Next week starts the PTQ season for Pro Tour Honolulu and the format is Modern, so today I would like to prepare you as best I can in a single article. First I will offer a brief overview of the current state of Modern, catching you up on the metagame's top decks. I will also make deck recommendations based on your individual play style and amount of time and money you are looking to spend. Lastly I will discuss the archetype I've been playing at just about every Modern tournament in the past year (Black/White Tokens) and offer you my most recent list(s) and deck analysis.
So whether you're a veteran of Modern or someone looking to get started, I have plenty of things to say that will help prepare you for winning that ticket to Hawaii. And if my advice works and you win the PTQ, you owe me a tropical smoothie!The Current State of Modern
The Top 4 decks in Modern are Pod, Twin, Jund, and Affinity (each having various builds within the archetype). If your goal is to win a PTQ, I would recommend choosing one of these four decks and learning its matchups inside and out. Each of the four decks is fully capable of winning a PTQ and the percentage points you'll gain by learning all the nuances of one of these four decks will outweigh the advantages you would gain by switching from one to another based on perceived metagame expectations.
Modern is a very skill-intensive format, especially at the PTQ level. If you master any one of these four archetypes and battle with it throughout the entire season, you will probably qualify with it by the end. This is saying a lot and I'm not using the term 'master' loosely here. Each of these decks is hard to pilot but very rewarding if you put the time into it.
Lastly, if you're strapped for cash and/or time but you want to play something that will give you a fighting chance in the tournament, Burn is the best deck to play under such circumstances. More on this when we get to the burn deck (Deck #5).Deck 1: Melira Pod
The top performing deck in Modern is Melira Pod and I fully expect more PTQs to be won by Birthing Pod decks than any other deck throughout the PTQ season. If you have access to the cards and you have experience with Pod strategies and/or have the time to learn it, this would be my top recommendation.
Melira Pod is one of the hardest decks to pilot and is also one of the most difficult decks to play against, thus making it a great deck for outplaying your PTQ opponents. It has several tutor spells, including Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling, which open up a ton of decisions each turn. What do I search for? When do I search? What creature(s) do I sacrifice or tap to fuel the tutor spell? How late is IHOP open tonight?
Sometimes it's best to assume the role of a control deck, other times a combo deck, and yet other times you are beating down or racing with creatures. Recognizing when you need to switch gears will often decide the outcome of the game.
In general your goal is to assemble the combo of Melira, Sylvok Outcast + Viscera Seer + Murderous Redcap. This will generate an indefinite loop to kill your opponent. Kitchen Finks is a pseudo replacement to Murderous Redcap in that it will gain you infinite life and scry to the top of your library any card of your choice (usually the Redcap).Deck 2: RUG Twin
This archetype is also referred to as "Dickmann Twin" because it was popularized by a German player named Patrick Dickmann, not to be confused with my good buddy from Nashville, Philip "Mozart" Dickman. It is what I would consider the second best choice for the PTQ season. Like Melira Pod, it offers many opportunities to outplay your opponent. Also like Pod, it has powerful and synergistic cards that allow you to play a variety of roles and to quickly switch gears between them over the course of a game.
The primary objective is to play Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch on the opponent's turn (preferably during their end step), then untap and play Splinter Twin on it to make infinite copies to immediately attack your opponent to death with (since the copies have haste). You must then stand up from your chair, raise your arms in the air and shout: INFINITY FAERIES!!!
Twin is a known strategy though and most players will be prepared for this combo, so you need ways to protect your plan and/or to combo off again through disruption. Remand will help protect your combo while Serum Visions will help you reassemble it. Gitaxian Probe will also reveal to you exactly what you need to do in each scenario.
The Backup Plan is to beat down with Tarmogoyf. Goyf is a great Backup Plan because he helps play defense early against aggressive decks, and if the opponent Overloads with disruptive cards such as Torpor Orb and Combust, you can punish them by beating down with a 4/5 green monster. ROAR!!!
…and yes, you must make the ROAR noise when you attack with Tarmogoyf. Otherwise you are dead to me.Deck 3: Jund
Jund and American Control are the two best "answer" decks in the format. Neither has a built in combo kill (unlike the first two decks discussed) but each has a ton of generic answers to whatever your opponent is trying to do. Cards like Abrupt Decay, Lightning Bolt, Thoughtseize, and Inquisition of Kozilek can disrupt almost any strategy, and post-board you replace whatever answer cards are least effective for the matchup with more effective ones. Sometimes you can get some quick beats in with Tarmogoyf, but usually it's best to be the control deck that aims to outlast the opponent.
If you are a control player who likes killing everything while slowly amassing card advantage, I would recommend Jund over American Control. The answers are more generic and proactive, requiring less knowledge of the format or of the exact field you will face week to week. You can pretty much build a Jund deck at the beginning of the season and it will not change by more than a few cards by the end of the season. American Control requires constant updating and accurate predicting. And with Jund you get to see your opponent's hand on the first turn of every game, which will pretty much let you know exactly what you're up against and what you need to do to win. Notice a recurring theme among the top decks? They play cards that efficiently reveal hidden information (Gitaxian Probe, Thoughtseize) and allow you to sculpt your game plan accordingly.Deck 4: Affinity
Affinity is the best aggro deck of the format. It's a lot less expensive than Zoo, which is the second best aggro deck, since it does not require owning Tarmogoyf. Cost aside, it's also simply the most powerful and also the most synergistic attack deck in Modern.
Contrary to what some of your opponents will likely have you believe, Affinity is a difficult deck to play optimally. On the surface, it is all about maximizing resources, getting as much stuff onto the table as quickly as possible and getting 20 damage (or 10 poison) as quickly as possible. If you're a math person, Affinity is a great choice for you because beyond these surface calculations lie probabilities. Affinity routinely finds itself in situations where it has to make decisions based on unknown information. What sequence of plays will get the opponent into Galvanic Blast range in two turns? If I play Thoughtcast first, what are the odds I draw a mana source in the two cards? If a Tree of Tales falls onto the battlefield and no one is there to hear it, is it still banned? And of course you'll have to figure out all the combat permutations involving Arcbound Ravager.
Affinity is one of the most hated decks in the format largely because it is so powerful. I suspect that if you play Affinity throughout the entire PTQ season, there will be at least one or two weekends where the opposition will not be adequately prepared for you. If you can dodge the sideboard hate and do all the math correctly, Affinity can earn you a trip to
Disney World! Hawaii! It's also one of the less expensive decks to build in Modern.Deck 5: Burn
So let's say you don't have the time to learn all the intricacies of Melira Pod, nor are you some millionaire with a set of Tarmogoyfs just chillin' under your pillow; you're not patient enough to play Jund and too much Affinity math gives you a headache. You just want something cheap and easy to play that will still give you a legitimate chance to win the tournament. If this sounds like you, this is what I would recommend:
You rarely ever want to target opposing creatures with your burn spells. Instead you just want to point everything at the opponent and race them to 20. They'll almost always help you with 2-6 points of damage from their lands, so winning this race with your hyper-efficiently-costed burn spells is much easier to do in Modern than it is in many other formats (see Standard).
Burn decks fill an interesting role in Modern. They comprise less than 2% of the total metagame, yet they require a very specific kind of strategy to beat them. Given that so few burn decks show up to the tournament, most players simply ignore the archetype altogether, writing it off as a bad matchup that they hope to dodge. It's a little less powerful than Affinity, but Affinity comprises a much larger portion of the metagame (~10%) and is therefore the target of way more hate. Burn is less powerful overall but will likely encounter less resistance.
What I call "the Burn Gambit" is running Burn every single weekend, much like the "Affinity Gambit" where the same is done with Robots. The Affinity gambit has a stronger chance of fighting through hate and winning anyway due to a few timely nut draws or well-timed answers to opposing hate cards (Thoughtseize, Spell Pierce, etc.). On the other hand, the Burn gambit is much more likely to glide through the tournament without encountering any dedicated hate. Sure, it will have to fight through some Courser of Kruphix and Kitchen Finks, but these are small hills compared to the mountains that Affinity players will have to dodge or bulldoze through (See Creeping Corrosion, Stony Silence, Shattering Spree, etc.). There aren't a lot of Leyline of Sanctities running around in Modern.Deck 6: Black/White Tokens
At Pro Tour Born of the Gods I played a Black/White tokens deck that was warped more than it should have been to stand a chance against aggressive Zoo decks. As it turned out, even though Zoo was highly represented in the tournament, most Zoo decks were "big Zoo" instead of "little Zoo" decks. In other words, they ran Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, and some amount of four-mana Planeswalkers instead of Kird Apes, Loam Lions, and Boros Charms. "Big" Zoo decks are much more manageable from a more traditional Black/White Tokens build and so once the small Zoo deck proved to be a small portion of the metagame, I essentially decided it was better to write it off completely and just hope to dodge it and instead be better equipped for my other matchups (Pod, Twin, Jund, Affinity, etc.).
So for Grand Prix Minneapolis I ran a list with 12 discard spells, which worked great except I cut too many of my threats and became internally inconsistent. I ended up losing several games I would have otherwise won if I just had more copies of Hero of Bladehold in my deck (I only ran one copy). So after the tournament I decided I would play the following if I could replay the tournament:
Mirran Crusader is great against Birthing Pod and Jund, and Hero of Bladehold will win a game by itself very quickly after we tear apart the opponent's hand and kill all their creatures.
Out of the board, we have several bullets. Stony Silence is for Affinity and Tron. Leyline of Sanctity is for Burn, and some number of copies come in against decks with an excess of targeting effects (discard, Liliana of the Veil) or specific combo decks that are weak to it ( Ad Nauseam). Rule of Law and Rest in Peace are for Storm, Eggs, and Living End. Runed Halo is our most versatile sideboard card. It acts as a removal spell against creature decks (often naming Tarmogoyf), a Counterspell against burn decks (naming whatever they have in hand after you played a discard spell), and a specific answer to Etched Champion against Affinity. It's also worth noting that the artwork on Runed Halo appears to be a Kithkin taking a cleavage selfie.
If you want to run Tokens, I would recommend the above list. It has game against all of the top decks. You are a little less powerful than they are, but you also fly much further under the radar. An experienced later round opponent will know how to play against you if you're playing one of the top four decks, but you'll likely be able to keep them guessing if you're on Tokens. I've been experimenting with various alternate builds, including a more aggressive version with Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Dark Confidant, and Tidehollow Sculler. Early results are promising, but I'm not yet ready to recommend it over the more traditional build suggested above.Conclusion
Any of these six decks are legitimate choices and they each are fully capable of winning a PTQ. Pick whichever weapon you feel suits you best, based on the way I described each of the decks.
There are several other decks that are reasonable choices such as Storm, various other forms of Twin, Scapeshift, Living End, and a few others. I recommend sticking to one of the six listed decks because they will be good from beginning of the season to the end and even if you are playing an "outdated list" it will only be by a few cards and you'll still be fully capable of winning the tournament. Many of the other decks in Modern are very metagame dependent and may be a great choice one week and a terrible choice the next.
The TL;DR of this article is to pick one of the top decks (preferably one of the first four mentioned in this article), learn it inside and out, stick with it throughout the entire season, and then buy me a tropical smoothie at the Pro Tour in Honolulu.
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter