Last week, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and wrote about a deck I was developing for competitive modern tournaments. For those of you who don’t fancy re-reading the whole post: it’s a land destruction/tempo deck, which tries to ruin the other player’s day with lots of cheap mana denial, punching and burning them out before they can recover from the stumble.
I also committed to putting my money where my mouth was, by stumping up tickets and taking the deck into some two-man tournaments on MTGO. If the deck is supposed to compete, its mettle needs to be tested against people with something on the line.
Here’s the final list I brought to the party:
Since last week, I dropped the ambitious black splash (for Doom Blade) in favour of some Vapor Snags.
Without further ado, here are the results of this potentially expensive experiment:
Match One: Blue Tron
For the unfamiliar, Tron is a strategy which hinges on the player assembling the combination of Urza’s Tower, Mine and Power Plant. Once these three lands are in play together, they produce large volumes of colourless mana, rather than the typical one-mana per card ration. This combination allows the Tron pilot to cast expensive and powerful colourless spells very early in the game, overpowering opponents as a result.
As my opponent led off with an Urza’s Mine, I felt a little flutter in my stomach. If the strategy was viable, this should be a great match for me; however, if I couldn’t beat Tron, what the hell was I going to beat?
As it turned out, destroying lands had little to do with the outcome of Game 1. I had enough cards to pressure and interact with my opponent in my opening hand that I couldn’t bring myself to send it back, but none of them blew up his mana. Conveniently, though, he stalled out on drawing his combo and I was able to start the process of beating him up . Sadly, I made a mistake that cost me the game by the narrowest of margins.
Facing down a newly played Treasure Mage (which had retrieved a Wurmcoil Engine), with only an unflipped Delver in play, I chose to Lightning Bolt the Mage in his end step so that I could attack freely.
This was an astonishing act of cowardice and stupidity. I should have bolted his face – and here’s why:
- If the Delver flips next turn, I can attack in the air and ignore his Mage.
- If it doesn’t flip, I can leave it at home and hope to flip it in one of the next three upkeep steps. I need to miss four opportunities to attack for one point of damage before I am in a worse position for having burned him… and I will need to get very lucky to have another four relevant turns playing against Tron.
- Pressure is everything. In my maindeck, I have almost no way to beat a Wurmcoil Engine that successfully attacks once. I have to kill him before he can connect with one of these, so I need to play as if the top cards of my deck contain enough power and burn to close out the game, even if that ends up not being the case.
Of course, my Delver immediately flipped on the following turn and I was able to start bashing for three. I effectively lost the game a couple of turns later, when he resolved a Wurmcoil Engine and I was only able to swing for eight of his eleven life in response, with my flipped Delver and a Thundermaw Hellkite. Had I bolted him, that swing would have left him dead; instead, it left me agonizingly short, as he lifelinked his way back to nine, before playing a second Wurmcoil to seal my fate.
Luckily, I learned my lesson. In sideboarding, I quickly switched in my Vapor Snags for Remands; when the other guy has 80,000 mana, Remand is an expensive Reach Through Mists.
Game 2 started well.
Although my Ajani ended up getting condescended, I was able to overload his mana and counters using Molten Rain and Snapcaster Mage. Eventually, I resolved Elspeth and she absolutely went to town, making tokens and jumping my Snapcaster in for large chunks of flying damage.
Fearing a Repeal, I pushed the game into a state where my opponent was forced to blow it on a pumped Snapcaster to survive… snappy promptly returned to flashback a bolt and take him to zero.
In Game 3, those sideboarded Vapor Snags were worth their weight in gold. I flipped a Delver immediately and started swinging for three each turn, supplementing my attacks with a healthy dose of burn to take my opponent to low life. Of course, he slapped a Wurmcoil into play… which I was then able to Vapor Snag back to his hand, allowing me to nail him for exactly lethal even through a Mindslaver activation.
Match Two: Black Affinity
Affinity is the descendant of perhaps the most feared tournament deck in history, although it plays few of the same cards today as in the past, as the result of various bannings and new printings. At its core, Affinity is an aggressive deck built around artifact creatures, which uses powerful synergies to smash the opponent into submission very early in the game.
This match started very well: I won a thrilling Game 1 on a single life point. Luckily, I had decided not to crack a fetch as I targeted it with Boom – a decision I was relatively confident in at the time, but which was obviously right in hindsight, despite the fact that it cut off Thundermaw Hellkite as a live draw – and my opponent decided for some reason to sac a Cranial Plating to their Arcbound Ravager, which I’m pretty sure would have allowed a lethal attack had it been equipped.
Sadly, in Games 2 and 3 my opponent rolled me with precisely the same series of turn 1 plays on both occasions:
- Mox Opal
- Blinkmoth Nexus, activate
…on both occasions taking a sideboarded hate card from my hand. The disruption proved enough to get a Steel Overseer active in both games, at which point I was quickly despatched by a rapidly growing army of flying, artifact-man-lands.
I was a little disappointed about this, as I felt intuitively that my sideboarded configuration should present a stronger game than the maindeck, but it was not to be.
Match Three: Amulet of Vigor combo
Making use of its namesake card and various accelerated means of playing lands, this deck seeks to generate very large amounts of mana on the second or third turn of the game by playing the ‘bouncelands’ from Ravnica block and tapping/untapping them multiple times. With this sudden burst of mana, the deck will play out threats like Primeval Titan to bring more and more powerful lands into play, or simply go straight for the throat by playing a huge Eldrazi creature like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
I confess: in Game 1, I had absolutely no idea what was happening for the first couple of turns. My opponent played two Spinerock Knolls, not a card which I particularly associated with this strategy, before I cast Molten Rain on one of them. It was my last meaningful action of the game.
After untapping, my opponent fired up his combo, dropping a couple of Amulets into play before playing a Summer Bloom and going crazy over the course of 7 minutes. What a lot of triggers. Come sideboarding time, I genuinely thought my best chance of winning might be for him to time out.
In Game 2, he resolved Emrakul on Turn 3, having played 3 Amulets of Vigor on his first 2 turns. C’est la vie.
Match 4: Soul sisters
Soul Sisters is a strategy employing multiple small creatures which gain life, alongside other creatures which benefit greatly from that lifegain. It tries to make traditional damage races completely unviable for the opponent, whilst turning its tiny army into a squadron of monsters by triggering their abilities as the life-counter ticks upward.
In Game 1, I blow up every land he plays. Each turn, he calmly plays another plains, then a Soul Warden variant, and beats me down with them. Eventually, his 5th one drop is a Serra Ascendant. I lose the game staring at 1 plains and a 6/6 flying monster on the other side of the table.
In Game 2, we have a long, drawn out war of attrition. My land destruction feels like it’s actually achieving something and my sideboarded Pyroclasms are doing work.
Eventually, I resolve a Bust while we’re racing and I’m ahead on board; I have 3 Darksteel Citadels and figure I have a better chance to draw out and play more spells. I’m eventually proved wrong, as he peels several plains over the course of the ensuing turns, while I draw copies of Serum Visions and Lightning Bolt. It’s disheartening, but it feels like a real game second time around, whereas the first felt like a sick joke at my expense.
In retrospect, I think I pulled the trigger on the Bust too quickly. Three colourless lands aren’t very much better than one in a deck which has intensive colour requirements for its’ spells; if I had my time again, I would grit my teeth and hold the card.
Match 5: Burn
Burn is a deck which, to quote a well-known pillar of the Glaswegian Magic scene, throws pictures of fire at the opponent until they are dead.
My opponent is mana-screwed in Game 1, which is a bad place to be against the land destruction deck.
I remove his real estate and run him over. My advantage is sickeningly compounded by the stream of land his Goblin Guide puts into my hand before I eventually bolt it – cards I put to good use when use them to cast a Thundermaw Hellkite, drawing the concession.
In Game 2, I side out my remands and some Molten Rains to make space for Pyroclasms and Vapor Snags. Hilariously, he then goes to town on me with multiple Molten Rains of his own, crushing me utterly as I struggle to cast Ajani or Snapcaster/Helix.
Game 3 is an absolute thriller. My opponent burns me low, but thanks to the power of land destruction I’m able to clear away his mountains entirely. The irreplaceable talents of Elspeth become apparent as she helps my Snapcaster Mage to crash for 5 in the skies… and the deal is sealed when I draw a Lightning Helix, which lifts me out of his potential burn range for the last turn he has to kill me.
Match 6: Splinter Twin
Splinter Twin is an infinite combo deck with lots of redundancy in its components. It uses creatures which can be played at instant speed and untap a permanent when they enter the battlefield, combining them with a tap-driven cloning effect to create as many hasty creatures as required to end the game. Because the combo is so strong, it gets to play up to 8 copies of each of its effects, leaving the rest of the deck to reactive spells which can protect its strategy.
In Game 1, I kill some lands and put a little bit of pressure on my opponent… but then my nerve fails. I’m holding remands and an Ajani Vengeant, with 5 lands in play, but turns pass without my crucial 6th land appearing. I convince myself that each turn only gives the other player more opportunities to draw the combo and decide to just run Ajani out: If I survive the turn, I’m in a great position.
Needless to say, my opponent has the kill: they flash in a Deceiver Exarch and atomise me with Splinter Twin after untapping.
For Game 2, I side in 2 Snags and 2 Wear//Tears, but on reflection it should simply have been 4 Snags: if I bounce a Splinter Twin target, the enchantment dies anyway and I need to have the mana for either at the point the enchantment is cast, or I’m dead.
I get a blistering start when both my Delvers flip on turn 3 and I crash in for 6. Backed up with burn, I’m able to snag away a Clique he flashes in to block and run him into the ground before he can combo me.
In Game 3, I have no Remands or Snags, but an aggressive hand, so I keep. I drop a Delver, start crashing and back it up with burn. So far so good!
However, my very next decision is outright comical. Aiming to keep the opponent on low mana to reduce the risk of being combo’d out, I activate Ajani to keep one of his lands tapped; literally as the ability goes on the stack, I am already holding my head in my hands, remonstrating with myself about how I became such a terrible player. He flashes down a Pestermite, untaps the land, takes his turn and combos me.
In any event, I couldn’t beat the draw my opponent presented, but I should have burned him with Ajani to maximise my chances of untapping, resolving a Hellkite and top-decking lethal burn.
By this stage in my odyssey, I was beginning to believe that there were systemic problems with the deck. My next match would compound that thinking.
Match 7: Melira Pod
This strategy uses the power of Birthing Pod to tutor powerful creature combinations into play, which will allow the pilot either to stabilise the game or to initiate one of several infinite combos which usually assure victory. It’s also a resilient midrange deck when this plan is unavailable… and as a neat side touch, Melira herself provides automatic protection against the explosive Infect deck.
An interesting Game 1 finds me restricting his mana even as he bashes me with persist creatures. Through an unlikely chain of Remands and Snapcasters, I manage to stabilise on 5 life and prevent my opponent from resolving a relevant spell for several turns. We enter a midrange, grindy zone where I manage to outrace the backlog of spells he eventually begins to play out.
In Game 2, we go back and forth for a while. His mana creatures make my remaining land destruction spells lacklustre, but they do validate my sideboarded Pyroclasms. Eventually, he grabs an opening to drop Melira, then convoke a chord of calling for Cartel Aristocrat, a sequence I didn’t think his limited mana would allow (how wrong I was). I am pinged into the grave by Murderous Redcap triggers shortly afterward.
Game 3 is a real slugfest. We get each other down to low life, but he wins the grind war by top-decking Gavony Township and (literally) going to town.
After this match, I had reached a couple of conclusions:
- Melira Pod is a really resilient deck with several viable gameplans. It’s something of a poster child for Modern: I don’t roll over easily and if you don’t do something quickly, I’ll roll over you.
- Blowing up lands just ain’t what it used to be. All of the strategies I was facing (aside from Tron) could either operate with low mana, ramp their mana with creatures or just kill me before anything but my nut draw could come online.
Nonetheless, I decided to bat one more time with Boomtown. Eight is a portentous number in Magic culture and with any luck, the final match might teach me something new.
Match 8: Splinter Twin
Remember these guys?
Sadly, I’m mistaken. In Games 1 and 2, my opponent combos me at the earliest possible opportunity, countering my spells and peppering me with the beaks of a thousand Deceiver Exarchs.
I didn’t feel good about this matchup at all – and even after playing it twice, I’m not sure I even know the proper way to board. My land destruction plan didn’t feel good here… the opponent could just wait, play draw spells, replace his lands, then pick an opening to flash in his combo creature.
The Balance Sheet
At the end of my eight match set, I had a miserable 2-6 record, with only a pair of RTR boosters to show for my 16 ticket investment. Those are some pretty expensive boosters.
I could have chosen the way of the tantrum, given such a poor set of results, but instead I decided to think positively about the experience. What benefits had I gained beyond actual booster prizes?
- I’d received a whistle-stop tour of the Modern metagame. In 8 matches, I faced 7 different strategies – and there are still more out there. Modern is incredibly diverse. There is no truly dominant deck and few obvious ways to attack several pillars of the format simultaneously.
- I’d discovered that proactivity is King. Of all the decks I faced, only Splinter Twin felt like a truly reactive strategy… and that’s simply a luxury it has because its combo can snap into place like a mousetrap, starting in my end step. Everyone else, even Tron (which did run counters) was on the front foot, trying to do something very powerful before I could do something similarly powerful. Modern, based on my first forays, does not appear to be an environment particularly welcoming to control decks.
- I’d learned that Boomtown lacked the punch to capitalise on the problems it was capable of creating. Blowing up lands early was great, but too often I was using that time simply to attack with an unflipped Delver or a Snapcaster Mage. My big hitter, Thundermaw Hellkite, didn’t come online until I reached 5 mana. If I was choking mana on turns 2 and 3, I needed to be capitalising immediately with a brutal threat… like Geist of St Traft, for instance.
Knowledge and practice are worthwhile ends in their own right.
(Maybe not 16 tickets worth, but give me a break – I just got stomped 2-6 and I need all the upbeat notions I can get.)
I like Modern. It feels like a brewer’s playground and I’m still tantalised by the idea that something new and exciting is waiting to be discovered.
Of course, I don’t have limitless funds. If I want to keep brewing, I’ll need to build decks using cheaper, less appreciated cards… or I’ll need to win prizes with something relatively consistent in order to fund future thought experiments.
This is where you come in, dear reader. Thanks for your time, patience and camaraderie. Until next time…