September Brew Report, Pt. 1: Reading the Runes

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A lot has happened since my last Brew Report back in August. So much, in fact, that I didn't even get to write a Part 2! This month, I'd like to rectify that hiccup with two juicy metagame reports, as always focusing on the countless innovating decklists published by Wizards every few weeks. Today, we'll consider whether Modern standbys have adapted to the new format and how things are shaking out for tribal aggro.

Modern Vets Step It Up

We'll start with the old faithfuls. These decks have existed in Modern for some time already, but not like this. Recent developments among winning builds earn them a closer look.

Mardu Shadow emerged unscathed from the bans, but seems to be adjusting nonetheless. While Shadow is traditionally a threat-light archetype, VOLOLLO's 1st-place PTQ list invites plenty of critters into the fray. Hex Parasite has been played as a planeswalker-sniping bullet ever since Ranger-Captain of Eos jettisoned Mardu Shadow to Modern relevance. The same can't be said for Tidehollow Sculler, a Thoughtseize on legs that lets the deck run more than eight targeted discard effects, or Giver of Runes, the Horizons update to Mother of Runes that's found itself everywhere from Company to Infect.

Giver specifically is hugely interesting for Shadow. Many decks struggle against protection effects, as we're now discovering with the elemental Swords back in the picture. Giver not only draws removal away from Shadow, but clears a path, preventing enemy blocks and allowing the massive Avatar to crash in for heaps of damage. Searching up additional copies of Giver is as easy as targeting Ranger-Captain with Unearth, so if pilots are clogging on Shadows, those Ranger-Captains still generate terrific value plays.

Who said Vengevine was dead? Well, a lot of folks, and they weren't totally wrong; the deck isn't about to return to its former glory without Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. But even with Faithless Looting and Bridge from Below also banned, the deck is proving to have some legs after all, with this version placing 10th in the same PTQ.

Vengevine's new incarnation combines multiple enabling engines with Stitcher's Supplier, here trending away from the pricey Satyr Wayfinder and towards Hedron Crab. Crab mills more, and faster; while Wayfinder provided Hogaak with explosive starts by also tapping for the 8/8, Crab gives the deck more of a turn two or three. Another blue one-drop, Memory Sluice, contributes to the count by milling four right off the bat, à la Wayfinder. The difference is Sluice can be copied by tapping controlled creatures, making it mill a potential eight cards. Rounding things out is Glimpse the Unthinkable, a no-nonsense mill-10.

The win conditions also get an overhaul, with Prized Amalgam joining Vengevine's usual supporting cast. Amalgam's an all-star in Dredge, and here has little synergy with the deck's namesake card; it's kind of a Vengevine-light, rewarding pilots for animating creatures, but more slowly and with lax requirements.

This deck looks to me like a hodgepodge of apparently relevant cards, so I'd be surprised to see it continue putting up numbers. New strategies often demand a certain grace period from the metagame before players realize how to beat them. But it has some things going on that I like; milling out opponents seems like a reasonable Plan B depending on the matchup, and having access to Force of Negation from the sideboard is also big game.

UR Phoenix was perhaps last metagame's most controversial deck. A poster-child for Looting abuse and velocity strategies in general, Phoenix was the best deck in the room at most tournaments, but never put up numbers the likes of Hogaak. As such, the Modern population seemed divided about whether the deck was too strong. In any case, it's come down some without Looting around; the above build isn't from the PTQ, but a regular ol' Competitive League, and it's the only Phoenix deck I could find.

Still, the strategy looks fine on paper, with Izzet Charm replacing Looting as a much slower, but also more flexible, Swiss army knife. Chart a Course also rears its head as a discard outlet for Phoenix that can put players up on cards should the matchup call for it. I think Phoenix's glory days are firmly behind us, but am pleased the deck can remain a valid low-tier option.

One with the Tribe

The month also brought its fair share of tribal strategies.

Elementals isn't a deck totally new to this column. Last month, I covered a similar Elementals deck, with Aether Vial and all. But it didn't look, or feel, serious. Now, the deck has changed a bit: Unsettled Mariner disrupts opponents; Phantasmal Image copies the best Elementals; Smokebraider gets the axe for being way too inefficient. And this new build is all over MODO, grabbing 5-0s in most dumps and even placing 10th in a Modern Challenge. It would appear the value Risen Reef once promised indeed exists in spades.

Okay, so there's only one actual Ninja in 4-Color Ninjas. But it's all the Ninja this deck will ever need. Fallen Shinobi apparently helms plenty of midrange decks these days, all thanks to easy-bounce creatures and Teferi, Time Raveler. My own experiments with ninjutsu proved fruitless, but that was before we could easily lock opponents out of interacting on our turn; with that landmine dodged, the deck can be stuffed full of high-impact disruption.

As for Shinobi's effect, it's certainly better than that of Ninja of the Deep Hours. Casting the cards for free means heaps of tempo, helping recoup Shinobi's hefty four-mana price tag. Its relevance varies depending on the opponent, but against high-curve decks like Tron, one hit from the Ninja can spell game over.

Holding everything together is Arcum's Astrolabe, which filters mana and turns on Ice-Fang Coatl. Astrolabe is behind many multicolor control-style decks these days and is proving to be one of the most critical cards from Modern Horizons.

UW Faeries doesn't exactly epitomize what we've come to expect from the tribe. It's more of a straight-up fish deck than a control deck, even wielding Giver of Runes and the ground-pounding Unsettled Mariner among its hefty creature suite. Stoneforge Mystic gives UW an oomph play on the level of Bitterblossom, or perhaps more impactful; not only does the deck then gain points against anyone hurting in the face of a Batterskull, the many cheap fliers carry Sword of Fire and Ice exceptionally well. Spell Queller is another goodstuff creature with no tribal affiliation, but plenty of strategic relevance to the deck's gameplan.

Cooling Down

Temperatures may be dropping outside, but things are heating up for Modern. Between the new bannings, the fresh format, and Throne of Eldraine just a couple weeks away, who knows what the future holds? Just September was full enough of surprises that we'll look at the rest of the new decks next Friday. Until then, bundle up!

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