Tron deck, which it has elevated to top-tier status with its versatile ability to interact with the opponent early in the game or completely take over the game later on. Walking Ballista is an ideal way to interact with creature decks like Affinity, Infect or Chord of Calling decks that are otherwise the most difficult opponents for Eldrazi Tron. Walking Ballista can trigger Sanctum of Ugin, or be found by it, and its ability to add counters is a great mana sink. Walking Ballista is devastating with Basilisk Collar, which it turns into a sniper rifle that one-shots enemy creatures. The equipment is great in the deck because it's also perfect for slapping onto large Eldrazi creatures and pushing through blockers while gaining life.
Eldrazi Tron uses Chalice of the Void to contain opposing spells and leave them vulnerable to being run over by efficient Eldrazi creatures. It's one of the most powerful and oppressive cards in Modern and could be banned at some point, and no deck uses it better than Eldrazi Tron. It's integral to the success of Eldrazi Tron and the best reason to be playing the deck.
The metagame will need to push back against Eldrazi Tron with hate against land, like Fulminator Mage and Blood Moon, but one of the strengths of the deck is that it can function without fast mana by playing a fair creature game. A better plan for beating Eldrazi Tron may be to shift strategically, like to the faster Affinity deck that they have trouble containing, or to a bigger Urzatron deck that goes over the top of Eldrazi.
Urzatron decks in Modern have traditionally played red for Pyroclasm or Firespout as a sweeper, but recently white Tron decks with Path to Exile have risen to prominence because powerful pinpoint removal is better in the metagame than sweepers. This concept has allowed Urzatron decks to now play black and Fatal Push, which is an even more effective removal spell because it doesn't help the opponent by giving them a land.
Revolt is easily triggered by Chromatic Star and Chromatic Sphere, which can also conveniently produce black mana to cast Fatal Push. Black also provides Collective Brutality, which is a brutal piece of disruption against the fastest aggressive creature decks and combo decks that are typically the toughest opponents for Urzatron decks. From the sideboard, Thoughtseize provides further disruption and a unique tool that Tron decks historically haven't had access to, which will do much to solve problems against combo decks.
The banning of Golgari Grave-Troll was widely seen as a death knell for Dredge, which rose to prominence only after Golgari Grave-Troll was unbanned. The reality of the situation is that Dredge has only become competitive because of the powerful new cards it received relatively recently in Prized Amalgam, Insolent Neonate and Cathartic Reunion, and that by replacing Golgari Grave-Troll with Golgari Thug the deck can survive as a toned-down version of its former self.
Judging by Dredge putting up second and third place finishes at Grand Prix Brisbane, Dredge is still plenty competitive and will demand that the metagame reacts with hate cards or be run over.
The Abzan deck built to assemble combos with Collected Company and Chord of Calling has gained an excellent new tool from Aether Revolt in Renegade Rallier, a creature it can find to generate value from the graveyard. It's generally much better than Eternal Witness because it can put cards right into play. It can go infinite with Saffi Eriksdotter and a Viscera Seer, but the build Eric Severson played to the Top 8 of Grand Prix Vancouver eschews that combo and simply uses Renegade Rallier for value.
Severson includes the Spiker Feeder-Archangel of Thune combo to bypass the graveyard hate that stops Renegade Rallier and the persist creature combos, which makes the deck hard to disrupt completely.
Also note that Tireless Tracker has earned a place in the main deck as a value creature. The card is increasingly showing up in Eternal formats, and it's clear Tireless Tracker is one of the all-time great creatures. In some ways it's an alternate game plan by itself, a one-card combo that generate value, especially with fetch lands, and eventually grows into the biggest creature in play. A second copy in the sideboard helps the deck play fair against disruption.
Keep in mind that Abzan Company is difficult to operate on Magic Online because it uses infinite combos, and for that reason it's underrepresented there. Be sure to keep Abzan Company in mind for paper events if you are doing most of your testing online, because it's a powerful and consistent deck that's on the rise.
The black deck built around discard and The Rack has always been known as a unique and gruesome Modern deck, but not for its competitiveness. But 8-Rack has received a very useful new tool in Fatal Push, and it has helped the deck move from a novelty to something to seriously consider after it narrowly missed the Top 8 in Vancouver.
The Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo have proven excellent in Standard, but it hasn't completely taken control of the format like many expected. The combo might be even better in Modern, where there are better support cards to play with. Check out the list that made the Top 32 in Brisbane, which shows the deck does have real potential.
There are excellent creatures to copy with Saheeli Rai or blink with Felidar Guardian, like Snapcaster Mage and fun cards like Pia and Kiran Nalaar and Sun Titan, which can return a fallen Saheeli Rai to play. A strong spell suite of Serum Visions, Lightning Bolt and Remand allow the deck to play much like the old Jeskai Splinter Twin decks. With further development the deck could prove to be a very real threat in Modern.
Living End decks didn't see much play or press in 2016, but they are still here and may be in great position to exploit the metagame.
The deck has received a new tool in Kari Zev's Expertise, which can cast a Living End stranded in hand. It adds a bit of something extra to the deck, and I wonder how helpful it was in getting Living End to the final four of Grand Prix Brisbane.
An emerging trend on Magic Online is a Gifts Ungiven version of Storm that uses Baral, Chief of Compliance as extra copies of Goblin Electromancer to further reduce the costs of its key spells like Past in Flames. Including Remand gives the deck a bit of disruption that Modern Storm isn't used to, and it allows the deck to get full value out of the legend as a card selection engine, not to mention giving it the ability to Remand its own Grapshot to double up on the win condition when needed.
Maybe I am just obsessed with Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballista, but the coolest Modern deck I've seen in recent memory is this deck that uses the combination in Modern.
The deck also gets access to Hardened Scales, so it goes all in on the +1/+1 counter plan with cards like Hangarback Walker and even Arcbound Ravager, which is perfect for loading Hangarback or Walking Ballista with extra counters. Arcbound Worker was a staple of the original Mirrodin-era Affinity decks and a card I remember fondly, so it's an exciting prospect to play the card in the Modern era in a deck where it will be better than it has ever been before.
For a deeper look at how the Modern metagame is shaping up, check out all of the top decklists from Vancouver and from Brisbane, or dig into the entire deck database that includeslists from Magic Online and those submitted from the community. What are your favorite decks? What do you make of these Modern trends? Share your thoughts in the comments!