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November 4, 2014

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Untapped Potential

Building new decks is my favourite part of magic. Unfortunately, building new decks in Modern is a challenge that usually ends in disappointment and/or table flip (thank goodness for draft and cube!). The good decks in the format are just so consistent, resilient and fast that it’s really hard to assemble a novel 75 that can put up a decent fight against the field. The rule of thumb in Modern is that if you’re not killing someone on turn 4 it had better be because you’re spending those turns disrupting their hand, board, or mana base.

I certainly haven’t solved this challenge, but there are a lot of card interactions I have in the hopper for brewing, on the hopes one of them actually pans out as a tier-2 caliber deck. Some of the more promising “combos” include:

Ghostly Prison feels like it should have a home in modern. It’s effective versus many established decks including Merfolk, Affinity, Zoo, Splinter Twin, and Delver; and it’s not terrible vs midrange and pod decks. Its main drawbacks are that it doesn’t protect planeswalkers (which would otherwise be the perfect complement), doesn’t actually address threats in the long game, and is sometimes just completely irrelevant.

Most of my efforts with this card have gone into red/white land destruction lists trying to simultaneously leverage things like Boom / Bust with Flagstones of Trokair, but I believe a much more solid angle is to run prisons with Pack Rat. Prison can buy you the time you need to grow your Pack Rat army, and will convert useless prisons into rats in matchups where they aren’t needed. This is similar in principle to 8-rack discard decks that use Pack Rat as an alternate win condition with Ensnaring Bridge (in case the bridge is destroyed, the rats provide a wall and probably an alpha strike). With Ghostly Prison, the rats can actually just attack whenever it’s profitable to do so.

The challenge I’ve had with developing a BW Rat/Prison deck is differentiating it from BW Tokens, BW Midrange, and BW Death and Taxes. Thus far, every brew I’ve come up with in these colours quickly turns into “bad version of existing Orzhov deck” where I’ve ultimately just done something like dropped 4 Liliana of the Veil for 4 Ghostly Prison.

Wait a minute, isn’t that just a colour-shifted Giant Growth? Why yes, yes it is! And feel free to use Brute Force and Giant Growth interchangeably here. The synergy between bob and brute force lies mostly in Brute Force’s “healing salve mode”. No card in the history of magic has eaten more Lightning Bolts than Dark Confidant [TEDitors note: Birds of Paradise will take that bet], and Brute Force’s extra 3 toughness is just what the doctor ordered to bring a stop to the madness. In situations where Bob isn’t getting bolted, the combat trick option can also allow bob to attack into bigger blockers, and its not terribly difficult to convert Brute Force into a Lava Spike when you want to.

Ah theory, I loved you in university and I still love you today. In practice every deck I brew with these two cards feels like a slow/bad burn deck or a slow/bad zoo deck or a slow/bad midrange deck. It’s not you Brute Force, its the other 52 cards in the deck!

Finally, a way to make Tarmogoyf playable! Well, more like a little fist bump if you want to play goyf in a blue deck instead of a black one. In the generic black green Midrange deck turn 1 Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek usually means a turn 2 goyf with 4 or higher toughness. In the blue shell Thought Scour puts 3 cards in the graveyard which will also usually put Tarmogoyf out of bolt range on turn 2. It doesn’t hurt that it also has good synergy with things like Snapcaster Mage, Scavenging Ooze, and Treasure Cruise.

The main limitation with this interaction is finding a reason to play blue but not black, or to play Thought Scour alongside cards like Thoughtseize in a Sultai deck. I’ve seen midrange Sultai decks use blue for things like Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage, but I’m not sure Thought Scour cracks that list as the deck is loaded with high impact cards and already has discard spells to fuel goyf.

No, I’m not suggesting you try to play “gotcha” by vialing in an Eidolon in response to a spell. This is about using aether vial to put cheap creatures into play without taking damage from your Eidolon (or to Flickerwisp your Eidolon out of play, cast all the Lightning Bolts, and then have him return to play at end of turn). The payoff is admittedly fairly low, but there ought to be some kind of red/white hatebears deck possible between eidolon, Tunnel Ignus, and Magus of the Moon. Maindeck Eidolon is pretty good right now with Delver and burn on the rise, so its a good time to try and develop lists that include the Pyrostatic Pillar-that-could.

Of course eidolon already sees maindeck play in a competitive modern deck. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s called burn. So if our goal is to leverage eidolon, the elephant in the room is always “why aren’t we just playing burn?” That elephant gets even bigger the first time you play an eidolon without an active Aether Vial and proceed to draw a bunch of Judge’s Familiars and Thalias. There should still be a niche for these cards to work together, it just has to be good in some situations where burn is bad..

Confession time – Kamigawa block was my favourite period of magic. I had just gotten back into the game after a long hiatus, and cut my adult magic teeth on spirit and arcane spells with Celestial Kirins and Cunning Bandits. When I found a modern list running Tallowisp I was reminded of my long forgotten Gohei and Thief of Hope deck from Kamigawa block and felt inspired. I don’t think Thief of Hope is ready for his modern debut, but Geist of Saint Traft is a modern stalwart who curves off of a Tallowisp and happily suits up that Steel of the Godhead or Angelic Destiny from the Tallowisp trigger.

The problem with this plan is that most modern decks can kill you on turn 4. Tapping out on turns 2-3-4 just to build a 8-10 power “unblockable” hexproof monster is pretty much “bad bogles”. However once we bring the blue and white shoals from Kamigawa into the picture the deck looks like it could be decent again. Both Disrupting Shoal and Shining Shoal trigger Tallowisp, Tallowisp fetches cards to discard to either shoal as needed, Shining Shoal can save Geist when it gets blocked, and extra Geists can be pitched to either Shining Shoal or Disrupting Shoal. Most importantly, the shoals give you live plays when you tap out turn 4 for that giant geist monster. That’s a pretty decent stack of spirit and arcane synergy to build on!

Modern is full of potential, and every time there’s a shift in the metagame it may open the door for something that was previously not quite good enough to jump a tier or two and make some waves in the format. I’ll be keeping the wheels turning on ideas like these as we see how far the delve mechanic and allied fetchlands warp the format.

Until next time, keep on brewing!