In this week's installment of my foray into Modern's fringe decks, I'm looking at fair decks. It isn't only combo decks that are fringe, after all. Fair decks can be fringe too. Even now when fairer decks are ruling the metagame.
Being weird and wonky isn't the only reason a deck can be fringe. Decks can also get pushed out due to niche competition and shifting card pools. It may also be a case that a deck was never that popular in the first place, and players have just forgotten it. Figuring out whether that can change is the purpose of this mini-series.
The Return of Scapeshift
I'll begin with a deck that is less fringy than the others I'm testing. Wishshift made MTGO Tier 3 in the last metagame update, though I've seen it hanging around results for some time. This was a little surprising the first time, as I thought this deck was dead.
Years ago, Titanshift was a major force in the metagame. However, starting in 2018, it began to decline, and once Dryad of the Ilysian Grove arrived, Titanshift was finished. Amulet Titan used Dryad to facilitate the signature Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle kill, and obviated Scapeshift, pushing out other ramp decks.
While I've seen the odd Titanshift deck from time to time in the years since, the strategy never fully recovered, and Scapeshift disappeared from the metagame. Within the past few months, though, a new version has emerged. Well... I say new version, but really, it's not. It's remarkably close to the old version, except for the addition of a wishboard. Literally. The deck is now running four copies of Wish to find Scapeshift and bullets.
There haven't been many Wishshift decks, but based on what I've seen, there is a standardized maindeck emerging. There remains a lot of variation between decks, but enough remains consistent between them that I decided to just focus in on the common cards. As for the sideboard, there is a general-purpose Wish package alongside additional cards that are actually meant to be brought in.
As with all the decks I'm testing, I mostly copied other lists. The only change unique to me was Anger of the Gods. That card is underplayed in a metagame filled with recursive threats and I also wanted another answer to Dredge. In retrospect, I feel that two Forces were wrong, and playing a cheaper Naturalize effect would be better, but it was never relevant.
I have a long history of playing decks that lost to Titanshift, so I wasn't going in completely blind. However, this deck looked really weird to me. The older decks played a lot more ramp to get to five Mountains, and usually ran sweepers maindeck, specifically Sweltering Suns. As such, this deck looked really slow and weak to aggro. However, I am an outsider coming in at the end of enthusiasts grinding away with their pet deck. Safe to assume they know much I don't.
The wishboard also looked a little weird, but the weird parts were also near-universal. Pithing Needle and Tormod's Crypt are usually part of a Karnboard, leading me to think that Wishshift used to be Karnshift, but I can't remember seeing such a deck. They're still good Wish options, but did strike me as seeming out of place.
I was pleasantly surprised by Wishshift. Over the past week, I played 16 matches with this deck, winning 10. These were not just wins against weak decks, misplays, and mistakes. In my two matches against UR Murktide, I felt invincible. The only game I dropped was an unanswered Ragavan's fault. I also felt heavily advantaged in the one match against 4-Color Blink. They couldn't meaningfully interact with Valakut and Dryad into Wished-for Scapeshift kills even if Omnath had gone wild. And I had Bolt for their Magus of the Moon.
Every match I lost was to a faster deck. As I expected, this deck is a huge dog to aggro game one. With four Bolts and blockers as my only interaction, I was effectively powerless against Hammertime and go-wide aggro. The deck's goldfish is slower than I remember and not as consistent, making racing very hard. In addition, the only way to fight combo is Chalice of the Void, which is good but not enough usually. Fortunately, true combo is rather rare. The match against Tron was a bad time. I vaguely recall this always being the case though.
Simply put, I was very well positioned against Tier 1 decks. Their interaction revolves around counterspells and creature removal while hurting themselves with their mana base. What are they going to do against a deck that just keeps playing lands and getting value from them? 4-Color in particular is not prepared for this type of attack. At least Murktide can race, though Bolt is a solid answer to that plan.
That's also the deck's weakness. It can win just by playing lands every turn, but that's not a fast process. Metaphorically, this was not an avalanche-type deck, just burying the opponent quickly. It's like a mud-slide: powerful and inexorable, yet plodding and avoidable. Indeed, I'd argue that in almost every matchup, I held inevitability. The problem is that any deck that could race or just dodge me would win quite easily.
Wish provides this deck with tremendous flexibility, but the mana cost is prohibitive. If it put the spell into the hand it'd be one thing, but as is, it could be clunky. However, that is made up for with all the ramp and the late-game power it brings.
Once again, most of my notes taken while playing the deck constitute the earlier paragraphs. Here are a few more that seem relevant:
- If you're going to side in Veil, bring them all in. Wishing for Veil really isn't going to happen. Also, Veil is a very strong sideboard card.
- Bring in one Force, and leave one as a Wish target. The odds are a bit better of hitting Force that way.
- Having another, cheaper Wish target against artifacts would be good.
- Wish for Valakut is surprisingly strong.
- This deck runs out of stuff to do really quickly. Cycling Sheltered Thicket repeatedly with Wrenn and Six seems like more of a Plan A than anticipated.
- This deck is really slow. Even with a good draw. It's upper-level plodding.
- I never Wished for Tireless Tracker. I'm not sure when I was supposed to.
- Knowing what to Wish for and when is hard.
This is a very solid deck. However, I feel that it's only really good in a fairly slow metagame. As long as the deliberate pace of UR Murktide and 4-Color Blink defines the metagame, Wishshift is a very strong option. However, if the metagame gets any faster, this deck falls behind very fast.
The fact that two Wishshifts were in the MOCS this weekend and one pilot, XWhale, won the event would seem to back up that sentiment. As currently built, this is a metagame buster. In a more open field, Amulet Titan is just better. It's fast enough to beat the aggro decks and has more tools against the slow decks.
Throwing Down the Musical Gauntlet
For my other deck, I decided to look into a deck that has never actually made the tier list, but I've seen at least one list in the data every month. Which was actually quite hard, because Showdown of the Skalds is the only consistent element linking these Boros midrange decks. Some have tended towards prison decks; some went more aggressive. One was closer to a Superfriends deck. Building around Showdown seemed to be the main appeal, and there were consistent elements between all of them. So, I simply ran the only deck that made the MTGO data this month. So far.
This looked like a Boros Blink deck more than anything, but I do see what this deck intends. Play all the good red and white creatures, make lots of treasure to boost Prismatic Ending, and cycle through your deck with all the filtering. Just playing more cards than the opponent should flood the board sufficiently to win a good amount of the time. Or potentially lock them out with Blood Moon.
The Brought Backs were weird to me. The card requires very specific conditions to do anything. I guess that cracking two fetchlands and then Bringing Them Back is decent ramp turn two, but what am I ramping into? Everything except Showdown is really cheap. Am I expecting to lose multiple permanents every turn? Trying to set it up to get value via the elementals or Pyromancer seemed like a lot of work for little gain.
I had a very bad time playing this deck. I played nine matches, only won two, and then rage quit. I was extremely unimpressed. I assume that either Icteridae got very lucky or has some special insight into this deck to make it in the Preliminary. Primarily, they must have some particular plan for the Brought Backs because they were the most singularly disappointing card in the deck and never did what I wanted. Again, I'm coming in blind so I could have played the deck very wrong there, but there were other problems that can't be explained that way.
The overwhelming problem I had with this deck was the infuriatingly anemic clock. The only threat with some impact to it is Fury. Everything else is a dinky 1 or 2 toughness dork. I was never able to get a massive enough board to overwhelm anyone, and while copying elementals or Pyromancer with Reflection of Kiki-Jiki could be game-winning, actually getting through Fable of the Mirror Breaker and untapping with Reflection took too long too often. There were a lot of best-case scenarios in this deck that never came together for me.
The best example of my problem with this deck was against Lotus Field Jeskai control. I locked their mana hard with Blood Moon and proceeded to lose the game because they Fury'd away all my creatures, and by the time I had a reasonable clock again they'd gained four turns and found the Plains they needed to unlock March of Otherworldly Light and just crush me. I had all the time in the world to do something, but I had nothing meaningful to do.
This deck can burn through its hand with incredible speed. However, it struggles to actually gain card advantage without Pyromancer and Brought Back, both of which can be hard to set up. Burning through cards isn't a bad thing, but they have to be meaningful and do something to impact the board. Frequently, I would jump out to an early lead and watch as it slipped away as my opponent played better cards than I had. I manipulated a lot of cardboard, but it didn't mean anything.
To pile on some more to my rant:
- Showdown of the Skalds is a surprisingly good card. It's definitely Modern playable, but it needs a better shell around it. I rarely got more than two cards off it.
- I made a lot of treasure in a lot of games. It usually just sat around unused.
- I cleared a lot of boards very early in many games. I struggled to turn that into a win consistently.
- Evoking Solitude and Fury and Bringing Them Back can wipe a board quite easily. Shame the Brought Back was countered.
- The sideboard assumes that Fury is all that's needed against aggressive creatures. I found this to not be the case.
- Brought Back sat in my hand a lot. Its main job was to be discarded because I never had a good use for it.
- Stealing Omnath was great, I finally had a real threat on the board. Shame that I never noticed Glimpse of Tomorrow affects all owned permanents, not controlled ones.
There is a Showdown of the Skalds deck somewhere in Modern. This was not it. Unless I was really off about how I'm supposed to be playing the deck, this particular deck was great at spinning its wheels and little else. However, even if I wasn't wrong about Brought Back, why bother with that card? Simply playing more Ephemerates seems like a better and more mana-efficient plan.
Moreover, this deck is anemic and underpowered compared to any other Blink deck I've seen, either Omnath or just Bant. Blinking Sentinel and Ragavan isn't great and there are plenty of scenarios where blinking Pyromancer is undesirable. I'd rather have more value creatures and drop the Brought Back plan, so I'd rather just be an Ephemerate-value deck.
There is a Reason
Wishshift is a good deck that in an open field is going to have a rough time compared to Amulet Titan. That deck fills the Valakut niche well enough while also being quite fast, which makes 'shift's clock look glacial. Meanwhile, there are much better uses for Showdown of the Skalds than the deck I tried. If you want to go that route, Blink is so much more straightforward to play. There's a reason that Wishshift did well at the invitational event and why Brought Back doesn't see widespread play.