I love to brew, and build upwards of ten Modern decks every week. Most of them aren't very good, which is why I've only written about a few on Modern Nexus; I think brewing is a numbers game, so as long as decks like Temur Delver and GRx Moon emerge from a sea of goofier ideas like Temur Rogues, I'm happy. Like most brewers, my favorite thing about spoiler season is the chance to update my decks with newer cards. But it doesn't always take a fresh expansion to get me de-sleeving and re-sleeving---often enough, existing cards pop into my head unexpectedly, and alter the way I approach my decks. This happened last year with Curiosity, which ended up substantially buffing Temur Delver against what us tempo players call "the BGx menace." Last week, it happened again with Mutagenic Growth, a card that may finally revitalize the deck I played all through Treasure Cruise winter: Counter-Cat.
I cribbed the name from Josh Utter-Leyton's pre-Innistrad, Green Sun's Zenith-powered Zoo deck. Today's Counter-Cat is a Delver deck slanted towards aggressive starts. Just as Hooting Mandrills allows Temur Delver to play a functional "eight Tarmogoyfs," Counter-Cat employs Wild Nacatl to double down on Delvers. This article explores my history with Counter-Cat, unveils my current build, and ponders the deck's possible future as another viable grow strategy.
The February 2014 Wild Nacatl unban inspired me to try a tempo-focused grow shell in Modern for the first time. Until then, I had been playing midrange-y Temur Delver decks. Temur had little choice but to dip into haymakers like Vedalken Shackles thanks to a lack of efficient threats like Hooting Mandrills. Wild Nacatl and Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration had never been legal in Modern together, and the idea of a deck with eight hyper-aggressive, turn-one threats I could ride to victory made me giddy. I developed Counter-Cat with some fellow tempo enthusiasts overseas, and played it for almost a year.
My first build ran 3-4 copies of Snapcaster Mage, and played games in two phases. Phase one involved sneaking in damage with Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration and Wild Nacatl, and rebounding with Tarmogoyf if a turn-one threat ate Lightning Bolt. Path to Exile helped keep the ground clear for Wild Nacatl, and countermagic kept opponents from setting up blockers. Phase two saw me burn opponents out. If opponents clogged the ground or otherwise answered my attackers, I could switch gears and start throwing burn at their heads, with not just a little help from Tiago. Lightning Helix complimented the set of Bolts when it came time to get doming. I also ran two Boros Charms in this build, since it excelled in both phases, protecting creatures from Abrupt Decay, Oblivion Stone, and Supreme Verdict early on and dealing a whopping four damage later.
The Hooting Mandrills spoiler excited me greatly, prompting me to preorder about a hundred foil copies and slot a pair into Counter-Cat. A 4/4 for G is just what the doctor ordered in this kind of deck, but I quickly ditched Mandrills for Treasure Cruise and rode the party boat until Wizards shut us down the following January. Counter-Cat performed well in a UR Delver-packed metagame, since it boasted relative immunity to Pyroclasm compared with Young Pyromancer decks and could even pack the sweeper itself.
Post-ban, Counter-Cat featuring Hooting Mandrills never got its time in the sun. I liked the cards enough to try plenty of different builds, including ones with more burn, more countermagic, more creatures, and even Disrupting Shoal. One problem kept surfacing: if our turn-one threat got removed, flooding on Remand and Mana Leak could uncomfortably force us into a midrange role when we’d rather be attacking. Since Delver and Nacatl cost one mana, they needed to survive a one-mana removal spell for us to reliably untap with them and actually get to use those Remands properly. Lightning Bolt was Public Enemy Number One in this case.
Enter Mutagenic Growth. Growth pumps 2/2 Wild Nacatls or flipped Delvers past the ubiquitous instant, buying us enough time to untap with a threat and get the beats rolling. Some preliminary testing indicates Mutagenic Growth might prove to be this deck's Disrupting Shoal---the glue that holds everything together.
My current list:
Counter-Cat's cards fall into one of five categories: threats, removal/reach, permission, selection, and mana. Cantrips help us find the piece we need at a given time to make sure we can continuously pile on damage with our creatures.
Threats form the basis of any tempo deck. As efficient creatures get printed, brand new tempo decks become viable. Counter-Cat is a deck that could not exist in Modern without its infamous common beaters.
Nacatl and Delver make this deck tick. When we open two or three one-drops, Counter-Cat plays like a super-Zoo deck, slamming the creatures quickly and overwhelming opponents with their hugeness. Zoo wins some games by leading with Goblin Guide, and following up with Wild Nacatl and Kird Ape. Leading with three Nacatls is another game entirely, especially when some of them fly.
Delver is the better of our two one-drops, since he has evasion and can transform on just one land (Nacatl asks us to make a second land drop before growing to Nimble Mongoose-size). Still, it’s better to lead with Nacatl if we have Mutagenic Growth in hand and expect Lightning Bolts. That way, we can Misstep the Bolt and chase our attack with Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration, leaving our Boltless opponent to deal with two great threats instead of one. Nacatl is better than Delver with Mutagenic Growth in general, since he gets to chow down on Siege Rhino and Tasigur with some help with the instant.
Our one-drops terrorize decks that can't remove them, like Ad Nauseam or Eggs. But against decks with removal (i.e. most of them), Tarmogoyf and Hooting Mandrills are our most important creatures. They dodge many removal spells themselves, including Lightning Bolt, and consistently come down for one or two mana to clean up the mess left by Terminates and Decays. Growth also improves these creatures significantly; Goyf doesn’t have to worry about contemporaries across the battlefield anymore, and Mandrills runs over just about everything at 6/6.
Snapcaster Mage isn’t quite a threat, but he provides too much utility in this kind of deck not to run. These four colors grant us access to just about every spell we could want to flash back in Modern, including Bolt, Path, Helix, Remand, and of course, Mutagenic Growth. Since Growth costs Phyrexian mana, Snapcaster casts it for free.
The Removal Suite
I’ve believed for a while now that Modern has three viable grow decks, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to Disrupting Shoal and Stubborn Denial, Temur Delver (specifically, Monkey Grow) shines brightest against linear aggro and combo decks. Blood Moon and Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells give that deck enough flexibility to take on most other decks in Modern, too, making it the most robust of the three. I still haven’t forgotten about the Day's Undoing-featuring iGrow, an aggressive Young Pyromancer vessel that preys on hand advantage-based midrange decks like UWx Midrange and Grixis Conrol.
Counter-Cat’s natural white splash gives it Path to Exile, and subsequently, admirable matchups against creature-focused strategies. Path-Snap-Path allows us to easily take on a midrange role in those matchups, and our inclination to apply pressure early puts combo-esque synergy decks like Abzan Chord on a decisive clock. As long as we pace our disruption wisely, Path rarely interferes with taxing counterspells like Spell Pierce and Mana Leak.
Lightning Helix is a must-include in Counter-Cat because of the damage we take from our manabase. With Gitaxian Probe in the mix, it’s not uncommon for us to start games at 12 life. Against linear aggro decks like Burn or Gruul Zoo, we need a way to gain some of that life back while meaningfully disrupting opponents. Helix fits this bill perfectly, and I like a third copy in the sideboard for the matchups it truly works in.
The Counter Package
Spell Pierce is a counterspell that punishes opponents for not taking their time. If we apply enough pressure, time becomes a luxury opponents can’t afford to spend. With Growth helping ensure the on-board presence of Insectile Aberration // Insectile Aberration or Wild Nacatl, Pierce skyrockets in value. One-mana counterspells are also great at winning stack wars. Spell Snare joins in here, hitting power cards like Snapcaster Mage and Tarmogoyf or just forcing our own key cards through lowly Mana Leaks.
Remand and Mana Leak make the cut as ways to answer big cards. Haymakers like Karn Liberated and Thragtusk can put spokes in any fair deck's gameplan, and these two-mana counterspells answer them as elegantly as anything.
As for numbers, I'm always hesitant to say I've optimized a deck. By now, I swear by the 4/3/3 Shoal/Leak/Denial split in Temur Delver, but this build of Counter-Cat is too fresh for me to make a similar claim. I will say that so far, I’ve enjoyed the versatility of a 2/1/1/1 Pierce/Snare/Remand/Leak split with Snapcaster Mage.
Negate earns some spots in the sideboard for matchups where we want less removal and more countermagic. Most combo decks struggle to remove our threats, preferring to race us instead; countermagic makes it very difficult for them to succeed.
Serum Visions doesn’t need much of an introduction, but I do want to address my inclusion of Gitaxian Probe. Despite the damage we take from fetching and shocking, I consider Probe integral to this deck’s functionality. The card does a number of things in Counter-Cat, and in UGx grow shells in general:
- It grows an early Tarmogoyf past Lightning Bolt.
- It fuels delve.
- It flips Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration.
- It allows us to run fewer lands.
- It gives us something to do with Snapcaster Mage for zero mana in a draw-go stalemate or an otherwise tight spot.
- It lets us know whether we should dig for protection like Mutagenic Growth before committing threats to the board.
- It provides perfect information so we know how to pace Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Remand, and Mana Leak, as well as whether to hold up permission/removal or to increase our board presence.
On paper, the life we pay to cast Probe mostly matters against damage-intensive decks like Burn, but Counter-Cat already has a favorable Burn matchup. I’m fine with slightly weakening our Game 1s against that deck to reap the benefits of running Probe against everyone else.
One of Counter-Cat’s most daunting aspects is the manabase. This deck frequently operates on just two lands, but has trouble winning on just one. Ideally, it wants to set up “perfect shocks” (Temple Garden + Steam Vents, or Hallowed Fountain + Stomping Ground) as quickly as possible, then supplement the combo with a third land (often basic Island). Garden + Vents is the preferred combo in this build, since every fetchland grabs either half, and that pair casts Destructive Revelry from the sideboard. That said, some openers call for Fountain + Ground.
I don’t like Breeding Pool and Sacred Foundry in this deck, since that pair doesn’t cast Boros spells like Lightning Helix. The benefit of playing Breeding Pool---being able to cast more spells on one land---doesn't appeal to me either, since Wild Nacatl is pretty lackluster with just a Pool in play anyway, and the deck struggles on one land regardless.
Misty Rainforest is the deck’s best fetchland, grabbing every land in the deck. Arid Mesa gets every shock, but no basics. I like to max out on Flooded Strand, since the blue-white fetch simplifies setting up Garden + Vents (+ Island). Scalding Tarn, a staple in most UGrx tempo decks, doesn’t always cut it in Counter-Cat, as it never finds Temple Garden.
When I take this deck to tournaments, I get more comments on the manabase than anything. As a Blood Moon lover myself, I like to think I know how to control for greed when I build a manabase. Four-color manabases in Modern are only safe if you have a way around Blood Moon, which Counter-Cat does: get under it.
Especially with Mutagenic Growth to protect against Lightning Bolt, we’re thrilled to see opponents tap out on turn three, since it means another attack from our jungle squad. Revelry comes in to deal with Moon against decks we want Path to Exile for, and the rest of the time, it’s fairly easy to fetch out a Forest early and play a wonky Gruul deck. Opponents expect Moon to buy them time, but if we can still deploy Nacatls, Mandrills, Goyfs, Growths, and Bolts, they won't gain much. Revelry can be cast off Forest and any land-turned-Mountain to unlock a hand full of cantrips, and Isochron Scepter gives us a way to cast Helix and Path without a white source.
My advice to anyone taking this deck for a spin: pay close attention to the way you fetch and the ramifications of your choices. Remember to pace the most valuable fetchlands, and keep in mind how the value changes as your lands get fetched out. For example, if you have basic Island in play, Arid Mesa becomes strictly better than Flooded Strand, which doesn’t fetch Stomping Ground.
Counter-Cat’s sideboard allows the deck to become a “hate machine” for Games 2 and 3. Against creature decks, our Spell Pierces become extra removal spells; against combo, Mutagenic Growth and Path to Exile tag out for Negate and more burn spells. I often approach sideboards in terms of packages. In Counter-Cat, I also pack specific types of cards---counterspells, burn---to improve the reliability of certain plans I want to employ in a given matchup.
- Huntmaster package: A carry-over from Temur Delver, the Huntmaster package comes in against grindy attrition decks and damage-based creature decks alike. This card does so much work I’m always amazed more decks don’t play him.
- Revelry package: I favor a 2/1 split because Ancient Grudge is too good against artifact strategies not to run, but Destructive Revelry is usually better in Counter-Cat. The spell answers pesky enchantments like Blood Moon as well as nastier stuff like Choke and Batterskull.
- Isochron Scepter: Counter-Cat can’t play its own Blood Moons for free wins against greedy decks, but Isochron Scepter is almost as good in many matchups. Imprinting Path to Exile or Lightning Helix against a creature deck usually wins the game on its own, and Remand or Negate against spell-based decks keeps opponents from messing with Wild Nacatl or from winning themselves.
I prefer Scepter in the board because we don’t want it against decks with Kolaghan's Command. Game 1 is usually faster than Game 2, meaning we won’t necessarily have enough time to extract full value from the Scepter without dying to linear opponents. Scepter can also go back into the board once opponents have seen it, possibly causing them to bring in now-blanked artifact removal.
- Negate: It turns out two-mana Stubborn Denial isn’t so bad. Increases our counterspell density against decks like Ad Nauseam that don’t care about Path to Exile. Also stellar against creature decks that rely heavily on noncreature spells, like Collected Company.
- Boros Charm: An anti-midrange plan that helps us burn opponents out once they clear the ground. Also protects our threats from destruction effects, and the double strike mode can be relevant sometimes—with a 5/6 Tarmogoyf, with a trampling Mandrills, or with Insectile Aberration // Insectile Aberration against a horde of Lingering Souls tokens, for example.
Biting Into Modern
I've experimented with Mutagenic Growth as a way to counter Lightning Bolt in Modern before. I tried Growth with Mantis Rider, and my last project with the card ran it alongside Goblin Rabblemaster in a ritual-fueled GRx Moon deck. Rider and Rabblemaster don't meet my guidelines for benchmark creature playability by themselves, so it stands to reason that Growth is much more impressive when it supports Boltable creatures good enough to see Modern play on their own merits.
Ten days of grinding with this new build of Counter-Cat seems to confirm this hypothesis, but I'll have more insights in a week or two. Until then, don't be afraid to get brewing yourself, even well before Eldritch Moon spoilers start to surface. Modern continues to amaze me with its vast card pool and wealth of deckbuilding possibilities, and dusting off old favorites is a great way to bite into the format. Your own Disrupting Shoal might be right under your nose!