Krark-Clan Ironworks is now banned in Modern. Despite its dominance on the tournament scene, though, the deck failed to stamp out the format's trademark diversity and innovation. Plenty of decks and deckbuilders brought exciting new tech to the tables this month, and we'll ring in the new year right by unearthing some of it today.
Tempo: Back in Blue
Modern's spell-based tempo decks now tend to trend largely red thanks to the versatility and power of looting effects and the on-color payoffs available. Nonetheless, January continued an inspiring trend we observed late last year of traditional (read: blue) tempo pieces being repurposed effectively.
I'm no stranger to greedy manabases and Human Insects, but SCREENWRITERNY's 4-Color Delver strikes me more as a midrange deck than a tempo one. It's got targeted discard, delving recovery threats, and even planeswalkers. But it's also got Mana Leak, a card hard to spot outside of blue tempo strategies unless it's rounding out a control deck's permission suite.
The key creature here, and reason for splashing white at all, is Geist of Saint Traft. Modern significantly diversified its removal last year, but Geist blanks almost all of the available options. Add to that the fact that cheaper raw-stats creatures like Tarmogoyf and especially Wild Nacatl are much less common than they used to be and Geist starts looking like a plausible damage out-putter. In the olden days, the Spirit had trouble breaking through boards of larger creatures as well as surviving red board wipes like Pyroclasm, putting it in a precarious tightrope position.
Further adding to Geist's street cred is this build of UW Tallowisp, another brew I've dipped into before. What's changed since then? Critically, the deck's received a powerful new aura in the form of Curious Obsession. Obsession buffs Tallowisp to 2/4, making it immune to most red removal and larger than a lot of what opponents put on the ground. Between the Spirit's bigger body, the deck's ample stack interaction (including Rattlechains), and the flow of cards promised by Obsession, it shouldn't be so hard for pilots to protect Tallowisp long enough for it to dig more value out of the deck. Of course, Steel of the Godhead is less val-ue and more kill-u, combining with Geist of Saint Traft to quickly bury the aggro mirror—including, of course, the more successful UW Spirits deck we got to know so well last year. It can also be pitched to either Shoal.
Aggro-Combo Standbys: Novel Takes
Burn and Infect have been around in Modern since the format's aughts, where they once imposed strict parameters on other strategies to succeed. Nowadays, there are more explosive and resilient options available within the hybrid archetype. But these decks continue to perform in some capacity, and January saw them each present with a twist.
SANDYDOGMTG's take on Boros Burn seems to be the new norm, with a like-minded list also placing in the same event. These decks add Skewer the Critics to the deck's core, cutting 2 Skullcrack and 2 Lightning Helix—two of the deck's most situational and expensive cards—to make room. Crack has limited utility in game 1, when opponents are less likely to have lifegain effects in their decks; Helix, for its part, only matters against other aggro decks. On the other hand, spectacle is practically always active in this deck. Its floor is also acceptable: when players find themselves in topdeck mode, Skewer can simply be hardcast with the three lands sure to be in play by that point in the game.
The card proves more desirable in Burn than Light Up the Stage, which I messed around with alongside Arclight Phoenix as many wondered about its inclusion in Burn. Hard-casting Stage in the mid-game blocks players from casting exiled spells right away, as they are unlikely to have more mana available. Additionally, Burn wants to get its opponents to 0, so odds are decent that Stage rips something like a Lava Spike and a land anyway (or worse, two lands!). With that outcome, Skewer is higher-impact anyway, as it still deals 3 but has the added benefit of always being able to hit creatures. I wouldn't be surprised if the card's reliability made it a mainstay in Burn.
BLIND-TYRANT's Infect list fills the slots long left absent by Gitaxian Probe with another 0-mana cantrip: Mishra's Bauble. Bauble only provides a fragment of the information Probe did, but it still chews through the deck for no mana and turbo-charges Become Immense. If the Probe banning taught us anything, it's the value of information, and some other Infect pilots have also adjusted accordingly: earlier this month, a list with 3 Telepathy 5-0'd a constructed league. Not all Infect players have sought to include information-granting cards, though, with more standard builds still generating results.
Slumbering Giants: #BallinWhileBanned
In keeping with this week's apparent theme of bannings and unbannings, 2019 is already seeing "banned" decks bounce back with some new tools.
Amulet Titan has already made a name for itself without Summer Bloom, often incorperating Sakura-Tribe Scout to dump extra lands into play. This build, also replicated in the same event, ditches the dorks for Wayward Swordtooth, a 5/5-in-training that's far more resilient but also clunkier. On the upside, Swordtooth has pseudo-haste, allowing pilots to drop lands into play right after it comes down. The city's blessing is also attainable in this deck thanks to its wealth of lands, making Swordtooth an alternate win condition in its own right.
Landing Swordtooth on turn three and dropping an extra land helps ensure five mana a turn early, meaning even if the Dinosaur eats a removal spell on-sight, Through the Breach can resolve and wrap things up with Primeval Titan (Amulet of Vigor required) or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (Amulet optional). The set of Breaches make Summoner's Pact all the more deadly, as granting Titan haste really does act like Time Walk in a deck whose interactions snowball so much during the combat step.
In other news, the Tooth-less, Breach-less builds of Amulet Titan are still alive and well, though they seem to have agreed upon adopting Trinket Mage going forward. Mage searches the deck's namesake artifact as well as disruptive utility cards like Engineered Explosives.
After recently writing explicitly (and in depth) about Splinter Twin's banlist status, I was tickled to see the card's old shell happily kicking around in decklists from this young year. Grixis Twin appears to be leading the charge, although UR also has legs. The black splash already has a few 5-0s to its name and netted NUCLEARRABBIT 28th in a Modern Challenge.
Strategically, the deck plays like Twin used to: it creates a game of attrition and value all while leveraging the tempo gained from opponents respecting its combo finish. What's changed are the manabase, which stretches itself quite thin to support Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, and the critical turn, now pushed back by one. These changes give opponents a little more information and time to work with before they need to start limiting their actions for fear of dying out of nowhere.
In the context of my stance on Splinter Twin's oppressiveness, that Kiki-Exarch has revitalized Grixis Control even to this degree (and in this midrange-hostile climate) reaffirms my belief that the card should stay out of Modern for the diversity reasons Wizards cited in their groundbreaking announcement.
A Fruitful Year
With so many Modern developments so early, I'm optimistic about the format in the coming year. Join me next week for a hearty serving of even more 2019 tech, and let me know in the comments of any developments you may have noticed!