So. Eldrazi is everywhere. The metagame is warping around the colorless menace, driving out interaction. Linear aggressive decks sit comfortably atop the field. This is unhealthy and probably won’t last, either because answers will be found and the warp will disappear, or because Wizards will mollify Reddit and take action April 4th. However, that doesn’t help us now. What will is, instead of worrying or whining, recognizing that Modern has a defined metagame for one of the few times in its history, and this gives us as players an opportunity for Old School Metagaming.
A Lesson from History
Defined and constrained metagames are nothing new, not even in Modern, where many format-defining cards now languish on the banned list. However, when you think of defined metagames, you most commonly think of Standard. The smaller card pool has long meant only a few decks can really contend and that the metagame will become known, if not “solved,” between set releases. This is not a bad thing, at least if you’re not the sort that tries to play weird combo decks and laments Siege Rhino is just too good when your deck isn’t viable in the first place. Many players like the subtle tweaks and positioning changes that take place over a Standard season as tech is discovered, answered, discarded, and rediscovered. This is what kept Standard so popular for so long. But sometimes, one deck would rise and dominate Standard for its entire two-year life cycle. In these cases, opportunity arose.
Now, I am not talking about the Affinity or Cawblade eras. If you buy that Standard becomes rock, paper, scissors then those decks were dynamite, and were banned as a result. What I am talking about are Standards like the Lorwyn era. Faeries quickly rose to the top and was cemented in place once Bitterblossom was printed, and it was only rotation that knocked it off its perch. However, there was plenty of space around that deck for other strategies to thrive, and they did. At various points 5-Color, Gruul, Merfolk, Dragonstorm, Elves, and many other decks I’ve forgotten were perfectly viable and matched Faeries. Rather than being oppressive, Faeries provided definition and constraints to the format. If you recognized what they were, you would be rewarded.
For me, the best example of this comes from waning months of Lorwyn–Alara Standard. Going into Regionals that year, everyone knew 1/1 fliers defined the format. Between Bitterblossom and Spectral Procession, Standard was overrun by token strategies with Faeries getting the nod as the most powerful due to Mistbind Clique, Spellstutter Sprite, and Thoughtseize. Every other mainstream deck was either looking to sweep up tokens (5-Color’s Firespout and Volcanic Fallout), get under them (usually with Great Sable Stag), ignore them (red decks), or simply win the token war (Ajani Goldmane in BW Tokens). I and a few other players, however, realized you didn’t have to fight the token war on the token decks’ terms. You can’t go over 1/1s that fly and you can’t go wider than Bitterblossom, but it was possible to go through them once you realized that the best evasion available was trample. After that, the possibilities for brewing opened up.
As a result of understanding the format being defined by 1/1 fliers, I played what may have been the best positioned deck of the tournament: Bant Crashers.
Bant Crashers, by David Ernenwein
3 Shorecrasher Mimic
4 Rhox War Monk
3 Vendilion Clique
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Jhessian Infiltrator
3 Rafiq of the Many
2 Loxodon Warhammer
1 Behemoth Sledge
4 Path to Exile
4 Bant Charm
4 Cryptic Command
2 Broken Ambitions
4 Treetop Village
4 Yavimaya Coast
2 Mystic Gate
2 Flooded Grove
4 Seaside Citadel
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Noble Hierarch into Shorecrasher Mimic followed by Rafiq of the Many was game over for Bitterblossom. Add counters for protection and artifacts to give more trample and chump blockers never looked more… like chumps? (Had something there and lost it). If all else failed you just went under everyone with Jhessian Infiltrator or used lifegain to turn the Blossom into your win condition.
I never lost to Faeries or 5-Color and only fell once to BW due to a game loss caused by a misplaced Tidehollow Sculler pick. I didn’t Top 8 thanks to an additional loss to a Demigod of Revenge deck and an Elves deck that did Top 8 running the combo of Elvish Archdruid and Umbral Mantle, but I still think I made the correct deck choice. Don’t fight on the same axis as the rest of the tournament or focus on beating the best deck. Instead, identify the unifying thread of the metagame and attack that to get the best results.
Taking the Metagame as it is
How does that nostalgia trip to 2009 help us in 2016? Here’s the lesson: metagames defined by certain cards, or decks, have unifying themes. To beat the field, we attack the theme itself. I did it by negating blocking. The Elves player used an infinite combo to kill before the… not “slow,” exactly, but the “methodical” decks of the day got going. If we look at Modern right now, I will argue there is a similar unifying thread and an opportunity to exploit it. Take a minute to look over the Top Decks page I linked last sentence and see what the top five have in common, I’ll wait.
Do you see it?
No, not the linear part: that’s not shared with Jund. Look deeper.
They all win fairly. Every single deck is trying to win by attacking with creatures over multiple turns. Granted, most of them do it in very unfair ways, but all of them win by attacking. This is in contrast to “true” combo decks that win by drawing a specific card or sequence of cards, or “true” control decks that win via card advantage. This means if we can make combat damage irrelevant, we blank most of Tier 1. The question then becomes, how do we go about accomplishing that? Sheridan gave us one solution yesterday and the Top Decks page gives us another clue:
Abzan Company, Paul Bradford (1st Place Denver SCG Regionals)
Thanks to the persist/Melira/Anafenza combo, Abzan Company completely negates nearly all other Tier 1 decks’ win conditions. Melira also turns off poison. I suspect this is the reason that it is currently in sixth place on the Top Decks page. I also suspect it is going to stay there rather than rise for two reasons:
- Jund’s removal package is very good against this deck in general and the combo is easy to disrupt with said removal
- It’s a fairly difficult and slow combo to pull off.
Collected Company and Chord of Calling help with reliability but not the speed problem, making this combo occasionally unreliable. Abzan does have a good backup plan, just like Pod did, of getting big with Gavony Township and swamping the opponent. The problem with that right now is it’s just slower than the other aggressive options and Eldrazi and Affinity don’t really give you the time to durdle around with +1/+1 counters. There’s a reason GW Hatebears isn’t played right now. The deck is good, the stats don’t lie, but I think we need something more to really take advantage of the metagame.
Kiki Chord is certainly an option as well, though as Jeff Hoogland explained, it is also very difficult to play well. The other problem I have with Kiki Chord is Collected Company‘s absence. Company really is the best card draw spell in Modern and if I’m going the route of fast combos to race Eldrazi, I want to increase my chances of finding my pieces as much as possible. This points me toward Company itself, which Kiki Chord can’t run. I also like building a little forgiveness into my decks and powerful card draw fulfills that role exceptionally. Yes, you miss sometimes, but at least you’re getting cards that aren’t part of your gameplan out of the way.
Never Fight Fair
Over the past week, both StarCityGames and ChannelFireball attempted to see how well Splinter Twin would have kept Eldrazi down. The results were interesting, particularly for the purposes of this article, because they showed Eldrazi really isn’t set up to deal with a two-card combo except by racing (which, admittedly, was often enough). Yes, none of the test decks were really optimal for the situation but that’s not the point. What’s important is they identified another significant weakness to exploit: Eldrazi doesn’t interact well with fast combos, in this case a two-card instant win combo at instant speed. Unfortunately, a true Twin replacement doesn’t exist but we’ve highlighted one that comes close before:
Knightfall, Trevor Holmes
Knightfall got a lot of hype when Retreat to Coralhelm was printed and almost no discussion since. The problem it had prior to January 18 was the combo was a worse version of URx Twin. If you want to win your deck should be the best possible at what it’s doing, not being different for the sake of being different. Since then everyone has been justifiably skeptical that you can set up a quick combo when Thought-Knot Seer is everywhere.
But what if the combo is made to look less threatening? Fair value decks are very strong against aggro decks when they’re able to keep up, which is why they’ve dropped off so much. But UW Titan showed me having good value creatures, with a powerful card advantage engine to supplement them, can beat very fast aggro back when Zoo was big. Taking this lesson, and some inspiration from a deck Stephen Fachs showed me, led to this:
Knightfall Company by David Ernenwein
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Lone Missionary
4 Voice of Resurgence
3 Eternal Witness
2 Vendilion Clique
3 Court Hussar
3 Retreat to Coralhelm
4 Collected Company
3 Path to Exile
2 Breeding Pool
1 Hallowed Fountain
2 Temple Garden
1 Sejiri Steppe
1 Gavony Township
1 Horizon Canopy
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Windswept Heath
4 Misty Rainforest
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The advantage of this deck over most other Knightfall decks is you don’treally need the combo. The deck that inspired me was just a value Bant Company list that could have, but elected not to, run the combo. The fundamentals that made that deck work are still present. You play a solid value game using your enter-the-battlefield creatures and Collected Company and sometimes just win with Retreat to open a hole for a gigantic Knight to swing through.
There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m still not satisfied. UR Eldrazi can make far too many blockers for Retreat to work its magic, not to mention tapping down our fatal Knight with Drowner of Hope. On top of that, Knightfall isn’t quite the “I Win” button that Twin was. I liked the fact that, provided you survived the initial aggro onslaught, the value plan gradually pulled you ahead until you eventually won the game. I also liked the fact that Flickerwisp is insane against Eldrazi and Affinity, but this deck isn’t quite the metagame bomb I was looking for.
Hybridize to Survive
It’s almost cliche to go from mentioning a combo deck’s weaknesses to then talking about hybridizing the deck to close them. Cliches aside, it’s a good approach and, furthermore, given how I’ve set this article up you should have seen it coming. The stock Knightfall and Abzan Company lists already share a lot of cards and their non-combo gameplans are virtually the same. Why not merge them? Knightfall requires a lot of fetchlands anyway, so even the manabase shouldn’t be a stumbling block.
Abzan Knightfall by David Ernenwein
At the cost of some maindeck toolbox creatures, we have an additional, faster combo to complement Melira. The manabase definitely needs work but Birds of Paradise tends to cover up those weaknesses, especially when Lightning Bolt saturation is low. The best part is Knightfall’s combo staying relevant even when not going for the win. Knight is a huge threat on its own, and Retreat can generate considerable mana advantage with Birds and Hierarch, enough that it makes me wonder if there’s some additional thing you could fit in to take advantage of all the mana you can make with this deck. The additional fetches and scrying also make hitting combo pieces or your search engines easier.
Is this list optimal? Almost certainly not. Is it well positioned? Probably. The Melira combo is very good right now, despite the graveyard hate (much of which is in the Eldrazi sideboard), and adding some robustness appears to have improved the Jund matchup as well. That said, my current testing has also showed it is very hard to play, so if you’re going to go this route, you definitely need to commit to it. Also, I’m worried I’m being inefficient about this. Maybe I should just stick to known plans rather than falling for the danger of cool things. I also can’t overstate the deck’s vulnerability, just like its predecessors, to graveyard hate. Despite these reservations, there is definite potential for decks like this to take advantage of the linearity and aggressiveness of the Modern metagame.
Seek and Ye Shall Find
When most of the metagame is trying to do the same thing, even if in different ways, an opportunity exists to target that one thing. Whether it’s make 1/1 fliers or aggroing you to death so fast it should be illegal, a defined and constrained metagame creates openings intelligent deckbuilders can identify and exploit. With a very aggressive metagame, and interaction at a low ebb, infinite combo decks are very well positioned to take down tournaments. This situation is unlikely to last, so I advise you to get out there and start tinkering before we are forced to start doing fair things fairly again.