September 13, 2016

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Building a Modern Gauntlet

The recent barrage of high profile Modern events has finally established an archetype pecking order in a format that’s been in flux since the Eye of Ugin banning. Whether you like to play the meta, find something under the radar, or tweak a deck you’ve been playing for years, the first step is to identify the key players and build a gauntlet. Since I’m applying fresh eyes to the format in the hopes of joining Team Canada by winning the final World Magic Cup Qualifier in Toronto, I’ve compiled a Power Ranking of the decks I expect to face.

Rather than a simple list of the objective best decks in the format which I think is very hard to quantify, the way I’m interpreting Power Ranking is sort of as a hybrid of quality and popularity. Basically, this is my prediction of what you’ll likely see at the top tables four or five rounds into the tournament, along with a few thoughts on whether it would be a good choice to play.

#1: Abzan

While Abzan did not make waves during the triple Grand Prix weekend, what those tournaments did do is set the playing field. With clear targets in sight, a full third of the 24 players at the World Championships registered a midrange Abzan deck in Modern. Lingering Souls, in particular, does a great job of grinding out fair decks while presenting a lot of problems for Affinity and Infect, two of the more popular linear strategies. Grim Flayer is the breakout addition to BG decks that sort of fills the role of Dark Confidant without being a liability against Burn. It also provides a much faster clock against decks like Scapeshift that tend to have inevitability, regardless of the number of discard spells you cast.

Abzan is an interactive deck that’s hard to hate out and will give you a chance to win every round, regardless of your specific metagame. Access to Path to Exile to fight the Eldrazi menace and potentially devastating sideboard options like Stony Silence and Rest in Peace justify the white splash over red, and make Abzan the de facto choice for players that want to control the game and disrupt their opponent. If you want to make sure not to lose the tournament in deck selection, Abzan is a solid bet.

Abzan – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa – World Championships

Main Deck: (60)
Liliana of the Veil
Grim Flayer
Scavenging Ooze
Tarmogoyf
Collective Brutality
Inquisition of Kozilek
Lingering Souls
Thoughtseize
Abrupt Decay
Path to Exile
Forest
Plains
Swamp
Godless Shrine
Marsh Flats
Overgrown Tomb
Shambling Vent
Temple Garden
Twilight Mire
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Anafenza, the Foremost
Noble Hierarch
Murderous Cut
Mishra’s Bauble

Side Board: (15)
Liliana, the Last Hope
Stony Silence
Damnation
Maelstrom Pulse
Surgical Extraction
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Fulminator Mage
Engineered Explosives
Zealous Persecution
Collective Brutality

#2: Bant Eldrazi

Bant Eldrazi decks made Top 8 in both Indianapolis and Lille, but the real story was how prevalent it was throughout the Top 64. It was one of the three most successful decks that weekend alongside Affinity and Infect, after which there was a noticeable drop-off. It gets the nod over those other two because it’s the one least likely to be negatively impacted by an expected rise in Abzan decks featuring Lingering Souls.

Like Rock-style decks, it’s hard to hate out of the metagame, and your good draws will prove tough to beat. Thought-Knot Seer is a great disruptive element and Reality Smasher kills people extremely quickly. Although it didn’t make as big a splash as Abzan, Bant Eldrazi was well-represented at Worlds by Brian Braun-Duin and Steve Rubin, with Brian going undefeated at 3-0-1. There are some consistency issues as your draws that include Eldrazi Temple are much better than those without, but if you’re strictly concerned about overall win percentage, this seems like a good, safe choice.

Bant Eldrazi – Brian Braun-Duin – World Championships

Main Deck (60)
Thought-Knot Seer
Spellskite
Reality Smasher
Noble Hierarch
Matter Reshaper
Eldrazi Skyspawner
Eldrazi Displacer
Drowner of Hope
Ancient Stirrings
Path to Exile
Dismember
Engineered Explosives
Yavimaya Coast
Windswept Heath
Temple Garden
Plains
Hallowed Fountain
Forest
Eldrazi Temple
Cavern of Souls
Brushland
Breeding Pool

Side Board: (15)
Engineered Explosives
Grafdigger’s Cage
Stony Silence
Worship
Chalice of the Void
Rest in Peace
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

#3: Affinity

As people have learned over the years, you can never discount Affinity. It can rise to the top even amidst a sea of hate, and has a very loyal following. Two Affinity players made Top 8 in Indianapolis, and another in Lille. Compiling data from the Top 64 of all three Modern GPs, Frank Karsten rated Affinity as the top deck in what he calls a record-based metagame, a ranking of the most popular decks that’s adjusted for win frequency. The only reason Affinity isn’t higher on this list is the recent shift in BG decks to Abzan over Jund. While Affinity expects to lose some percentage of post-sideboard games to hate cards, Lingering Souls is a real problem that will affect your ability to reliably win Game 1. While cards like Etched Champion can still lead you to victory, the road is not nearly as smooth.

Despite the hate, I would not say that Affinity is still a reasonable choice, but I don’t think it’s well-positioned enough to recommend to anyone other than an experienced pilot. Although you do win some games by a landslide, it’s actually a very difficult deck to play well. If you do decide to pick it up, make sure to practice the mirror. It will come up and is one of the most complicated matchups.

Affinity – Mike Sigrist – 20th at Grand Prix Indianapolis

Main Deck: (60)
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Signal Pest
Vault Skirge
Etched Champion
Master of Etherium
Ornithopter
Memnite
Galvanic Blast
Mox Opal
Cranial Plating
Springleaf Drum
Darksteel Citadel
Island
Mountain
Glimmervoid
Blinkmoth Nexus
Inkmoth Nexus

Side Board: (15)
Etched Champion
Ancient Grudge
Dismember
Ghirapur AEther Grid
Grafdigger’s Cage
Spell Pierce
Tormod’s Crypt
Whipflare

#4: Scapeshift

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks have splintered into two or three versions. Scott Lipp and others performed well with a Through the Breach version at GP Indianapolis. In contrast, Oliver Tiu championed a RG Scapeshift version at Worlds, where a 4-0 record in Modern carried him to the Top 4. If you prefer a blue-based control version, Lukas Blohon managed 2-2 in the same tournament with four copies of Bring to Light. Personally, I think Oliver’s version is the most consistent while still presenting a fast enough clock to compete with other linear strategies.

One of the great things about Scapeshift decks are their resilience. There really isn’t a great way to prevent them from making land drops and eventually killing you with a one card combo. Without the vulnerability that other linear decks have to sideboard hate, this is an excellent choice in a field of midrange decks like Abzan and Bant Eldrazi. It’s a metagame call, however, as you don’t have a lot of ways to interact with faster aggressive strategies like Infect or Zoo.

RG Titan-Shift – Oliver Tiu – World Championships

Main Deck: (60)
Primeval Titan
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Anger of the Gods
Farseek
Search for Tomorrow
Scapeshift
Lightning Bolt
Summoner’s Pact
Cinder Glade
Forest
Mountain
Stomping Ground
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Wooded Foothills
Explore
Khalni Heart Expedition
Windswept Heath

Side Board: (15)
Anger of the Gods
Obstinate Baloth
Engineered Explosives
Chalice of the Void
Ancient Grudge
Tireless Tracker
Nature’s Claim
Sudden Shock

#5: Burn

Burn is a consistent deck that’s relatively easy to play, cheap, and will keep the field honest. It won’t blow you out of the water, but it will present a reliable clock and beat up on unprepared opponents. Although many prefer decks with more decision points, Burn is a legitimate tier 1 deck that remains a legitimate threat to win the tournament, just like it did a few weeks ago in Indianapolis. It punishes shockland mana bases and doesn’t care at all about grindy cards like Lingering Souls. It does care a lot about Chalice of the Void and Leyline of Sanctity, however, and will have a tough time fighting through any hate that people decide to play.

Burn is a good choice for anyone who wants to give themselves a chance to win but doesn’t have a lot of time to get up to speed on the format. It has been reasonably well-positioned for a while now, and is rarely a terrible choice.

Naya Burn – Brandon Burton – 1st at Grand Prix Indianapolis

Main Deck: (60)
Eidolon of the Great Revel
Goblin Guide
Grim Lavamancer
Monastery Swiftspear
Wild Nacatl
Lava Spike
Rift Bolt
Lightning Bolt
Searing Blaze
Atarka’s Command
Boros Charm
Arid Mesa
Bloodstained Mire
Copperline Gorge
Mountain
Sacred Foundry
Stomping Ground
Wooded Foothills

Side Board: (15)
Deflecting Palm
Destructive Revelry
Kor Firewalker
Lightning Helix
Path to Exile
Skullcrack

#6: Suicide Zoo

Death’s Shadow Zoo decks can end the game extremely quickly and are especially threatening to decks like Scapeshift and Tron that don’t punish them for having a low life total. Placing one copy into the Top 8 at each Grand Prix, it’s certainly a deck to be wary of, but not one with much flexibility to adapt to a changing metagame.

Whether Suicide Zoo is a good choice depends heavily on what decks you expect to face. Like Infect, it thrives against non-interactive decks with a slower clock. With larger threats and Temur Battle Rage, it’s not as vulnerable to Lingering Souls, but the fact that it does so much damage to itself can hamper it in a damage race.

Suicide Zoo – Thomas Hendriks – 2nd at Grand Prix Lille

Main Deck: (60)
Death’s Shadow
Wild Nacatl
Monastery Swiftspear
Tarmogoyf
Steppe Lynx
Street Wraith
Gitaxian Probe
Thoughtseize
Become Immense
Temur Battle Rage
Lightning Bolt
Mutagenic Growth
Mishra’s Bauble
Sacred Foundry
Overgrown Tomb
Blood Crypt
Godless Shrine
Stomping Ground
Bloodstained Mire
Windswept Heath
Verdant Catacombs
Wooded Foothills

Side Board: (15)
Tarmogoyf
Ancient Grudge
Pyroclasm
Hooting Mandrills
Stony Silence
Inquisition of Kozilek
Path to Exile
Forest
Faith’s Shield

#7: Infect

Ever since Pantheon played it at the Pro Tour, there is a dedicated contingent that swear by Infect and seem to gravitate towards it whenever Modern season comes around. It won GP Lille in the hands of Meciek Berger and posted a number of other solid finishes, particularly outside North America. It presents a faster clock than other tier 1 decks, and will punish opponents who are not prepared to interact.

More than most of the other decks on this list, Infect has a Legacy-like matchup profile, with some very good matchups and others that are quite bad. If you expect a lot of slow, non-interactive decks like Tron and Scapeshift, it can be a great choice, but it’s not a deck I’d be looking to play when the BG midrange decks are splashing white for Lingering Souls.

Infect – Meciek Berger – 1st at Grand Prix Lille

Main Deck: (60)
Glistener Elf
Noble Hierarch
Blighted Agent
Dryad Arbor
Gitaxian Probe
Distortion Strike
Mutagenic Growth
Might of Old Krosa
Vines of Vastwood
Twisted Image
Apostle’s Blessing
Spell Pierce
Groundswell
Dismember
Become Immense
Inkmoth Nexus
Breeding Pool
Forest
Pendelhaven
Wooded Foothills
Windswept Heath
Misty Rainforest

Side Board: (15)
Distortion Strike
Spell Pierce
Dismember
Dispel
Spellskite
Grafdigger’s Cage
Kitchen Finks
Nature’s Claim

#8: Jund

Considering the amount of overlap between Jund and Abzan, it’s not a complete surprise that players at the World Championships did not all play the same splash in their BG decks. Reid Duke and Brad Nelson both favored Jund and you could do a lot worse than following those two into battle. While Abzan gets Path to Exile and some good white sideboard cards like Stony Silence, Jund gets Lightning Bolt and, perhaps just as importantly, a dual land in Blackcleave Cliffs that often comes into play untapped without costing you life. Lingering Souls is the main reason to choose Abzan, but that’s mainly relevant if you expect a lot of Affinity and Infect.

I personally feel that there will be enough Affinity this weekend that I’d rather be on Lingering Souls, but there is something to be said for trying to end the game quickly if you expect a lot of decks like Scapeshift or Ad Nauseam that don’t care about this kind of incremental value.

Jund – Brad Nelson – World Championships

Main Deck: (60)
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana, the Last Hope
Dark Confidant
Grim Flayer
Grim Lavamancer
Scavenging Ooze
Tarmogoyf
Inquisition of Kozilek
Maelstrom Pulse
Thoughtseize
Abrupt Decay
Lightning Bolt
Terminate
Blackcleave Cliffs
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Forest
Overgrown Tomb
Raging Ravine
Stomping Ground
Swamp
Twilight Mire
Verdant Catacombs
Wooded Foothills

Side Board: (15)
Liliana, the Last Hope
Grim Lavamancer
Maelstrom Pulse
Thoughtseize
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Ancient Grudge
Damnation
Duress
Engineered Explosives
Grafdigger’s Cage
Kozilek’s Return
Nihil Spellbomb
Slaughter Pact

#9: Jeskai Nahiri

Jeskai was notably absent from Top 8 coverage on Modern Grand Prix weekend, but it did place several copies in the Top 64 in Lille, with Claude Schmit finishing highest in 19th place. It gets the nod over some of the other tier 2 decks on the strength of a win at the SCG Modern Classic in Richmond the following weekend.

Unlike some of the other decks that hover just off the radar, Jeskai Nahiri seems to have what it takes to actually win a tournament when the metagame bends slightly in its favour. With so many viable decks in Modern, even those that beat the top two or three decks often have to dodge a number of problematic matchups over the course of the day. Like other midrange decks like Jund and Abzan, Jeskai’s bad matchups are never truly horrendous, making it a solid choice if it fits your play style.

Jeskai Nahiri – Benjamin Nikolich – StarCity Richmond Classic 1st

Main Deck: (60)
Snapcaster Mage
Cryptic Command
Electrolyze
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Helix
Mana Leak
Path to Exile
Remand
Spell Snare
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Vendilion Clique
Nahiri, the Harbinger
Ancestral Vision
Serum Visions
Timely Reinforcements
Island
Mountain
Plains
Celestial Colonnade
Desolate Lighthouse
Flooded Strand
Hallowed Fountain
Sacred Foundry
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls

Side Board: (15)
Izzet Staticaster
Rest in Peace
Stony Silence
Dispel
Negate
Wear
Keranos, God of Storms
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Anger of the Gods
Crumble to Dust
Supreme Verdict
Timely Reinforcements

#10: RG Tron

Tron decks are very good at what they do, which is casting potentially game-winning threats as early as turn 3. This is a powerful enough strategy to guarantee excellent matchups against the midrange decks at the top of this list, and is probably your best choice if all you want to do is beat Abzan and Bant Eldrazi. What Tron is not very good at doing, however, is interacting in the first two turns, which is why it tends to have very poor matchups against all-in aggressive strategies like Infect and Suicide Zoo.

Modern is a diverse enough format, that pinning all your hopes on facing the same two or three matchups over and over again does tend to work out, which is why Tron has been relegated to tier 2 status. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad deck however, and is a reasonable choice if your metagame is rife with midrange decks, and you don’t mind take some risk in the pairing lottery.

RG Tron – Todd Davis – 19th at Grand Prix Indianapolis

Main Deck: (60)
Karn Liberated
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Wurmcoil Engine
World Breaker
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Ancient Stirrings
Sylvan Scrying
Pyroclasm
Chromatic Star
Chromatic Sphere
Expedition Map
Relic of Progenitus
Oblivion Stone
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Power Plant
Urza’s Tower
Forest
Sanctum of Ugin
Grove of the Burnwillows

Side Board: (15)
Pyroclasm
Relic of Progenitus
Sundering Titan
Thragtusk
Nature’s Claim
Grafdigger’s Cage
Ghost Quarter
Warping Wail
Spellskite

While these are the ten decks I’d recommend to build as a gauntlet, and the ones I’d want to have a solid plan for, the extensive Modern card pool supports a number of other competitive strategies, many of which have what it takes to win a tournament on the right day. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a short list of ten other decks that I think are good enough to consider if you’re looking for something under the radar:

#11: Abzan Company
#12: Dredge
#13: Living End
#14: Goryo’s Vengeance
#15: Merfolk
#16: Lantern Control
#17: Ad Nauseam
#18: Bogles
#19: BW Tokens
#20: Grixis Delver

Whatever you decide to play, I hope this helped a little in your preparation. Good luck at your next Modern event!