Summer 2016 has been a hostile season for the Urzatron. I’d been rolling over online opponents with RG Tron for months, but starting in late May, I detected a shift. More Infect and Death’s Shadow Zoo. More Through the Breach and Valakut. More crazy optimists thinking their new Shadows Over Innistrad tech would make Dredge great again. Alone, any of these shifts would have been manageable. Taken together and taken to their July metagame conclusion, they marked a real format upheaval and a precipitous decline in Tron’s top-tier stock. They also signaled an equally steep drop in my League records. RG Tron’s horrendous performance at Star City Games’ Syracuse Open, sending just two players to Day 2 and only one of those to 29th place, further confirms its downfall. Can it be reversed in time for the upcoming Grand Prix weekend? If a white splash has anything to say about it, maybe.
RG Tron may be Modern’s biggest name in Tier 1 ramp, but WG Tron might hold the key to keeping Urzatron relevant in this hostile metagame. Historically, I’ve been skeptical of the Lightning Bolt to Path to Exile swap in Tron, particularly in metagames where Bolt is clearly so strong (there’s a reason Jund, not Abzan, is king).
That was before Tron took a nosedive from Tier 1 to Tier 2, plummeting over four percentage points in the span of just 2-3 months. Drastic declines like that lead me to consider drastic changes, and WG Tron is the shell which most preserves RG Tron’s proven core while also updating some of its potentially outclassed technology. Today, I’ll explore Tron’s white options to try and improve the deck in time for Grand Prix weekend. Maybe WG Tron ends up a worse version than the tested RG mainstay, but with the deck floundering in Tier 2 and still falling, we need to think outside of the established Tron box to find fixes.
Choosing WG from the Urzatron Buffet
Before talking about the WG Tron edge, we need to address the Urza’s Tower in the room: why go with white-green over other time-honored Urza’s variants? On the one hand, we know Tron players need to make some kind of change—the deck’s share crashed over 50% from second most-played Tier 1 strategy to Tier 2 in just two months, so something isn’t working. On the other hand, it feels risky to invest in the relatively unproven WG shell, especially when faced with more established alternatives.
Mono Blue and UW Tron ostensibly hold more promise than WG, with the latter enjoying 2016 success in the immediate aftermath of Sword of the Meek‘s unbanning, and the former taking 16th at last weekend’s inhospitable Syracuse Open. Both decks have also seen semi-regular showings in Tier 3 throughout our metagame tracking cycles. By contrast, WG Tron has consistently occupied anywhere from 0.5% all the way down to 0% of the metagame, with 0% being more the norm than the exception. It’s never cracked Tier 3 once. This makes WG Tron a tougher sell than its venerable Mono Blue and UW contenders.
Unfortunately for Mono Blue and UW proponents, the above assessment misses a key dimension that sets WG Tron apart from its competitors. Mono Blue Tron and UW Tron are distinct decks, both from each other and, most importantly, from RG Tron. WG Tron, however, is fundamentally still an RG Tron deck. It preserves the Ancient Stirrings, Sylvan Scrying, and Chromatic cantrip engine. It keeps turn three Karn Liberated. It allows you to play World Breaker, Nature’s Claim, and Thragtusk. These are some of the strengths which made RG Tron into a Tier 1 heavyweight. Despite its scarcity in the format, WG Tron preserves all of them.
I want us to consider WG and RG Tron as being on a continuum, one even more fluid than the oft-compared Jund vs. Abzan. A much better comparison is the Burn and Zoo scale. There, we see subtle shifts from Naya Burn to Wild Nacatl Burn, RW to Mardu, or Nacatl alone to an extra Mutagenic Growth playset. Plus everything else in between! When the metagame makes new demands, Burn adapts. The same can be said of the RG to WG Tron shift. If viewed this way, the transition feels less radical.
That’s not the case with the blue-based Tron variants, which do not keep those core RG advantages (Stirrings, Scrying, Karn, etc.). This is one critical reason they’ve never come close to Tier 1: there’s something about that Gx Tron engine which makes the deck powerful. The Urzatron lands alone don’t cut it! It’s the supporting cast which gets there. Sure, red cards like Pyroclam, Firespout, and Lightning Bolt are parts of this winning formula, but the shift from Bolt to Path is much less severe than that of Sylvan Scrying and Ancient Stirrings to Thirst for Knowledge and Condescend. To make matters worse, it’s a terrible idea to shift Tron gears away from graveyard-agnostic RG/WG to graveyard-dependent Ux: the format is going to be overflowing with Dredge hate by the end of August and we don’t want to be collateral damage.
Taken as a whole, this means WG Tron isn’t really a new Tron deck in the same way as Mono Blue or UW. Rather, it’s a slight adjustment to the Gx Tron base, much like Wild Nacatl suits Burn in some metagames and not in others. WG Tron might end up being a worse RG Tron because its specific white substitutions are worse than the red ones, but at least we are still playing a fundamentally powerful, Tier 1 strategy.
The Path Away from Bolt
Moving from RG to WG Tron is largely a choice made in two separate domains. First, do you want to run maindeck Lightning Bolt/sweeper or Path to Exile? Second, do you want to sideboard more red removal, or white’s splashy Games 2-3 haymakers? These decisions will help you determine if the jump from RG to WG makes sense, and it all starts with one of Modern’s most important tensions: Bolt vs. Path.
Making the Bolt and Sweeper Case
We’ve all heard of Modern’s “Bolt Test” and how Lightning Bolt defines creature playability. Jordan’s discussed how this test has dictated creature selection. I’ve written about how the test actually plays out in practice. Even if you’ve never read Nexus articles before today, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Bolt’s supremacy, and undoubtedly seen it in action. After all, Jund reigned in both the July metagame update and over the weekend at Syracuse: Bolt was a major player in its dominance.
From an RG Tron perspective, Bolt is a relatively recent innovation (at least on a metagame-wide level) in the traditional Pyroclasm/Firespout slot. Joe Lossett was one of the chief pioneers of this switch, something I wrote about in detail when reviewing the May Grand Prix, and his technology has largely stuck around since then. In essence, Bolt gives Tron an early out to fast and aggressive decks which otherwise give Karn and company fits. This is particularly true against Infect, where turn one Glistener Elf is virtually unbeatable for all but the best draws.
Of course, Bolt isn’t always the best answer to an aggressive field. Wide decks such as Affinity, Gruul Zoo, Merfolk, and Elves are notoriously resilient to one-shot Bolts. Against those strategies, Tron uses Firespouts and Pyroclasms to crank up the heat. Thinking back to continuums, we can say red presents Tron players with an option of sweeper vs. Bolt, allowing them to tailor their selection to the metagame.
Making the Path Case
There’s no such thing as the “Path Test” in Modern, and none of the Path-only decks are doing so hot in our metagame standings. Abzan, Abzan Company, Esper Control, and others have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of Bolt-toting sluggers like Jund, Valakut variants, and Jeskai Control. We also know from experience that Bolt tends to be Modern’s removal of choice in aggressive formats, and with so many aggressive decks in Tier 1 and Tier 2, Modern has never felt so aggro. Path takes the edge in grindier metagames where trumping Tarmogoyfs and Gurmag Anglers is more important than zapping turn one Goblin Guides. Given this history, why go Path over Bolt?
It feels counterintuitive, but Path might actually be better than Bolt in this current metagame. We have three decks to thank for that, all of which have only risen since the summer started (literally in the first deck’s case):
By now, everyone has heard of Dredge’s meteoric ascent from obscurity to Tier 1. Everyone has also experienced just how bad Bolt is in this matchup. Most Dredge damage comes from Prized Amalgam and Bloodghast, neither of which care about a quick trip back to see the family in the graveyard. Path exiles these threats for good. Although Dredge players have tried adapting to Path with Greater Gargadon and Bridge from Below, Path is still better than Bolt against those particular builds. Against Bridge alone, Path doesn’t create Zombie tokens. Against Gargadon alone, Path actually kills the hasted 9/7. The only time Path doesn’t save the day is against an active Gargadon and an active Bridge, but that’s a scenario where Bolt ain’t helping either.
- Death’s Shadow Zoo
Here’s another aggressive strategy which has pushed into Tier 1 and seems to defy Bolt’s regulatory effect. Mutagenic Growth protects both Wild Nacatl and Monastery Swiftspear from the instant. All but the smallest Death’s Shadows are similarly immune to the effect. Unlike Jeskai and Jund decks, durdly Tron can’t even reliably benefit from Bolt’s reach in the matchup. Path, on the other hand, stops all those threats cold and can even blow up the Shadow after an opponent commits the delve pump spell and Temur Battle Rage.
- Breach Valakut strategies
If you thought Summer Bloom‘s ban was the end of Primeval Titan in Modern, think again! As Jason wrote about on Monday, Through the Breach and Summoner’s Pact decks have enjoyed considerable Modern success in the past months, and Prime Time is a lynchpin in their strategy. These decks are also highly resilient to Bolt, whether through Titan, Courser of Kruphix, or Obstinate Baloth. Particularly in the Titan case, Path gives Tron the extra turn-plus it might need to stop those Valakut triggers from stacking up. Path won’t save you from Emrakul, but neither would Bolt.
Three decks, three bad-to-terrible Tron matchups, and three areas where Path gives a lot of support. Lightning Bolt is also getting even worse in the Dredge matchup, as players improve their Bloodghast and Amalgam sequencing to even more effectively neutralize the red spell. Path is a much more permanent solution. As a bonus, Path is also very effective against the Bolt-resistant Jund creature base, although Gx Tron doesn’t have too much difficulty in that matchup to begin with.
This is all good news for Path fans, but there’s one more predator you need to consider before making the switch, and you’ll want to consider it carefully: Infect.
The Infect Factor
From a metagame perspective, I fully expect Infect to be the best positioned deck at Grand Prix weekend, even if not the most-played. It races all the non-interactive turn-four decks like Dredge and Burn, as well as turn 3.5 Death’s Shadow Zoo. It either punishes bad Jund draws or ekes out victories through careful resource allocation—the matchup is much harder than many Junders let themselves believe. Infect also takes the Splinter Twin mantle for punishing random decks with a speedy, albeit less interactive, win condition. All of this establishes Infect as a solid choice in the coming weeks, and forces Tron players to carefully consider their removal.
Path is a terrible turn one answer to Glistener Elf and Noble Hierarch (especially Hierarch). It guarantees the opponent will have turn two Blighted Agent with one mana in reserve for Vines or some other trick. That said, Path is much better if you’re past turn two and the opponent doesn’t have Vines. There, unlike with Bolt, you can get the valuable two-for-one (or three-for-one) by Pathing an infecting creature after it has 1-2 pump spells on it. Bonus points for doing it off Chromatic Sphere or Star when your opponent doesn’t realize you have white at all!
Honestly, I’m not sure the metagame will actually recognize Infect as Modern’s current “best deck” in time for the Grand Prix, which means Path’s drawbacks against Infect aren’t as severe. If it does, however, then you might find yourself missing those Bolts when facing down the turn one Elf or Hierarch. If not, and if everyone is too preoccupied with playing Dredge, Jund, Burn, Valakut, and Zoo, then I’m much happier about a shift to Path and much more convinced about WG over RG.
White Sideboard Specials
The jury is still out on Path vs. Bolt and I have more testing to do before picking a side. That’s less the case with sideboard cards—I’m in absolute love with white’s offerings. We’ve seen these bullets in action in past WG Tron lists, notably Joshua Ferrell’s that took Top 8 at two different SCG IQs in a two-month span, and Twibs’ from an August 7th MTGO League. Here are my four favorite tech additions I’ve found so far:
- Timely Reinforcements
The Syracuse Open saw numerous players maindeck or sideboard this powerful sorcery, and with good reason in our aggressive format. The card can easily buy you two or even three turns depending on the matchup, which is more than enough time for Tron to get its dangerous finishers online. It picks up points over red sweepers in the Dredge contest for not triggering Bridge and not being easy to play around with Bloodghasts, fetchlands, and Amalgam triggers (worse than Anger of the Gods, but Tron isn’t running double-red spells anyway). The card is also made for the Burn/Zoo matchup, strategies I expect to see in spades the next two weeks.
- Sacred Ground
I’ve been seeing less Crumble to Dust online and more Ghost Quarters, Fulminator Mages, and Molten Rains. That’s doubly true with all those obnoxious RG Ponza players out there (much love, however, to using Primal Command to trounce Dredge). Ground stops these cards cold, and typically dodges other hate, such as Ancient Grudge, that an opponent might bring to the field.
- Rule of Law
As an Ad Nauseam player, I’m always gleeful to sit down across from a Tron mage. As a Tron player, I’m always gnashing my teeth at this lopsided matchup. Rule of Law is one of the best ways to derail Ad Nauseam’s plans, forcing the combo player to win exclusively through an active Phyrexian Unlife or Laboratory Maniac nonsense. The enchantment also messes with a variety of random decks such as Living End, Restore Balance, Bring to Light Scapeshift, Storm, and others—I place a premium on versatile sideboard cards in Modern.
- Rest in Peace
I played Dredge for years in Extended and Legacy, and have recently been putting in some reps in Modern. One-shot graveyard effects are generally less effective against Dredge decks, particularly if you had to mulligan to find them and/or couldn’t back them up with a clock. That’s a problem for Relic of Progenitus and, to a lesser extent, Grafdigger’s Cage (which doesn’t actually remove the offending graveyard). Rest in Peace solves all those issues, wiping out the current graveyard and keeping it empty until Dredge topdecks enchantment removal. That’s typically more than enough time for you to deploy a bomb and win the game.
And you thought we had to abandon Lightning Bolt entirely! Although Lance isn’t quite the instant-speed staple we’ve come to know and love, in many matchups it will fulfill a similar purpose. Against Infect, for instance, you almost always want to fire off sorcery-speed Bolt effects anyway to play around pump spells. When evaluating Sunlance and its accompanying white splash, don’t think of it just as a worse Bolt. Instead, think of it as a good-enough Bolt that also lets us run Path to Exile. This dual-removal edge is something you can’t get in red.
Whereas red offers more of the same (sweepers and spot removal), white lets Tron field a diverse toolbox to a huge range of Modern threats. This can run the risk of turning Tron too much into an answers deck as opposed to a proactive one, but as long as you don’t over-sideboard and select the right cards, it can make up for otherwise critical deficits.
Getting Gx Tron Ready for Gameday
Path and sideboard cards aren’t your only considerations as you prepare a Tron list for the Grand Prix showdown. If nothing else, you’ll want to take a close look at the losses incurred by switching over your Grove of the Burnwillows playset for some combination of Razorverge Thicket and Brushland. I’m not just talking about the pain you’ll feel subbing out over $200 in cards for less than $50! That’s enough to make some RG Tron players stick with RG for life. Financial costs aside, the downgraded manabase is a very real consideration as you mull over the shift, although in the right metagame, the benefits (Path! Sideboard cards! Sunlance!) are well worth the costs.
I’ll be doing some WG vs. RG Tron testing this week to see if anything fruitful comes of it in time for the Grand Prix. I’ll also be back next Wednesday with some Grand Prix predictions and preparation steps for our readers. Let me know in the comments if you have any experience with the nuances of the RG vs. WG Tron shift, or if you’re an RG Tron player (or opponent) who has some other insights about the deck’s current status. We’re in a brave new Modern right now with a metagame changing by the week, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the month holds. See you all soon!