What does redundancy have to do with the state of Modern? The short answer is: everything. It has everything to do with Modern in the last four months. Redundant decks like Lantern Control, Titanshift and green-based Tron decks are spiking in popularity in the past few months. Why? This shift in top decks has one card to blame, or more accurately one ominous shadow to blame. A shadow that preys on certain cards, decks, and sometimes even entire strategies. I am of course talking about Death's Shadow and its army of hand disruption spells, and with the Modern Pro Tour coming up it's vital to figure out where the former boogeyman stands in the format.
Death's Shadow was once the only thing to play in Modern if your goal was winning. It's a deck that absolutely destroys non-redundant strategies. Being able to deal with key cards that certain decks rely on like Ad Nauseam, Through the Breach, Amulet of Vigor or even just taking a key pump spell that is needed for the Infect player to finish you off. This type of metagame is open season for Death's Shadow efficiency in disruption. It simply picks your hand apart and can close out a game so quickly, most non-redundant strategies can't even find their footing to play a decent game of Magic.
But we have seen a huge decline in Death's Shadow's Top 8 appearances as of late, so what gives? It's due to a lot of these decks that Death's Shadow crushes are fading into the shadows. Pun intended. The biggest nightmare for a Grixis Death's Shadow player is to Thoughtseize your opponent and look down at a hand that has two different cards that kill you. This rarely happens when it comes to playing against non-redundant strategies. These now fringe combo decks focus all their energy on trying to protect their one key spell. Being able to strip it for one mana and still put down a game-ending threat is too much for these strategies to handle. In turn, every deck has had to adapt to beat the menace. Almost every strategy we are seeing on the rise lately is a very redundant deck; they are the only ones that can consistently beat the once boogeyman of the format.
For example, let's take a look at the Top 8 of the last Modern GP. We had three Tron, two Titanshift, a Living End, Dredge, and one Jeskai-Breach deck. If we look at which of these decks Death's Shadow would like to play against, we would be left scratching our heads. All of these decks have so much redundancy to them. But wait, didn't I just say that Death's Shadow preys on Through the Breach decks? Well, it sure does, with most Breach lists anyways. Let's take a look at this Through the Breach list by Patrick Tierney that made Top 8.
Even the one deck that should have non-redundant qualities has made drastic changes to make sure that the Death's Shadow matchup isn't a trainwreck. Patrick's interesting take on this combo deck is just a big sign of the direction that Modern is heading towards. Patrick isn't playing a one-dimensional combo deck, he is trying to attack the metagame at a few different angles. This innovation and understanding of the metagame allowed him to run rampant through the swiss. He rattled off a 13-1-1 record until falling victim to one of the Primeval Titan decks in the Top 8.
So, what does it mean when a deck like Grixis Death's Shadow pushes out these very explosive non-redundant decks? It means exactly what is happening in our current state of Modern. Big mana decks like Tron and Primeval Titan decks are becoming much more popular. Why? Yep, you guessed it, it all revolves around redundancy. These decks are very hard to disrupt. Half of the deck searches for mana, the other half kills you. There is not one specific card that either of these decks need to get your opponent's life-total from 20 to 0.
Even combo decks have had to make a huge adjustment to remain relevant in our current state of Modern. The current combo deck of choice is Storm. This deck plays by the same rules. It is a deck that every card either cantrips, searches for combo pieces or kills your opponent. Storm may not be the most powerful and explosive combo deck, but it sure as hell is the most resilient combo one in the format.
Now let's look at everyone's least favorite control deck. Lantern Control is a deck that has picked up a lot of popularity because of its resiliency. If you deal with one of its Lantern effects, guess what, they have another 12 ways to get access to another annoying copy.
So, how do we beat these redundant decks with Shadow? You play much more explosive decks like Ad Nauseum, Infect, Amulet Bloom, and Blue-Red Breach. Ironic, right? The redundant decks that are taking over the top tables, while very powerful, they are still doing the same thing game after game. That leaves us with an open opportunity to take advantage of them. If we know that these decks are going to be spending the first two to three turns setting up, we know we can spend those turns taking advantage of them as much as possible. A deck that is very redundant is also very predictable. When we play a deck like Storm, Primeval Titan decks and Tron, we sacrifice speed for resiliency. The reason I think these decks lose to our non-redundant strategies is just the plain and simple fact that these decks are just one turn faster. That extra turn does come at a serious price – we lose some consistency and gain some vulnerability. So, are these high-risk, high-reward decks worth it?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a plain and simple yes or no. If you expect nothing but Scapeshift and Tron decks at your next event, I would be overjoyed to pick up a Breach deck or Ad Nauseum. If you expect people are going to try to level these big-mana strategies with these non-redundant combo decks, then it might be time to pick up everyone's favorite one-drop, Death's Shadow. The problem with Modern is there are so many decks that you can't have a good plan against everything. You just have to accept that. The thing you can do is try to leverage as many good matchups as you can. Let's put this metagame into a rock-paper-scissor template. If rock is our redundant decks like Scapeshift, Tron, Storm, Jeskai Geist, Five-Color Humans, and Lantern, that makes paper explosive combo decks like Ad Nauseum, Infect, Amulet Bloom and Through the Breach decks. Which would leave our scissors decks to be Grixis Death's Shadow, Jund/Abzan, Eldrazi Tron and even Mardu Midrange with all the one-mana disruption spells it has.
This leaves us with a simplified metagame breakdown that can allow us to choose a deck. If we have a metagame in the state of "rock," which I think we are in now; picking an explosive deck would be a great choice. If you want to be ahead of the game and next level opponents we would want to be a deck in the "scissors" category. This is a dangerous avenue to take – you might just end up leveling yourself by thinking too far ahead of the competition. You may think everyone is going to adapt and choose "paper" to cover those pesky "rocks," when in reality people are just sticking with "rock" and your "scissors" is going to have a very sad day. It has happened to me many times. Modern is in a state of Rock-Paper-Scissors right now. The metagame shift is going to cause these decks to fluctuate week in and week out. I would not be surprised to see a decent number of explosive combo decks taking up some Top 8 slots at the next premier Modern events. The week after might be followed by a huge spike in Grixis Death's Shadow.
Try to look at the last week's events and try to decipher which state of rock-paper-scissors we are in. While I don't think Modern is that simple, I do think that it is a very good starting point for figuring out which style of deck you would like to play. Having a plan that is actively beating a strategy that did well the weekend before is a great place to be in Modern, or Magic in general. Adapting is the name of the game.
With decks finding a way to beat Death's Shadow, we find ourselves in a very exciting and diverse metagame. While these redundant decks might not be the most exciting decks to play, they are serving a great purpose in keeping Death's Shadow in check. I believe that Grand Prix have a much wider variety of decks, therefore a harder metagame to dissect, and predict. We are going to see a much more focused metagame with much fewer decks when it comes time for the Pro Tour in a month. It will be exciting to see which rock, paper or scissor metagame dominates the top tables in Bilbao, Spain. Will redundancy reign? Will Death's Shadow take his spot back on top? Or will a new strategy Break Open the format? We are going to find out come Pro Tour time! Thanks as always for reading everyone, and I can't wait to catch up with all of you in the comments. Happy holidays!
- Corey Baumeister