Best Modern week ever? Since we last checked in on Monday, April 4, the Modern world as we know it has forever changed. This time, it's for the better. Eye of Ugin went the way of the Cloudpost to quell the Eldrazi nightmare but still preserve Eldrazi Temple-powered variants.
That much was expected. Ancestral Vision's and Sword of the Meek's parole? Not so much. Although I've been calling for these unbans for over a year, I never believed Wizards would release both so close to the Splinter Twin ban and simultaneously with Eye's execution.
Call me a Modern and Wizards believer again. As I wrote about on Modern Nexus all week, these changes have huge implications for both the metagame and Modern management, almost all of them categorically positive. Wizards even acknowledged control's floundering position in Modern! I'm more combo than control mage, but I'm still excited to see Modern's control renaissance after its historic oppression.
Whether suspending turn one Vision, cranking out thopters and life, or snapcastering back the rest of your blue-based shell (not Vision itself, although there's always Goblin Dark-Dwellers for that), control pilots look like big winners in this update.
They even gain ground in the R/G Tron and Eldrazi matchups, which so often came down to Eye of Ugin inevitability. Say what you will about Cryptic Command's and Spell Snare's relevance in Modern, but neither did much to stop the unstoppable Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that would eventually hit play.
Many Moderners are racing to pack their new unbanned cards around Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, Ensnaring Bridge, Sun Titan, Thirst for Knowledge, Academy Ruins and all those other deliciously slow Modern sleepers. Prices have reflected this shift, with numerous control staples and spec targets blasting into the finance stratosphere since Monday. I can't blame investors---it's definitely a control aficionado's world.
How is the metagame going to evolve around these changes? How are players going to adapt? Although a large subset of format regulars will stay on their proven decks or switch to control, the next few months will also see a perhaps counterintuitive transition to something sleeker, faster, and way more unfair.
As the old Modern adage goes, if you can't beat 'em, goldfish 'em.
In today's article, I'll break down the big linear winners after the April 4 banlist update. Vision, Sword, Foundry, and all their buddies incentivize Modern players to go fast and ditch interaction, an effect we'll see play out in the first months of our post-unbanning format. You'll want to build decks and invest your dollars accordingly.
Control grinders have it better than ever, but don't count the goldfishing sprinters out of the fight just yet. As we'll discuss today, they're just getting started.
Linear Dynamics in New Modern
All last week, a number of other authors observed how Vision's and Sword's unbanning would precede a linear resurgence, notably Reid Duke in his widely-read piece released the day of the unban. In this section, I'm going to unpack a few of the factors that will likely contribute to an uptick in decks like Affinity, Infect, Burn/Zoo hybrids, and others.
"U - Suspend 4: Target Player Wins the Game."
As we saw in the Treasure Cruise era of Modern, drawing three cards is an incredibly powerful effect. Few fair decks can beat the sudden resource surge, especially opponents like BGx Midrange which rely on stripping resources early in favorable one-for-one exchanges.
This is also true of permission decks and their variants, which look to answer threats efficiently before putting an opponent in topdeck mode. It's particularly dangerous in the kinds of decks which use Vision, which tend to draw more powerful spells and effects as games go long (see: Snapcaster Mage plus anything).
For these reasons, Ancestral Vision is gamebreaking in such matchups and the first player to resolve one will usually win. Or, if they don't win outright, it will either stabilize a board or put them back in the fight from far behind.
As a Vision opponent, this gives you three possible outs. First, you can try to build your deck or play in such a way as to beat the additional influx of cards. For instance, an engine like Dark Confidant or even old-school Phyrexian Arena can replenish your hand enough to keep you afloat.
Second, you can try to answer Vision as a card. Imp's Mischief/Redirect (cute, but don't spec too heavily here), Remand, Spellstutter Sprite, and others can stop Vision from ever drawing a single card, keeping you in the fight without worrying about a Modern-legal Ancestral Recall.
These solutions can work, but the first gambles on your cards being better than your opponent's (not a great bet against late-game blue strategies), and the second banks heavily on the Vision turn itself. Your opponent just has to sit around for Vision to win him the game. You better draw your cards and hope your opponent doesn't draw the cards to protect a Vision resolution. Bad odds, all in all.
Of course, as you've probably predicted, the third option is to gear your entire deck towards racing the Vision player and winning before the card even comes online.
This method has a distinct advantage over the "Redirect/counter Vision" strategy in that it doesn't require one or two cards. Your entire deck can just be aimed to win before turn five, and we all know how many such options exist in Modern. This puts the burden on the Vision player to stop you from winning off multiple cards and synergies (hard), instead of letting them protect and ride a single resolution to victory (easy).
Indeed, Vision itself encourages this approach by costing one mana and forcing the control mage to commit their first turn to the card. If they do, they are down a Lightning Bolt on the play or a Spell Snare on the draw, which any aggressive player worth their salt can abuse.
If they don't cast Vision and instead try to stem the tide, they are effectively down a card with a Vision stuck in their hand, and will continue to be down a card until they bite the bullet and suspend it. Either way, the edge is to the goldfisher.
Vision may be a virtual win for the player who resolves it, but fast decks are both well-positioned and incentivized to race Vision decks, not durdle around waiting for the card to come off suspension.
Control Gems Take Time to Shine
Last week, Michael Majors over on Star City Games published a Select article titled, "The Dawn of a New Modern Era." In it, he gave some post-unban control decklists including Jeskai, Blue Moon, Faeries, and Tezzerator. Although these lists showcase the archetype's newfound strength and relevance, they also perfectly illustrate a new tension which will help linear decks keep their footing even in a controlling Modern.
Both Vision and Sword strategies are incentivized to play new tools to help them win the mid- and late-game. This includes Vision itself for the dedicated control builds that will just add Ancestral and call it a day, and the entire Sword, Thopter, Tezzeret and artifact package for the Foundry combo strategies.
At the least, that's four more cards which don't do anything until at least turn five. At the most, it can be as many as ten or more staples which sit around until you get the mana and synergies to use them.
Guess who is waiting to punish players who want to painstakingly assemble their combos, energies, and toolboxes over a few turns? Blighted Agent, Goblin Guide, Inkmoth Nexus, and all their lightning-fast friends.
Cards like those shown above, and many more in Majors' article and other post-unban brews, all illustrate this major tension in the new Modern. On the one hand, control players want to play cards which synergize with their Visions and Swords. On the other hand, many of those cards don't come online until after Modern's fastest decks are winning or have already won.
This puts control players in a position where they are drawing one half of the Thopter/Sword combo when they really want to draw another removal spell. Or when they have both halves of it and maybe even a Thirst for Knowledge when they really need all three of those cards to be removal or countermagic to stop early aggression or combos.
In addition, top-decked or cantripped cards have a lower chance of being the defense mechanisms control needs to survive into the mid- and late-games. You can see this in all of Majors' theoretical lists, especially that Tezzerator take, as well as in those of other players who have brewed up post-unban strategies.
That's not to knock the power of these cards or their synergies. It's just to point to the problems of going turn two Sword, turn three Foundry and making a token against Infect or Affinity. Control mages will argue they don't have to play those cards early, but again, those are still two fewer cards in their hands to help them live long enough for the combo to matter.
All of this creates added pressures for control players trying to survive the first few turns, and additional incentives for aggressive decks to capitalize on these holes and win early.
The Race Is On!
Between Vision encouraging players to race it and control players cramming slower cards into their main 60, linear decks gain plenty of opportunities to excel in the new Modern. These are also by no means the only pro-linear factors in this revamped Modern world.
Sword and Foundry also give a similar incentive structure to aggressive players as Vision: do you want to beat that engine later or just race it before it matters? Moreover, all of these control cards will shift players to including more efficient answers like Abrupt Decay and Scavenging Ooze, which dominate the grindy control contest but collapse in speedy matchups.
Each of these dynamics will help promote linear decks in Modern, leading to a diverse and high-stakes environment where more players are going fair and slow but many others are staying degenerate and fast. That naturally begs the question of what linear decks are likely to succeed in this new climate.
Solitaire 101 in Post-Unban Modern
Now that we've identified the format-wide and metagame forces pushing players into linear strategies, we can talk about the linear winners in this visionary and thoptered format. Here are the decks I'm keeping my eye on as the format develops over the past weekend and beyond, keeping an eye to the control cards and themes which will drive these strategies' relevance.
U/G and B/G Infect
In most metagames, your default aggressive option should probably be Affinity because it has a favorable combination of raw power and resilience against hate.
In a Thopter/Sword metagame, I'm expecting a lot of added artifact hate, with every deck playing either Stony Silence or Ancient Grudge. Gone are the days where players will just rely on Kolaghan's Command as a lazy and surprisingly ineffective answer to Affinity. This means Affinity's share is likely to drop (but not disappear), and that of another aggressive deck is likely to rise.
Infect has three distinct advantages in a control-geared metagame. For one, it's really, really fast. That seems obvious, but it's a distinct edge over Burn, Merfolk, Suicide Zoo, and other aggressive strategies that can't threaten a turn three win with such regularity, or a turn two win at all. When your opponent is messing around with a turn one Ancestral Vision, Glistener Elf looks a lot scarier.
Infect's second advantage is its ability to ignore elements of the Thopter combo. Poison counters don't care if your life total is 5 or 5,000,000. Blighted Agent doesn't care how many Thopter chumps you have. Rancor even gives Glistener and Inkmoth a boost to push through that last bit of venom, and there's always Ichorclaw Myr if boards start getting too clogged.
Finally, Infect is strong against a number of cards and staples which are likely to themselves get stronger after the unbans.
For instance, Ensnaring Bridge gets a lot better in the new metagame, both in Lantern decks packing a Thopter Plan B, or Tezzeret decks finding Bridge to stabilize. Infect can slip in their one-power attacker under an incomplete Bridge (non-Lantern players may struggle to fully dump their hand by turn 2-3), and can even win with Noble Hierarch, Spellskite, and Wild Defiance against a fully-functional Bridge.
Infect has similar advantages against removal like Decay, graveyard hate like Ooze, and others.
Also, this guy:
In a metagame shifted heavily towards URx and UWx strategies, Crusader is impossible for most decks to remove. This added degree of maindeck flexibility gives Infect yet another leg up in the post-unban world. If you're looking for a deck to capitalize on these dynamics, Infect is where you want to play or invest your money.
Elves: Trample and Toolbox
Speaking of fast decks that act on an entirely different axis than Vision and Sword, Elves is another excellent strategy going forward. It succeeds in all the same dimensions as Infect.
It's fast, with explosive Elvish Archdruid and Nettle Sentinel starts and speedy wins if the opponent misses a beat on interaction. It can trample over Thopters with Ezuri, Renegade Leader, punch past even "infinite" life totals with the Dwynen's Elite loop and Ezuri, Chord up Reclamation Sage to bust a Bridge or disrupt the Thopter/Sword combo, or Ooze to rip up graveyards, and many other similar lines.
On top of that, Elves thrives in an environment where sweepers are absent, one-for-one removal isn't killing one-drops at parity, and players are trying to grind out advantage late. That's the post-Vision and -Sword world in a phrase, which makes Elves a very solid choice going forward.
There's about a 0% chance Eternal Masters sees no significant Elves reprints, so even expensive uncommons like Heritage Druid or the combo-centric rare Cloudstone Curio aren't likely to stay pricey for long.
Once we get more Eternal Masters information in the coming months, you'll be able to make better decisions around investing in Modern's little green tribal guys. Until then, the strategy is still a solid choice going into the next few months.
Comboing out Ad Nauseam
I don't get to play a lot of big Modern events these days, but if I do get to any in 2016, there's a good chance I'll have my Ad Nauseams and Angel's Graces sleeved up for battle. Modern's last true, top-tier combo deck has some major advantages after the unbans and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ad Nauseam repeat its Grand Prix Charlotte Top 8 from last year in an upcoming tournament.
Thinking back to Vision and Sword, Ad Nauseam can win both before these cards and strategies come online, and even as they are coming online: instant-speed wins are a huge part of Ad Nauseam's appeal. The deck also wields Pact of Negation to swat down control spells, and Boseiju, Who Shelters All as a decisive trump for half their combo. I'm really excited to win with a Vision on the stack, especially with Pact backup.
Whether you're using Darren Elderfield's Spoils of the Vault build from Charlotte, the old-school Peer Through Depths and Mystical Teachings variants from 2011 and earlier, or newer updates with Glittering Wish toolboxes, Ad Nauseam has something for you in 2016 Modern.
The deck suffers some small splash damage from Stony Silence (many builds pack both Lotus Bloom and Pentad Prism), but you can minimize their effects with careful sideboarding and play. Just be careful of Infect mages capitalizing on the new metagame themselves (it's a close-to-unwinnable matchup, even with tech like Darkness) and show the new Modern that combo is alive and well.
Looking to buy into Ad Nauseam or invest around key staples? Keep an eye out for Spoils of the Vault, a one-printing rare from old Mirrodin, as well as Glittering Wish. Both of these cards feature prominently in two of its three main builds, and look to pick up major value if the deck goes big.
New Is New, Old Is New
We've had Modern for almost five years now, and the format continues to boast an impressive mix of old-time staples, throwbacks making a resurgence, and new strategies hot off the presses. The April 4 update may have shaken up the format, but don't expect mainstays like Jund, Abzan, Tron, Burn, Affinity, and others to decline too much.
Similarly, don't think the newest poster-children such as Company, Grixis, and Eldrazi are gone in this new year. Linear decks might be the unexpected beneficiaries of format changes, but Tier 1 and Tier 2 shouldn't look too different in three months than they did a year ago.
Our first major post-unban events happened yesterday, and you can be sure I'll be writing about all these tournaments and the new Modern data as we get further past the April 4 update. Until then, find me in the comments with any questions you have about the format, its winners, losers, metagame dynamics, and any other Modern questions you have. Go linear, go control, or go old-school, and I'll see you all next week!