Earlier this week, David dissected RG Ponza, the format's sleeper centralizer that may well overtake other Modern decks in the numbers soon. The deck exploits a peculiar vulnerability of Modern manabases: their softness to turn two Blood Moon. Of course, reliably powering out Moon effects isn't something any old deck can do with great consistency. But it just so happens to be a plan I've spent years developing. Today, we'll compare Ponza to my own GRx Moon builds and see what the big man on campus has that we don't.
"Many Moons" Ago...
It was my love of Tarmogoyf that drew me to Blood Moon shells, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't always have a soft spot for Blood Moon, too. Either way, many reps with Temur Delver had convinced me of the enchantment's power, but also left me hungry for a way to cheat in Moon a critical turn early. Savvy opponents could simply fetch around Moon most of the time when they saw it coming. The premise of GRx Moon was simple: use a mana dork to ramp into Moon early and then turn up the heat with Tarmogoyf. If the dork dies, turn up the heat with Tarmogoyf.
I reinvented the shell countless times over the next five years to accomodate for metagame changes and integrate new toys. And now, RG Ponza seems to be settling on top of the heap. Of course, Ponza doesn't run Tarmogoyf, so it's not for me. I still put in the reps to see if a Goyf-featuring shell could learn from that more successful version and put up results.
GRx Moon vs. RG Ponza
I actually compared GRx Moon to RG Ponza before, back in 2016; at the time, Ponza was gaining traction in Modern for the first time. Here's what I had to say:
When I introduced GRx Moon to Modern Nexus, the deck didn’t have a proper analog in Modern. I’d adapted the deck from Skred Red after having adding green to that deck for Tarmogoyf. Today, another deck exists that plays similarly: RG Ponza.
Ponza is a Stone Rain deck that rides mana advantages from Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl to power out Inferno Titan and Stormbreath Dragons, all with a turn two Moon in play. I don’t like how soft these decks are to Bolt effects, and especially to sweepers—if Arbor Elf gets taken out, it takes the Ponza deck five to six actual mana cards (be they lands or Utopia Sprawls) to start casting threats. Mana Leak also ends the deck.
GRx Moon has great insurance for dead dorks in Tarmogoyf, and stops its curve at four mana for threats. Extra mana sources (or disruption) can be cycled into more threats with Looting effects, or just played to get around taxing permission.
How much of that holds up now? Ponza has switched its top-end to the superior Glorybringer, and combines Utopia Sprawl with the London Mulligan to loosely patch up its enemy-Bolt problem. It's still clunky in the face of effective removal, but compensates by running more smoothly overall.
Here's RG Ponza, in all its "glory:"
What It's Missing
Elephant in the room: Goyf! But why would this deck want Goyf? Not only is the creature far softer than it used to be, Ponza has other things to do with its two-mana slot. There's Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, a versatile bump in card advantage; Scavenging Ooze, a late-game mana-sink and incidental graveyard hate; and nothing else. This deck is very intent on its dork surviving.
Naturally, half of them will; Utopia Sprawl is awfully hard to remove on turn one. That full playset and a few choice two-drops plug the curve hole left by the odd Arbor Elf eating Lightning Bolt. That being said, neither of those two-drops are cards players badly want to cast on turn two in lieu of something more powerful, and both fail to apply early pressure the way Goyf can when it's replacing a fallen soldier.
Sprawl can still be plucked from the hand by Inquisition of Kozilek, and I think the recent downtick in targeted discard is part of what makes this deck appealing. With those back in high numbers, Tarmogoyf becomes more of a solid crutch.
What It's Got
In my eyes, the single biggest addition to Ponza is Seasoned Pyromancer. Without this creature, the deck was truly all over the place, and suffered major mid- to late-game consistency issues. GRx Moon always sidestepped the issue with a lower curve, which would never exceed 4 CMC. That way, excess lands could be pitched to Faithless Looting. When we lost the sorcery, the appeal of "going cheap" plummeted similarly, giving an edge to Moon decks looking to hire bigger gats, such as Glorybringer.
Another major boon to the deck is Pillage. Back in 2015, when I experimented with faster mana and Goblin Rabblemaster in GRx Moon, I dreamed about "some magical Pillage reprint down the line;" lamenting Stone Rain the following year, as I strove to include a Lotus Cobra package, I wrote, "Without a Pillage reprint, Modern has always lacked a land destruction card flexible enough to warrant mainboard inclusion." Well, guess what? We got Pillage! And it's amazing! Pillage is the gold standard of three-mana land destruction for the same reason Kolaghan's Command and even Oko, Thief of Crowns were such big hits: incidental artifact hate is super powerful in Modern.
And Goyf Moon, tweaked to more closely resemble its newfound big bro:
What It's Missing
Gone are the five-drops of Ponza, in part because I'm allergic to high land counts. We've still got mana sinks mostly, the back-ends on Pyromancer and Bonecrusher. But it's more of a backup than an inevitability. That's because GRx Moon wants to keep the hits coming, whether it's turn two Moon or some speedy attackers, and end the game a little earlier.
Granted, in some matchups, that can be harder without Glorybringer. The Dragon is great against creature decks, clocking effectively while gunning down even beefy threats. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is also out of here, replaced by a cheaper card-advantage generator in Wrenn and Six.
What It's Got
The aggressive bump gained from deploying Goyf early pairs nicely with Bloodbraid and Klothys, which sneak in plenty of extra damage. Backup plans for disruption are extremely reliable in this deck because Goyf is joined by Wrenn and Six. The planeswalker wowed me in GRx Moon when it was spoiled, but certainly becomes less potent without Looting in the picture. It's still good: Wrenn lets us keep one-land hands with a dork and still make land drops all game, which feels pretty great when it happens.
As such, the land count is very light, at a functional 16; Forgotten Cave is splashed in high numbers to let us relive the glory days with Wrenn, turning the card into a draw engine, and Dryad Arbor, an eternal blocker. I'm not totally sold on either of these plans at the moment—Cave is sometimes clunky and impossible to get out of the deck when needed, while blocking all the time isn't something I've necessarily wanted in most of my games—and could see cutting 2 or more of these lands for other spells. Either way, Wrenn would need to stay at 4 copies to enable such a low count.
Really, this build's strength relative to RG Ponza is its resilience to Lightning Bolt specifically. For them, Magic is easy mush for the instant, and losing turn one Arbor Elf is all but a death sentence. We've got actual Blood Moons to ensure the effect sticks and a gang of ways to trump Bolt on turn two. As such, I think this build will improve slightly as Bold decks start to pick up steam... which thy should, as running Bolt is a great way to beat Ponza. Not only does it stop many of its lines and plans cold, it forces red, which is still produceable under Blood Moon!
Goyf's Return... NOT!
Will the metagame winds suddenly blow favorable for Tarmogoyf? My guess is not, Borat voice. What's more likely is both GRx Moon and RG Ponza will, after the latter spikes a bit in terms of wins over the next month or so, again become less viable as the metagame adapts. And adapt it shall: should Ponza maintain its shares, players will figure out how to build manabases that don't fold to turn two Moon. If Counter-Cat could do it, so can everything else. Until then, may you tap for two!