Somewhere between answering comments to Monday's article, talking Magic with my pals, and battling waves of forum doomsayers, I realized I'd yet again been lured into the ban discussion trap. Didn't I just promise, and then re-promise, to stay clear of banlist mayhem? Darn you, Wizards and your colorless hordes! Even beyond the warped Pro Tour field, the invasive Eldrazi species has vaulted to the top of recent metagame standings (it's 15%+ and rising on MTGO). This has prompted anyone with a keyboard and a penchant for Modern to ask a pair of questions: how do we beat Eldrazi and should we ban one (or more) of their staples? I'm tackling both questions today.
If you read Monday's plea for calm, you might wonder how this article is different. Fair question: I'm normally opposed to Modern's rampant banlist dialogue, and readers might disparage my return to the fray. To start, more than half of this article is about beating the Eldrazi, not banning them. I've gone on record saying it's too early to pull the B&R trigger. Following that stance, we must dedicate ourselves to defeating the Eldrazi on the tournament battefield, not banishing them in a Wizards boardroom. As for bannings, a number of important ban-related issues came up in Monday's comments and overall Modern conversation. I didn't address these in "Keeping Perspective" and I'm adding some numbers and positions on them today.
Three Reasons to Hold Off on Bannings
Across the Modern content-sphere and community, I see most players fit into one of two camps. On one side, players want Wizards to postpone ban decisions until the scheduled April 4 announcement. They believe the metagame needs time to adapt and that Wizards must respect the paradigm of gathering more data. On the other, players want Wizards to ban something immediately. They believe Pro Tour Oath afforded ample evidence about Eldrazi's brokenness (not to mention subsequent statistics from MTGO and paper) and that there's no reason to wait.
I'm mostly in that first group, and my normal response to the second is "trust the metagame." Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence to believe metagame shifts alone can't handle the Eldrazi plague. Even if the metagame ultimately fails to handle the threat, and even if we know that right now, we still need Wizards to wait. Regardless of your faith in Modern's ability to self-regulate, here are three reasons we should still reject emergency-ban discussion and instead support Wizards in their decision to wait until April.
1. Waiting helps Wizards identify the most broken card(s)
For now, let's assume Eldrazi does eat an April ban. What gets axed? Shaun McLaren blames Eldrazi Temple, but most Nexus and forum commenters think Eye of Ugin is the real offender. Others point to Simian Spirit Guide, Chalice of the Void, or even both. Eldrazi Mimic is another nominee. With so many options and so many arguments for each of them, Wizards needs to gather data on the diverse Eldrazi menagerie, looking for commonalities before making a decision.
Between the Pro Tour and the fallout on MTGO and paper, we've seen almost as many Eldrazi flavors as there were non-Eldrazi decks going 8-2 over the weekend: blue-red, blue-black, black-red, black-white, white-green, colorless, colorless plus the Urzatron, and more. Although this breakdown certainly points to the deck's prevalence, it also highlights the challenges in identifying its most dangerous piece, especially when most versions share all five cards mentioned earlier. Does Eye's removal stop the deck? Or are Guide and/or Chalice the problems? This also says nothing of possible collateral damage to historically safe decks like Tron and Ad Nauseam.
Even the seemingly simple question of "Does Wizards ban one or two cards?" is surprisingly complicated. Imagine if Wizards evicted Eye tomorrow and Eldrazi still occupied 20% of the metagame in March. Should they have banned Temple instead? Both? Without the March Grand Prix data, Wizards doesn't have enough information to make this consequential decision. It is better to wait until April to make the right call than to act now and make the wrong one, particularly if a bad ban leads to yet another down the road.
2. Failure to wait until April 4 sets a dangerous precedent
Memory Jar has the dubious distinction of Magic's only emergency ban. In looking at its history, we see both why it does not apply to the current Eldrazi situation, and why such a ban would harm Modern as a whole. Writing in 2003, Randy Buehler explained Jar's banning:
"The only reason the DCI chose not to wait until the next regularly scheduled date was because the very health of the Magic game was being threatened by "Combo Winter." Urza's Saga was four months old when Memory Jar came out in Urza's Legacy. During those four months, there was a large and loud public outcry about the way the game was being ruined by all the "broken" cards in Saga. [Players] either played against a steady stream of combo decks, or they didn't play at all [. . .] Players began leaving the game in droves."
Applying this to Modern, we see a number of inconsistencies. We have not had "four months" of "large and public outcry" about the game's or format's ruination before Eldrazi arrived. True, some were unhappy with Twin's ban, but many others were not. Moreover, this discontent happened over a three-week period, not four months. There's also little evidence to suggest players were "leaving the game in droves" before Eldrazi. Paper event attendance had held steady through November and December at 64 and 65 players respectively. What about the weeks after Twin's removal? 66 players, right on track with the preceding months: StarCityGames' Columbus Classic on January 31 had a spectacular 260 Moderners in attendance. Given these numbers, there is no reason to think Jar's rationale applies to Eldrazi.
What if Wizards ignored this and acted anyway? This would be a long-term Modern disaster. Whenever a deck had a breakout performance, emergency banning would immediately be on the table. This would rattle player confidence even worse than the Twin ban, as it would occur after every significant tournament multiple times throughout the year. It would also suggest metagame adaptations and internal regulation no longer matter. Does a deck look too good? Forget sideboarding: clamor for bans and it will be gone. Some might contend Wizards has already pursued this in its Modern ban policy, but that is unsupported in their timeline. Since the first Modern Grand Prix, Wizards has always given cards at least 3-4 months (and often longer) before acting: only Seething Song and the delve sorceries perished on this schedule. Even Amulet Bloom got a full year, and Twin and Pod had more time still. Wizards must preserve metagame confidence. Even if we believe recent events have rocked that faith, it doesn't mean Wizards needs to need to capsize it forever with an emergency ban.
3. Modern can recover from two months of Eldrazi
Many argue the risk of a bad banning precedent is less than the cost of two more months of the Eldrazi terror. Won't tournament attendance crash? Could Modern recover from Eldrazi winter? History suggests Modern is likely to endure even a major Eldrazi insurgence, which is further reason to wait until April.
By most accounts, Treasure Cruise's run was worse for the Modern metagame than for Modern attendance. In the nine months leading up to Khans of Tarkir, non-Grand Prix Modern tournaments averaged 105 players in an N=50 sample (excluding season-specific venues like Pro Tour Qualifiers and MTG States). After Cruise set sail? Attendance dipped to 93 in a 59-event sample, a noticeable but not statistically significant difference. StarCityGames' numbers didn't budge at all, with Cruiseless Modern Premier IQs averaging 147 players as compared with 144 after delve made its move. MTGO saw similar observable but insignificant drops. Pre-Cruise MTGO Dailies averaged 25 players (ranging from 10-39) in the 4-0 or 3-1 bracket. Post-Cruise, the average dipped slightly to 23, centered in a narrower 12-33 range. Complicating the MTGO and paper picture, Grand Prix attendance saw a much more decisive decline. Attendance at these flagship events plummeted from 2,681 in the first nine months down to 1,589 after Cruise. Even omitting Grand Prix Richmond's 4000+ players doesn't challenge the comparison, only lowering the pre-Cruise average to 2,140.
This late-2014 metagame saw Burn shares at 20% for over a month, Pod at 16% for two, and Delver climbing as high as 27% before settling in the 15%-20% range. Modern was a mess for four long months, and yet (as we saw above) this had only a very modest impact on attendance. The small dips didn't even last! After Cruise, Dig Through Time, and Birthing Pod went the way of Deathrite, Moderners did not bitterly shun future events. From January through February, attendance stayed in the 90-95 range before rebounding back to pre-Cruise levels of 110 in the summer. The 4-0 and 3-1 MTGO initially players jumped to 29 before reaching 36 by July. SCG Premier IQ attendance followed, leaping to a 170-player average.
All this shows Modern's remarkable resilience to short periods of even severe instability. If Modern can regain footing after almost four months of Cruise and Pod, it will easily endure an Eldrazi takeover for less than half that time. Reality Smasher's brief dominance will not imperil Modern's long-term health any more than Cruise's and Pod's much longer reign did in 2014-2015. But banning the wrong cards, or setting a frightening precedent, would be far more threatening. Besides, if Wizards is worried about player confidence, they can always unban something to sweeten the post-Eldrazi pot!
Wait and see!
I'm a believer in metagame adaptation, something we saw throughout 2015 as players kept Burn, Tron, Amulet Bloom, Infect, and other tides at bay. Today, I want to trust the metagame's ability to grapple with this new beast, but I admit early indicators are nerve wracking. Perhaps Modern's best technicians solve the Eldrazi problem and the format is saved over Grand Prix weekend. Or, perhaps even if decks can adapt, Eldrazi still proves itself a format-warping monster, forcing players to run narrow answers in a throwback to the Cruise era.
Fortunately, the three arguments in this section are independent of metagame confidence. Whether you casually despise the colorless overlords, or are quitting Modern until Wizards stuffs the monsters back in their hedrons, we must still acknowledge the importance of these points. The costs of premature action are too high: banning the wrong card, setting a dangerous precedent, the possibility of more bans, etc. Meanwhile, the risks of waiting are quite low: evidence strongly suggests Modern will recover from short-term Eldrazi shocks. Wizards needs to wait until April to act. Either the metagame adjusts and we keep a new decktype, or Wizards of the Gatewatch gathers the evidence needed to seal Eldrazi on the banlist for good.
Slaying the Monsters
Jace, Chandra, Gideon, and Nissa didn't imprison Ulamog and Kozilek by whining about it on the internet. They shut up, buttoned down, and blasted their way through some eldritch monstrosities. I've been testing Eldrazi matchups nonstop since Sunday and I want to share a few decks and cards which have showed early promise. I'm likely not going to any Modern events in the immediate future, but if I had to sleeve something up for an FNM or weekend IQ, I'd bring any of these sluggers to the inevitable Eldrazi brawl. Before we get started, remember that "Eldrazi" actually encompasses a huge array of color pairings which can make testing difficult and discussion imprecise. I'll try and focus on Colorless and UR Eldrazi, but if you have questions about other types, or notice something ambiguous, come find me in the comments.
Staying mainstream with Abzan Company
Last time we talked Eldrazi, I lauded Abzan Company's strengths in the matchups and overall Pro Tour performance. As Monday's numbers suggested, Abzan Company is at least as viable as Affinity in this format, and this is in no small part due to its commanding Eldrazi matchup. Melira's and Anafenza's posse is one of the safest top-tier bets in the Eldrazi world, and here's a draft of the list I'd play today.
If this looks like an Abzan Company greatest-hits list featuring Ari Lax, Logan Mize, and Lukas Blohon, that's because I started tinkering on this shell the moment we received the 8-2 and 7-3 lists from Wizards. This deck was already favored against Eldrazi before additional maindeck and sideboard tailoring. After, I'm batting a solid 60-40 in that matchup, with a heavier 65-35 in Game 1. Between immortal Kitchen Finks, the Gavony Township trio, a squad of Eldrazi slayers, and a combo the removal-light Eldrazi can't interact with, Abzan Company does a number on the Colorless and UR versions of the new format boss.
I loved Blohon's double Fiend Hunter so much I almost went up to three. Then I remembered the metagame wasn't (yet) 100% Eldrazi and I still needed to beat Infect, Affinity, and Burn. I'm comfortable on two now with a Big Game Hunter bullet in the board: free tech courtesy of the Pro Tour Oath coverage team! Both Hunters bring down Reality Smasher without triggering the discard clause, and can even be Chorded in at instant speed to stop large Eldrazi Mimics. Fiend Hunter can also be sacrificed to Viscera Seer in response to their entrance trigger for an eternal exile. Hunter recursion gets really nasty with Eternal Witness in the mix, guaranteeing grindfests go to the Company player. I cut Lax's lone Decay to fit my added Hunter: the instant is mediocre against Eldrazi and other Company players did well without it in the main 60.
Tidehollow Sculler also joined the Company, with one replacing a Spellskite and another two signing on in the sideboard. On the play, turn two Sculler is a huge pain for Eldrazi, proactively exiling Thought-Knot Seer before it hits or just taking an Endless One or Smasher out of the picture. Most Eldrazi variants don't have the removal to get their card back. Speaking of Endless One, I've always loved Flickerwisp in Modern and Eldrazi gave me newfound appreciation for the card. Between Elemental and Hunter, we're a little heavy on double-white in our curve, but I'm happy to take those risks for the upside. Flickerwisp fells even the largest Endless Ones, resets Mimics, Chalices, and Ratchet Bombs, and even slows mana development if Chorded in during the upkeep. This is on top of its natural synergies with Finks, Witness, and many other creatures. If Flickerwisp is too grindy for faster metagames, Orzhov Pontiff is a capable replacement (devastating against Affinity, Infect, and Eldrazi Scion swarms).
We round off the sideboard with the versatile Pithing Needle/Phyrexian Revoker duo, which are instrumental once Relic of Progenitus and Drowner of Hope come online. The rest of the sideboard matches up against the overall metagame, although I'm not sold on the Fulminator Mages in a world where RG Tron has been supplanted. Then again, I also don't want to auto-lose to Tron player who didn't get the Eldrazi memo, so I'm keeping two for now. All in all, Abzan Company has strong positioning in this metagame and I expect to see many players turn here before checking out wackier options.
Taking Command with UW Control
Old-school UW Control claimed a Tier 2 slot in both September and October of 2015, and although the deck has since lost tiered footing , I believe it's ready to Spread back into the metagame. As David discussed yesterday, Spreading Seas is just as scary against Eldrazi's Ancient Tombs in games as it looks on paper. UW Control brings not only Seas but also a punishing combination of sweepers, removal, and durable defenders. Control mages rarely need an excuse to go back to blue-based permission decks, which makes UW Control an attractive option over the next weeks.
Recently, we've seen a few takes on UW Control, including Henry Lams' win at a Grand Prix Vancouver side event, Ben Vrba's 6th place finish at StarCityGames' Roseville Regionals, and another Regionals performance, this one only at 7-3, posted by Justin Gennari. MTGO also saw UW Control take 3rd at a Sunday PTQ overrun by Eldrazi. I already had UW Control ideas stewing on the backburner, largely based on Lams' list, and I revisited them in light of the Eldrazi uptick. The above 75 takes Lams' build as a foundation, adding elements from previous UW Control winners in January.
Spreading Seas packs a wallop in the Eldrazi matchup in all phases of the game. In the first few turns, it keeps them off the turn three Smasher (or turn two Seer if you are on the play) while also cantripping for you around Chalice at one. Later, it turns off manlands and stops the Eye of Ugin inevitability engine. I'm only on two Seas because we don't have the same clock as a deck like Merfolk and they can be a bad topdeck if you're a turn or spell behind a developed Eldrazi board. In place of that third Sea I'm up to three Detention Spheres, already an underrated Modern card before Eldrazi made them even better. Spheres remove Smasher without any discard cost and are often two-for-ones against Eldrazi mages and their creature playsets. You can also bring back Flickerwisp in place of Angel to make Sphere even better: you can exile something early at parity and then bounce the enchantment later to ensure a two-for-one as more monsters hit play.
Turning to creatures, the Wall of Omens and Kitchen Finks playsets make it difficult for Eldrazi to capitalize on early aggression, especially if they don't have enough trampling Smashers. Curving turn two Wall, turn three Finks, and turn four Angel will stop all but the most obscene Colorless Eldrazi offenses. Wall is also another way we cantrip around active Chalices. Speaking of value, some UW Control lists eschew Snapcaster Mage in favor of more pressure in Vendilion Cliques 2-3, or haymakers like Sun Titan and Gideon Jura. Call me old-fashioned but Snapcaster is just too strong to pass up. Although I miss the burn-based reach we got in Jeskai variants, I feel invincible untapping on turn six with a Cryptic Command in your graveyard and a Snapcaster Mage in hand.
Mana Leak rounds out the interaction over Remand (hard-countering those early Eldrazi goes a long way), along with Spell Snare for a metagame thick with two-cost staples. Even Eldrazi is a player here, with Mimic, Spellskite, and Bomb in the maindeck. Double Supreme Verdicts punish overextended Eldrazi players, especially those churning out tokens in the UR builds. Verdict has the added edge of being uncounterable by Warping Wail, a sideboard benefit you'll be thankful for past Game 1. Because we're only playing two colors, I'm all-in on four Ghost Quarters, which get even better off our Crucible of Worlds out of the board. Other sideboard bullets include the underappreciated Meddling Mage (another card Eldrazi struggles to answer), an extra Verdict and Seas, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion to obliterate the Eldrazi board or flood the battlefield with Soldiers; I'd maindeck her if it weren't for all the linear decks tearing through Modern these days.
UW Control has a relatively basic shell, but there's a surprising degree of nuance in how you fill out some slots. I agonized over the third Sphere (it's beyond horrible against Infect) before deciding I'd rather have it than the third Snare or fourth Leak. Similarly, I'd caution against that lone Dismember if you find yourself in a metagame packed with Zoo variants, Burn, Merfolk, and other aggressive, damage-based strategies. Decisions like these will be tough ones, but UW Control is there to reward you if you make the proper calls.
Rolling the dice and going rogue
I've been testing a half-dozen alternates to these more established options, and you can bet I'll report back when I have more refined lists and clean results. If you're willing to go really deep in your Eldrazi-slaying quest, here are some strategic approaches that have shown promise for me. I might eventually end up on one of these candidates, but there's much more testing which needs to go into offbeat lists like these.
- Restore Balance Combo
Like Living End, you hurl Eldrazi back to the stone age in resolving a Restore Balance off your cascade outlets. Greater Gargadon, Nihilith, and your choice of planeswalker can finish from there. Unlike Living End, you're less consistent without the cyclers and your clock is less decisive against an Eldrazi manabase that can recover given time. Also unlike Living End, you have zero vulnerability to graveyard hate, but are far softer to Chalice without reason to run Ingot Chewers. Depending on your preference and how you tweak the deck, this might still be a competitive choice. Go up to four Beast Within in the main to kill Chalice and go to town with a turn two Balance.
- RW Lockdown
In a fitting end for the Eldrazi blight, lockdown decks using Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon, and the brutal Magus of the Tabernacle are well-positioned to seal the Eldrazi on their side of the battlefield and throw away the key. The old-timer Extended combo of Flagstones of Troikar and Boom // Bust smashes Eldrazi's manabase early as Molten Rain and Magus abuse it later. UR Eldrazi lose much of their advantage once Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale's steward starts taxing all those tokens as Ajani Vengeant seals the shutout. All of lockdown's win conditions sneer at Dismember, and the deck can easily keep ahead with Simian Spirit Guide acceleration into land destruction and self-defense cards like Bridge and Ghostly Prison.
- Enduring Ideal Prison
This was one of my first Modern decks back in 2011, and also one of the first decks I lost to bannings (RIP, Seething Song). The deck was well under Tier 3 for ages, but the new Eldrazified world makes me a believer again. No Eldrazi build can negotiate a resolved Enduring Ideal into Form of the Dragon, and few can handle the Ghostly Prisons, Runed Halos, and Nevermores before that. Maindeck Leyline of Sanctity feels like cheating here, as does Halo naming Thought-Knot. Honestly, this has been my favorite deck in testing so far, with remarkable game against even Affinity with maindeck Suppression Field and Stony Silence out of the board. Guess I'm an Idealist!
- UB Tezzerator
Shouta Yasooka would be so proud to see Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas have his day in Modern again. It's no secret that Ensnaring Bridge is a dynamite answer to Eldrazi aggression, just as many players are interested in Pithing Needle, Torpor Orb, and Vedalken Shackles. Tezzerator crams in all that artifact goodness alongside hard counters like Cryptic Command, hard sweepers like Damnation, and hard disruption like Inquisition of Kozilek for a linear metagame. As a two-colored deck, Tezzerator can accommodate at least 2 Ghost Quarters, along with plenty of spot removal to chop down large beatsticks. You can even put those abhorrently overpriced Painter's Servants to good use in your Tezzerator toolbox!
Sadly, my love affair with Shape Anew didn't make the cut. Blightsteel Colossus was just not proving decisive in the Eldrazi contest: Spellskite, Dismember, Thought-Knot Seer, and really frikkin' big blockers were all recurring issues. Drowner of Hope lived up to its name and sealed that deal for now. I guarantee you there are other fringe options I haven't mentioned (Lantern Control, Through the Breach Scapeshift, BW Smallpox, Troll Worship, anything with Unburial Rites as a Plan B, etc.), along with plenty of other Modern regulars (Affinity, Merfolk, Blue Moon, etc.). You'll need to do some of that legwork yourself to confirm if any and all of these decks really have what it takes, but early signs suggest the format is packed with anti-Eldrazi opportunities.
Bringing Down Eldrazi
The March Grand Prix weekend is coming in just over three weeks, and I'll be testing up a storm until then. I'm debating making the trip to Detroit, but that will depend on finding friends to make the roadtrip bearable, finding a deck to make the tournament worth the trek, and finding the time between personal and professional life. If I can find something I'm really amped about, I'll either sleeve it up and brave the four hour drive out of Chicago into Michigan, or I'll write about it here and hope someone else champions my baby. Either way, we're not taking the Eldrazi threat lying down, and you can bet we'll put our best technology and strategies into the ring come March.
I've already added "Eldrazi" to my computer dictionary in anticipation of the next months (the red lines reminded me of that devilish paper clip assistant from old Microsoft Word), and I hope you are as ready as I am to plunge into battle against this new menace. What decks and strategies are you working on? How are you structuring your testing against Eldrazi's many iterations? Do you have any last words on bans before I try to stay away from this topic in our ban-frenzied format? Head down to the comments and I'll see you all there soon!