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April 17, 2015

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The Modern Metagame

A MODERN PRIMER

Starting a new magic format can be daunting. I was reminded of this a few months back when I thought I’d dabble in standard with a budget blue/white heroic deck. A few matches in and I realized that even a deck that seems linear can require a lot of decisions, and that making those decisions is really tough when you don’t know what your opponent’s deck is trying to do or what cards it is likely to play. Standard also turns out to be a poor choice for occasional play, since both your deck and your understanding of the broader metagame are always on a 3 to 12 month collision course with obsoletion.

But modern? Ah modern, where your deck never dies (unless its Birthing Pod or Eggs) and the metagame stays comfortably familiar over the long haul. If you put a bit of effort into learning the major decks, it’ll serve you well for years to come in modern. All you’d need is a quick overview to get started – a primer perhaps – say on 20 of the top decks? Well look no further! Whether you’re trying to break the format with Meddling Mage and Thistledown Liege or just master a known deck from this list, this represents a gauntlet you should be prepared to run through in today’s modern, in rough order of power level:

DECKS TO BEAT (“TIER 1”)

Splinter Twin

 

How it Works:

Splinter Twin looks to flash in either a Pestermite or deceiver exarch on your end step, then untap and cast its namesake aura (Splinter Twin) on it. The enchanted exarch taps to make a new token exarch, which untaps the original, which can then tap for a new one, and so on and so forth ending with infinite hasty 1/4 tokens swinging for lethal. What makes Twin the top deck in the format is that while the opponent stresses about losing to a 2-card combo that basically falls from the sky, they’re also getting beat down by a bunch of 2/1s and Lightning Bolts – or in cases of temur/grixis twin variants perhaps a Tasigur or Tarmogoyf.

How to Fight it:

To stop the combo itself, any removal that kills Deceiver Exarch at instant speed will do – just remember you must always have the mana available to use it in response to splinter twin, and that you may need to resolve it through countermagic like Remand or Spell Pierce. Spellskite is good as it can steal their Splinter Twin and survives their primary removal spells. Rakdos Charm can make for some great wins by dealing 1 damage per token to the twin player before they get to the combat damage step. More dedicated sideboard hate like Destructive Revelry, Slaughter Games or Illness in the Ranks can actually be risky, as Twin players are known to sideboard out their Splinter Twins in games 2 and 3 to nullify such hate cards.

Abzan Midrange

How it Works:

Abzan midrange simply plays the most efficient threats and removal in the format. It relies on targeted discard like Thoughtseize and versatile removal like Abrupt Decay to disrupt the opponent’s game plan and pave the way for a threat like Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze. It is one of the few competitive decks in the format that is not realistically capable of winning on turn 4, relying instead on disruption to ensure the game lasts longer than that. The core is green/black, and while splashing red for Lightning Bolt was once the norm, white has surpassed it thanks to Lingering Souls, Siege Rhino, Path to Exile, and Stony Silence.

How to Fight it:

All versions of this deck have a greedy manabase and frequently rely on man-lands to win games, so Blood Moon is very effective. Any kind of graveyard hate is good for containing threats like Tarmogoyf or Tasigur, and Leyline of Sanctity can be useful for nullifying the deck’s discard package. Abzan’s biggest weakness though is cards that go “over the top” like Wurmcoil Engine and Karn Liberated, which makes something like Red/Green Tron a very difficult matchup.

Affinity:

How it Works:

Affinity uses cheap (often lousy) artifacts and then turns them into damage via cards that synergize with them. It has explosive draws where 0 and 1 cost creatures combine with Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal to present a robot army as early as turn 2. What makes affinity so dangerous is that most of its creatures are evasive, and it can either pump them all with a Signal Pest or Steel Overseer, or make each individual card a threat via Cranial Plating or Arcbound Ravager.

How to Fight it:

The most important cards to keep off the table are Cranial Plating and Steel Overseer, and then to find ways to contain Arcbound Ravager and Etched Champion. If the affinity player is left with Ornithopters and Springleaf Drums they will have a hard time winning (at least until the next plating or ravager draw). The deck is highly vulnerable to hate cards like Stony Silence, Shatterstorm, Creeping Corrosion, and Hurkyll’s Recall, which is why these are so often found in the sideboards of modern decks.

Burn:

How it Works:

Burn attempts to bypass all interaction with the opponent by pointing direct damage spells at their life total until they are dead. The deck runs a few creatures that reliably deal 3 or more damage, but is otherwise all direct damage spells. Burn is at its most effective when opponents are playing fetchlands and shocklands, reducing the amount of damage the burn player needs to deal for lethal.That being said, most burn decks can reliably push out 20 damage by turn 4 without any help.

How to Fight it:

The best answer to burn decks is lifegain. Lightning Helix, Kitchen Finks, Timely Reinforcements and Feed the Clan are all cards that do serious work against burn (Skullcrack notwithstanding). Leyline of Sanctity is also very good, virtually sealing victory unless they have something like Destructive Revelry in hand.

Infect:

How it Works:

Infect is virtually a combo deck, as it tries to assemble an infect creature, a way to increase its power, a way to make it unblockable, and a way to protect it from removal. The deck is effective because outside of its ~12 infect creatures most of the spells perform multiple roles that the deck needs; Vines of Vastwood is pump and protection, Apostle’s Blessing is unblockable and protection, Distortion strike is pump and unblockable. The deck is capable of killing in a single hit, but will more commonly slow-roll its pump spells to keep protection up and kill over 2 or 3 attacks.

How to Fight it:

Infect has a very low threat count, and relies heavily on the few infect creatures it draws in a given game to actually win. While getting through the deck’s protection spells is no small task, if you can handle the first two creatures from infect your odds of winning are very good, as the rest of their deck is dead without a target to pump or protect. Spellskite can steal most of their spells, and Naturalize effects in general are worth sideboarding in to have more answers for Inkmoth Nexus, their Spellskites and Wild Defiance.

CONTENDERS (“TIER 2”)

Amulet Bloom 

   

How it Works:

Amulet bloom combines the ravnica “Karoos” with Amulet of Vigor and Summer Bloom to create 6 mana as early as turn 1 or 2. This mana is used for one of its two win conditions: Primeval Titan or Hive Mind. The deck plays Summoner’s Pact, Slaughter Pact, and Pact of Negation alongside Tolaria West to both enable the Hive Mind kill and ensure they find Primeval Titan when one is needed. A resolved titan usually tutors Slayer’s Stronghold and a bounceland for haste, then attacks and tutors either Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion for double strike, or Tolaria West with a bounceland to tutor for a pact.

How to Fight it:

A resolved Blood Moon is almost a guaranteed win against Amulet Bloom. Aven Mindcensor can effectively shut down all of the deck’s tutoring abilities until they hit a Slaughter Pact. More generally, the deck only has two win conditions so keeping Titan and Hive Mind off the table or outright removing them with a Slaughter Games is the surest way to victory. Artifact destruction for the amulet is also good for slowing the deck down, although obviously things like Shatterstorm are too slow.

Tron: 

How it Works:

Tron uses cycling and tutoring effects to assemble the three Urza’s lands, generating massive amounts of colourless mana to cast cards like Oblivion Stone, Wurmcoil Engine, and Karn Liberated. Tron comes in three variations – red/green being the most competitive with its top end of Eye of Ugin and Emrakul, followed by monoblue with its top end of Mindslaver and Academy Ruins, and in a very distant third is a Blue/White control version with finishers like Celestial Colonnade and Elesh Norn.

How to Fight it:

Land destruction is the best way to hinder tron from assembling its 3 land combo. Blood Moon, Fulminator Mage, Ghost Quarter, Tectonic Edge and Sowing Salt are all common ways to interact with this deck. Artifact hate is also reasonable, with Stony Silence shutting down their Expedition Map, Oblivion Stone, and Mindslaver while removal like Ancient Grudge or Deglamer effective versus Wurmcoil Engine.

Merfolk:

 

How it Works:

Merfolk is the only competitive tribal deck in modern (sorry Elves – you’re almost there!). It has a critical mass of 2 mana lords that provide a +1+1 boost, combined with some other very effective merfolk like Cursecatcher, Silvergill Adept, and Master of Waves. The lords create a snowball effect culminating in an army of 4+ power creatures attacking on turn 4 or 5 – often islandwalking across a Spreading Seas. The deck can be oppressively quick with an Aether Vial in play, and is surprisingly resilient with its cantrips and Mutavaults.

How to Fight it:

Merfolk needs to deploy multiple bodies onto the board to pose a serious threat, so sweepers are the ideal response. Supreme Verdict is the best option as it cannot be countered by Cursecatcher (turn 5 may be too late if you’re planning on something like Damnation), with Engineered Explosives for 2 also being quite good as it can take out most of the lords, the adepts, and any spreading seas. More generally, keeping the lords off the table will limit the damage the other merfolk can do so targeted removal can be sufficient against a sub-par merfolk draw.

Zoo 

 

How it Works:

Zoo is an aggressive deck that gives up some of the speed of Burn in favour of a better mid and late game. It plays cheap creatures with high power and toughness like Wild Nacatl and Loxodon Smiter backed up by Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile. It’s usually at least Naya, but can be up to 5 colours in versions that want to support cards like Geist of Saint Traft, Siege Rhino, and/or Tribal Flames.

How to Fight it:

Zoo does not generate much card advantage, so simply trading 1-for-1 with their creatures and then comboing or going over the top can work. The deck almost always features a heavy fetch/shock manabase, so Blood Moon can be crippling. Life gain is helpful, but do not put too much stock in things like Timely Reinforcements or Feed the Clan – unlike burn most of Zoo’s damage is from its creatures, which will continue swinging turn after turn if not dealt with.

Scapeshift 

 

How it Works:

Scapeshift uses cards like Sakura-Tribe Elder and Search for Tomorrow to ramp up to 7 lands, and then casts Scapeshift to bring 6 mountains and a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle onto the battlefield. The way the rules work, these lands all “see each other” enter the battlefield resulting in 6 valakut triggers for 18 damage. Should the opponent have more than 18 life, Scapeshift can wait for an 8th land and add a second copy of valakut to the mix to deal 36 damage instead. The rest of the deck helps find copies of Scapeshift and survive until enough lands are on the board.

How to Fight it:

Shutting down either Valakut or Scapeshift breaks the combo – so cards like Blood Moon and Slaughter Games work. Aven Mindcensor and Shadow of Doubt can prevent the deck from ramping its lands and comboing with Scapeshift. Note that most Scapeshift players will sideboard in cards like Inferno Titan or Obstinate Baloth to dull any hate against the combo itself. If its possible keep your life above 18, as this will force the scapeshift player to hit 8 lands instead of 7 to deal lethal.

Ad Nauseam: 

How it Works:

Ad Nauseum creates a game state where it does not lose for having 0 or less life (Phyrexian Unlife or Angel’s Grace) and then casts Ad Nauseam to draw its entire deck. With 40+ cards in hand, it then exiles three Simian Spirit Guide to cast Lightning Storm and discards as many lands as needed to deal lethal damage. The lightning storm is also protected by multiple copies of Pact of Negation. The deck can combo off on turn 3, but more reliably combos on turn 4 off of fast mana like Lotus Bloom and Pentad Prism. The deck can also buy a lot of time against aggressive decks simply by casting Phyrexian Unlife – which also sets it up for the combo.

How to Fight it:

Ad Nauseam is not an easy deck to interact with. The best answer is Counterflux on the Lightning Storm, a close second is your own Angel’s Grace in response to the charged-up lightning storm. Naturalize effects can slow them down by removing their fast mana and Phyrexian Unlife. Slaughter Games on Ad Nauseam is also very effective, although some versions will sideboard in Hive Mind as an alternate win condition. Generally keeping them off of 5 mana or stripping their hand of combo pieces is the best approach.

Bogles: 

How it Works:

Possibly the most linear deck on this list, Bogles plays either Gladecover Scout or Slippery Bogle, loads it up with cheap power-boosting auras, and then swings until opponent dies. Kor Spiritdancer provides a card advantage engine for the deck and another possible target for auras, but the deck really wants to build a giant hexproof monster and hope the opponent has no way to interact with it.

How to Fight it

Sacrifice effects are key as they not only bypass hexproof but also totem armor on Hyena Umbra, so cards like Liliana of the Veil or Crackling Doom are best. Enchantment removal helps, but there will often be so many auras that removing one is not that meaningful – some decks have turned to Back to Nature as a bogles hate card that can also do work against Blood Moon. Sweepers can also get around hexproof, but are usually too slow and ineffective against totem armor.

Control: 

 

How it Works:

While there are many possible colour combos for control in modern, the decks are fundamentally the stock control approach to magic: use spot removal and counterspells to get to the mid game, pull ahead with some form of card advantage, and then protect a single threat until victory is achieved. Remand, Mana Leak, Spell Snare, and Cryptic Command are the usual counterspells; Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile and Supreme Verdict are the usual removal spells; Snapcaster Mage, Restoration Angel and Sphinx’s Revelation are the usual card advantage spells; and Celestial Colonnade is the win condition of choice. One effective control variant of note is Blue Moon, which sports a manabase of islands, fetchlands, and steam vents in order to maindeck Blood Moon and Vedalken Shackles – but is otherwise composed of the usual modern control cards.

How to Fight it:

Thrun, the Last Troll is the best answer to control, as there are few cards in the average control deck that can interact with it. Targeted discard like Thoughtseize is also very good at stripping out their most important answer to push through a threat, and a resolved Liliana of the Veil can be very hard for the near creatureless control decks to get off the table without losing 3 cards in the process. Most control decks run Snapcaster Mage, so Relic of Progenitus can be useful at limiting its effectiveness without costing an actual card thanks to the cantrip.

Delver:

How it Works:

Delver is a tempo deck that plays cheap creatures that synergize with cheap spells. The deck leans on cards like Remand and Vapor Snag to buy time for its 3/2 insects and 1/1 elemental tokens to overwhelm the opponent. It was notably the best deck in the format with Treasure Cruise, but has been knocked back down to contender status with the banning of the blue delve spells.

How to Fight it:

As the creatures are all small, delver is vulnerable to things like Forked Bolt, Darkblast, and Golgari Charm. It can also struggle against a card like Tarmogoyf that sits outside of Lightning Bolt range and can resolve before Delver’s countermagic comes online. The best card against delver is probably Volcanic Fallout, since it is a cheap, instant speed board wipe that delver cannot interact with favourably.

Living End:

How it Works:

Living End plays big creatures with cycling, putting them into the graveyard over the first 2-3 turns of the game and then casting either Violent Outburst or Demonic Dread for a guaranteed cascade into Living End (nothing else in the deck has a CMC under 3). This kills every creature in play and then returns those cycled 3/4 and 4/4 monsters back onto the battlefield. Most Living End decks also run a land destruction package of Fulminator Mage, Beast Within, Avalanche Riders and/or Blood Moon. The deck is highly effective because the cycling cards help ensure it draws the lands or cascade spell that it needs to execute its game plan.

How to Fight it:

Graveyard hate is the best answer to Living End – whether Relic of Progenitus, Rest in Peace, or Leyline of the Void (note that Grafdigger’s Cage does nothing). The deck cannot do much without having its cyclers available for reanimation. Counterspells are also effective, particularly Remand targeting Living End since suspending Living End is painfully slow and easy to play around. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is also excellent as it makes the cascade combo require 5 mana rather than 3, and Slaughter Games on Living End can turn the deck into a bunch of Durkwood Boars. Living End is also hit by cards like Ethersworn Canonist or Rule of Law, which disable the ability to cascade into living end.

Reanimator:

 

How it Works:

There are two main variants of reanimator in modern. The first uses Goryo’s Vengeance to bring either Griselbrand, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Narset, Enlightened Master into play with haste. The second uses Gifts Ungiven to tutor Unburial Rites and either Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or Iona, Shield of Emeria into the graveyard (read Gifts Ungiven carefully) then uses flashback to put the chosen creature onto the battlefield. The Goryo’s deck can reanimate as early as turn 2, while the Gifts package is usually a late-game play in a control shell.

How to Fight it

Graveyard hate is the best answer to these decks – Rest in Peace being the gold standard, with Leyline of the Void, Grafdigger’s Cage, Scavenging Ooze and Relic of Progenitus also doing work.

Hatebears (including Death and Taxes) 

 

How it Works:

Two different names for decks that have a great deal of overlap, as they both rely on cheap creatures that disrupt the opponent’s game plan, and largely play out as a zoo deck with less raw power but greater disruption. Death and Taxes is usually white or white/black and makes use of Aether Vial, while hatebears tends to be green/white and uses Noble Hierarch instead of the vial, but the differences are largely immaterial.

How to Fight it:

Creature removal, especially sweepers like Damnation or Supreme Verdict are the best response to hatebears. Spot removal can be sufficient if only some of their creatures are actively disrupting you, as the deck is really only as good as the extent its creatures are effectively disrupting the opponent’s game plan.

Storm: 

 

How it Works:

Storm attempts to cast enough spells in a single turn that a Grapeshot will deal lethal damage. It does this by playing cheap spells that either draw cards or generate mana, combined with some mix of Goblin Electromancer, Past in Flames, and Pyromancer’s Ascension. There is also a storm variant that uses Jeskai Ascendancy with Fatestitcher to generate a large creature that then either attacks or gets sent to the face directly with a Fling effect for lethal damage. Both decks can combo off on turn 3 but more reliably do so on turn 4.

How to Fight it

Rule of Law, Eidolon of Rhetoric, and Ethersworn Canonist are the best answers, followed by Eidolon of the Great Revel. Counterflux can counter all of the grapeshots at the end of the sequence (although they may simply resolve another). Graveyard hate is good as it shuts down both Pyromancer’s Ascension and Past in Flames, while enchantment removal can take out both Pyromancer’s Ascension and Jeskai Ascendancy..

Tokens:

How it Works:

Tokens uses spells like Raise the Alarm and Spectral Procession to create a swarm of 1/1 creatures which can then be pumped by cards like Zealous Persecution or Honor of the Pure. The deck plays Thoughtseize and/or Inqusition of Kozilek to buy time against combo decks, and cards like Soul Warden or Auriok Champion to buy time versus aggressive decks. The main advantage of tokens is that it is excellent against spot removal like Terminate and Path to Exile.

How to Fight it:

Cheap board wipes like Engineered Explosives and Anger of the Gods are very good against tokens. Enchantment removal helps keep the tokens in check by denying any persistent anthems. The deck is also vulnerable to Blood Moon as it plays a lot of nonbasic lands.

Soul Sisters:

 

How it Works:

Soul Sisters is modern’s most competitive life gain deck (make of that what you will). It uses Soul Warden, Soul’s Attendant, and Martyr of Sands to enable Ajani’s Pridemate and Serra Ascendant. The deck uses Squadron Hawk and Ranger of Eos for card advantage, and may run some mix of equipment, planeswalkers, and anthem effects to turn its small creatures into win conditions. Some versions of the deck include red for Norin the Wary and Purphoros, God of the Forge.

How to Fight it:

The deck relies heavily on Serra Ascendant and Ajani’s Pridemate to capitalize on its lifegain, so focus on killing these two creatures. Most of the deck’s creatures are small so cards like Darkblast and Electrolyze can provide a lot of value. Be prepared to slog through an extra 10-20 life points.

Thanks for reading!

Darcy