Brew Report: That’s Wizard’s Chess

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By the time this piece is published, Mythic Championship London will be streaming, and Modern players will be testing the London mulligan in a high-pressure environment for the first time. The results of that event will have a massive effect on the format's future. For those who just can't wait until the Top 8 ends to decide if they like the rule change or not, today's brew report explores the shifts in published online lists after Wizards began the London's trial period through the lens of brand-new Modern tech.

The New Mulligan: Pre-London Impressions

It's not much, but we've now at least got some tangible data regarding the London Mulligan's potential effects on Modern. That data takes the form of four MODO 5-0 dumps, two Modern Challenges, and two MOCS events, all published by Wizards. Poring over that data led me to a couple conclusions.

Combo Isn't Crazy

As in, combo decks don't seem to have polarized the metagame, despite combo decks benefiting more from the London Mulligan than other strategies. In fact, interactive decks seem to be doing even better than before. Perhaps we owe part of this result to Cheeri0s, a faster combo deck that naturally preys on other combo decks, or on decks otherwise interaction-light. When the London was implemented online, Cheeri0s is the one combo strategy that saw an immediate surge in performance, epitomized by a Modern MOCS that featured two copies in the Top 32. That success was not replicated in the other large event postings, indicating that Cheeri0s is not suddenly broken under the London, but rather just "a deck" again, something it couldn't boast under the Vancouver (or "scry 1") mulligan.

Cheeri0s becoming consistent enough to function unmolested bodes well for Modern's interactive and fair decks; the ones that are likely to have Fatal Push, Path to Exile, or Lightning Bolt handy as of turn one. These decks can easily disrupt the deck and go on to win the game, while other combo strategies, including big mana archetypes like Tron, must aggressively mulligan for their limited removal spells rather than for their enablers. Indeed, the deck continued to post 5-0s throughout the London's trial period.

Other combo decks weren't as fortunate. I did catch a single Jeskai Ascendency deck, and one Bring to Light Scapeshift deck, but these kinds of fringe-strategy blips are common enough over the course of a month's MODO dumps that I'd hesitate to attribute them to the London Mulligan. Griselbrand-based combo decks did seem moderately viable, but not nearly as much as pundits the likes of Frank Karsten have cautioned; I spotted zero copies of Pull from Eternity, and Goryo's-Breach decks had set a precedent this month even before the London was implemented.

There was one final combo deck that resurged after the London was put into place: UR Twin. Splinter Twin is a card an extremely vocal subset of Modern players clamor for unbanning pretty much any time they're displeased with the format, including while Arclight Phoenix was bursting onto the scene (and bursting, and bursting...). Its defenders argue that by forcing opponents to interact, the deck encourages fair Magic and removes the ever-vague element of "degeneracy" from Modern. As examined above, Cheeri0s seems to be wearing that hat quite well right now. More curious still, the three Kiki-Exarch decks I found (linked below) showed up after the London was debuted. It's possible that this rule change revitalizes the archetype in a way Modern can demonstrably handle.

Looks Like Modern

Most striking about the new data is how familiar Modern looks. A range of archetypes continue to be present, and new tech choices keep cropping up, as they always do—this month, Kaya, Orzhov Usurper has made a name for herself, popping up in BW Tokens, Whir Prison, Abzan Rock, and Esper Control, sometimes all at once! Phoenix appears on a decline as the metagame finally starts to adapt to the format boogeyman via mainboard hate cards.

Such innovation was on full display this month, as it tends to be in Modern, and as we'll observe now.

Mainboard Hate at a Premium

Existing and fringe archetypes alike are staking a claim in Modern with more mainboard hate. This month featured not one, but two Death & Taxes lists packing Jötun Grunt, as well as a Grixis Control build with a full set of Cremates in its 60. Others still went not for a splash of hate, but opted to build their decks around hosing Modern's top decks.

Esper Eldrazi boasts a proactive, disruptive gameplan revolving around exiling an opponent's cards. Sculler, Queller, and Deputy all temporarily exile spells and permanents on the cheap, but processors like Wasteland Strangler and deck lynchpin Ulamog's Nullifier render that zonage permanent. A primary benefit of this synergy is the deck's desire to mainboard Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus, terrific cards against Phoenix, Dredge, and even the BGx Rock decks gaining steam.

Vizier Combo, like Cheeri0s, makes great use of the London Mulligan to hastily find its combo pieces. As in Colorless Eldrazi Stompy, the deck has chosen here to maximize the buff it gets from enhanced mulligans by running Simian Spirit Guide and Chalice of the Void instead of mana dorks like Noble Hierarch, which upgrade lackluster hands with many cards. The package gives Vizier Combo a free-win dimension against Izzet Phoenix, most notably, but also Infect, Cheeri0s, and other various decks. Even some Humans decks have opted to run a set of Chalice in the main and enjoyed 5-0s.

I covered Rakdos Stompy in detail last month, and am here to report that the deck is apparently not a fluke. It sustained impressive numbers for all of April, and has even evolved to include some new tech in the form of—no way—Serum Powder! Without Eternal Scourge synergies, I'm honestly not sold on Powder in the deck, but I also haven't tested this build. In any case, Rakdos seems more streamlined, now running Goblin Rabblemaster in the main for quick pressure and dropping Magus of the Moon from the mix entirely. I'm excited to see how this archetype shakes out in the near future.

Emperor Izzet's New Clothes

Izzet Phoenix's Top 8 appearances are apparently declining, if sluggishly. But no matter your take on the boogeyman's dominance, it would be tough to deny UR's recent stratification. Other Izzet decks are seeing play!

UR Suspend is a deck I have some experience working on: when As Foretold was spoiled, I spent a few weeks trying out different builds, finally settling on UR and Grixis as ideal shells for casting Restore Balance, which I understood to be the best suspend spell. This list seems like a natural evolution of that one given how Modern's cardpool has grown.

A Chandra was dropped for a Jace, which was banned at the time; Sleight was nixed for Opt, which was also not legal. But the biggest addition to the deck was Electrodominance, which allows the combo to be more consistent. This introduction informs the other swaps: Leak was traded for Remand, a superior option when the combo is more reliable; with less need for Plan Bs, Bolts, Snaps, and Moons became Abrade, Flame Slash, and Tormod's Crypt, all better interactive cards for staying alive, and more copies of Greater Gargadon.

This streamlined version of UR suspend reads like a significant upgrade, but Modern's other decks have gotten more powerful, too. We'll need more data to determine if it's better than the As Foretold Living End decks, which have more of a pedigree at this point.

Remand Burn splashes blue into Burn for, you guessed it, Remand... and Sleight of Hand. Not Serum Visions, or Opt, but Sleight of Hand! Sleight offers immediate selection and gets a little deeper than Opt, but at the cost of letting down shields. In a deck splashing 4 Remand, I'm still a bit puzzled about its inclusion.

The rest of Remand Burn started to make sense as I unearthed more of the online metagame. With both clunky midrange decks and Chalice of the Void decks on the rise, this deck wants to extract a tempo advantage from the counterspell while side-stepping the hate with pricier, higher-impact damage-dealers. Rift Bolt, Skewer the Critics, and Exquisite Firecraft could all care less about the XX artifact, and closers like Wurmcoil Engine or even Tarmogoyf look much less appealing in the face of a pseudo-Time Walk.

And here's that UR Twin deck mentioned above. The deck looks remarkably similar to Twin in its prime, but it has adopted some newer tools: Jace, the Mind Sculptor seems important for tracking down those Kiki-Jikis; Abrade gives the deck's removal package some much-needed utility; Opt compliments Serum Visions and Twin's flash-in nature.

Besides winning the MOCS, DARTHKID also 5-0d with the deck in a dump published the same day, and another pilot did so a few days later. If Twin continues to post even lower-tier results using Kiki-Jiki, I doubt Wizards will rush to unban Splinter Twin itself for any reason.

The London Mulligan: Totally Barbaric?

I'm optimistic about the London mulligan. We know Wizards is interested in going forward with it, or they wouldn't be taking so much testing time. This weekend's Mythic Championship is the final proving ground for the rule change. I think should the tournament's results reflect the trends explored here, or deviate minimally, there's a good chance the London is implemented. That being said, London has much higher stakes than Magic Online, and the world's best will be trying their darnedest to break the mulligan. But they haven't succeeded so far. Here's hoping for another failure on their part and better openers for the rest of us!

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