Are you ready for Grand Prix Toronto? Are you ready to play, or to win? Do you know the major strategies in the Modern format and what makes them tick?
If you don’t, don’t worry. You might not be a favorite to win the GP, but with a little bit of help, I’m sure you can have a lot of fun and possibly surprise some people. That little bit of help might be this article, but let me tell you in advance: I do not have a secret weapon that will cut through the Swiss like a hot knife (I doubt that would even work; seems to me that the cheese would melt and stick to the metal). I do have a general overview of the major strategies, and what you should be aware or afraid of.
Let’s start from the very top. As I mentioned in an earlier article, the decks in Modern operate on an axis from Power to Synergy. On one hand, you have the decks that try to beat you by playing the most powerful cards (Power decks), whereas on the other hand, you have decks that try to beat you by playing cards that work well together strategically (Synergy decks). Then, you have decks that fall in between. The further decks lean towards the Synergy-extreme, the more likely that there are specific cards that completely destroy them. Against Jund, no one such card exists. Against Eggs, a Leyline of the Void can often be enough. However, in a straight Power versus Synergy matchup, the Synergy decks often have the edge if no hate card shows up.
Power decks are those like Jund, UW Angels, the BUG deck that made the finals in Lyon, and even Kibler’s “GW-Hate-Midrange.” In Kibler’s deck for example, the power level of the cards is maybe not intrinsically high, but it is high because of the metagame; if Loxodon Smiter regularly costs 0 to cast and stifles a Liliana activation, it is a powerful card. These decks play the best cards they can fit together on a reasonable curve, are equipped with some of the more devastating sideboard cards, and try to get there by overpowering the opponent.
Synergy decks are decks like Storm, Eggs, and GR Tron. These decks can largely ignore whatever the opponent is doing and win through the strong synergy their deck provides them with. Compare their cards one-on-one to some of the cards the Power decks play, and these decks look like a pile of draft leftovers. Combine the cards, and these combo decks will leave Power decks wondering what hit them.
Then, there are the other decks, which are somewhere in between, like Infect, Affinity, Melira- or Kiki-Jiki-Pod, Splinter Twin, Scapeshift and other Tron or Gifts variants (UW or UR). Some of these are closer to the Synergy side of the spectrum (Infect and Affinity), others to the power side (UW Tron-Gifts). These are mostly combo-like decks that one can interact with in game one.
Next, let’s look at some of the decks in a bit more detail. How do these decks beat you, and how can we interact? I’ll start with the elephant in the room:
Jund has been aptly described as the “value-trader” in the format-it seems to be trading everything one for one, but always ends up on top in the end. It has discard spells to mess with your plans; versatile removal in Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay; and creatures that are either undercosted (Tarmogoyf) or, if their stats aren’t impressive, that pay off in card advantage (Bloodbraid Elf, Dark Confidant). It also makes the most out of its manabase, sometimes splashing a fourth color without problems, but most definitely playing a lot of manlands to prevent flooding. These factors combined make Jund one of the better decks in a topdeck war.
Jund’s strategy is far from linear-it basically plays whatever good cards it happens to draw, while disrupting you. This is not easy to fight unless you make the disruption irrelevant or your cards are more powerful on average. The second feat is very hard to accomplish, because Jund is basically the stereotypical Power deck. The first feat is doable.
If you are playing a combo deck, you want to have a lot of interchangeable pieces, like Infect does. Infect has an overload of pump spells, so discarding one is usually not going to disrupt you very much. The same goes for a deck like Eggs, with its eight Second Sunrise-effects. If you are playing a control deck, you might want to be able to draw enough cards that the Jund’s discard doesn’t matter anymore. If you are an aggressive deck, you could play Loxodon Smiters and Wilt-Leaf Lieges, or perhaps play cards that you don’t mind having in your graveyard, like Gravecrawler or Vengevine.
When mulliganning against Jund, keep in mind that you would prefer to keep a hand that doesn’t overly rely on a single card in your hand or a discard spell might ruin you. Mulliganning too aggressively is ill-advised for the same reason: if you mull to five to find a specific card, you better hope you can resolve it (and if it is a creature or planeswalker, protect it) before Jund plays an answer.
The BUG deck plays out very similarly to Jund and has many of the same cards. The main differences are that, instead of Bloodbraid Elf, it plays Snapcaster Mage, and instead of Lightning Bolt, it has Mana Leak. It also has some Vendilion Cliques and a slightly lower curve overall. Because of Snapcaster Mage, it is a little stronger against discard spells than Jund, and the counters give it a better chance to interact with Storm and Eggs. As a trade-off, its removal cannot be pointed at the dome in Combo matchups, and because it plays counterspells, its topdecks are a bit weaker.
Defeating BUG is like defeating Jund: try to blank their disruption. Against BUG, though, you can try to play cards that overpower its cards a bit more easily than going all-in on Wilt-Leaf Lieges. Lingering Souls for example is quite good against BUG. Because it plays a bit less land than Jund, land destruction can help you keep it from playing multiple spells a turn, which makes it easier to race the BUG deck or keep it from casting spells at all.
UW Angels is a deck that plays mostly at instant speed and is a tad slower than the above two decks. Instead of playing discard, it counters spells with Mana Leak, Cryptic Command, and Spell Snare. While its cards might be a bit less powerful than Jund’s, it is harder to play against, and my best advice on beating them is to play your deck against them a bunch of times. Keep track of their graveyard, check how much mana they have open, and try to figure out lines of play that don’t immediately lose to flashed-in creatures or Cryptic Command. In general, Snapcaster Mage is more likely than Restoration Angel, which is more likely than Cryptic Command, but be aware-not everybody plays the same list.
If you plan on playing this list, I have a piece of technology for you (with thanks to Andrew Cuneo for streaming with it): try to fit in one or two Calciform Pools. Because you play mostly at instant speed, having a storage land to charge if your opponent doesn’t do anything worthwhile is very useful. It also makes bluffing a counterspell easier, as you won’t have wasted two mana if they play around it.
Next up are the synergy decks. The first note on these is that, by their nature, they are linear decks and can generally be knocked out by “hate cards.” However, opponents generally can’t afford to play these hate cards main without giving up too many percentages against the remainder of the field. Thus, I’ll simply mention some of these hate cards, and talk about how you can interact in game one. Let’s start with the Pro Tour winning deck:
Eggs is a deck that basically makes the following loop: it generates mana and draws cards by sacrificing artifacts and lands, bringing them back into play using one of eight Second Sunrise-effects and doing it again, constantly netting a few more cards and mana each time until Eggs draws its deck and kills you with a Pyrite Spellbomb (or, after sideboard, with a Laboratory Maniac or Grapeshot). This generally happens around turn four but can be as early as turn two (this is, however, very unlikely).
Specific hate cards are Stony Silence, Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace, and to a lesser extent Surgical Extraction effects that make Eggs more likely to “fizzle.” Cards that are not as effective as you’d like include Grafdiggers Cage, Damping Matrix (because it doesn’t stop mana abilities), and Leyline of Sanctity, which, while the effect seems strong, will usually get bounced by Eggs once they’ve drawn most of their deck and found an Echoing Truth.
In game one, certain things are effective: trying to bottleneck Eggs on mana can work by countering Lotus Bloom or Reshape for zero (be aware that they can reshape for one and still get a Lotus Bloom). Trying to make them discard Second Sunrise-effects can work, and killing them before they kill you can work too, but the last option is generally reserved for decks like Infect, Affinity and other (aggro-)combo decks. They first two options also only work if you have a decent clock; if the Eggs deck isn’t not under pressure, it has enough redundant pieces that it will eventually find enough of them to go off.
This is actually a general rule against combo decks in Modern (and probably in any Eternal format): apply pressure. These decks are built to be resilient or they wouldn’t stand a chance against Jund. Disruption in game one slows them down, but it doesn’t stop them. Holding mana up the entire game is often hurting you more than it hurts them, so tap out early to get a clock down, even if it might give them a window to go off. Then keep mana up to disrupt them.
The next big Synergy deck is Storm, which generates mana through “rituals” and Goblin Electromancer; then plays a bunch of cheap spells to ramp up the storm count, often playing them twice with Past in Flames or Pyromancer’s Ascension; and then kills you with Grapeshot. Storm is a tad faster than Eggs but generally goes of on turn four also. It can just combo off on turn three a bit more often.
Specific hate cards against Storm include Rule of Law, Ethersworn Canonist, and to a lesser extent, Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace. Storm can still generate a bit of storm without abusing their graveyard, generally enough to play Empty the Warrens for enough tokens to kill you after sideboarding, which is when you would bring in Leyline or Rest in Peace. Mindbreak Trap can also be good, but you have to learn to cast it at the right times. This can be tricky if you’ve never played with or against Storm before.
In game one, your attempts should generally be aimed at bottlenecking them on mana: counter rituals, destroy Electromancers, and once again, support everything with a good clock. Slam something down, even if it gives them an opportunity; they don’t always have it, and you might lure them into going off prematurely. If it does go badly, you weren’t a favorite game one anyway, especially not if you just sit there.
A less extremely linear deck is Infect. Infect plays a bunch of weak, cheap creatures creatures with infect, gets them past blockers with evasion or something like Rancor or Apostle’s Blessing, and then uses pump spells to kill you very quickly. Because two pump spells only cost two mana total, Infect can kill you on turn two with a Glistener Elf, but generally kills you turn three or turn four. It has more turn three kills than either Storm or Eggs, but is easier to interact with.
Pump spells effectively work as though Infect creatures have double strike. When trying to figure out if Infect can kill you if you don’t block, remember that it needs nine power worth of pump spells if you have no poison yet. The pump spells generally pump in batches of 4, so Infect needs two pump spells, and an extra damage somewhere. This could be from an exalted trigger, a Pendlehaven, a Mutagenic Growth, or a third pump spell.
There are fewer specific hate cards for Infect, but if you can resolve it in time, Night of Soul’s Betrayal is an auto-scoop for Infect players unless they boarded in Nature’s Claim. Sudden Shock or other split-second removal is also very effective.
In game one, having removal or blockers is key. Try to use removal on your turn, especially if your removal is damage based; you don’t want your removal to be negated by a pump spell that also kills you. If you play discard spells, generally go for the Infect creature in their hand if you can. The pump spells and other interaction is irrelevant if your opponent has nothing to deal you poison.
After sideboarding, be ready for Spellskite, so make sure your plan to beat them isn’t solely targeted-removal that doesn’t kill a ‘Skite.
Affinity is very much like Infect, in that it can be blazingly fast thanks to pump spells on steroids, except instead of playing about 20, Affinity plays four: Cranial Plating. Plating is reusable though, and some decks play Steelshaper’s Gift to find them. There is a world of difference between Affinity draws with and without Plating (Ari Lax once described the deck as “four auto-wins and a bunch of blanks”), so if you only get to destroy one card in the entire match, it probably should be Plating. Save Spell Snares and Abrupt Decays accordingly.
There are various specific hate cards against Affinity, like Shatterstorm and Creeping Corrosion, but remember that Affinity can be a very fast deck, so a four-mana sweeper might not save you in time, especially on the draw. Artifact removal in general is pretty good though, especially if you can destroy one or two key pieces with, for example, an Ancient Grudge or a Shattering Spree.
While playing against Affinity, beware that it can kill you with poison as well as normal combat damage thanks to Inkmoth Nexus. Depending on what version you are playing against, you also have to beware of Galvanic Blasts finishing you off, so try to stay at a high life total. Make sure, also, that you can pressure your opponent if you survive the initial onslaught but are at a low life total; don’t give them ten draw steps to draw the Etched Champion or Galvanic Blast that will deal the last few points.
Birthing Pod decks like Melira-Pod and Kiki-Jiki-Pod are very much a cross between Power decks and Synergy decks. They have a combo-kill, but if they don’t draw it, they try to get there with a bunch of “good cards.” This doesn’t always work, as they have a lot of silver bullets that are bad in some matchups but good in others, and these make their topdecks a bit erratic. If they have a Birthing Pod at their disposal though, there is not much that can stop them.
There is less specific hate against Pod decks, as they are much closer to a deck like Jund than to a deck like Storm. If you completely shut off their engine, or break their combo, they can still win without too much effort. A card like Stony Silence shuts off their Birthing Pod, but not the Kitchen Finks and Restoration Angel that hit you for three each every turn.
When playing against Pod, be very wary when they have Birthing Pod out. A single Murderous Redcap means death against the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, versions as they sacrifice it to find Zealous Conscripts and untap the Pod, then sacrifice the Redcap again to find Kiki-Jiki, which taps to copy the Conscripts, whose copy then untaps the Kiki-Jiki, so it can copy the Conscripts again ad infinitum. Against the blue versions, any two-drop and a Pod means death in two turns: the two-drop becomes Deceiver Exarch, which untaps Pod and then becomes a Redcap or a Glen-Elendra Archmage that spells murder next turn.
Of the two Pod variants, Melira Pod is the faster and more reliable to combo. The combo here is a repeatable sacrifice outlet; a Melira, Sylvok Outcast; and either Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap. Because the deck plays Reveillark, it can easily get back combo pieces that were destroyed earlier, so keep their graveyard in mind when trying to determine whether they can go off next turn. Also, Melira herself is a main-deck answer against the Infect decks, which are sure to be popular, as Infect is fairly cheap and not hard to pilot.
Both Pod decks are fairly hard to pilot, as there are many different lines to take, and winning without Pod requires quite a bit of extra work. If you haven’t started practicing with them and want to win something in Toronto, I’d recommend picking up something else.
There are more strategies out there, but I would say that these are the matchups you are most likely to run into. If you think there is a deck I haven’t mentioned, but you would really like some info on, let me know in the comments. The same goes for people who have more specific questions about a matchup: I’m more than happy to suggest lines of play.
Good luck everybody!
iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO