Melding Mayhem: Innovation in Dallas

Last weekend was SCG Dallas, a Team Constructed Open that again featured Modern experts duking it out on the big stage. As one of the last datapoints before the upcoming Pro Tour, Dallas gives us a few interesting bits of information to work with.

Today, we’ll focus on the cooler deckbuilding choices made by some of the tournament’s top players, as well as a few techs chosen by Top 8 competitors from the neighboring Classic tournament.

Open Developments

Let’s start with the Open. This tournament featured a routinely diverse Top 8, with only Burn claiming two copies. Humans, Counters Company, and Eggs yield the most riveting decklists.

Malcontent Humans

Jonathan Rosum’s 1st-place Humans deck features a new shift I’m positive we’ll be seeing more of: a singleton Kessig Malcontents in the main. I had to look up this AVR common during the stream, but then marveled at the genius of its inclusion. Indeed, Rosum put a few games away with the extra reach.

Humans, by Jonathan Rosum (1st, SCG Dallas Open)

Creatures (37)
Champion of the Parish
Kessig Malcontents
Kitesail Freebooter
Mantis Rider
Meddling Mage
Noble Hierarch
Phantasmal Image
Reflector Mage
Thalia’s Lieutenant
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Lands (19)
Ancient Ziggurat
Cavern of Souls
Horizon Canopy
Plains
Seachrome Coast
Unclaimed Territory
Sideboard (15)
Dismember
Grafdigger’s Cage
Izzet Staticaster
Kessig Malcontents
Mirran Crusader
Sin Collector
Vithian Renegades
Xathrid Necromancer
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Death by reach probably won’t emerge as a primary plan for Humans. For one, there’s no space to include a heavier suite of Malcontents—the other creatures are all less expendable. It also doesn’t help that Malcontents mainly comes in handy when Humans already has a significant board presence. But I love the single copy as a way to close out games when battlefields get tricky. Malcontents also gives Humans something of a “Blood Moon effect”—now that it’s on everyone’s radar, players are likely to play around some degree of reach from Humans, which makes the deck better whether or not Malcontents occupies that flex spot.

Quelling Counters

Just behind Rosum’s team, Michael Cortez brought a creature concoction of his own to the fray: Counters Company, but with a blue splash for Spell Queller.

Counters Company, by Michael Cortez (2nd, SCG Dallas Open)

Creatures (31)
Noble Hierarch
Birds of Paradise
Courser of Kruphix
Devoted Druid
Duskwatch Recruiter
Eternal Witness
Fauna Shaman
Meddling Mage
Reflector Mage
Selfless Spirit
Spell Queller
Vizier of Remedies
Walking Ballista

Instants (8)
Chord of Calling
Collected Company

Lands (21)
Botanical Sanctum
Breeding Pool
Forest
Gavony Township
Hallowed Fountain
Horizon Canopy
Misty Rainforest
Plains
Temple Garden
Windswept Heath
Sideboard (15)
Aven Mindcensor
Burrenton Forge-Tender
Eidolon of Rhetoric
Geist of Saint Traft
Kataki, War’s Wage
Kor Firewalker
Path to Exile
Qasali Pridemage
Reflector Mage
Unified Will
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Michael wasn’t about to lose to Storm this tournament—Spell Queller joins the requisite Eidolon of Rhetoric here, as well as a single Meddling Mage in the mainboard to add insult to injury. Beyond these cards, Unified Will and Geist of Saint Traft complete the blue splash: the former wins even more points against the linear combo decks that can race Company as well as insurance for sweeper effects, while the latter provides the deck with another angle of attack entirely. Reflector Mage also makes an appearance to annoy big creature decks.

Going forward, I’m a huge fan of this splash. Queller shines against the removal-light decks that have the luxury of ignoring Counters Company in the first place. It’s even fine against the removal-heavy decks that can hassle the deck—they’re unlikely to have removal for the combo and for the Spirit, and Queller pressures removal suites even more by, well, countering the kill spells in the first place.

Egg on the Face

Finally, Jeremy Frye’s team Top 8ed with the Modern player on none other than Eggs, one of the format’s longest-hated combo piles.

Eggs, by Jeremy Frye (5-8th, SCG Dallas Open)

Creatures (10)
Scrap Trawler
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Glint-Nest Crane
Hangarback Walker
Myr Retriever

Artifacts (29)
Chromatic Sphere
Chromatic Star
Engineered Explosives
Ichor Wellspring
Krark-Clan Ironworks
Mind Stone
Mishra’s Bauble
Mox Opal
Pyrite Spellbomb
Terrarion

Sorceries (4)
Ancient Stirrings

Lands (17)
Darksteel Citadel
Forest
Glimmervoid
Inventors’ Fair
Sanctum of Ugin
Spire of Industry
Sideboard (15)
Defense Grid
Fatal Push
Grafdigger’s Cage
Kozilek’s Return
Lingering Souls
Nature’s Claim
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Jeremy’s no stranger to Eggs—it’s apparently one of his favorite decks. I know a guy in Montreal who loves playing the deck, too. Their motivations are beyond me, but hey, that’s Modern!

This isn’t the same Eggs that got Second Sunrise banned. Today’s build seeks to generate a ton of mana by sacrificing artifacts to Krark-Clan Ironworks and retrieving them with Scrap Trawler. Eventually, the deck has enough mana to cast a large Engineered Explosives and trigger Sanctum of Ugin, which searches up Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. In Dallas, Jeremy favored this Emrakul/Sanctum win condition over just Pyrite Spellbomb looping for resilience against graveyard hate. For more on the deck’s strategy, check out Jeremy’s tournament report.

As for the deck itself, I think Eggs has some glaring issues in this metagame. It’s clunkier and less consistent than Storm, for instance, and doesn’t punish stumbles or shaky keeps as well. Storm is also equally resistant to graveyard hate after sideboarding thanks to its Empty the Warrens plan, and of course Stony Silence is lights out for Eggs barring a natural draw into Nature’s Claim.

Jeremy probably got by on two factors: the element of surprise (everyone was gunning for Storm as the top combo deck; lo and behold, zero copies made Top 8) and his own mastery of the deck. It’s no secret that Modern rewards reps with one deck and format knowledge, things Jeremy had in spades for this tournament.

Classic Notables

The Classic in Dallas, while a smaller event, also saw players experimenting with novel choices.

Pyroclasm and Pia in Shadow

Gabriel Womack made Top 8 with a fairly stock Grixis Shadow list. Not-so-stock was his choice to run Pyroclasm, a card that’s almost never been played in the deck. Most pilots opt for Kozilek’s Return in this slot, since it hits Etched Champion thanks to devoid and disrupts Company combos with its instant typing. Also of note, Gabriel ran Pia and Kiran Nalaar as an alternate threat.

Grixis Shadow, by Gabriel Womack (5th, SCG Dallas Classic)

Creatures (16)
Death’s Shadow
Gurmag Angler
Snapcaster Mage
Street Wraith

Planeswalkers (2)
Liliana of the Veil

Lands (18)
Island
Swamp
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Watery Grave

Instants (14)
Dismember
Fatal Push
Kolaghan’s Command
Stubborn Denial
Thought Scour

Sorceries (10)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Serum Visions
Thoughtseize
Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Fulminator Mage
Ceremonious Rejection
Stubborn Denial
Temur Battle Rage
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Liliana, the Last Hope
Collective Brutality
Pyroclasm
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Pyroclasm

Besides Return, Izzet Staticaster and Engineered Explosives are popular Grixis Shadow sideboard cards that handle go-wide strategies. All three options, though, lose out to Pyroclasm when it comes to brutal efficiency: at two mana, the sweeper offers an unparalleled rate given a board of weak creatures.

Gabriel isn’t blazing an entirely new trail here—indeed, Luca Van Deun split Return and Pyroclasm 1-1 in his Grixis sideboard from GP Madrid back in October. But I personally like his all-in move toward Pyroclasm. I’ve long run Pyroclasm myself, in just about every red-featuring fair deck I design: I swore by a pair in Temur Delver, still run them in Counter-Cat, and ensured ways to pack them into my recent brews. So I’m of course happy to extoll its virtues.

At two mana, Pyroclasm gives casters plenty of choice. It can kill a couple dorks on-curve; be paced to sweep a larger field; combine with one-shot removal spells to dismantle boards of lords. Sure, instant speed gives Return and Staticaster their own elements of choice, too. But when I’m thinking about carefully partitioning my limited mana each turn cycle, allocating an extra mana to a sweeper effect is huge.

Grixis Shadow is also a prime candidate to run the card: it’s tight on mana, has no problem casting cards at sorcery speed, and disruption-heavy enough to stomp opponents out despite the turn they get to rebuild. It also applies lots of pressure, a must for decks looking to conditional removal spells like damage-based sweepers.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar

Pyroclasm might be rare out of Grixis Shadow, but Pia and Kiran Nalaar is practically unheard of. And two copies! Chandra’s parents are a real plan for Gabriel’s deck, and occupy the slot generally filled by Young Pyromancer if not just additional disruption. The card is far more common in Jeskai Tempo sideboards, where it immediately goes wide with evasive bodies while presenting an element of reach—all things that help Jeskai attack from extra angles after siding.

In Grixis Shadow, the card does the same thing. Except the reach dimension isn’t something Grixis is particularly good at to begin with. In this way, it’s more of an “extra plan” than it is out of Jeskai, since opponents will likely monitor their life total while keeping in mind that reach from Grixis is unlikely. When Pia and Kiran comes down and presents four to eight damage right away, the math is changed significantly.

That said, I’m less optimistic about Pia and Kiran than I am about Pyroclasm. Of course, bias plays a part here; Pyroclasm is a pet card of mine, while Pia and Kiran is something I would just always splash green and play Huntmaster of the Fells over. But the most reasonable beef I have with the card is its mana cost. Four mana is quite a lot for Grixis Shadow, even for a late-game card. I wonder if something like another Liliana, the Last Hope or good ol’ Young Pyromancer (blech, but numbers don’t lie) wouldn’t serve the deck better.

Return and Sun in Tron

Michael Chapman’s GR Tron bested Gabriel to take 4th at the Classic. The go-to Tron variants this season are GB (splashing for Collective Brutality, Fatal Push, or both) and Mono-Green (trading away removal for stabler mana and compensating with Thragtusk), so it’s refreshing to see a red splash perform. Michael made two eyebrow-raising choices with this list: Kozilek’s Return and Blood Sun.

GR Tron, by Michael Chapman (4th, SCG Dallas Classic)

Creatures (7)
Wurmcoil Engine
World Breaker
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

Planeswalkers (6)
Karn Liberated
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Artifacts (16)
Chromatic Sphere
Chromatic Star
Expedition Map
Oblivion Stone

Instants (3)
Kozilek’s Return

Sorceries (8)
Ancient Stirrings
Sylvan Scrying

Lands (20)
Forest
Ghost Quarter
Grove of the Burnwillows
Sanctum of Ugin
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Power Plant
Urza’s Tower
Sideboard (15)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Pithing Needle
Relic of Progenitus
Trinisphere
Thragtusk
Blood Sun
Nature’s Claim
Warping Wail
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Kozilek’s Return

It has long been the standard in GR Tron to run Pyroclasm as the removal spell of choice. In fact, Gx Tron is the main deck that’s kept Pyroclasm on the map in Modern for so long. Joe Losset first flipped the script by trading in the sweeper for one-shot interaction in Lightning Bolt as a way to fight Infect (a card entirely outclassed by Fatal Push in this deck, as evidenced by Losset’s own switch to black last year). Without Bolt, the only removal spells worth red in Tron become sweepers.

Kozilek’s Return again ups the ante. Pyroclasm, in a vacuum, seems like a better card for the strategy; Tron likes to spend all its mana each turn cycle, either cantripping and setting up or casting its haymakers, so the price tag bump matters a lot here. I assume Michael opted for Return because of the card’s synergy with World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. These top-end threats milk extra value from the removal spell, especially in a climate full of 5/5s. Return’s also superior against Affinity, traditionally one of Tron’s harder matchups, by killing Etched Champion and attacking manlands.

Blood Sun

Lastly on the agenda, we have Michael’s decision to run Blood Sun in the sideboard. I gave my first impressions on this card a couple weeks ago, where I pegged Sun as a possible include for the big mana strategy.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Tron list running Sun so early, especially since red is an out-of-favor splash for the archetype currently. I hope we hear more about the card in Tron, and how it may impact which splash is chosen by top players, in the coming weeks.

Heating Up

The pressure’s on for Pro Tour competitors, as the big day now rapidly approaches. If these smaller tournaments are any indication, there’s still plenty left to discover in Modern. We’ll soon see if these Dallas developments exhibit staying power in a week or if a next-big-thing overshadows them.

Jordan is the copy editor at Modern Nexus. He has played Magic since 2003, and Modern since its inception. A devoted theorist, he always brings tuned brews to events. Jordan favors card efficiency over raw power and specializes in disruptive aggro strategies.

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