I've been focusing much of my recent attention on Modern recently. Not only is Standard a little underwhelming at the moment, but Modern continues to be the stone-cold best competitive format in Magic. Every week there are new experiments to be made, angles to attack, and lessons to learn. Plus, I'm covering GP Sao Paolo this weekend, which is a Modern tournament, and it pays to do your homework.
Barcelona was also a Modern tournament, and oh my golly gosh the Top 16 absolutely blew me away. Not only were there twenty copies of Celestial Colonnade (that's 1.25 per deck, although some potentially spurious sources tell me that's not how statistics work), there were several decks that you would ordinarily – and very diplomatically – describe as "interesting". Generally, "interesting" is a polite way of saying "bad" - but not in this case!
Three individual lists caught my eye thanks to their highly unorthodox approach to the format. It's incredible that these decks put their pilots into the Top 16 of a major Modern tournament like GP Barcelona and is definitely something to think about for anyone involved with the format!
Affinity is about as set-in-stone (set-in-steel?) as Modern decks come. The list, finely-tuned over its years in the format, has a very small scope for flexibility. Most arguments about Affinity lists revolve around filling four to six slots, as the rest are part of an unchallenged orthodoxy.
Or are they!? Johann Fink has a thing or two to say about orthodoxy, and we may yet see a great schism in the Church of the Robotic Overlords; his ninth-placed finish with Hardened Scales Affinity could prove to be Magic's July 1054. This deck has a lot in common with the traditional builds of Affinity, but subs out many of the core cards with in favour of replacements that look to exploit the bonus offered by Hardened Scales.
Gone are the various three-drops (Master of Etherium, Etched Champion, etc); gone are Cranial Plating, Vault Skirge, and Signal Pest. Gone, even, are the mighty Ornithopter and Memnite – Hardened Scales ain't about those zero-drops. Instead, every single creature in this deck generates +1/+1 counters – and many of them benefit greatly for having them. Loading up Walking Ballista and Hangarback Walker with a multitude of counters is a great way to crush your enemies.
As the list reveals in a rather straightforward fashion, this deck is decidedly "all-in" on the counters plan. Throne of Geth does stone-cold nothing on its own, and Arcbound Worker is not a defensible card (let alone Sparring Construct) if you're not getting something out of these +1/+1 counters. As a result, without Hardened Scales, this deck has to be pretty unimpressive. Sure, Mox Opal and Arcbound Ravager are amongst the best cards in the archetype, but a lot still has to come together.
Happily, it's a lot easier to make things come together when you're playing the actual best cantrip in the format. Ancient Stirrings continues to be obscenely overpowered in any colorless deck, and this is no exception. While a heavy commitment to green cuts off things like Galvanic Blast and a wide range of sideboard cards, it enables Stirrings to do what it does best – act as a pseudo-tutor. At least it can't get the Scales, I suppose – this card is just too good.
Is this the future for Affinity? Likely not. Is it an extremely sweet take on an established archetype that offers you plenty of free percentage points because of how unknown it is? Absolutely! If you're a rusted-on Affinity player, it might be time to get the WD-40 from the shed and give this list a spin.
I hate Death and Taxes lists, and not just because I always forget you have to click on Leonin Arbiter before cracking a fetch land. Carlos Castillo clearly doesn't hate them, however, as he snagged himself a Top 16 finish in Barcelona thanks to a relatively fresh take on the archetype. Typically, D&T decks are mono-white or close to it – but Castillo embraced the power of the Mountains and went pretty deep on a red-white version.
It makes good sense, too. Gaining access to Lightning Bolt and an instant-win combo finish thanks to Kiki-Jiki is well worth tinkering with a highly functional mana base. At its core, the deck still seeks to do the same thing – make opponents miserable with Thalia and Leonin Arbiter – but I like the new dimensions the inclusion of red opens up.
As mentioned, the core gameplay of this deck remains unchanged. Disruptive two-drops are backed up with hard-hitting threats like Blade Splicer (and now Pia (and/or Kiran) Nalaar). Aether Vial turns the screws even more on the opponent by forcing them to play the "what could they possibly have?" guessing game.
One thing this non-blue creature-based deck does really well is imitate effects that are a mainstay of blue non-creature decks, thanks to Dire Fleet Daredevil and Smuggler's Copter. Filtering draws with Copter and pulling ahead on cards with the Daredevil are incredibly valuable effects in a deck without access to good cantrips or filtering engines - Dire Fleet Daredevil is another card that pays a nice return on the investment in access to red mana.
This deck raises two questions in my mind. The first is about the mana base – I'm not convinced it's the best it can be. Is Battlefield Forge better than a third Sacred Foundry, especially without Eldrazi Displacer? How often does Needle Spires justify coming into play tapped with its fragile attacks? Why the split between Tectonic Edge and Field of Ruin? Is four Plains and no fetches enough to reliably bring in Magus of the Moon?
The second is a little less accusatory, and much more engaging. If this take on Death and Taxes is so good, are there other options to explore? White-black has been explored in the past (hand disruption tends to be excellent in this deck), but what about green-white? Maybe even white-blue? I'll leave finding the solution to Craig Wescoe – who, I hope, doesn't find it. I hate Death and Taxes.
The jury is still out on the best name for this deck, but in my mind it's a foregone conclusion – "Naya Melira-less Pod-less Melira Pod" rolls off the tongue real nice, I think. In any case, we're going back a good half a decade with this toolbox approach to building a creature deck – complete with an infinite combo to win the game on the spot!
For those who weren't around for Melira Pod, Birthing Pod would help decks like this assemble a game-winning combination of cards, typically Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcaps, Viscera Seer and Melira, Sylvok Outcast. Infinite life or infinite damage triggers from persist creatures was generally enough to put the game away, and leading up to the banning of Birthing Pod, Modern was a midrange grindfest.
One of the strengths of the Pod deck was its ability to tutor up a bunch of "silver bullet" creatures (for example, Qasali Pridemage when a Disenchant was needed). The format is a lot more diverse these days, and building a toolbox deck is necessarily trickier – but French superstar Amand Dosimont put together a real masterpiece.
Eldritch Evolution is no Birthing Pod; only being able to tutor something up once is a real knock against it, considering Pod's multiple activations. However, racing up the curve with an Evolution opens up a lot of options at four and five mana, leading to some incredibly powerful creatures seeing inclusion.
Firstly, there's the instant-win combo. Restoration Angel plus Kiki Jiki, Mirror Breaker will create an arbitrarily large airforce of hasty 3/4 fliers, generally enough to win the game on the spot. Outside of this, however, including expensive cards like Avalanche Riders and Shalai, Voice of Plenty can help to win games out of nowhere. Think of the value when sacrificing something like a Voice of Resurgence to go and find Shalai against heavily disruptive decks (or glass cannon combo), or the Riders against Tron!
The toolbox of one-ofs gives the deck game against more or less everything. Selfless Spirit against Supreme Verdict, Eidolon of Rhetoric against Storm, Magus of the Moon against Tron and greedy mana bases, Thrashing Brontodon as Qasali Pridemage 2.0, and Scavenging Ooze to go after the graveyard.
Outside of creatures, however, this deck has some amazing interaction. Fiery Justice is an extremely powerful effect for a deck that isn't looking to be supremely aggressive, often engineering two- or even three-for ones. Most exciting of all, however, is the four main deck copies of Blood Moon. Who is going to see this coming! Dosimont must have been mooning unsuspecting opponents all weekend. I love it!
The sideboard contains more terrific toolbox options – a little narrower in their application, perhaps – such as Chameleon Colossus against black-based midrange and Sigarda against Jund (which is essentially ggwp, no re). The sideboard stands to gain from Magic 2019, too – Remorseful Cleric will be a great inclusion to aid Scavenging Ooze in keeping graveyards in check – especially as Dredge seems to be experiencing a surge of popularity.
Decks like these are what continue to keep Modern fresh and exciting - I'll be keeping a close eye on developments this weekend in Brazil. Don't forget that Modern, alongside Standard and Legacy, will be showcased at the Pro Tour in a month's time. There's so much that could change between now and then, and it might just start with a deck like one of these!