Way back in 2017, I tied together the loose ends of deck archetype theory I'd been working on for years into a piece called "Death’s Shadow of Doubt: Exploring Aggro-Control." The article coined the term reversibility and gave a name I've since stuck with to the decks I've always loved best: thresh.
Thresh decks are protect-the-queen strategies stocked with permission, removal, and cantrips. The name refers specifically to Threshold, a format-hoppingtournament staple that included the first stand-alone "queens" in Nimble Mongoose and Werebear (today, All Grown Up! as Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration and Tarmogoyf).
Just as not all fish deck creatures boast a Merfolk creature type, thresh decks don't necessarily have to use the graveyard. But they often do, as the undercosted threats Wizards prints tend to come with graveyard-reliant conditions.Death’s Shadow of Doubt: Exploring Aggro-Control
The thresh strategy I've spent the most brewing hours on by far is Counter-Cat, a Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets deck that doubles up on aggressive one-drops by employing Wild Nacatl. In 2022, its concept alone seems utterly laughable. We live in an era where Delver itself was powercrept out of even Legacy by Wizards' ever-stronger suite of one-drops, and when was the last time Nacatl was playable in any format?
Natch, I couldn't leave well enough alone. I'm a firm believer in playing what you love, and owe my devotion to Modern to my conviction that this is the most rewarding format to be doing that in. In this two-part article, I'll illustrate the myriad tweaks made to Counter-Cat since Modern Horizons 2 (in fact, I rebuilt the deck from scratch close to a dozen times over the last two years) and eventually unveil a list I'm quite pleased with.
Building a Better Thresh
The best deck in Modern is also a thresh deck, so the Counter-Cat shell needs to answer a few pressing questions if it is to justify continued exploration. After all, Modern Horizons 2 nigh single-handedly solved most of the conundrums that have faced Modern thresh decks for years:
- Murktide Regent removes the need to splash outside of UR for a big, sticky Stage 2 threat (no more Tarmogoyf, Angler, or Mandrills)
- A-Unholy Heat provides a heavy-duty removal spell both in-color and on-theme; gone are the days of splashing Path or Push
- Counterspell serves as high-quality permission that solves the it-stops-working issues facing runner-up Mana Leak
- Archmage's Charm gives the deck its Swiss Army knife, a bag of tricks more potent than even splashed solutions like Simic Charm and Kolaghan's Command
- Expressive Iteration really is the new Treasure Cruise, outpacing value-generating planeswalkers like Liliana, the Last Hope
- Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and A-Dragon's Rage Channeler are the best one-drops thresh has ever seen, even ousting Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets from Legacy builds (until Ragavan's banning) and eliminating the would-be benefits of stretching to accommodate an additional one-mana threat like Wild Nacatl
All that to say, given the power of Modern's premier thresh deck, why the heck would you splash one, let alone two colors? Counter-Cat will need rebuttals to all six of the above reasons UR Murktide owns 100% of the format's thresh economy and lays claim to being Modern's only Tier 1 thresh deck ever outside of a Cruise meta.
Ga-Ga for Gotcha!
One of my favorite things about deckbuilding in Magic has always been "getting" opponents with off-kilter tech or simply the perfect tool for a niche scenario. You can trace this love of mine across my brewing and tournament history in Modern: Disrupting Shoal and Simic Charm put me on the map as a competitive brewer, and the gotcha-tunities of cards like Peppersmoke have always been way too cute for me to steer clear of.
As a strategy, thresh-style tempo decks encourage gotcha-style plays more than perhaps any other—with their low curves forcing pilots into surgical interactive suites, the raw power and versatility of costlier Vindicate-type spells have long been out of reach.
Yet the cards wielded by UR Murktide are patently safe. And honestly a bit pricey. Maybe the meta did have space for Counter-Cat so long as the deck was redesigned with a view to maximizing the most heavy-hitting gotcha cards in its arsenal.
Spell Pierce and Mutagenic Growth forge the heart of Counter-Cat. Both are at their very best protecting or pushing through early aggression, which is exactly what we have to offer. We'll want to out-aggro the Murktide decks, which go bigger with more expensive spells, and run not just eight, but 12 one-drops to compliment our gotchas.
Theory-wise, I've championed Growth as a card that often functions as Mental Misstep in this particular strategy and as one of the rare playables that transcends the stages of combat (click through either of those links for the deets). With the rise of cards like A-Unholy Heat and Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, Growth now saves x/1s like Ragavan of unflipped Channelers from burn spells a good portion of the time.
As for Pierce, it's as on-plan as ever, hitting half as much as Counterspell but for half the price. Between Heat and the removal options afforded us in white, I'd say we have creatures covered. Sure, catch-all permission is fantastic. But you can't put a price on one mana. Indeed, Pierce even holds more of a metagame share currently than good ol' Counterspell (clocking in at #9 vs. the latter's #11), a testament to the value of its efficiency.
Setting the Stage
Up next are the Stage 1 creatures. We did say we wanted 12 of these. I won't argue—Ragavan and Channeler are the new blue chippers for early aggression out of thresh. But while Nacatl once acted as extra Delvers, I'm no longer sure the little Human Wizard that could still pulls enough weight to make the cut.
Nacatl applies early pressure more reliably and is better on defense, giving us additional equity vs. Murktide. It's a lot like a mini-Tarmogoyf in this deck. 3/3 is a good deal better than 3/2 in post-MH2 Modern, where A-Unholy Heat is a card many decks lean on to snipe Stage 1 creatures even without delirium, and so much so that they're trimming Lightning Bolt (Murktide among them). Then there's the fact that Nacatl is much harder to gun down with Wrenn and Six or Gut Shot.
The best thing about going with Nacatl, though, is that doing so allows us to stop sweating the instant/sorcery count. Delver's a hardliner on deck construction, and if we want to remain aggressive, stocking up on threats will do us much better than loading up on air like Careful Consideration.
Stage 2... Fight!
These slots were more contentious. Back in the day, I would fill them with Goyf and Mandrills, both of which are a good deal worse than Murktide Regent. But some other newcomers have arrived of late to sweeten the pot. The number I settled on for Stage 2 threats to maximize our odds of having one on the second turn (or a pair of castable one-drops) was 7.
Early on, I tried both Kavu and Goyf. And Kavu was just so much better than Goyf. A consistent 4/4 for two that ignores grave hate, provides incidental grave hate, and sifts through the deck just applies a ton of pressure while ignoring a lot of what opponents could do to interact with it. It was often swinging for more than Goyf early and the same amount late-game.
The looting effect is also totally bonkers, as we rarely need much land beyond two or three in play. Conditional but high-impact spells like Pierce and Muta form a fantastic pairing with Kavu, who digs to them when they're good and cycles them away otherwise—indeed, Muta specifically boosts Kavu past Dismember and past the whopping 6 damage of Heat with full domain. Add something like Wrenn and Six in play to recur lands for a stream of discard fodder to build your own Dark Goyfidant, a mini-engine that overwhelms other fair decks and quickly gets us to the right interaction against combo.
Soon I was cutting Goyf entirely and supplementing 4 Kavu with 3 Wrenn. I loved it, but for one glaring weakness: Kavu straight-up dies to Dress Down (the 13th most-played spell in Modern). The solution? To split Kavu with something else. That was Goyf for awhile, even though the Lhurgoyf left much to be desired. Thankfully, another powerful Stage 2 creature was soon printed.
- Kavu is better on offense. If it didn't die to Dress, I would still be playing 4. Shredder takes a couple turns to get going and sometimes asks us to give up business over excess lands if we want it to clock respectably.
- Shredder is better on defense. It's a better blocker and holds down the skies. It also draws us into answers without forcing us to attack.
- Too many Kavus has us soft to Dress. Too many Shredders can clog. 2-2 split? All roses.
Running a split does have its benefits beyond just insulating us against Dress. In a hand with both creatures, we can deploy the best one for the situation. When I find myself taking the midrange role, I sometimes board out the Kavus but keep the Shredders. Ragavan and Nacatl are also fine board-outs depending on the nuances of the matchup. Then against linear combo decks like Tron, Shredder and occasionally Channeler get the cut and I keep creatures that hit harder and faster.
Filling out the Stage 2 threats is Wrenn and Six. I loved this guy in my last published build of Counter-Cat, where it combined with the now-banned Faithless Looting to draw us plenty of cards and help us mulligan aggressively into explosive starts. It's still great with the looting of Kavu and Shredder. And it's a great way to chase our creature getting killed, something that frequently happens against midrange decks that hate staring down such a cheap value machine.
As anyone who's tried Wrenn in an aggressive deck knows, the downticks are real, turning it into a cantripping Boros Charm against passive opponents. Finally, the ultimate does win us the game in this deck. Like with Pierce and Muta, we can use our other two-drops to cycle through extra planeswalkers or even the first if an established board advantage leads us to prefer committing aggression and slinging disruption while beating down.
Drawing the Curtain
For spatial reasons, we'll have to tie things up there for now. Can you guess the deck's composition based on the creatures outlined above? Next week, I'll unveil the final decklist, as well as unpack the deck's draw card suite, its funky removal spread, the ever-misunderstood manabase (this one among Counter-Cat's most consistent ever), and a sideboard full of goodies.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear which close-to-your-heart strategies have benefitted the most from recent expansions. Drop me a line below or on the Insider discord!