Counting to Nine: Tooth and Nail in Modern
I generally dislike playing linear decks. There’s a feeling of helplessness when the opponent disrupts your plan effectively, or just executes their own faster than you can. On the other hand, I do like the idea of winning games with a nine-mana green sorcery leading to a 30/30 (virtually) hexproof flying attacker. Enter the Modern Tooth and Nail deck!
If it isn’t obvious, an entwined Tooth and Nail tutors the two Gods and puts them into play, then Xenagos gives Emrakul haste and doubles its stats to a 30/30. Between the Annihilator trigger probably wiping the opponent’s board and few decks ever having more than 30 life, that’s almost always good for lethal damage. The combo is mostly worth the effort because of how resilient the pieces are. If the Tooth resolves, you’re presenting an indestructible enchantment and a creature that can’t be targeted by coloured spells. There are very few answers to either card, although be aware of Deflecting Palm in Burn, Harbinger of the Tides in Merfolk and Chord of Calling for Fiend Hunter in Abzan Company or Kiki Chord.
What does a deck built around this combo actually look like? My current list is:
Tooth and Nail
4 Arbor Elf
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
2 Eternal Witness
1 Primeval Titan
4 Voyaging Satyr
1 Xenagos, the Reveler
2 Bonfire of the Damned
1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
1 Creeping Corrosion
2 Crumble to Dust
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Nature’s Claim
2 Obstinate Baloth
I say “my list” but there is nothing really innovative that I’ve added here. The starting sixty of any version of Modern Tooth and Nail is probably within four cards of the next. In the above list the three Blood Moon and one Acidic Slime represent what most would consider the four flex spots in the deck. I’m partial to maindeck Blood Moon as it can reliably be cast on turn two and provides a way to steal wins against bad matchups. As a linear one-card combo deck Tooth and Nail can also afford a couple of cards to be occasionally dead, so the risk of losing due to drawing a useless Blood Moon in game one is fairly low.
For versions that prefer their Blood Moon in the sideboard these slots are usually used for some mix of increased copies of Eternal Witness and Primal Command, increased interaction with Lightning Bolt or Scavenging Ooze, or more big-mana payoff cards like Hornet Queen or Wolfbriar Elemental. It is also not unusual to forego the Inkmoth Nexus altogether, and/or to replace the fourth Garruk with a Nissa, Worldwaker.
A big reason for the similarity between Tooth and Nail decklists is that twenty cards – a full third of the deck – needs to be dedicated to the ramp engine that makes casting Tooth and Nail consistently by turn four a realistic proposition in the first place:
While there are other ways to get to nine mana quickly, none are as explosive and consistent as stacking mana-producing auras on lands and then untapping those lands for free. The dream sequence is turn one Arbor Elf, turn two Utopia Sprawl, as that leaves you four mana still available on turn two to cast an Overgrowth or Garruk Wildspeaker. This will make a turn three kill possible as you untap with the requisite nine mana for an entwined Tooth and Nail.
Of course, you don’t always have the Tooth and Nail, so even the best ramp sequences can go nowhere as you ramp into nothing. A common risk with these sort of decks is that you draw either too much ramp or too many expensive cards. To mitigate that risk the deck packs some other big mana payoffs that can also be used earlier in the game:
An early Primal Command can disrupt graveyard decks, stabilize your life total, or set the opponent back a turn by putting a land on top of their deck, all while also tutoring a creature. If you have access to eight mana you can establish a “soft lock” with Eternal Witness by putting a land on top of their deck and using the tutored Witness to recur the Command. Repeat for as many Eternal Witness as you have in your deck, giving you some extra draw steps, land drops, devotion count, and ideally additional Garruk loyalty leading to a lethal Overrun.
If you’ve just hit five mana and the Witness lock is looking too slow, the main alternative is to instead tutor a Primeval Titan to cast on the following turn. The Titan can then put some combination of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Kessig Wolf Run, and Inkmoth Nexus on the battlefield as both additional threats and two more mana towards entwining a Tooth and Nail the following turn.
I have seen versions that dip into blue for Serum Visions to improve consistency (as well as Kiora, Master of the Depths) but consensus seems to be that blue mana is not worth the trouble. Instead, Tooth decks will run one or two copies of Harmonize as a way to occasionally dig for more win conditions. With the amount of mana the deck produces this often feels a lot like casting Treasure Cruise. It’s not worth a full playset because we only want to cast Harmonize if we did not manage to draw a Command or Tooth – chaining copies of Harmonize is not where the deck wants to be.
And that really is a pretty comprehensive description of how this deck plays – put auras on lands, untap those lands for extra mana, cast a) Tooth and Nail b) Primal Command c) Harmonize or maybe d) use Wolf Run on a mana dork.
Insights and Unusual Plays
Beware of decks that can bounce or destroy your lands – Cryptic Command, Ghost Quarter and Karn Liberated will all punish you heavily for not spreading the auras around. Sometimes it’s still correct to stack them in order to speed out the Tooth and Nail, but be aware of the risk and consciously decide whether you’re willing to gamble that they don’t have it. Other notable cards that can punish you for stacking auras include Flickerwisp and Spreading Seas, although Death and Taxes is such a horribly lopsided matchup that Flickerwisp will be the least of your worries there.
Keep an eye on your green/red devotion count when gearing up for a Tooth and Nail. While Xenagos is indestructible, having him enter as a creature will expose him to Path to Exile, Dismember and Vapor Snag before you can get to combat for his haste trigger. You’ll still have the Emrakul on board, but sometimes the margins of victory are so thin that that one turn means losing – or gives them a chance to use sorcery speed answers to your 15/15.
You can use Garruk and Voyaging Satyr to untap lands that are put into play tapped – most notably Boseiju, Who Shelters All for immediate uncounterability. In corner cases it can also be relevant to untap one of the utility lands when you fetch them with Primeval Titan. Untapping a Nykthos and Wolf Run immediately may allow you to do some significant extra damage that turn, or untapping an Inkmoth Nexus may provide the blocker you need to buy one more turn against a deck like Affinity.
Until next time, may your dorks dodge the bolts and your haymakers dodge the remands, and good luck counting to nine!