Modern Musings, Begrudgingly
Every now and then the need to play in a non-Legacy tournament arises. At the moment, I am qualified for the Star City Games Invitational, which is both Standard and Modern. I almost never play Standard, so that is a journey that I am starting from the beginning, but I have played a fair amount of Modern in the past. However, I haven’t been fond of Modern for a while. The threatening cards and interactions are more powerful than the answers to the threats. At certain points in Modern’s relatively short history you could lose the game on turn 2, or, if you’re really unlucky, turn 1. At the moment, the critical turn seems to be turn 3, but there are many decks that can set up a board state in which you are functionally dead by turn 2. This isn’t fundamentally a bad thing, but in Modern, there’s little that a player can do to stop that a lot of the time. There is a fair amount of non-creature based interaction in Modern, but most of it is rather underpowered relative to the rest of the format. However, I much prefer to play interactive Magic, so I have certainly tried to learn a lot of the fairer archetypes in the format.
The Problem With the Fair Decks
In the past, I have played almost every fair, interactive strategy that the format offered. Decks like Jund, Delver, and Jeskai Control really appeal to me. These decks tend to play broad-stroke answers and have a variety of the most powerful creatures that Modern has to offer. However, I was never able to have lasting success with any of these archetypes. One part of the problem is that many of the interactive spells are underpowered relative to the type of threats that are presented in Modern. Discard spells, like Thoughtseize, are at a premium in the format. The 1 mana discard spells provide a powerful means of non-creature disruption on turn 1, which is not common in Modern. Many times, however, discard spells don’t even properly disrupt the linear strategies in a meaningful way.
Unlike in Legacy, the combo decks in Modern tend to be hybrid combo-aggro decks, such as Affinity and Infect, and simply stripping a card or 2 from their hand is not good enough. One needs a healthy mix of discard, removal, and pressure, which still might not be enough. On the other hand, most of the suite of counterspells that are available are clunky and don’t effectively solve the very issue that they are included to do. Spell Snare is likely the most efficient, powerful piece of countermagic in the format, but it can only counter 2-mana spells. Remand, Mana Leak, and Cryptic Command are all reasonable cards, but they all require the player casting them to be ahead or at parity in order to be most effective. Even then, each of them have glaring weaknesses that diminish their value at important points of the game. This is exacerbated by the diversity of Modern, wherein you need to play broad answers in order to have a chance at keeping up with the variety of decks one can play against in a tournament. However, the broad answers don’t have the speed of efficacy to keep up with the power of the Modern metagame.
Another issue stemmed from me. At a fundamental level, I have difficulty understanding the intricacies of Modern interaction. I have spent almost the entirety of my competitive career playing and learning Legacy, which is full of cheap, powerful, and effective interaction. Trying to win counter wars through Daze, Force of Will, and Spell Pierce is much different than fighting over Remands. Furthermore, the fair blue decks in Modern don’t have such powerful means of pulling ahead as the Legacy decks do. In my experience, this means that players are at parity for longer periods of time in Modern. This isn’t particularly bad from the fair deck perspective, but being able to turn the corner and pull ahead is a key moment for interactive decks in Magic, and this happens sooner, and more notably, in Legacy. These factors have always left me at a bit of a loss in Modern. People have had a lot of success with the fair, interactive strategies in the format, but I honestly have never understood them well enough in order to do well. As such, the question has loomed for a while: What should I play in Modern?
Deck ChoiceAs of the last Invitational I attended, I decided to choose a deck that I thought was fun, had a healthy number of good matchups, and had a powerful means of ending the game. For me, that deck was Bring to Light Scapeshift. It was a relatively powerful, incredibly fun deck with good matchups against most of the fair decks in the format, as well as against RG Scapeshift. However, what it had in good matchups, it also had in horrible matchups, like Burn and Infect. In general, though, I think a deck like this was perfect for me. For one, I didn’t have to learn the intricacies of the interactive decks, and, for the most part, could just progress my game plan. In addition, it seems like a lot of decks in Modern have a lot of great and terrible matchups, so hoping to get the right pairings doesn’t seem like the worst strategy. Finally, having a concise combo that allows one to win the game is a huge boon in Modern, where it is difficult to control the game forever. I had some success with this version of Scapeshift, but the outlook for the deck was grim as bannings occurred. Modern losing Gitaxian Probe spawned the new variant of Death’s Shadow that is popular today. Not only is this a poor matchup for Bring to Light, but Shadow’s popularity pushed other black-green based midrange decks out of the format. This simply meant that it was becoming difficult to justify that Bring to Light had enough good matchups to warrant pursuing. This alone might not have been enough to stop me from playing the deck but I started to think that the construction of the deck was fundamentally flawed, as well. This version is predicated on the principle of trading speed for the inclusion of spell-based disruption, like Remand. The problem with this is that this type of disruption isn’t effective enough in Modern. Remand barely disrupts the bulk of the combo decks in the format, and at this point, hardly disrupts the fairer decks because Death’s Shadow-based decks are so lean. In effect, Bring to Light Scapeshift is losing speed and simply gains some versatility in Bring to Light and some marginal disruption. As such, recently, I put down my pet deck and started the search again.
The Scapeshift concept still appealed to me. It’s a powerful and concise means of winning the game. This drew me to the logical next choice, RG Scapeshift. Here’s the main deck I started with:
The deck has a very powerful and consistent game plan, and is able to frequently set up a winning position as early as turn 4. The high density of ramp spells, threats, and lands means that plan A will be enacted in the majority of games where there is no disruption. Luckily, if there is disruption this variant has a variety of alternate plans to win the game. With such a high Mountain count, turning on Valakut is often trivial. Using Khalni-Heart Expedition as a faux-Scapeshift can not only bring your opponent’s life total to 0 quicker than it would seem, but also allows the deck to manage the board very effectively. RG Scapeshift also has access to 10 game-winning cards in the main deck that allow it to simply power through disruption. Despite the fact that the deck is a bit slower than the other linear combo decks, this deck gains consistency and a slew of alternate win-conditions that help the deck manage a variety of matchups. I chose this deck over the alternative, Titan Breach, because i’m fond of having 2 separate win-condition cards that I can draw which are not reliant on any other singular card. To me, this makes the deck more consistent, which is exactly what i’m looking for in my deck choice.
However, I found some problems with this particular list in the current metagame. I noticed that Lightning Bolt wasn’t as effective at managing the board as it used to be. The creatures in Death’s Shadow outgrow it’s damage very easily, and they don’t often find themselves at 3 or less that often. Lightning Bolt is also not particularly effective against the various creatures in the Eldrazi decks. The removal in the deck functions as a means to buy the deck time. If the deck can develop it’s game plan, it is a large favorite to win most games. In this case, I found the removal ineffective at doing this. Another problem regarded the speed of the Shadow decks. Due to the fact that the Shadow decks could get on board relatively quickly with very large creature, at the cost of their life total, RG Scapeshift wouldn’t have enough time to leverage the natural Valakut plan and take advantage of the fact that they use their life total as a resource. Khalni-Heart Expedition is effective at this in most cases, but in this matchup it felt too slow.
These factors led me to this list:
The inclusion of Fatal Push greatly helped against just about every large creature that mattered. It forced Shadow and Eldrazi decks to choose Fatal Push over other, perhaps more relevant, cards with their discard spells. In addition, it helps against the stray black-green based midrange deck that shows up and deploys an early Tarmogoyf. The mana constraints are a concern, but Prismatic Omen might be one of the strongest spells in the deck. Not only does it perfectly fix the deck’s mana while taking a turn off of the combo clock, it also allows for some ridiculous situations with natural Valakut draws. It is a much more effective means of leveraging the Valakut plan against decks both Shadow decks, and swarm the board strategies. Being able to play a fetchland on turn 4 as the 6th land and trigger Valakut twice is incredibly strong. It gives the player options to remove a key creature, kill a Liliana, or present a real clock on the opponent. Overall, while Fatal Push may or may not be worth including, based on the expected size of the creatures in a metagame, Prismatic Omen has overperformed for me, and I don’t think I would cut it any time in the near future. The final change in this main deck is the inclusion of Wood Elves over another creature, like Courser of Kruphix, or cheaper ramp spells. Wood Elves helps buy time against the Shadow decks by presenting a speed bump for their creatures to cross. It’s more effective at this than Courser, which doesn’t generate any value on turn 3, while also not ramping and generating momentum. Furthermore, Courser doesn’t help against Burn, a tough matchup, as much as I want it to. In game 1, Searing Blaze can still take care of it relatively easily, and gaining 1 or 2 life might not help as much as the deck needs. Wood Elves, on the other hand, at least ramps, which gives the Scapeshift deck a chance at racing, and can hopefully buy the deck a turn against decks which aim to attack with creatures. It is not the most glamourous of inclusions, but it has served its purpose adequately for now.
This deck has many closer matchups than Bring to Light Scapeshift. Many of its bad matchups, like Burn, often seem to come down to race situations. Meanwhile, I think the matchup against Death’s Shadow is very close and certainly very interesting. If I had to choose a deck, I would say the Shadow deck seems slightly favored, but, at the same time, my record against it is fairly positive. That’s because the matchup almost always comes down to a turn of top decks from either player. While Prismatic Omen makes that matchup much better, it seems to make the Tron matchup worse. Khalni-Heart Expedition allows the deck to have more explosive ramp potential, which allows Scapeshift to power-through various land-destruction spells. Many of the other matchups, like Affinity and Abzan Company, seem to be relatively close, and come down to either racing situations, or some timely removal spells. One particular matchup to note is the Ad Nauseum matchup, which is terrible. It’s not un-winnable, but their primarily gameplan is much faster than Scapeshift’s, while also having a built-in out to our combo in Angel’s Grace.
Going ForwardI chose not to post a sideboard, because mine is still in flux. Relic of Progenitus, Collective Brutality, Obstinate Baloth, and various enchantment removal warrants some space, but i’m not sure in what numbers. As I continue to explore the deck, I will hopefully have a better idea of what the deck needs in order to solve it’s problems. Overall, I think this deck is pretty strong, but it still doesn’t make me enjoy Modern that much more. Unfortunately, for me, I think the fair interaction will have to be improved a bit for my enjoyment to increase because I don’t love the concept of playing turn 4 combo decks against each other and racing in most games. I don’t specifically have any suggestions for the improvement of the format, but, luckily, I don’t have to bring myself to love it. Legacy is still excellent, and playing Standard for the Invitational has opened my eyes to how interesting it can be. For Modern, though, I’ll still have to play it, and I don’t hate it. It’s still Magic, and I love Magic, but it’s just a less meaningful experience than I think it was in the past for me. The problem might just be me, though, so I will definitely continue to explore other decks and maybe find something that really appeals to my interests and is relatively competitive in the metagame.
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