The bulk of my attention as of late has been laser-focused on Modern. This upcoming weekend I am teaming up with Brad Nelson and Todd Anderson – getting the old gang back together – for a team event where I am the Modern player. A few weeks from now I will also be attending Grand Prix Hartford where I will also be dabbling in the dark arts of Modern. I'll be transitioning to Legacy testing for GP Seattle soon, but in the meantime, it's all Modern all the time.
My Modern testing has focused predominantly on three decks, Lantern Control, Black-Red Hollow One and Grixis Midrange. Three wildly different decks, but yet three decks that all cater to my playstyle and the kinds of things I enjoy doing. I'm going to talk about my current list for all three decks and what I have learned about them in the past few weeks of grinding.
I considered starting my article with Lantern Control, but then I realized that the goal is to attract an audience, not scare them away with constant talk of getting Shredded and Lanturning the corner and walking on pins and Needles.
Grixis it is.
The inspiration to build this deck came from my working theory on how Jace, the Mind Sculptor functions as a Magic card. I firmly believe that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is not a great control card. It is better in midrange and combo decks. The two most powerful times to play a Jace, the Mind Sculptor is when your opponent is either reeling from what you've already done in the game or has to be afraid of what your next turn is going to be. Midrange decks allow you to play proactive Jace, the Mind Sculptors to take over a game after they have had to weather your flurry of discard spells and early creatures. Combo decks pressure the opponent to answer your Jace, while also leaving them afraid of the Primeval Titan, Through the Breach or Scapeshift that is coming right afterward. Traditionally, I haven't been much of a combo player, so for me to want to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, midrange seemed best suited for me.
The idea that has been rolling around in my mind for weeks now is to take the early disruption of a deck like Grixis Death's Shadow and instead of using that disruption to clear the way for Death's Shadow, use it to clear the way for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This means playing early threats that demand answers, lots of discard, and cheap removal spells. Two threats immediately jumped to mind. The first was Young Pyromancer. I am a huge Young Pyromancer fanboy. I don't play the card that much in events, but from time to time I find myself brewing up some Young Pyromancer deck in Modern or Legacy that I jam for a while just because I love the card so much.
Young Pyromancer seemed like the perfect threat for a deck like this. It comes down early, generates a big advantage if left untouched, and pressures your opponent to answer it, which is exactly the kind of proactive gameplan that plays well into a Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
The other threat is Gurmag Angler. As I discovered from playing this deck, nobody ever beats Gurmag Angler. That sounds like hyperbole, but it's honestly not that far from the truth. If you have a hand that allows you to play a turn two or three Gurmag Angler backed up by interaction, it pretty much always just deals the full 20 by itself. I wish I could say that I was joking in some capacity, but I most assuredly am not. Gurmag has all the anglers covered.
I found that Young Pyromancer and Gurmag Angler work really well together. Young Pyromancer is a great threat if left untouched and attacks your opponent by spraying the board and going wide, whereas Gurmag Angler is a phenomenal threat in matchups where Young Pyromancer dies easily to cards like Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push that don't touch the Gurms.
This deck performed reasonably well against other control and midrange decks. It was insanely good against Affinity, where I never lost a match in many attempts. Grixis Midrange seemed to perform well against other creature-oriented decks, as I beat various taxes and Collected Company decks many times. I also found that the deck was pretty good against Eldrazi decks, especially Red-Green Eldrazi and Colorless Eldrazi. Eldrazi Tron was tougher, and I'd say it was unfavorable overall. In fact, all big mana decks were tough matchups. Burn was a nightmare. Various combo decks like Goryo's Vengeance and Storm seemed to be pretty favorable. In fact, I liked my matchup against them with this deck more than I did when I was playing Grixis Death's Shadow. I also found this deck, very surprisingly, to be fairly decent against Hollow One as both Young Pyromancer and Gurmag Angler are phenomenal threats against them. With that said, if the Hollow One deck boards into Big Game Hunter for Gurmag, then it swings the matchup a bunch.
One thing I did lose to a bunch was just myself. Sometimes you flood out. Sometimes you draw the wrong cards. Sometimes you get stuck on two lands with a bunch of Kolaghan's Commands and Jaces in hand. I mostly lost to some of the traditional "wrong half of the deck" problems that have plagued midrange decks for eternity.
I've started to keep in depth stats on all the matches I've played in testing on Magic Online, but unfortunately I started doing that after I had concluded testing with this deck. I don't have any stats on my win percentage with this deck, but I would guess about 65%.
I started testing this deck after my experiences with it in the Team Modern Super League. Without going into too much detail about the Team Modern Super League, the basic gist is that I was on a team with Seth Manfield and Brad Nelson and each week the opposing team brought the Hollowcious One as one of their deck choices. It fell on me to test the enemy's Hollow One deck against some of the decks that we had brought to the table.
I was surprised by what I discovered. I thought I was just Hollowcinating, but in reality Hollow One was very good. I was beating almost everything with it in testing, and that played out in the stream itself when Gabriel Nassif went 4-0 against us with Hollow One. After that slaughter, I decided to start testing Hollow One myself.
I went 9-0 in my first matches with the deck, but things quickly fell back down to reality after that. In 53 matches, I ended up having a 62% win rate with the deck, which is solid but nothing too crazy, especially after starting a perfect 9-0 with the deck.
Hollow One is actually a very difficult deck to play proficiently. It is a very technical deck. The deck is very much based on math, sequencing, planning ahead and figuring out how to get the most out of your cards. There is an astronomical difference between how explosive the deck is when sequenced correctly versus how it plays out when sequenced incorrectly.
One thing often misattributed to the deck is how high variance it is. While there is a lot of variance to Hollow One – sometimes you put two Hollow Ones into play on turn two and your opponent is just straight dead and sometimes the best you can do is a turn two Bloodghast – most often the variance works in your favor. Even the mediocre hands with this deck still usually play out fairly well.
Even when your Burning Inquiry makes you discard Hollow One, it still frequently lets you put Bloodghasts into play or cast a turn two Gurmag Angler anyway. There is a lot of variance, but the key thing to realize is that the bad variance isn't actually that bad while the good variance usually results in such an unbelievable start that almost no decks can compete.
One other thing about Hollow One is that the deck also has a very low amount of variance in some regards. The deck functions off very few lands. Three is optimal, but two will often suffice for a while. The deck also only runs 18 lands and has Faithless Looting to help smooth out draws. What this means is that it is very hard to either flood out or get mana screwed with Hollow One. So, while your Goblin Lore and Burning Inquiries may have variance as to whether you're casting Bloodghast or casting two Hollow Ones, they also greatly reduced variance in that you're highly unlikely to flood or screw with the deck, which is very nice. In some ways it is the most consistent deck in Modern, which I found fairly humorous, given its nature and stigma.
The biggest thing about piloting Hollow One is to be very conscientious of how you sequence. For example, one line I like to often make is to play a fetch land before I cast Burning Inquiry. That way I know that I am going to hit my land drop for the turn. I can't lose them all randomly to Burning Inquiry and be stuck without a land drop. By playing a fetch, however, if I do discard Bloodghasts to Burning Inquiry, I can still crack the fetch and get them into play afterward, which wouldn't work with a non-fetch. It's little micro decisions like this that can make or break how well you perform with the deck, because every point and every edge matters in a deck that is trying to kill the opponent quickly without a serious endgame.
On the flip side, many times you want to hold extra lands so that you're more likely to discard them to Burning Inquiry or Goblin Lore.
I've done a ton of tinkering to end up on this sideboard. I'm pretty happy with every slot except maybe the Blood Moon and Collective Brutality in the sideboard. I played some with cards like Thoughtseize, but I didn't like Thoughtseize much. One thing I found about this deck is that the best mana cost for high-impact sideboard cards is three mana. On turn one, you pretty much always want to play a Faithless Looting, Flameblade Adept or Burning Inquiry. On turn two, you want to be casting Gurmag Angler, Goblin Lore, or Faithless Looting plus Hollow One.
I found that when I spent my first two turns playing disruptive elements like Lightning Bolt or Thoughtseize rather than develop my own game plan I often fell too far behind or ended up being too slow to win the game. The deck functions much better when you wait on your disruption until turn three. With that being the case, I found Thoughtseize to be very low impact on turn three. Sometimes my opponent had too many cards I cared about. Sometimes it just wasn't worth spending a mana on, which I know sounds ridiculous, but the biggest thing holding this explosive deck back is how much mana you have access to in the early turns.
Also, Thoughtseize was a really bad topdeck late in the game. Frequently, this deck gets into spots where you're hoping to draw haste creatures or burn spells to finish the game when your opponent is starting to stabilize. You don't always have a looting effect to throw a Thoughtseize away, and sometimes drawing them late is basically the worst thing that can happen when any land gets back Bloodghasts and any other spell is either a relevant creature or can dig for creatures.
I found Blightning to be way superior. Opponents will lower their curve and spew cards early in the game to match pace with your deck, which means that sometimes a turn three Blightning will be devastating, and Blightning is also just a great topdeck later in the game because it is at worst a Lightning Bolt to the face in a spot where you actively want to draw Lightning Bolt.
Overall, I think this is one of the best decks in the format, but my win percentage was lower with it than I would like, which either means that the deck isn't quite as good as I think it is or that I need to improve in piloting it.
This is my current Lantern list. I spent some time toying with not having a Grafdigger's Cage in the main deck, but with Hollow One becoming such an important part of the format, Cage has become good enough again. I've actually gone back to not only main decking it, but also having a second Cage in the sideboard as well.
Search for Azcanta is completely gone. I used to like this card against Jund, but Bloodbraid Elf has sped the deck up by such a huge amount that you just don't have time anymore. Same with Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. There was a point where I was once willing to play three Tezzeret in the sideboard. Now I have one and I would play zero if Tron wasn't still a big part of the metagame. I basically only side in Tezzeret against pure control and Tron and very little else.
There are three cards I want to talk about that have been instrumental in my recent success with the deck.
The first is Ghirapur Aether Grid, or GAG. I refer to beating my opponents with this card as putting a GAG order on them. They can't discuss how badly they were beaten by it. A lot of Lantern experts don't like this card, but I simply do not get why. I win so many games with this card where no other card would win me the game. It is simply an unbelievably good card against any Birds of Paradise/Noble Hierarch deck and I've even started to like bringing it in against Jace control decks where the creatures are Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique since it can protect your life total like Ensnaring Bridge does but it can also kill Jace.
Hell, I won a match against Mardu where Aether Grid killed Nahiri, Chandra, and two Kambals over the course of the game. No other card wins me that game. I would have needed two Abrupt Decays and two Pithing Needles to beat those four cards! I've heard this card referred to as a win-more card, but against a lot of decks, like various CoCo strategies, it's not really a win-more card but rather an only-way-I-win card.
The second card is Padeem, Consul of Innovation. "Impress me." Well, let's just say I have been thoroughly impressed. I've also heard many other Lantern experts poo-pooing this card and I simply do not get why. Bloodbraid Elf has turned Modern into an Ancient Grudge format. There are so many decks these days playing heavy combinations of Ancient Grudge, Natural State and Reclamation Sage. But those decks are relying on Bolt as their removal spell or keep in no removal after sideboard and Padeem just single-handedly destroys them. They can't kill Padeem and they can't touch your now hexproof artifacts. I even beat Fracturing Gust once because Padeem was drawing me so many cards that my opponent eventually had to just pull the trigger on Gust and I reassembled my entire board again the next turn.
Padeem isn't only good against decks that play Ancient Grudge, however. I bring in Padeem against every single Noble Hierarch deck except Infect. Padeem blocks Noble Hierarch and those decks are often highly disruptive decks where drawing extra cards is not only a boon, but actually necessary to keep pace with them.
In fact, the entire format right now is becoming very hostile toward Lantern Control because the dominant decks right now are capable of presenting a lot of threats, a diversity of threats and also powerful answers like Ancient Grudge in the same deck. Lantern Control can't keep up fast enough to answer all of them. Lantern can't both survive their disruption and also stop every unique angle those decks attack from while only drawing one card per turn. If you ever have one turn where you miss a beat, like drawing an extra Bridge or an extraneous land, that can sometimes just be enough to fall far enough behind that you can't catch up against everything they are throwing at you.
Right now, Lantern's card selection simply isn't enough. Lantern also just needs raw card quantity to keep up. Padeem, Ghirapur Aether Grid and Reverse Engineer all offer raw card quantity, which is why they are all great right now and why I have started to board these cards in for more and more matchups. Padeem invalidates a lot of cards and draws you two cards per turn most of the time (except for Hollow One – it is the most expensive artifact in play!). Sometimes you really just need to draw two cards a turn to keep pace. Padeem also blocks Noble Hierarch, even if they have multiples. Booyah. Ghirapur Aether Grid can provide a lot of card advantage simply by destroying or invalidating so many of your opponent's nightmare creatures, like Tireless Trackers, Noble Hierarchs, Gaddock Teegs and the like. It also kills Kataki, War's Wage, which is sometimes key, as those decks often also play Eternal Witness. Reverse Engineer provides card advantage the old school way, just straight up drawing three cards, which is perfect against decks like Jund that attack your resources aggressively.
Overall, the format is very hostile toward Lantern Control. It is the most hostile format toward Lantern than I can remember anytime in the past half year. With that said, my win rate is still 70% over 69 matches with Lantern since I have started keeping track of stats. These days I win almost all my matches with Padeem, Aether Grid or Reverse Engineer. Until the format calms down, I wouldn't dare register a deck without those.
I haven't decided what deck I'll be playing at the various events yet, but there's a good chance it is just Lantern Control. I know the deck the best and feel the most comfortable with it, even if it is poorly positioned right now.
- Brian Braun-Duin