Awhile back, I took a friend along to a modern FNM. This particular friend was a strong and experienced player and a logical thinker. He thought through his turns carefully and made little mistakes in his own game plan. I was surprised when he went 1-3 on the night but realized that I could credit this to my own mistake. While we had a conversation about other modern decks on the car ride to the store, I hadn’t adequately prepared him for some of the most common decks in the meta, how they worked, how they win, and what pieces he needed to account for. As an experienced modern player, this is easy to overlook but if I compare this to my own understanding of legacy or vintage (which is quite limited), I would expect to have the same sort of challenges playing a new deck in a very foreign format.
In this article series, I’m going to break down the most common builds in Modern and some quick rules of thumb to defend against them, hinder them, race them…or survive their combos. I imagine that this might be helpful to player tiptoeing with competitive modern play but I am finding that the act of going through this process might be useful to a veteran, too. Though the modern format has thousands of tournament legal cards, it is helpful to focus your attention on the most common strategies (tier 1 and 2) as they will account for about 95% of the field at a weekend tournament or FNM. Just as you may be familiar with the functions of every piece on an opponent’s chess board, you can identify the core to an opponent’s deck with very little information. The activity of breaking these plans down based on the cards and interactions they utilize can be very helpful when playing a match, building a sideboard, or brewing a deck.
At one point, Lightning Bolt was the most commonly played card in Modern. For a long time (and arguably still), having more than three toughness was a barrier to entry for a creature expecting to see modern play as everything else was susceptible to Bolt.
Circa 2015, it was included in about 50% of modern top 8 event decklists. Now (Summer 2017), you may expect to see it in roughly 25% of your matches. This is still a high rate and you can count on red decks, especially Burn, to pack four of these (with the exception of Death’s Shadow which typically plays 1-2). While you keep caution for the life of your creatures, DO NOT FORGET that this can be targeted at a player.
Why is this relevant?
With modern mana bases packing fetch lands, staying at 4 life is often more important than fetching for one more land to either have access to more mana or “thin your deck” and improve your draws. Also, the very common combination of Snapcaster Mage (in 23% of modern decks) and Lightning Bolt can mean an instant speed 6 damage for just 4 mana. Be ready!
While Lightning Bolt is admittedly less prevalent now (due to the particular place that the meta has settled to), it remains one of the strongest red cards in the game. As the format shifts, this is likely to come back to prevalence.
Many decks in modern win the game using infinite combos. Decks that aim to close out a game with good old fashioned damage are called “fair decks”. According to the MTG Goldfish‘ current meta report, the 2 most commonly played decks (as of July, 2017) are Affinity and Grixis Death’s Shadow, two very aggressive “fair decks”. Burn, which we’ll also take a look at today, represents roughly 4.5% of the meta and is the 5th most commonly played deck. This too would be considered ‘fair’ as it does not rely on a combo to win the game and is certainly aggressive.
While this meta fluctuates quite a bit as new decks are developed and new cards are released, Affinity and Burn have always been and likely always will be strongly represented in the format. This is why I’ve chosen to start with those decks.
Game Plan: Affinity is an extremely efficient artifact-based aggressive deck. It can cast a large majority of it’s opening seven cards on the first turn using spells like Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal. Take Dylan Fraley’s list from the Modern classic in Cincinnati for example.
Win Conditions: This deck wins in a variety of different ways.
- Going Wide: overwhelming blockers with many attacking creatures pumped by Signal Pest
- Suiting Up Cranial Plating: Attacking with a very large creature equipped with Plating
- 10 Infect: Dealing 10 infect damage with Inkmoth Nexus
- Protection: Beating relentlessly with a “protection from all colors” Etched Champion
The third option, infect damage, is often overlooked. When this deck appears to be crippled by artifact “hate” cards and mass removal, Inkmoth Nexus can fly overhead for 10 infect damage rather quickly.
Weakness: Since Affinity plays nearly all artifacts, it is relatively easy to pack hate for them. Cards with “destroy all artifacts” text (like Shatterstorm) can do a good job of resetting an affinity player’s board but do not forget about the 8 Inkmoth lands (Blinkmoth Nexus too!) that will be sticking around to attack in following turns. Blue decks might opt for Hurkyl’s Recall when they do not have access to Shatterstorm. Stony Silence is a useful tool that can stop mana sources like Mox Opal as well as the ‘equip’ ability on Cranial Plating. Since this deck’s speed and potency relies on fast mana like Opal and Plating (as well as color-fixing), Stony Silence really is the premier piece of sideboard “hate” for the deck.
Even with all of the targeted anti-artifact technology in the format, Affinity has maintained it’s position as the top deck since the inception of modern. Much of this is due to it’s multi-faceted win conditions. Sometimes, a single Etched Champion can take over the game on its own. Even after a Shatterstorm consumes the Affinity player’s board, lands like Darksteel Citadel and an animated Inkmoth can total 3 for Etched Champion‘s metalcraft. Control decks have a particularly difficult time dealing with this guy. Often times, all you can do is race it with larger creatures as none of your removal spells can target Champion and keeping your opponent off 3 artifacts is near impossible.
Since this deck is able to dump 6-7 permanents on the board in the first two turns, cards like Disenchant which can be used to trade one-for-one with an artifact typically are not enough to catch up. In a pinch, it may be enough to help you survive a bit longer but when you are spending your second turn tapping out to destroy just one artifact, there will be quite a few of them left on the board to attack you next turn. Look for sideboard cards that can recoup this tempo deficiency. Cards like Kolaghan’s Command, for example, are able to take care of an artifact while dealing two damage (usually enough to kill) another artifact on the board.
Beware: Arcbound Ravager is a staple of this deck which can often make math difficult. Whether you’re trying to block or kill an artifact with a damage spell, Ravager’s ability to sacrifice an artifact to pump itself and then sacrifice itself to put the counters on another creature (both at instant speed) will give the Affinity player a sneaky way to instantly grow their creature larger than your burn spell or increase its power to kill you. Often times, these counters can be placed on an Inkmoth Nexus to reach 10 infect damage quicker or a Vault Skirge to abuse its lifegain ability.
Game Plan: “Get you dead” as soon as possible. Burn is typically a base mono red deck that features one casting cost creatures (Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear) and 1-2 costed direct damage spells. The deck includes white for Boros Charm and occasionally, green for Atarka’s Command. Take Christian Heymsfield’s top8 list from SCG Open; Cincinnati for example.
Win Condition: This is pretty simple and you find out pretty fast…
Starting on turn one, a Burn player will likely be aiming spells like Lightning Bolt and Lava Spike at your face while attacking with its creatures. You will typically receive lethal damage in 4-5 turns if you can’t gain life, counter some of their burn spells, or block or kill their creatures early on. Pair this deck’s potent damage spells with the fact that many modern decks deal themselves somewhere between 3-5 damage via shock and fetch lands and it can be quite easy to add up to 20.
Weakness: Burn loses most often to itself. If the pilot draws too many lands and not enough burn spells, you can usually stabilize and win first. For this reason, you’ve got to play carefully and efficiently.
If you playing a control style with cards like Dispel or Mana Leak, it is often important not to tap out during early turns and instead, opt for countering their burn spells or removing creatures and running them out of gas. If you can survive long enough and win at card advantage, your spells are typically much stronger in the late game and you should be in the clear at this point. Eventually, you’ll have to attack to win (unless you play a combo) but don’t do this unless you’ve got backup resources to defend the many instant speed burn spells that the opponent is likely stockpiling. If you don’t have an answer, there are situations where bluffing one just might work. If you draw a basic land that you don’t immediately need for mana, keep it in hand and pretend that it’s a Spell Snare. In a competitive environment, a Burn opponent often can’t take the chance.
Speaking of Spell Snare, this is a great tool to use against Burn. It costs just one mana, so on the draw, you can use it to counter your opponent’s two-mana spells like Eidolon of the Great Revel. If given the choice to tap out for a play like Serum Visions or hold for a Spell Snare, always go with the latter against an aggressive deck like this one. Dispel, Flashfreeze, and Spell Pierce are also quite useful tools for blue mages in this matchup.
Since many of Burn’s direct damage spells are instant speed, once the Burn player has played out a creature or two, he or she may pass go on their turn without casting a spell so that they can be used at the end of your turn. This way, your counterspells are effectively being taxed twice as hard as you will only get one untap step vs. two turns of spells from the Burn player.
If you don’t have counters, you’ll likely need to look to lifegain. Creatures like Kitchen Finks or Thragtusk can both gain you life to take you out of the red zone AND provide a blocker for your opponent’s attacking creatures. This plan, however is subject to a few roadbumps…
Burn players will prioritize their spells in this order:
- Play creatures first (earlier creatures and provide more damage)
- “Vanilla” burn spells (cards that merely do damage and nothing else) or “Searing” Effects (cards that damage blockers AND players)
- Hold Skullcrack, Atarka’s Command, Flames of the Blood Hand-type spells for either the final blow or to cancel out lifegain.
Spells in the third tier of this plan (at least Skullcrack) are nearly always included in multiples of 4 in a Burn player’s maindeck. When your opponent’s lands are untapped, you can never count on resolving a lifegainspell without being Skullcracked.
Some of the most effective spells against Burn play on the previously mentioned idea of out-valuing the deck or ‘running them out of gas’.
Collective Brutality has three modes that are all live against Burn. Discarding an opponent’s Boros Charm and killing a creature like Goblin Guide is a rather dominant play. Just like Affinity, Burn does a good job of seizing control of the game via tempo (attacking relentlessly with undercosted and creatures, killing blockers and dealing damage with cards like Searing Blaze). Collective Brutality does a great job of recouping the tempo deficiency you’re likely to experience after a fast start from the Burn player.
Kor Firewalker is one of the hardest lifegain creatures for Burn to deal with as its lifegain does not occur all in one shot. This card can be Skullcracked to very minimal effect as each instance is just one point of lifegain (which essentially lessens the effect of each burn spell by one point of damage). Additionally, this provides a fantastic blocker that is nearly impossible to kill without a Path to Exile, which these decks often sideboard. Worth noting: Skullcrack WILL stop the damage prevention from Firewalker’s protection from red, leaving it vulnerable to damage when it is blocking.
Leyline of Sanctity needs little explanation. This will blank nearly half of the cards in your opponent’s deck and force them to rely on attackers to win the game.
Beware: Burn plays a few cards in the sideboard that can be quite surprising if you’re not ready for them. Destructive Revelry is one. Often times, artifacts and enchantments like Leyline of Sanctity can feel like the perfect sideboard trump card for this matchup. Revelry provides a way to deal with these problems while still advancing the plan of “deal you damage”. Whereas sideboard cards like Path to Exile can be a necessary evil for Burn to include at the expense of moving damage spells out of the main, Revelry is both an answer AND damage.
Deflecting Palm is extremely powerful out of the sideboard. ALWAYS assume that your opponent’s got it and you won’t be disappointed. When you are attacking with a Wurmcoil Engine and assuming that the 6 points of lifelink will get you out of the red zone to survive an attack on the next turn, a Deflecting Palm just may come out of nowhere and tell you otherwise. In addition, creatures like Death’s Shadow, which are made MUCH larger by the nature of constantly taking damage from your opponent are rather susceptible to game-ending plays at the hands of Deflecting Palm. Just when you thought you were going to win…BAM!
While knowing your meta is the first step, nothing can substitute for the experience of playing in it. You’ve got to make mistakes to learn lessons and your difficult matchups will likely cause you to make many mistakes. The fact of the matter is, Modern is extremely complex, and even the most talented players can only be successful with a thorough knowledge of the field.