Category: Dom Harvey

Rethinking ‘Rethinking Red’

By: Dom Harvey

Three years ago, frustrated with red’s lack of depth in Cube and in general, I wrote an article for Riptide Lab exploring off-the-wall themes that could give our red sections a few more options than burn and beatdown (with the occasional Wildfire). My solution – turn red into a pure combo colour – was an admission of defeat. Storm Entity and Blazing Shoal didn’t stay in my Cube for long.

Thankfully, the last few years have been kind to red. We now have the tools to make red aggro more fun and engaging, help red offer more to control, and give it some new and interesting material that integrates well with not just the rest of red but also the other colours and strategies in the Cube. These ideas aren’t suitable for every Cube, but hopefully there’s food for thought here no matter what your design philosophy is.

Red aggro in Cube is defined by its brutal, ruthless, single-minded efficiency. It’s very easy for it to be the best deck in a Cube by accident, and it gleefully performs its role as the fun police. I get the sense that it’s a Cube staple not because everyone enjoys it but because red needs to have something and this is the easiest way to fill in the gaps. There are enough directions to take red now that you could drop red aggro entirely; there’s a good case for trying that. What if we tried ‘fixing’ it instead?


Prowess has gone from newcomer to evergreen mechanic in only a year, and it’s sure to become more appealing as time goes by. Combat is often a boring affair in Cube: most combat tricks aren’t good enough to justify including, and instant-speed removal tends to be used pre-combat to stop its target from blocking. You usually know what the outcome, or narrow range of outcomes, will be for any combat step. Prowess lets you change that without explicitly trying to: all you have to do is play spells, which your low-curve aggro deck wants to do anyway. Red is an especially good colour for this as there’s no shortage of instant-speed burn and, as one of the designated ‘spells matter’ colours, red gets a lot of support here. Prowess also forces you to think carefully about sequencing: you can’t just dump your hand on the table and throw burn at them unless your draw is perfect, as you have to manage your resources well.

Previously this theme had to go hard on instants and sorceries because that’s where the payoffs were – Kiln Fiend, Young PyromancerGuttersnipe – and you needed a lot of them to make it work. With prowess, the equipment or planeswalkers that are often the more powerful cards in your deck can also work towards this goal.

Key cards: Monastery Swiftspear, Abbot of Keral Keep, Kiln Fiend, Young Pyromancer, Guttersnipe, Chandra, Fire of KaladeshShrine of Burning Rage (perhaps the best one of all); in other colours, you have Seeker of the Way and Stormchaser Mage/Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest

Support: anything that lets you get multiple triggers from one card – Firebolt, Staggershock, Blast from the Past, Faithless Looting, Reckless Charge

Intersection: part of Prowess’ appeal is how neatly it ties into other strategies, namely the following:


What if, instead of playing a few dopey creatures and hoping they get there, you build a large creature and force it through? This strategy has been around since the BerserkBlood Lust days but recently gained prominence again in Constructed with Brave Naya, Heroic, and Landfall/Atarka Red in successive Standard formats. Your goal is to apply early pressure and force your opponent to commit to a defensive measure so that you can safely move in for the kill. As with prowess, I think this presents both players with more interesting decisions than the typical ‘Zurgo up to Hellrider‘ deck: you constantly have to weigh up whether you can afford to go for it and how to bait your opponent into taking their shields down (or, from the other side, into moving in at the wrong time). The deck does have nut draws that end the game very quickly but I find it more satisfying to lose to a flurry of combo pieces coming together than the usual perfect curve from a red deck.

This approach flips some of red’s most common matchups: green decks can no longer stave off your aggression with a big dumb animal as easily, while removal-heavy black decks can relax in the knowledge that they don’t face as much implied pressure from burn.

There are enough good creature enhancements now that you don’t have to be embarrassed about playing them: Madcap Skills, Hammerhand, and Call of the Full Moon are some of the best, but you can pick whichever fills in a gap. Auras always were and will be risky against cheap removal, but connecting once with any of them is equivalent in damage output to a good burn spell and if it sticks around for longer it’s more than paid for itself.

Berserkers often branches into green, which has a lot to offer in all areas: large creatures, pump, and the OG Berserk.

Key cards: Reckless Charge (much scarier than it looks on paper), prowess creatures, Prophetic Flamespeaker, Flamewake Phoenix (a resilient, evasive threat that can combine with pump to win out of nowhere), Temur Battle Rage

Support: creatures that naturally become large (Countryside Crusher, Plated GeopedeKargan Dragonlord), equipment (O-Naginata)

Intersection: Prowess, as mentioned

Prowess also works well with:


While Berserkers is about going tall, Tokens is about going wide. If your opponent is trying to blunt your offense with cheap blockers and removal, a token-heavy start lets you push through damage and maintain a board presence anyway. Token spam can lead to stalled boards and repetitive gameplay but, when all goes well, tokens become another in-game resource that a skilled player can manage and exploit.

Some of the best token-makers and payoff cards are noncreatures, which ties in nicely to prowess: in Theros/Khans Standard, the Atarka Red decks used Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst to curve out effectively while having enough spells to trigger Monastery Swiftspear (and later Abbot of Keral Keep).

There is more than enough token support in red, but other colours like to join the fun: tokens help the sacrifice theme common in Rakdos and are a core part of Selesnya’s identity.

Key cards: Young Pyromancer, Mogg War Marshal, Hordeling Outburst, Purphoros, Goblin Bombardment, Stoke the Flames, Tempt with Vengeance

Support: anthems (Hall of Triumph), Goblin Bushwhacker/Reckless Bushwhacker, other mass pump effects (Rites of Initiation/Haze of Rage if you want to go deep)

Intersection: Prowess, equipment (can turn a disposable body into a real threat)

Here’s a sample deck from my Cube that shows some of these ideas working together:


On the midrange and control side of things, we have:

Red ‘Engine’

Previously, red’s contribution to slower decks was very limited: it would burn things, burn some more things, and sometimes provide a finisher. Card draw and selection was left to whatever the other colour was, and – with the exception of white – all of them did it better than red.

That can change. You have to work for it – red’s filtering/rummaging spells aren’t universally playable the way something like Compulsive Research or Night’s Whisper is – but the rewards are worth it. Red no longer has to be one-dimensional and can become the backbone of grindy non-decks, which opens up a lot of design space.

The first step is to minimize the downside of these effects. To make ‘discard X + draw X’ better, you want discarding cards to be acceptable or, if possible, actively useful. The madness burn spells – Fiery Temper, Violent Eruption, and underrated all-star Blast from the Past – are a good place to look, and I’d consider Squee, Goblin NabobDrownyard Temple/Crucible of Worlds, and red’s various Phoenixes. On a macro-level, you want to encourage strategies that make full use of the graveyard: for instance, Reanimator is often thought of as a UB-centric deck but you can substitute blue’s Looting effects with red replacements. If you go deep on the artifact ‘Welding’ theme described below, you can even have a mono-red Reanimator deck! Feldon of the Third Path and Mizzix’s Mastery/Goblin Dark-Dwellers let you push that angle for creatures and spells too. Maybe you pair Faithless Looting and Magmatic Insight with Land Tax or Life from the Loam, or use blue card draw to fuel a massive Firestorm.

There’s too much to summarize it all here, but this thread goes into these ideas in more detail.

Key cards/Support/Intersection: These all depend on what you want to do and how far you want to take it, but there are some examples above.



Plenty of good artifacts have been printed throughout the years (and with Kaladesh coming soon, Pia and Kiran are sure to find lots of new trinkets to play with), and red is one of the best colours at exploiting them. The Welder deck headlined by Goblin Welder and Daretti (along with Trash for Treasure and Scrap Mastery if you want to fully commit) promises to give red more character and add to the variety of midrange and control decks on offer.

A major selling point of this theme is that artifacts are, by nature, more broadly playable, so you can afford to include more ‘narrow’ artifacts in your Cube knowing they will find their way into decks somehow. This does mean that you can’t rely on them making it to you in the draft, as anyone who doesn’t find something nice in their colours will gladly snap up your Palladium Myr or Masticore, but with a high enough density of playable artifacts this shouldn’t be a problem.

You can take a more optimistic view of this: any build-around artifacts you decide to include will be more readily available. The Welder effects mean that you have faster and more consistent access to these in-game: for instance, you can Weld out a Thopter token to bring in Conjurer’s Closet and start blinking Pia and Kiran, bring in Alhammarret’s Archive to super-charge the Faithless Looting you played earlier, or go nuts with Pyromancer’s Goggles. If you just want to make a Myr Battlesphere and bash them to bits, you can do that too.

Blue has the most ‘artifacts matter’ cards but other colours have random things to offer. White has some incidental contributions in cards like Thraben Inspector and Blade Splicer and many of the better artifact creatures want to be flickered, while green recently gained Tireless Tracker and can use Ancient Stirrings or the ‘Impulse for creatures’ cards to increase consistency.

Support: Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Solemn Simulacrum, Epochrasite, Perilous Myr, Hangarback Walker, mana rocks (which suggest a crossover with the Wildfire strategy that has hovered on the fringes of Cube design for a while now)


This only scratches the surface – there are viable themes that aren’t explored here, and plenty of stand-alone cards that add fun new elements to red – but I’ve been impressed by the strategies laid out above and would advise giving some or all of them a try in some capacity.

Deckbuilding and Play Patterns with Ancestral Vision

By Dom Harvey


We all saw the Eye of Ugin ban coming; most of us were dancing on its grave long before the announcement came. Almost nobody expected what came with it: the introduction of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek into Modern. Both were fixtures of the Extended format that most resembled Modern and were banned from the start to stop them defining the new format in the same way. As so many cards came on and off the ban list their continued exile became hard to justify, but even those of us who thought they were safe didn’t expect this to happen now. These are exciting times!

One reason these unbans are so promising is that Vision and Sword both demand careful deck construction. You can’t just throw them into an existing deck and expect them to perform well. Additionally, their presence in the format is likely to have far-reaching implications that should inform your deck and card choices. I want to talk about what those might be and highlight some of the common pitfalls that people are already walking into.

Blue decks in Modern have waited so long for a strong, reliable draw engine; between Ancestral Vision and the boost Thopter Foundry gives to Thirst for Knowledge, two may have arrived at once. In particular, Ancestral Vision gives hope to traditional control decks like Jeskai and Grixis that are very popular with a large segment of the player base. This is the best gift they have received in quite some time.

It’s not all good news. All the reasons people cited for Vision being safe to unban still apply. It’s the ideal poster-child for the ‘Turn 4 format’ in a sea of decks that do their best to shun that label. Vision mocks you from exile as Burn or Affinity bash your brains in or Storm and Goryo’s Vengeance sit there pleasuring themselves. In a lot of matchups and situations, Vision is a $50 blank card.

It’s also not the panacea for what ails blue decks in Modern. Your Esper Mentor deck or ‘Sultai Control brew’ was bad before and it’s bad now no matter how many copies of Ancestral Vision you ‘jam’ in there. Vision is likely to exacerbate any consistency issues your deck already has.

This may sound like a hatchet job. I’ll state upfront that Ancestral Vision is a strong card that will probably have a lasting impact on Modern, but focusing on its flaws is a good way to show how and why it works when it does.

Ancestral Vision makes you a promise: “I’ll worry about card advantage, you just buy me time to do what I need to do”. It gives you enough strength in the mid- to late-game that you can and should play more cheap one-for-one answers that prolong the game; you can even afford to trade cards at a disadvantage knowing that Vision will bring you back to parity. This strategy is only sound if the payoff is real: drawing three cards must reliably translate into a tighter hold on the game. This is less likely if your deck is full of situational cards that don’t maintain their value at each stage of the game. It’s no use setting your deck up to survive until a Vision if you draw a redundant land, a Spell Snare with no targets, and a removal spell that’s poorly suited for the matchup. The same principle applies to Vision itself: unless the game goes very long, each extra copy that you draw off the first Vision is dead. The card is self-defeating in that regard.

Think back to the card draw spells that defined Constructed formats. A crucial aspect most of them shared is that you could compound the advantage they generated by chaining them into further copies of themselves. Fact or Fiction revealing another Fact or Fiction was always a nightmare, a small Sphinx’s Revelation gave you enough life and cards to set up a larger Revelation, and it was disturbingly easy to cast back-to-back Treasure Cruises. Interestingly, Dig Through Time was reasonable in Standard despite being completely busted because the cardpool didn’t let it conform to that model; you could put the UB Control decks of THS-KTK Standard in an awkward position by just not letting them use their Hero’s Downfalls and Dissolves so that they couldn’t cast their first Dig, and if they did resolve one Dig it was now that much harder to cast the second. The nature of the card makes it hard to chain copies of Ancestral Vision; there will be games where you suspend it on Turn 1 and Turn 2 and bury the opponent in card advantage, but more often you’ll draw the second one on Turn 4 and wish it was anything else.

Vision also places heavy demands on your manabase. You need enough untapped blue sources to suspend it on Turn 1, so it clashes with control mainstays like Celestial Colonnade or Creeping Tar Pit. If you run too many lands it’s easy for Vision to hit a pocket of land and accomplish nothing, but Vision can’t help you hit your land drops early so you can’t afford to shave lands. A common scenario in the Mono-U Faeries days was that a player would suspend Ancestral Vision, miss an early land drop and fumble, and then make poor use of the extra cards from Vision because they didn’t have enough mana or time. You can rely on other cards like Serum Visions (PSA: Serum Visions, Ancestral Vision) to smooth out your draws, but your deck quickly becomes full of air. It’s unwise to rely on just Ancestral Vision as your draw engine, but it doesn’t leave you room to play much else.

This is a big part of why Vision doesn’t work nicely with the other incentives to play blue in Modern. Snapcaster and Jace both want you to play lots of cheap cards. On the surface that’s fine because you want to unload your hand quickly after Vision resolves, but if the cheap cards you draw are more Serum Visions and Thought Scours you’re just spinning your wheels. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile are close to universal answers in Modern, which is what makes them so good, but Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are highly time-sensitive. Snapcaster and Jace are so much better when they can rebuy your card draw spells, for the reasons given above – think how great they would be with Fact or Fiction! The lack of synergy with Ancestral Vision is a big deal. Vision also doesn’t contribute towards Delve or Prowess immediately, and isn’t great with Thirst for Knowledge either. This is good for the format – rather than having every blue deck start with 4 Ancestral Vision, it’s great if there’s a Snapcaster-Jace deck based on cheap cantrips, a Thirst for Knowledge deck, a Vision deck, and so on – but bad for Ancestral Vision’s chances.

At its core, the suspend mechanic rests on the idea of trading time for mana. Vision directly introduces cards as another variable in that equation. When Vision is good, it’s because other tools exist to convert one of these resources into another. In Extended, Chrome Mox let you cash in a useless Spell Snare – or a second copy of Vision – for the mana to drop your relevant cards quickly enough. From another perspective, Vision gave you the cards that let you justify running Chrome Mox, which was important in keeping pace with the rest of the format. A good way to beat control decks relying on Vision is to choke off their access to one of those resources: sequence your spells wisely to stop them using their mana efficiently, find a way to make the extra cards not matter by playing threats that their interaction doesn’t line up well against, or put them under enough pressure that they can’t afford to spend their time poorly.

When you suspend Ancestral Vision, you’re announcing that a major event will take place in four turns and daring your opponent to be ready. This public information gives a strong incentive for the opponent to finish the game – or at least establish a winning position – before Vision can resolve and give you more options. As a result, sweepers work very well with Vision as you punish them for committing too much to the board. A brutally effective tactic in control decks is to force your opponent to choose which powerful mid-game cards to play around when the right approach for dealing with one is bad against the other. In Standard and RTR Block, aggro decks were pinned between Jace, Architect of Thought and Supreme Verdict: if you held back creatures in fear of Verdict, Jace would come down and halt your offence; if you played out enough creatures to pressure Jace, you might be walking into Verdict. Vision lets you recreate that, although the knowledge that Vision is coming changes the dynamic a little.

Vision warps the pacing of control mirrors in the same way. Unless one player stumbles and their opponent senses weakness, control mirrors often see both players doing nothing for a long time until someone decides they are ready to pick a fight. Vision changes that by scheduling that fight in advance: a showdown will take place in my upkeep four turns from now, whether you like it or not – and whether I like it or not! I’ll use the Mono-U Faeries deck as an example again, since mirrors were often decided one way or the other by Ancestral Vision. The main effect Vision had was to force plays to ‘cluster’ around a specific turn. If I have Ancestral Vision coming off suspend in a few turns, I don’t want to run my Vendilion Clique into Mana Leak now; I want to do it when my Vision is about to be cast, tying up their mana or taking away one of their answers. Ancestral Vision forces this fight to happen during your turn, and before you can make your land drop, forcing you to defend it when you’re least willing and able to. With the Faeries deck linked above, the mirror often come down to expensive sorcery-speed sideboard cards; for anyone familiar with the concept of Faeries, this sounds like the worst plan you could have! It worked in part because Vision forced a commitment on their upkeep: you could harass their Vision with Remand/Mana Leak or Spellstutter Sprite and make them tap low to fight over it, opening a window to resolve a threat on your turn. Additionally, Faeries didn’t have much cheap countermagic that could hit everything, so if you couldn’t cast Cryptic Command the opponent could eventually force something through; blue decks in Modern have the same profile, relying on Cryptic Command as a universal answer or eschewing it altogether. In Faeries, this threat changed over time – Vedalken ShacklesGlen Elendra Archmage, and eventually Future Sight – and we could see Keranos or a similar card fill this role in Modern.

This dynamic is mainly in play in blue mirrors, but it informs how you want to build your deck with Vision in mind. Most of the objections to Vision that I’ve outlined above rest on the opponent’s ability to wrest control of the pacing of the game away from you. If you can get out in front and force your opponent to react to you while Vision is ticking down, you will close the game with a threat a decent amount of the time without losing mid-game superiority thanks to Vision. This is what made the card so strong in Standard Faeries: the whole deck was designed to force the opponent to play on its terms, and the looming threat of Vision removed their ability to adjust properly. I’m not convinced that Faeries improves enough with Vision to be playable in Modern, but the principle is sound. Delver of SecretsYoung PyromancerThing in the Ice, and other cards that require setup are poorly suited to this because you don’t want to draw them off Vision, but Tarmogoyf is perfect; Geist of Saint Traft might see a resurgence for the same reason.

If Vision does end up defining blue decks and Thopter Foundry becomes a Modern staple, what are the implications for the format at large? Remand is already somewhat popular in Modern and a good way to trump Vision and win counter wars in general, so decks that naturally want to run Remand are happy. If Remand becomes important in mirrors, Spell Snare starts to look a lot better; it’s also handy against specific problem cards in most matchups – Eidolon of the Great RevelArcbound Ravager/Cranial PlatingVoice of Resurgence – and crucial against Thopter Foundry. It’s unfortunate that both Snare and Remand are awkward draws mid-game, so if your blue decks become inbred to win Vision fights your overall deck quality becomes worse, but these are the sacrifices you make.

The big loser overall from these changes is Affinity: everyone will pack heavy-duty artifact hate for Thopter/Sword, and one of your best matchups in Burn might be less popular in the short term. Meanwhile, Merfolk is already salivating at the idea of slow blue decks becoming popular, can attack through Thopter/Sword in a way that aggro decks can’t, and would love to see Affinity fall back.

For Burn and Infect, the other members of the aggro trifecta that was popular at the Pro Tour, this may well be good news. If Jeskai becomes more popular thanks to Vision, both decks are in for a rough time, but if Vision-based blue decks are edged out by Thopter/Sword, Infect will be ready to pounce. The Thopter/Sword combo is obviously good against Burn if you can get it going, but if your early game is T2 Sword T3 Foundry you might just be dead to one of their better draws. If your white deck wants to hate out Burn, it can; just don’t write off the matchup as an easy win.

Jund and Abzan have capitalized in a big way on blue’s lack of a good draw engine; it’s no coincidence that BGx all but vanished during the Treasure Cruise era. Now that this is changing, they will have to pay proper attention to those matchups. I’ve seen lots of Jund players complacent about Thopter/Sword because of Abrupt DecayKolaghan’s Command, and Scavenging Ooze, but this displays an ignorance of how the combo works in practice. As long as they have another artifact lying around, which isn’t hard if they build their deck with that in mind, they can sacrifice that to Foundry in response to your removal and continue sinking their mana into the combo. The early turns will be spent trading, as normal, and eventually they will play Foundry with a few lands open; you can kill it, but they get to effectively cast Lingering Souls – one of the best cards against Jund – on the way out. These decks run Academy Ruins, which gives them a level of late game power that you can’t compete with – Gerry Thompson’s initial list runs 2 Ruins and a Tolaria West to fetch it. It’s also worth noting that none of the obvious responses to Thopter/Sword are good against, say, Baneslayer Angel, which UW Thopter decks have ‘transformed’ into post-board with some success in the past; the same goes for Gideon Jura or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas if that’s a thing. Again, the tools exist to beat this new breed of blue deck, but you have to play them and draw them and use them effectively. Hand-waving and reciting the text of Abrupt Decay is no substitute for good deckbuilding.

If Burn and Infect end up suffering alongside Affinity, the format stands to slow down. This might create an opening for decks like Scapeshift that are slower than dedicated combo but more resilient against blue. Ad Nauseam loves to see blue decks and hates to see Jund, but I’m not sure if the deck is structurally sound enough to be a good choice.

Abzan Company was good pre-Eldrazi, great against Eldrazi, and will still be solid post-Eldrazi. You can out-grind the midrange decks without caring about Thopter/Sword and you can still claim a good matchup against the faster decks. It doesn’t hurt that RG Tron got significantly weaker. One concern is that Jund and Grixis will start sideboarding Leyline of the Void to fight Thopter/Sword, but it will take some time for people to adjust properly.

More generally, there may be an opening for faster combo decks that were held down by Twin. I’ve seen Thopter/Sword compared to Twin as a package that blue decks can play without much commitment to add a new dimension, but the key difference is that Twin acted as a safety valve against random stuff that you couldn’t prepare for: your answers may not line up well against their threats, but you can sometimes just win on Turn 4 and that puts a floor on how bad any matchup can be. The threat of Twin forced opponents to try to win the game quickly and, in doing so, walk into Twin’s interactive cards. Thopter/Sword doesn’t end the game out of nowhere, so you can gauge how much time you have, and you can afford to play around the cards supporting it because it doesn’t put you under that much pressure.

My hope is that, when the dust settles, the metagame we see will be more balanced and interesting than it was before. There are two main approaches to deck selection in Modern – pick whichever linear deck is off the radar or well-positioned at that moment, or play what you know with adequate preparation for the linear decks you do expect to show up – and both are still worth following even as the format continues to change.

Thanks for reading!

Necrotic Brews: The Goryo’s Vengeance Variety Hour

By Dom Harvey



I’m excited to write about the most impressive strategy I’ve found in Modern recently. It’s strange to think that Eldrazi wasn’t the most broken thing going on in a format, but I genuinely believe that was the case. First, though, we have to set the stage.


Goryo’s Vengeance is the most dangerous unrestricted card in Modern, and I fully expect it to be banned at some point. The card allows for blisteringly fast kills that violate the spirit of the format as laid out by WotC, and it gets better and better as more powerful legends are printed. It was only a matter of time until somebody broke it in half, and Bob Huang (via Shintara Kurata) succeeded at GP Charlotte last year:


The deck has hovered around the edge of the format, and Bob continues to put up good finishes, but it hasn’t become as popular as many of us expected after that event. The deck is more resilient than it appears but also has a high failure rate – you often can’t find the pieces you need when you need them. In particular, the weakness of the Through the Breach + Worldspine Wurm backup plan in a lot of matchups – Affinity/Infect/Merfolk can take the hit and kill on the backswing, decks with white have Path to Exile, and combo decks can win with the turn that Wurm gives them – means you’re overly reliant on Griselbrand. The aggressive decks put a lot of pressure on your life total and can sometimes interact with Griselbrand, making it hard to combo without a perfect sequence of draws. When Grishoalbrand is firing on all cylinders, it resembles the scariest Legacy decks; it has the highest ceiling of any deck in the format, but also a low floor.


In all the heated discussions about the Twin ban, it was easy to overlook its implications for Goryo’s Vengeance. Vengeance + Emrakul was the most powerful interaction in Modern that never saw any play, due mostly to the best deck trumping it easily with Deceiver Exarch. Twin also wanted to play Dispel anyway, which happens to be the most efficient and reasonable answer to both Goryo’s Vengeance and Through the Breach. With Twin gone, and no obvious blue control deck to fill its shoes, not many decks can fight you on the stack – and if Griselbrand ever enters play, it’s usually game over.


Kentaro Yamamoto made the most of this change, playing a Kenji Tsumura creation to an 8-2 finish at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch:


This deck trades in the speed of the all-in Vengeance decks for greater flexibility and interaction. Lightning Bolt is excellent against the decks that want to outrace you and ensures that an Emrakul hit is lethal. All modes of Izzet Charm are very useful, with the draw + discard option shining in a deck that needs specific pieces in its graveyard at certain times. The synergy between Vengeance and littlest Jace is absurd, allowing you to ‘cycle’ a Vengeance (especially useful when your hand is Vengeance + creature but you have no other discard outlet) while giving the deck more staying power. The issue with Jace previously was that it was a little too slow against the fast decks and the slower decks had otherwise dead removal that would tag your Jace before it could do anything. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay are at an all-time low in the format, but that may change now that the Eldrazi menace is gone.


Vengeance is at its absolute best in this deck, with 8 game-ending monsters to target and Jace to gain value in the midgame. Unfortunately, Griselbrand is at its worst here. You can put Griselbrand into play, draw fourteen cards, and still die because your hand can’t beat the board; you can’t convert the extra cards into a win as easily. Other Griselbrand decks can live dangerously by paying a bunch of life because they know they can finish the game that turn; this deck has to be more conservative. This is a big problem if you’re relying on Through the Breach into Griselbrand, especially since you don’t have much acceleration.


These two decks share some cards but they try to do different things in different ways. With that in mind, questions like ‘why is the Grixis deck better than Grishoalbrand?’ or vice versa don’t make much sense. However, it’s natural to look for connections between decks and want to fix the problems a list has while keeping the aspects that drew you to it in the first place. I knew I wanted to explore Goryo’s Vengeance in as much detail as I could, but none of the decks I saw felt quite right.


While the main plan of Vengeance -> Griselbrand is excellent, you need some amount of redundancy for the deck to be consistent enough. For the same reasons that Vengeance is so good, it’s a unique effect; nothing really compares to it. Both Grishoalbrand and Tsumura/Yamamoto’s deck can Through the Breach in other creatures – Worldspine Wurm or Emrakul respectively – but this was hard to rely on when UW Eldrazi – the best and most popular deck – was naturally strong against it thanks to Eldrazi Displacer and Drowner of Hope. Breach also needs the creature to be in your hand, but you want the freedom to use your Looting effects early to dig for your missing pieces. If you have a Griselbrand but neither of Vengeance/Breach when you Loot, you cut off half of your outs wherever you choose to put Griselbrand. If you keep it in hand for Breach but then draw Vengeance you now have to spend mana to pitch it, negating the efficiency of Vengeance. Most Grishoalbrand lists don’t run many actual Looting effects so finding a way to pitch it isn’t trivial; the lists that splash blue are a little better here, and Jace gives the Japanese deck even more outlets. Gerry Thompson recommended Tormenting Voice with dredgers to bin Griselbrand more consistently and dig for Vengeance but didn’t pursue the idea further.


This problem is amplified in Grishoalbrand because Worldspine Wurm doesn’t work with Goryo’s Vengeance; you only get to make the most of Vengeance when you also have both a discard outlet and Griselbrand. That’s common enough that the deck is still terrifying, but you still want more targets. The deck typically runs two copies of Borborygmos Enraged, but a ‘natural’ Vengeance on Borborygmos is rarely good enough thanks to the deck’s low land count.


My first experiment tried to fix this problem. I’m dissatisfied with the Breach-Wurm package but still need something big to pitch to Shoal, and I want more legends for Goryo’s Vengeance. Running enough lands and other support cards to make Borborygmos a legitimate target kills two birds with one stone: I can still gain enough life (though there’s a meaningful difference between 8 and 11, especially when multiple Shoals are involved) while increasing the number of fast kills. Breach would become even weaker here, so I would need a different backup plan to make this sensible. I remembered a list that did well at a SCG Classic about a year ago:


Necrotic Ooze was perfect! It was just cheap enough that you could cast it quickly without too much acceleration, it let you transition seamlessly into winning the game without having to find another Vengeance/Breach, and it evaded common sideboard cards like Spell Pierce and Dispel. It also has useful benefits in some weird corner cases. It doesn’t target anything in your graveyard, so a Scavenging Ooze can’t fizzle it outright if you have more legends than they have green mana; you can get around Relic by playing Ooze and then Axe discarding Griselbrand, letting you activate it before they ever have a window to disrupt you. It ignores Pithing Needle on Griselbrand or Borborygmos so your opponent has to gamble on what to name; if they get it wrong, it costs them the game. It tracks both graveyards, so you can turn their cards against them: I’ve used Ooze as Wall of Roots against Abzan Company to get a crucial boost in mana, as Spellskite against Infect, and as Grim Lavamancer against Burn to lock them under their own Eidolon. When all else fails, it’s a 4/3 attacker against opponents that will often side out their creature removal for more effective cards. None of these applications are common, but between them they win you a surprising number of games.


There were other nice features of Garett’s list. Lightning Axe was a card I always wanted to play more in Grishoalbrand, which didn’t have room to spare. Here it was the cheap discard outlet you needed that conveniently dealt with Scavenging Ooze and bought time against decks that were forced to race you; the ability to discard a Borborygmos at instant speed off a Spirit Guide was surprisingly relevant when going off with Ooze. With Ooze in the deck, Grisly Salvage could dig for both sides of your combo while letting you hit your land drops and digging for Spirit Guide if you need to go off soon. I had Time of Need in an early build because of how crucial it was to find Griselbrand, but Grisly Salvage was good enough that it no longer seemed necessary.


With extra discard outlets and Salvage, the Dredge idea became more appealing. I wanted at least one Grave-Troll as a way to dig deep for Griselbrand and on-demand fodder for Nourishing Shoal. I also tried a Life from the Loam as a way to pad my hand for Borborygmos and offer mid-game strength against attrition decks. Without much testing, I registered this at the Taunton series event in March:


4 Lightning Axe
4 Faithless Looting
4 Grisly Salvage
1 Zombie Infestation
4 Goryo’s Vengeance
4 Necrotic Ooze
1 Noxious Revival
4 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Griselbrand
4 Nourishing Shoal
1 Life from the Loam
1 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Simian Spirit Guide

20 Land


I went 5-2, losing to Grixis and Kayure Patel on UW Eldrazi (just like everyone who’s played him in the past month!), beating Jeskai Ascendancy, Kiki-Chord, UW Eldrazi, Elves, and Merfolk.


The core of the deck felt very strong, but I quickly regretted some of the card choices. Zombie Infestation was intended as a way to immediately convert cards from Griselbrand into a board presence in games where you can’t combo fully as well as an extra discard outlet that you can pay for in advance, but it was unimpressive unless everything was already going well.


Nourishing Shoal was weak too. I assumed I would need the lifegain to make going off with Ooze possible since I couldn’t gain back life by attacking, but it didn’t help when your life total was under pressure since they would just fight over the first activation. Despite the Grave-Troll cuteness, it was hard to have something good to pitch reliably, and the card often sat in your hand doing nothing if you weren’t going off. It was the first card I shaved in sideboarding too; it didn’t feel essential. Cutting Shoal freed up space and helped make the deck more smooth.


Loam was great though! It gave me something productive to do when the game slowed down and made Borborygmos kills very consistent. The synergy with Faithless Looting was impressive and the mana requirements of the deck became a little easier. Hardcasting Griselbrand or Borborygmos was surprisingly common, and Loam with Cavern of Souls meant you were sure to force through Necrotic Ooze if given enough time.


When I found Mortuary Mire, it seemed I could rebuild the deck around Loam: now, Loam could also ‘find’ Necrotic Ooze while dredging towards Griselbrand/Borborygmos, and do it in a way that was largely resilient to discard and counterspells. It was reminiscent of what made Amulet Bloom so busted: you could go toe-to-toe with any deck on speed while outclassing them in the late game. Loam also made Ooze for Borborygmos much better: even if you couldn’t go off that turn, you could wipe the board and threaten the same on every subsequent turn.


The deck still had a fail rate and – like most combo decks – you could easily lose to pressure backed up by disruption, but it felt very good. Here’s the list I took to the Top 8 at the Axion Win-A-Crate event:


4 Goryo’s Vengence
1 Noxious Revival
3 Life from the Loam
4 Lightning Axe
4 Grisly Salvage
1 Tormenting Voice
4 Faithless Looting
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Necrotic Ooze
4 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Griselbrand

1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Swamp

2 Copperline Gorge
1 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Cavern of Souls
2 Mortuary Mire
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
2 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Wooded Foothills


4 Thoughtseize
2 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Abrupt Decay
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Life from the Loam
1 Pyroclasm


I cut the 24th land for a Tormenting Voice just before the event and was happy enough with that change. Simian Spirit Guide places an awkward tension on the deck: if you run enough lands to make Vengeance -> Borborygmos consistently lethal, you end up with too many mana sources. I’ll explore a way of fixing this problem below. 23 felt like enough, and it’s possible you could go down to 22.


I wanted a ninth ‘action card’ but there’s nothing else that properly mimics the function of Vengeance or Ooze. Garett had Unburial Rites, which was interesting but clunky and demanding on the manabase; if you play Rites, it’s worth dedicating yourself to it fully. Noxious Revival returns a Vengeance that was milled/dredged and is great for letting you fight through countermagic by casting Vengeance multiple times in one turn cycle. It’s also, for my money, one of the most underrated cards in Modern. Phyrexian mana was an egregious design mistake and Noxious Revival compounds that with an extreme version of the Pulse of Murasa question: why on Earth can this target things in opposing graveyards? In my time playing the card I’ve used it to fizzle countless Snapcaster Mages, counter Unburial Rites and Goryo’s Vengeance, and act as a 0-mana Time Walk against opponents discarding to hand size by forcing them to draw the same card next turn. It’s not the kind of card you can just cram into a deck but, in decks that do want it, it’s very good.


The sideboard isn’t aimed at anything at particular, but that’s part of its appeal. Some combo decks need a certain quantity of cards to function as intended, so you can’t dilute your deck with reactive cards too much. This deck can go off from a low base – one reanimation effect in hand and a Griselbrand in the yard – so you can afford to play the efficient answers available in Modern. Thoughtseize and Inquisition are excellent against any combo/control decks, and Inquisition is key against Burn and Delver variants, while Abrupt Decay hits the most common hate cards and can always hit an attacker in a pinch. A card like Pyroclasm is subtly very strong in a deck like this: opponents have to dump their hand on the board to win before you get your combo going, so they can’t afford to play around it and have to walk into a blowout.


I won’t go into the tournament in much detail, but here’s a brief summary:


R1: 2-0 vs Blue Moon


Game 1 was a little dicey as I took a risky line with Necrotic Ooze that left me dead to multiple burn spells, but he didn’t have them and I cleaned up next turn. Game 2 was comical: after using discard to leave him with only reactive cards, I made my land drops every turn thanks to Loam and started hardcasting legends. Eventually Griselbrand stuck, followed by Borborygmos, and it turned into a weird game of EDH.


R2: 2-0 vs Affinity


R3: 2-0 vs 8-Rack


R4: 2-1 vs 4C Jeskai Ascendancy (Matt Gregory)


Matt’s been playing this deck for a long time, and I think it stands to gain a lot from the bannings. In Game 1 he takes a ton of damage from his lands and a Gitaxian Probe, so a Turn 2 Vengeance on Borborygmos is lethal.


This match highlighted the strength of the deck’s sideboard: I was facing another combo deck that’s roughly as fast as mine, but I had access to the disruption that makes Jund such an irritating matchup for Ascendancy.


R5: 2-1 vs UW Eldrazi (Joao Choca)


R6: 2-0 vs UW Control (Matt Light)


Game 1 sees my best draw of the tournament, with Griselbrand and Borborygmos both attacking on Turn 2. In Game 2 his hand of double Dispel and Negate matches up comically badly against Cavern -> Ooze. This anti-Eldrazi version of UW was an excellent matchup; I expect the UW decks to look a lot different now, but you should still be favoured.


R7: 2-0 vs UW Eldrazi (GP Bologna champ Kayure Patel)


R8/9: ID


T8: 1-2 vs UW Eldrazi (James Allingham)


This match, and the entire tournament, came down to a mulligan decision in G3. My opening seven is:


Thoughtseize, Lightning Axe, Noxious Revival, Griselbrand, Borborygmos Enraged, fetchland, fetchland


This hand has a lot going for it. I have Thoughtseize as an answer to Rest in Peace or just to slow him down, Axe can buy time and discard Griselbrand, and Revival can act as backup copies of important cards in a pinch. On the other hand, I need to find Vengeance or Ooze soon and I don’t have a Looting or Salvage to make that easier. It might have to be specifically Vengeance, as I only have two lands, and I’m going to be taking a lot of damage early so there’s no guarantee I can activate Griselbrand more than once. I chose to mulligan and still don’t know if it was correct, but James’ draw was good enough that I would have been in trouble regardless unless I ripped Vengeance early.


It was a frustrating loss, since my matchups after that point would have been great, but it was nice to have some degree of validation for the deck.


After writing the first draft of this I played in the Modern side-event at GP Barcelona. The competition wasn’t as tough but I wanted to see how the deck would hold up in a more varied field:


R1: 2-0 vs Wu Emeria (basically the best possible matchup)

R2: 2-1 vs UWR Control with AV and Resto/Kiki


This was a very complicated and interesting match. I should have won all three games, but I made some careless mistakes to throw Game 2; I narrowly won Game 3 despite an ideal start from his side. The matchup felt good but you have to plan carefully; Lightning Bolt makes going off with Ooze a much riskier proposition.


R3: 0-2 vs Abzan

R4: 2-1 vs Soul Sisters

R5: 2-1 vs UW Thopter/Sword


This matchup is considerably easier than UWR, but that can change depending on their Gifts/Rites targets and choice of Tolaria West/Muddle bullets. Loam + Cavern + Ooze really shines here.


R6: ID



The biggest lesson I’ve had to learn so far is to be very aware of your life total and how that affects your sequencing. Its importance for this deck is directly apparent: one mistimed fetchland can cost you seven cards from Griselbrand and hence the entire game. The manabase is a delicate balance between having enough fetchlands for Loam, enough targets for those fetchlands – including enough basics that you can fetch without further pain consistently but without hurting the deck’s consistency, Scars lands, and utility lands. I’m not confident the manabase is correct, and seemingly small errors in deck construction or sequencing can have a large impact on the game. Suppose you’re still at 20 against UWR; you play a land without thinking much about it, because why would it matter? A few turns later, you have to crack a fetchland for an untapped shockland in order to have the right colours because you played the wrong land earlier. Now you’re at 17 and if you draw twice with Griselbrand you’re dead to Lightning Bolt. If those seven cards make the difference, you’ve thrown away a winning position because of a seemingly inconsequential decision at the start of the game. Maybe you played in such a way that you had to play a land instead of using a Spirit Guide, so now your Borborygmos has to find a land instead of offering a certain win; this comes up frequently if you fetch Blood Crypt + Forest instead of Stomping Ground + Swamp, as now your Looting/Axe ties up your black mana that you need for Vengeance.


Faithless Looting/Tormenting Voice, Grisly Salvage, and Life from the Loam all force you to think about how to manage your resources. Make realistic assumptions about how much pressure you’re under and whether you can afford to wait to extract the most value or pad your hand so that you don’t have to discard certain cards to Looting or Axe. You also need to identify what your priorities are and how to use your cards most effectively to achieve them. Maybe you’re just looking for Griselbrand or Borborygmos and have to work out how to order Looting, Loam, and something else over the next two turns to mill the most cards; maybe you’re drawing to Vengeance or Ooze and need to maximize your chance of finding one while keeping your life total or land count high enough that you can still win if you hit.


Sideboarding sometimes involves maximizing speed and cutting the slower cards (such as Life from the Loam against Burn or fast combo) but more often I slow down the deck to support interaction. In the Ascendancy matchup I cut Spirit Guides even though it’s a combo mirror because I want to make room for the discard and Abrupt Decays, which should extend the game and make the speed offered by Spirit Guide unnecessary, and I don’t want a disjointed draw where I have Spirit Guides and interaction but no action to reward that speed; the same goes for Infect, which has Dispel or Relic of Progenitus to frustrate early combo attempts but can’t easily plow through a wall of interaction.


There’s a lot of room to experiment with this shell. The deck is currently structured as a Vengeance/Ooze combo deck with an incidental Loam engine. What if you reversed that? Loam decks have always floated around the fringes of Modern without sustained success; reasons include an over-reliance on Loam and an inability to close the game quickly or come back from behind. A Vengeance package lets you win games without ever finding Loam and steal games from seemingly hopeless positions. A deck that can out-grind the grindy decks while randomly killing on Turn 2 or 3 has a good sales pitch. An early sketch:


4 Griselbrand
4 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Goryo’s Vengeance
4 Unburial Rites

4 Faithless Looting
3 Lightning Axe
4 Life from the Loam
3 Darkblast
1 Raven’s Crime
4 Smallpox

25 Land (inc. some number of Dakmor Salvages?)


This is more of a thought experiment than a tuned list, but there’s a lot of powerful stuff going on here. You have a bunch of cards that give you free wins against different parts of the field: some decks can’t beat a Darkblast, and even more can’t realistically overwhelm it before you put a massive legend into play. There are some decks, and some draws in every deck, that struggle immensely against a Smallpox. When all else fails, you can still pick up wins with a quick Vengeance.


Alternatively, we can double down on the Loam-Borborygmos interaction with Seismic Assault, which has done good work with Loam for a decade now. It’s another way of making a ‘partial’ combo with Griselbrand lethal and a solid plan in its own right: an active Assault makes life hell for Infect, Company, Affinity, Elves, and many more. The Gitrog Monster is a possible Vengeance target that does silly things with Dredge and lands and goes infinite easily with Assault. There’s a lot to explore here.


As I write this, the ban list has just been updated and the implications for Modern are still unclear. In the Eldrazi metagame, Goryo’s Vengeance decks of various stripes were roughly even against Eldrazi but very strong against anti-Eldrazi decks like Elves and Living End as well as staples of the format like Abzan Company. If these are pushed out and replaced by tougher matchups, life becomes much harder. The Thopter Foundry decks that will spring up should be fine matchups but their presence might lead to the adoption of ‘hard’ graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace that’s tough to beat; the Japanese deck with its Breach-Emrakul backup plan looks better in that context. Blue decks have to adapt to this new reality in ways that could help them against Goryo’s Vengeance – Spell Snare is likely to become more popular, and the Thopter Foundry decks might sport Muddle the Mixture. The overall effect on the metagame might be negative for us but, when the format is open and changing, you want a deck with a strong and proactive gameplan that doesn’t have a target on it. Goryo’s Vengeance fits the bill perfectly.


I highly encourage you to try out these decks and experiment with your own lists. If Modern is an amusement park with something for everyone, Goryo’s Vengeance is the rollercoaster that’s blatantly unsafe and offers a dangerous thrill. Enjoy it while it lasts!


Thanks for reading!

Pro Tour OGW Report

By Dom Harvey

I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat for the Eldrazi invasion at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. I’m staying true to my preparation style by writing this hurriedly two months later; by now, the takeover is complete and we mortals can only wait for Aaron Forsythe, the highest power, to nuke the aliens from orbit and make Modern great again. Until then, let us huddle around the fire and tell tales of a Pro Tour gone wrong.

I’ve been playing competitively for a long time, but only in the sense that I was physically present at tournaments. I wasn’t good enough to break through on talent alone, and I did nothing to help myself: I didn’t practice properly, my deck selection was poor, and I had no real connections in the UK Magic scene. I resolved to fix as much of that as I could for my only chance to play on Magic’s highest stage.

When I won the RPTQ in November, I felt lucky to qualify for this Pro Tour in particular. I had pressing commitments as a student but I could be more flexible than someone with a full-time job and spread my preparation over the three months before the event. Modern was an established format that I knew well, so I didn’t face the usual challenge of diving into a new Standard, and the new set surely wouldn’t change too much! I hoped this would lessen the downside of not working with a team, and even that problem was solved for me when Scotland made another Top 8 at the World Magic Cup. I couldn’t ask for better circumstances.

My failure to use my time effectively is even more frustrating with that in mind. I can make excuses – health problems didn’t help matters – but I’m responsible for the final outcome. Hopefully this will serve as a useful guide, to myself as well as others, for what not to do next time.

Preparing for Modern/Thoughts on Affinity

Before the Eldrazi arrived to paint Atlanta in fifty shades of grey, Modern appeared to be a known quantity. There’s a lot of room for innovation, and some decks turn out far better than expected – Amulet went from circus freak to format breaker very quickly – but the basic terms of the format were established long ago. Battle for Zendikar barely registered on the format, and the ‘Eldrazi deck’ was just a Magic Online experiment with Wasteland Strangler and Scrabbling Claws. At this stage, there were no signs that Oath of the Gatewatch would add much more. I resigned myself to another tournament full of Twin, Jund, Burn, Affinity…

The one change everyone saw coming was bad for me. I qualified playing Amulet which, despite what Reddit insisted on telling itself, was the best deck in the format by a ridiculous margin. It was so good that winning with the deck fostered a kind of imposter syndrome: can I only win a tournament if my deck is hopelessly broken? I was confident the deck was getting banned.

I didn’t expect Splinter Twin to join it, but I wasn’t floored. Tom LaPille predicted a Twin ban in an interview he gave after leaving Wizards, and it would be hard to hype up the tournament if the same deck won a third Modern Pro Tour. Twin’s removal did its job by invalidating old assumptions about the format (as much as I enjoyed the ‘for the sake of competitive diversity, Splinter Twin is banned in Modern’ meme – or ‘for the sake of Eldrazi, competitive diversity is banned’, as some had it – it’s too early to judge the full effect of the Twin ban until Eldrazi joins it in exile). Lots of people who were loudly ignorant about Modern were scared of a Tron takeover, but the consequences of Twin being gone were clearly bad for Tron even if you thought Twin was a bad matchup: the Burn, Infect, and Affinity decks that Twin kept in check would rise, and combo decks that were strategically dominated by Twin were unleashed on the format. Decks like BW Tokens that couldn’t beat Tron were still appealing because we expected everyone to come to the same conclusion; and indeed, the few brave Tron pilots in Atlanta performed poorly.

I had to find a deck, and I had no idea how to make that choice. I wasn’t confident in my level of play, and I was about to compete in my first Pro Tour as one of the easy marks. That led to a mess of contradictory thoughts. I could pick a ‘safe’ deck with proven strength; there’s no shame in sleeving up Jund or Burn. These decks are popular for a reason and it’s arrogant to assume I can do better. However, every player in the room will have a plan to beat the established decks and the hate cards in Modern are lethal if people choose to play them; the choice to play a known linear deck displays its own form of arrogance in assuming that the wider field won’t come well prepared or knows less than I do. Then again, everybody always thinks they beat the best deck and it continues to do well and keep that title. If I do play a stock deck, where’s my edge? My list will be less well refined and I’ll play it at a lower capacity, so why would I be the one to do well with it? Maybe I should look for a new strategy or one that people won’t prepare for, but I can’t compete on that front with experienced deckbuilders and teams. It was a weird epistemology problem with no easy answer.

At this point I made a vague plan: explore the radical options and commit to one if it seemed good, with the Burn/Infect/Affinity trifecta as a default option. I wanted enough repetitions with Infect that I could comfortably pick it up for the Pro Tour without extra work; I didn’t do this, which I count as a massive error even though I’m glad I didn’t pick it. I began with Goryo’s Vengeance, which many people expected to get banned and eventually will be: the card already pushes the boundaries of the format, and it limits their ability to print splashy legendary creatures as headliners for new sets. Specifically, I was intrigued by Goryo’s Vengeance with Emrakul, which has always been one of the most powerful things you could do in Modern but never found traction thanks to Deceiver Exarch. The Twin ban also removed the only natural home for Dispel, the most effective answer to both Vengeance and Through the Breach. If Modern became an aggro vs. combo shootout as expected, the fastest combo deck in the format was the place to be. Finding a good shell proved difficult, and Burn and Infect were too popular for how swingy those matchups were. I was very close to playing it, though, and it’s a deck I’ll come back to when Eldrazi is banned.

This exploratory phase of the plan never got off the ground thanks to poor time management. Scanning MTGO matchup data, I saw that Elves and Green Devotion both put up shockingly good numbers and were glad to see the Twin ban; Green Devotion even had a new toy in Oath of Nissa. I never put the work in to see if anything was there. BW Tokens had solid stats and seemed like a great metagame call if Tron didn’t show up, but my list wasn’t well tuned and it was the fairest deck in the most unfair format. The Death’s Shadow deck was also doing very well, and I had noticed Team EUreka members playing it online, but before long I knew I wouldn’t be able to learn it in time. When we were told that Become Immense was popular at the vendors and EUreka showed up all playing the deck, I felt vindicated but also embarrassed for not at least trying it.

Cute ideas that never made it out of a notebook included the 5C Ancient Ziggurat/Pillar of the Paruns deck (which gained Reflector Mage in Oath), hyper-aggressive Kiln Fiend decks, and various Rally the Ancestors/Return to the Ranks shells. I did my best to raise Amulet from the dead, but it was not to be.

If I’m honest, I think I was always going to end up on Affinity. It won me the PPTQ that set the whole process in motion, so there was an emotional attachment there. That was my first time playing the deck, and it performed way above expectations. I shelved the deck soon after but gained a lasting appreciation for it.

So, when I still didn’t have a Modern deck on Thursday night, I bit the bullet and borrowed Affinity. I felt regret about the process, but happy with my choice. Affinity has been a fixture of Top 8s since the format’s inception: the same 75 that Top 8ed the first Modern Pro Tour is still legal today. Even when the popular decks were bad matchups, Affinity routinely put up a 52-53% win rate; now, with Twin gone and Burn/Infect in the ascendant, things looked even rosier. The deck scores a ton of free wins, which I knew would be crucial for beating more skilled opponents, and can steal games against bad matchups with good draws. It also excels at punishing opponents’ misplays, which occur even at this level.

Yes, there’s hate. I wasn’t scared – and I always find a reason to worry! Even at the Pro Tour level, people don’t respect Affinity; that was true for Pierre Canali in Columbus over a decade ago, and it’s true today. Affinity was the default best deck, so people ought to come prepared, but the results of previous Modern Pro Tours made it clear that they don’t. The hate that people play is low in quality, quantity, or both. The decks that load up on hate do it because they have to: their pre-board matchup is bad enough that they have to overhaul their deck to win both post-board games. Life as an Amulet player had also steeled my nerves: I often beat decks that ran Blood Moon, and won multiple times against a resolved and unanswered Blood Moon (including in the deciding game to make Top 8 of the RPTQ). Blood Moon – or Stony Silence, or Rest in Peace, or whatever the nuclear option is – is effective hate, but for hate cards to work there are a few conditions: you have to play them, you have to draw them and resolve them, and they have to do their job.

Registering them proved too hard for some players. You’re not that likely to draw one of your 3 Stony Silences in your opener; are you going to mulligan a hand that’s good for your deck’s plan but lacks the hate you thought you needed enough to spend slots on it? Would you keep a 1-land + Stony Silence hand that’s dead if it bricks for a turn, or a hand that has nothing beyond the hate card? Even if you get your Stony Silence down, sometimes they drew some lands and an Etched Champion or Ghirapur Aether Grid and force you to have something else. There’s a strong rational case for not being scared of hate, even though the hate cards in Modern are ridiculously powerful. I knew that I was probably going to get Shatterstormed out of a match – maybe even the entire tournament – and wanted to be ready for it. For this tournament, I didn’t need the illusion of control. It was liberating!

With the tournament starting in a few hours, I laid out a stack of artifacts on the table and got to work. Here’s what I registered:


Creatures (26)
Vault Skirge
Signal Pest
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Ensoul Artifact
Master of Etherium

Spells (10)
Cranial Plating
Welding Jar
Galvanic Blast
Lands (24)
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Darksteel Citadel
Blinkmoth Nexus
Inkmoth Nexus
Shivan Reef

Sideboard (15)
Etched Champion
Ghirapur Aether Grid
Blood Moon
Hurkyl’s Recall
Spell Pierce
Ghost Quarter

The first major change I was sure about was the full set of Master of Etherium over Etched Champions. Against the ‘big three’ of Burn, Infect, and the mirror, Master is excellent – or at least better – while Champion is awful. Champion is great against Jund/Abzan, but that matchup is already decent and you have to make some sacrifices. Master also helps you race combo decks and random stuff, such as a format-breaking monster with mono-colourless creatures. When I spoke to Eduardo Sajgalik, whose coaching was very helpful, I was more happy about his choice of Affinity than he was. I was glad to see quad Master in his list, and in other lists that did well.

The more radical change was the removal of Memnite/Springleaf Drum. It’s hard to disagree with established wisdom, especially the group of Affinity minds behind the list that Pascal Maynard took to the Top 8, but I can only speak to my experience: Memnite is terrible in Affinity. All of your creatures either have evasion, are big enough that they can attack on the ground, or perform some other function. Every deck – even a control deck with Jace or Snapcaster – has creatures that render Memnite useless. It’s not good at blocking either – two of the primary aggressive decks are Infect, which can attack into or through it, and the mirror, which laughs at it. It’s like an anti-Leyline: you never want to draw it outside of your opening hand, but it’s often not good there either!

The argument for Memnite is that it gives you more nut draws in conjunction with Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum. Any 0-cost artifact does the same for Mox Opal, and I’d sooner play Welding JarMishra’s Bauble, or Chalice of the Void. It does good work with Springleaf Drum, but Drum actually makes a lot of your draws worse. For Memnite + Drum to get you ahead, your hand needs to have all of Memnite, Drum, at least 2 lands in your 16/17-land deck (missing a land drop means that Drum = a land but at the cost of a mana), and a high-impact 3-drop (Plating + equip iff you have another creature, Master/Champion/Grid). This is great when it happens but a more common situation is that your one creature gets Bolted and now you have to take a turn off for a replacement just to turn on your Drum, or you have only one land or multiple Drums and your draw is clunky, or you have to tap a creature that really wants to attack. Drum is also worse than land against sweepers, as your follow-up plays are harder to cast. It’s often likened to Birds of Paradise in this deck, but Birds stands on its own and doesn’t force you to play bad cards to optimize it. Most Affinity pilots shave Memnite when sideboarding anyway, so for those games their configuration is similar but reliant on Drums that are now even weaker.

Running more actual lands also makes you much better against Stony Silence and gives you added insurance against Path and Ghost Quarter – which I found I wanted myself in a ton of matchups. Spellskite was solid against Burn/Infect/the mirror and helps against Kolaghan’s Command and other removal from the fair decks, so in it goes. I’ve never liked the fragility of Steel Overseer but it’s the most important card in some matchups; I like Ensoul in small numbers as another payoff card that messes up their racing maths and runs away with games. Again, I wish I had tested any of this, but the judge asking for my decklist wanted to move on with their life.

OGW/BFZ Limited

But first, there was Limited.

I’m a Constructed player at heart; it’s what I played as I learned the game, and what I still prefer to play now. I usually dip my toe in the format on the release weekend, and often that’s the last I think about it. From the moment I qualified, the nightmare scenario was clear: a predictably bad finish in the draft, tilting and being unable to focus for Modern, and the whole experience ending in failure.

Luckily, I found OGW/BFZ draft more fun and intuitive than many formats. My love of Cube was useful here, as it felt very much like a low-powered Pauper/Peasant Cube with some rares sprinkled in. A well-designed Cube asks you to look for unexpected bridges between colours and strategies. The strong gold uncommons in Oath, the commitment that colourless mana demands during the draft for ‘gold’ cards like Blinding Drone, the large gaps in power between colour pairs, and the lack of support in Oath for themes from Battle combine to create a strange dynamic where this habit is very useful.

I wanted to try the full range of strategies at least once – BR and UB Devoid, BW Lifegain, Allies, and so on. Every time I wanted to try something new, I found a reason to go into green instead; the first drafts I did before leaving and the two drafts on Day 2 of GP Vancouver all saw me end up in green. This was a strong vote of confidence in Oath’s green cards given how weak the colour is in Battle, but I felt it was justified. By the time I was drafting with the Scots at their Atlanta house, we were all so high on the support-heavy green decks that they were over-drafted in our practice drafts. This threw up a new set of problems: if we were right about green’s power level, don’t we need to branch out in case lots of drafters are fighting over the colour? If we were wrong, isn’t that another good reason to try out other decks?

The specifics of the format are irrelevant now, but I never found a reason to stray from my first impressions: draft WB if you can get it, GWx or GBx if you can’t, and stay away from blue and red. The UR Surge deck doing so well at the GPs piqued my curiosity, but it never looked impressive in our house drafts. Moving in on the two worst colours without a clear idea of what to do while in your first Pro Tour draft seemed like a quick and easy route to the 0-3 start I feared.

I heard one piece of advice from everyone I asked: Limited is the key to doing well. It’s hard to have a massive edge in Constructed and, even if you do, Limited is the difference between glory and a good finish. We remember this Pro Tour for Eldrazi’s dominance in Constructed, but its pilots who made Top 8 did so because they also did well in draft. Lee Shi Tian may be a Modern master, but he’s quietly one of the most consistent drafters too.

The Pro Tour

The trip itself got off to a strange start. After a wonderful trip to GP Vancouver, I touch down in Atlanta after a long flight and begin every traveller’s favourite ordeal: finding your Airbnb in a sketchy area of an unfamiliar city late at night. I had a vague memory of the photo from the listing, and there’s a building on the right road that looks like it – at least in the dark. I see someone standing outside and walk up to ask him about the apartment. He looks at me quizzically and slowly asks me to repeat myself. When I do and it’s clear he doesn’t know anything, I figure I have the wrong house and move on. As I go round the side of the building, I see the sign near the door: it’s a transitional facility for recently released convicts! The guy had probably seen a lot of stuff in his life, but a posh-sounding Brit with a suitcase accidentally trying to check into a halfway house must be a new one.

My actual destination was billed as ‘The Art House’, and the pictures online suggested a quaint and quiet place that would be a nice backdrop for our stay. As I saw the exterior I thought something was amiss and, sure enough, I’m met with a house filled top to bottom with nude paintings and sculptures that looked like it came from an amateur horror story. I decided the Scottish team’s couch was a better place to be for the rest of the trip and they were kind enough to tolerate me. Thanks guys!

Testing with a group for the event was an odd experience. Everyone else had locked in their Modern deck before we arrived, wisely choosing to play what they knew with a few adjustments for the expected field. They couldn’t help me with my indecision, and I couldn’t help them. We made a token effort to build an Eldrazi deck, but the list I built was weak and got itself dismissed quickly. Looking at the dominant UW and RG lists now, they seem so ‘obvious’ in retrospect; in practice, though, if I had an extra two months I still wouldn’t have looked at Eldrazi Skyspawner. It’s some consolation to think that many of the game’s best didn’t get the memo either. Still, it would have been nice to be in on the joke! We spent most of our time drafting, and felt good about that side of things.

A welcome feature of the coverage this time was a look at the out-of-game aspects of the tournament. I watch the Pro Tour coverage religiously but had never seen the tournament hall on camera; you only see the feature match area, which often looks like a theatre tech went overboard with a dry ice machine. The venue in Atlanta felt right: large enough that the event felt important, but small enough that you could walk around and take it all in. The ‘open house’ segment took us inside the Pantheon’s testing, which was unremarkably professional and mostly made me feel embarrassed about my own. I like to think a segment about our testing process – no structure, unloved draft commons fighting for table space with empty Natty Light cans – would be more representative.


A lot of first Pro Tour reports describe the thrill of hearing that seat assignments are up for the player meeting and knowing your name is on that list – if only for this one event, players you know and look up to are your peers, and you are in the position that all of them started from at one point. After the late-night scrapheap challenge of building Affinity and all the stress of preparation, I wasn’t relaxed enough to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the moment. Luckily, that moment turned into several minutes as the taxi bearing some of the Asian players was delayed and judges began debating how long to wait before starting the draft anyway. They came up with a sensible fix, and the sight of Tomoharu Saitou and friends charging frantically through the tournament hall was only a brief distraction.

Before we began, the head judge asked all the first-timers to stand up for a round of applause. It was a nice gesture that helped the newbies to calm our nerves and the seasoned players to mark their prey. I took some comfort in not being the only one standing at my table, where Chris Fennell and Shaun McLaren were the only two names I recognized.

The draft started well, featuring Sylvan Advocate as the best card in the pack and a good incentive to be in green. I picked up some decent black cards, including a pair of Vampire Envoys and a Baloth Null, but the second Oath pack was a bust and I was light on playables going into Battle. Brood Butcher was a nice start, and the fixing I had picked up came in handy when I was passed Drowner of Hope and moved into blue. The rest of the pack was kind, giving me some solid Awaken spells and a Hedron Archive as well as a Skyrider Elf that was perfect for my deck.

The obvious weakness here is a lack of ways to interact with creatures. I was ready to put a premium on middling removal like Demon’s Grasp, but nothing came; I had to play an awkward Bone Splinters just to have an out to bombs. The deck had powerful cards and could conceivably win games, but I wasn’t optimistic. I resolved to play as well as I could and escape with a win.



My first ever opponent on the Pro Tour was Aaron Webster, a fellow robot warrior. The nerves I’d expected to feel were kicking in, but within a few turns everything I’d heard was confirmed: this was still Magic. Anyone can draw the nuts, mull to 5, or overlook something crucial. Wiping a stacked board with Rising Miasma on turn 4 was a nice start to the Pro Tour, and from there my deck’s late-game power took over; I missed on-board lethal with Drowner of Hope, but thankfully it was still there when I saw it next turn. With that mistake, the nerves were gone and I settled into the rhythm of the tournament, taking the match easily.

After beating a friendly American named Taylor, I found myself playing for 3-0 against Chris Fennell. He wasn’t thrilled with his deck but made it look good, dominating the first game with a Steppe Glider I couldn’t answer. Brood Butcher took over Game 2, and my draw in the decider was solid. Things quickly went south when his 3/4 Tajuru Stalwart became Infused with the Elements, and suddenly I was drawing to two outs that never arrived. This match highlighted the weaknesses of my deck and showed how Chris did well to salvage his, finding ways to enable nut draws to cover for his low average card quality. It stung to lose with 3-0 in sight, even though I hadn’t expected to be in that position. Chris reassured me that I hadn’t made any obvious mistakes, which was a nice confidence boost heading into Modern.


A quick aside: scheduling quirks and the structure of Modern meant that lots of players – not only top GP finishers but an entire cohort of RPTQ winners – qualified for the event playing Modern and could play the same deck in this Pro Tour. There were other, high-profile players whose preferences in Modern were well-documented. I could make an educated guess about the deck choices of a good third of the room based on public information, and initial scouting filled in a lot of blanks.

But not all of them. As I find my seat for the first round of Modern, I see LSV shuffling next to me. He asks to borrow a piece of paper – a habit of his, I’ve learned! – and looking over I see what I’m pretty sure is… Matter Reshaper?! This Eldrazi thing is for real, then? If one of the elite teams thought the deck was good enough to play, there must be something there, but as I sat pondering this I had no idea it would be the most dominant deck since Caw-Blade – and this wasn’t even the best Eldrazi deck in the room!

My opponent arrived – recent Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Stephen Neal – and we got down to business. I was in good spirits, in part because Stephen was amiable and welcoming but mainly because Burn is a stellar matchup for Affinity. Burn punishes the painful manabases popular in Modern but Affinity does the same to Burn while taking no damage from its lands. Vault Skirge threatens to put the game out of reach if pumped, and Burn is often forced to throw burn at your creatures to stay afloat. In discussions with some English players who chose Burn for the event, I argued that Burn needs heavy-duty hate – Stony Silence, Shattering Spree – to salvage the matchup. I faced none against Stephen and took the match despite losing a close Game 2 that I felt must have been winnable with tighter play.


Next up was renowned globetrotter Christian Calcano playing Jund. The matchup depends heavily on the amount of hate they have, and I expected Christian to be well-prepared. I felt a strong pressure to win Game 1, and the robots duly delivered. Game 2 was close before Etched Champion arrived to tilt it in my favour, and after fading Shatterstorm for a turn I was clear.


My Round 6 opponent showed himself to be playing GW Hatebears, which was another good omen. The matchup is very good for Affinity, and they have to play a lot of hate and draw it on time to stay competitive. He had the ideal pre-board draw, landing Leonin Arbiter and Ghost Quartering two of my lands, but without a fast clock I was able to draw out of it and land Steel Overseer, which stopped him ever attacking again. I take the usual sideboarding precautions and, sure enough, I’m facing down a second turn Stony Silence. The extra lands let me cast Master of Etherium, and then another, but he ripped a second Path to Exile and the game slips out of reach. Stony Silence came down again in Game 3, but he blew it up!

…with a Fracturing Gust.


Next I had to play against Death’s Shadow for the first time, in the hands of another American – Tommy Ashton, a name I recognized from his Magic Online results and recent Pro Tour success. The deck made a strong first impression when he killed me Turn 3 on the play, and he gains access to Stony Silence post-board, but it never showed up and my good draws carried the day in the other two games.


I’m already doing much better than expected, but this last round will set the tone for the rest of the event. At 6-2, I’m in a good position to chase cash and an invite; at 5-3, I’m on course for a mediocre finish. I know it shouldn’t matter, but ending the day with a loss after a good start can easily ruin your mental state – and your chances – in a multi-day event. The stakes for this match are high, even if only in my head.

Case, my opponent, was a nice, quiet guy who also won a RPTQ to get here. We split the first two games of the Affinity mirror, and I’m on the play for Game 3. My opening hand is dodgy, so I send it back; he joins me. My next hand is also weak, and I can feel the tilt starting to kick in. I send it back – but so does he!

I make a highly unusual move: I offer to draw the game and go to Game 4, so that we can both start with seven cards again. He immediately agrees, presumably wanting a more interesting and competitive game than we were likely to get on five cards. My thinking was that the advantage you get from being on the play – setting up a nut draw with cards like Overseer, Master, Plating, or Aether Grid – requires a minimum quantity of cards. Everything on that list gets better the more cards you have, and the Opal/Drum starts that let you jump ahead need cheap artifacts to enable them – hence my argument against Drum. With five cards, my board development is likely to be staggered in a way that gives up the initiative and lets him make use of his extra card. I don’t know how sound the logic is, but it worked out as my fresh hand produces a Turn 2 Aether Grid and he can never get on the board.

It’s an odd situation – if I’m making this offer, I must think it’s favourable for me in some way. Maybe I believe I have an edge on play skill or matchup positioning and want to minimize the variance that comes with smaller hands; maybe I prefer the feeling of getting to make decisions than hoping my draw is better than his. Maybe I go through the thought process above and it’s just wrong! Regardless, in pure EV terms it can’t be correct for both of us; his agreement amounts to a claim that I’ve overlooked something. Writing this weeks later, I’m still not sure if I found a creative solution or went out of my way to hurt my chances and won despite myself. Either way, I was thrilled to be 6-2 at the close of play.



The second draft promised a depressing twist on my original fear: instead of the draft ending my tournament before it began, it might ruin me when I was in a legitimate position to do well! Overnight I listened to the Limited Resources episode about LSV’s Pro Tour testing that had been embargoed until then. He was much higher on the colourless-matters cards than we were, and his views on a few archetypes differed from ours. One thing’s for sure, though: neither of us wanted to draft UG!

Naturally, after first-picking Sylvan Advocate again, the only playable cards in the next few packs were blue. A fifth-pick Saddleback Lagac gave me hope that green was open, but that well promptly dried up again. My card quality was high – multiple Blinding Drones and Prophets of Distortion, with Sphinx of the Final Word making it to me in Pack 2 – but the deck wasn’t cohesive and had no answers to common threats. I was picking up the ‘colourless’ manafixing for my blue cards anyway, so I was ready to move in on a splash colour in Battle. A late Jori En was encouraging but also biased me towards red, which proved disastrous when I passed a Complete Disregard and then a Demon’s Grasp. My deck desperately needed removal, and that was my only chance to find some.


Mentally, I began to slip into damage control mode, and the first round didn’t help. My opponent was Ben Weitz, an up-and-coming pro and member of the team that won the event with their UR Eldrazi deck. He was in WR with a small Ally subtheme, and my deck’s weakness to cheap creatures like Ondu War Cleric or Zada’s Commando was soon on display. I held on for while, but double (!) Goblin Dark-Dwellers made life difficult and an impressive Reckless Bushwhacker turn did me in. Game 2 is effectively over on the second turn when he plays Immobilizer Eldrazi; on the final turn, I have six creatures in play and none of them can block.


After a simple win against another American PTQer, I’m paired against Michael Majors for the final round of Limited. If I can somehow 2-1 this pod, I have a good shot of going 3-2 in Constructed for a solid X-5 finish and an invite.

I soon realized where the good white cards went as three of my best creatures entered the Isolation Zone. The game was close throughout until he had a window to draw something to kill me. Rush of Ice leapt off the top to punish me for some arguably loose plays earlier, and I’m left with the familiar feeling of knowing I screwed up but not how or when. The second game went very long, with me having to manage my mana for Prophet, Blinding Drone, and Seer’s Lantern every turn and him looking for some way to break through. I was forced to trade off my Sphinx of the Final Word with a Kozilek’s Pathfinder to survive, and it looked like I might not have a way to finish him if I didn’t scry into something soon. With the clock ticking down, I made a big Skyrider Elf and evened the match.

The match could have ended in a draw with both of us playing at an acceptable pace, but that wouldn’t help either of us and we both had outs to win in the time we had left. I have a decent draw in Game 3, but he plays a bunch of beefy fliers and runs me over. I wished Michael luck and was glad to see he finished X-5 to lock Gold.


3-3 overall in Limited was disappointing on one level, but not entirely surprising. I’m not sure how meaningful it is that I beat the other PTQ winners and lost to the known players – the skill gap is higher in Limited, but the immediate cause of most of my losses was better draws from better decks and it’s hard to reflect on mistakes I may have made in the draft portion. It remains the area of my game that needs the most work.

Back to Modern, where I need 4-1 for an invite and 3-2 to cash. I was hoping for good matchups and opponents I didn’t recognize. Instead, I’m against Martin Clement, one of the Scottish guys I’d prepared with and whose sofa I was crashing on. I knew he was playing Storm with an eye-watering amount of Affinity hate. I’d also cut a lot of the generic combo hate from my board, with only Spell Pierce to stop him doing his worst.

Sure enough, he won the race in Game 1, and I was about to win even through a Shatterstorm in Game 2… except that I had stupidly thrown a Darksteel Citadel to Ravager on a previous turn rather than Mox Opal, so after my board was cleared I couldn’t cast the Master of Etherium I drew. Somehow he didn’t draw anything either, so eventually I found a third land and Master won me a game I was sure I had tossed away. In Game 3 I had a solid draw that can’t disrupt him – and, thanks to my lack of relevant sideboard cards, I can’t justify a mulligan to look for one. Shattering Spree showed up this time to fight for Shatterstorm’s title, and I could only watch as the past went up in flames.


I needed an quick win to de-tilt me and was fortunate to get one against East/West Bowl member Adam Boyd on UR Eldrazi. Adam was playing the deck of the tournament and didn’t lose again in Constructed, but in our match the scary draws powered by Eye and Temple never materialized and nor did his sideboard hate.


I began the home stretch by facing Jarvis Yu, also of East/West Bowl. I vaguely knew Jarvis from articles and forum posts but didn’t put a face to the name until a few days earlier, when he joined us at our house for some practice drafts. He’d made an offhand reference to Abzan Company, which I hadn’t registered as a possible deck choice until then; if somebody had handed me a full 75 at that moment, I’d have jumped on board. It looks like an even smarter pick in light of the PT and GP results, and is likely to be a good deck after the dust settles from the bannings.

The first game showcased a key selling point of Affinity: I felt lost deciding which combinations of cards to play around and possible Chord/Company targets and the right lines for each case, but my draw was powerful enough that it didn’t matter. In Game 2 my draw wasn’t that fast and, when I stuck an Aether Grid, I was already facing pressure on the board (as well as implied pressure from a possible combo). He found Reclamation Sage for my Grid and I made the other one, but by then his board was large enough that I couldn’t contain it with the few artifacts I have in play and Kataki forces me to take a turn off from shooting creatures. I could have bought some time by shooting his 2/1s instead of Viscera Seers, but I was worried that would leave a combo piece in play and give him extra Scrys to find the other pieces or something else that would put me away. I’m not sure what was correct, but should have thought more about it.

Jarvis quickly kept for Game 3 and I had the feeling I was about to face Kataki. I tried to sequence my plays to minimize the damage and saw Stony Silence instead.

Just like that, I was no longer playing for an invite and had to win my last two matches to cash. Jarvis unfortunately lost in the last round to miss an invite, but is still chasing Gold and will hopefully get there with a good result in Madrid.


I beat Merfolk in about ten minutes despite my best efforts. Alright then. One more!


For all the marbles (specifically, $1,000) I would have to beat Rob Cucunato, who had some GP success with Affinity. Steel Overseer is amazing in the mirror and I regretted cutting the fourth copy as two of his teamed up to dominate the first game. My massive Master of Etherium, almost always the biggest thing on the board, had no hope of breaking through. I’d have to win two games, including one on the draw, with virtually no hate for the mirror – another decision I was kicking myself over.

The second game looked bad when I had to mulligan twice and soon became worse. Rob had a fast draw with Plating and Ravager, and I couldn’t hold off his attackers, let alone mount an offense of my own. I used Galvanic Blast to get Ravager off the board or at least force a commitment to it, and to my shock he moved in on a Signal Pest! I like to trim Signal Pests in the mirror because they die to a Nexus or Skirge in combat so easily and it’s rare that the bonus matters, and if the Pest were a more relevant card I was in big trouble. As it happened I was still in dire straits, needing to draw a blocker and equip my own Plating every turn just to stay alive. My deck was kind, feeding me a steady stream of Nexuses and Ornithopters, and eventually I was able to trade with the Pest and take down his other attackers. I eventually drew a Vault Skirge and suit it up, and after fading a Galvanic Blast for yet another turn I started attacking with a massive lifelinker. Had Rob maintained his board and kept applying pressure, I was drawing to very few outs.

As I was trying to complete a stressful comeback, another drama was unfolding beside me. Tom Martell was in bad shape against his Burn opponent who, much to Tom’s frustration, kept ‘missing’ his Eidolon trigger when casting spells. When Tom had to issue a stern warning, his opponent – Xin Sui, an Asian player who spoke passable English but was mainly communicating through gestures – claimed that Tom was making similar mistakes. Affronted, Tom called a judge so that his opponent’s sloppiness would go on the record. I wasn’t paying much attention yet, too busy trying to stave off my impending doom.

The judge came over and things suddenly took a strange turn. When asked about what happened, Xin Sui denied missing his triggers and seemed to imply some kind of misunderstanding. Tom instantly flagged this up as lying to a judge, turning what could and should have been a routine judge call into a DQ-worthy offense. The most bizarre aspect of the situation was that Xin Sui wasn’t going to receive any real penalty – and Tom was clear when giving his initial reminder that he didn’t suspect cheating – but he lied for no reason and at great risk to himself. He was facing a seasoned pro and professional lawyer who was sure to call him out on any shadiness, and lied in a spot where his having lied was the only thing that made sense; the only other explanation was that Tom had called a judge over in order to lie to him in some kamikaze bid to get himself disqualified. He also did this with a handful of spectators around – I didn’t have the level of certainty needed to approach the judge about the situation, but I could tell something was seriously amiss. When head judge Kevin Desprez arrived and didn’t escalate the penalty further, there began a lengthy debate at the table between him and Tom that didn’t change the result. Tom was forced to play on and was swiftly roasted to put him out of the money.

This was a somewhat distracting and unpleasant backdrop to my own money match. In a much less exciting Game 3 my Steel Overseer dies, I stall on mana, and Rob puts me out of my misery.

9-7 (aka dead last)

Walking out of the convention centre I run into Tom and offer commiserations that turn out to be misplaced. When the original judge and head judge compared notes later they realized his opponent was lying and retroactively disqualified him! Apparently he’d been banned several times in the past for similar behaviour. Tom got his win – plus the money and extra pro points that came with it – after all.

No such luck for me or for Martin Clement, who also lost playing for cash. We consoled ourselves with a visit to the Georgia Aquarium and its famous dolphin training show, which was very entertaining (some might say it was ‘deece’), but there was still some lingering resentment. The upside of writing this a few months later is that most of that has faded and I can reflect on what the event meant to me.

My weekend was a rollercoaster of emotions – I repeatedly did just well enough to get my hopes up and then badly enough to dash them. Despite that I felt weirdly detached from my progress, as if I was watching someone else from home; I didn’t feel the frustration that often comes from routine losses at local events or on Magic Online, even though the stakes were much higher. It helped that all of my opponents were professional and most were actively pleasant to play against – I kept in touch with Taylor and Case throughout the event – and two of the ‘worst’ losses were to Martin and Jarvis. I didn’t have high hopes, or a ‘team’ or cheering section that I was letting down if I lost, so I felt free to enjoy the experience without the burden of expectations. Part of me wants to redouble my commitment to the game and try to get back on the Pro Tour; part of me feels that I’ve done all I can there and would only set myself up for disappointment. I’m not sure which side will win out yet.

Thanks for reading, and I’d appreciate any feedback!

Fangs and Figures – Analyzing the Legacy Cube

Fangs and Figures – Analyzing the Legacy Cube
By Dom Harvey

Recently the Legacy Cube returned to Magic Online as the time-killer of choice before the new set release. After a long binge, I formed what I think is a decent understanding of what worked and what didn’t. Some of it is obvious – there’s a reason that ‘…Vampires?’ was the universal reaction on social media – but there are more subtle problems too. In this article I’ll explain the flaws as I see them and offer constructive feedback for addressing them.

As a disclaimer, the ideas on this site can be very unorthodox. Our priority as Cube designers is optimizing our lists for local playgroups under parameters that we control; it’s a much different task to design a list that works for a mass audience of experienced and newer players, that offers enough variety to keep you interested during the third draft of the day, that conforms to conventional ideas of what Cube is, and so on; my ideal Legacy Cube list would not look much like my personal Cube(s). The goal is to help the Legacy Cube be as good as possible on its own terms.


If you follow Cube discussion for long enough, you will hear someone bemoaning the failure of black aggro. Designers dutifully pack their lists with Sarcomancy and Dauthi Slayer, only to watch them circle the table and end up in sideboards. Faced with this dilemma many Cube owners double down on black aggro, cut it entirely, or explore radical solutions, with no real consensus emerging.

Given that, I understand the urge to try Vampires, but the backlash was predictable and justified.

Randy Buehler summarizes the most important part of the official Cube philosophy here:

“We briefly discussed radically changing the theme of the Cube, but at the end of the day we all agreed that “Best of Magic” or “Greatest Hits” Cubes are just awesome, so the Legacy Cube will continue to be a Greatest Hits Cube. In fact, nothing was cut purely on the basis of power level—not even Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We cut some “hits” that were highly non-interactive (aka, straight-forward and/or dumb whether you’re playing with them or against them), so you won’t find True-Name Nemesis in the Legacy Cube and there aren’t any Swords either. We also cut some of the one-dimensional red cards (like Ball Lightning) that make it hard to keep all red decks from turning into mono-red aggro decks (so splashing another color should make more sense now), but mostly we just looked for the most exciting and powerful cards we could find”

In a ‘power-max’ context like this, the bar that any card – an experimental theme, cards from the new set, whatever – has to meet is very high. A few years ago, you could jam whatever ridiculous creature had just been printed into your Cube and call it a day; now, every set brings a bunch of impressively undercosted threats, and cards that were auto-includes before are being edged out. To earn a slot in this cutthroat environment a card must be very strong, both in relative terms and on its own merits. Sangromancer is a bad card to begin with, and is downright embarrassing alongside the likes of Hero of Bladehold. It’s not even better than the other lacklustre black cards that auditioned for that slot. Liliana’s Reaver is not exciting, but it suggests a plan – I’ll play Reaver, remove whatever my opponent puts in the way, and create a cascading effect that is hard to recover from. This plan only asks for cards I want to play anyway – discard and removal spells.
With Vampires, I need to play bad cards to power up my other bad cards, in hope of a payoff that isn’t demonstrably better than what I get from a normal strategy. For a deck based on synergy to succeed, it has to be better than the sum of its parts by a big enough margin to justify downgrading individual cards. I doubt this is true of Vampires: a perfect start of 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Captivating Vampire -> Vampire Nocturnus will win most games, but so will 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Brimaz, -> Elspeth or 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Goblin Rabblemaster -> Hellrider, and in those examples it’s much easier to win if I’m missing one of the pieces. This goes for the draft too: Randy says, “If you want to pass me Vampire Nocturnus or Anowon, the Ruin Sage I am quite happy to grab them and build around them” but his neighbours are also quite happy with that, as they have less competition for the legitimately good cards and can cripple Randy’s deck by hate-drafting at the right moment.

The other major problem is that so many cards are useless outside ‘the Vampires deck’. The biggest offender is Necropolis Regent, which is unplayable elsewhere and also bad in Vampires: with that deck I want to win quickly so my opponent has no time to play their good cards, not drag the game out, and even in the perfect deck for Regent I would rather have Grave Titan. The same problem afflicts the Guul Draz Vampires and Stromkirk Captains that fill out the deck: if I’m currently in another archetype, even a good Vampire tribal card gives me no reason to switch or dabble in black. The other side of that coin is that Vampires has no exit plan: if you move in on Vampires but what you need isn’t coming, you may not have enough picks left to avoid a trainwreck.

Randy argues that you could say the same about the usual black aggro cards, but insofar as that’s true I think the blame lies with the rest of the Cube. Few people enter a draft intending to force black aggro, but the lack of respect it garners means you can often pick up the cards late. Suppose you start with a run of blue cards, but it’s soon clear that blue is being cut and you need a new plan; you see the black aggro cards coming back, and take them from a few shallow packs to keep your options open. You then open a good black card – say, Bitterblossom – and move in, ending up with a solid base-black aggressive deck touching blue for some disruption and maybe a Serendib Efreet or Phantasmal Image. Maybe you’re in mono red, but Carnophage and Falkenrath Aristocrat fill out your curve and Doom Blade gives you outs to larger creatures; or perhaps your white aggro deck really wants that Lingering Souls, and is happy to pick up Dark Confidant and Knight of Infamy too. That kind of flexibility makes aggro in general – not just black aggro – viable in Cube when the draft isn’t going perfectly, and for it to exist you need the aggro cards to be strong outside their own niche and not dominated by only a few colours – UG and BG aggro decks don’t need to be common, but they should be theoretically possible. Vampires violates this rule at the most basic level; Carnophage and friends do not.

The other crucial ingredient to making aggro work is manafixing. In Constructed, multicoloured aggro decks often have 8 or more dual lands – more than a third of their manabase; in Limited you might get a dual land or two depending on the format, but your mana requirements are less stringent and you can usually afford to play your splash card a turn or two later. Cube, which so often is the best of both worlds, is the worst of both here: Limited-quality manafixing is expected to enable Constructed-quality starts. It’s a much less forgiving format, where delaying a key play by a turn is often lethal. This is especially brutal for aggro decks, which need to deploy their cards early to compensate for their relatively low power and which can’t afford control’s extra methods of stabilizing its manabase – Signets/ramp spells, card draw, and the like. Black feels this more than any other colour, as its flagship cards require a heavy black commitment – Bloodghast and Geralf’s Messenger certainly contribute to devotion, to put it nicely. The Legacy Cube isn’t too bad in this regard, but for the more aggressive colour pairs switching out Temples or the Glacial Fortress cycle (which don’t let you go T1 R into T2 BB, for instance) for filter lands or the Seachrome Coast cycle would help if you’re willing to mix and match. Black could really use Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.

The size of the Cube is an understated issue that looms over all of this. The Magic Online Cube has to be reasonably large to sustain people’s interest – if players see the same cards over and over, boredom quickly sets in. As a result, there’s no guarantee that any given card will turn up in a draft. This has depressing implications for the two-card combos sprinkled throughout the Cube. Take one recent addition: when I pick Scapeshift I know it’s a blank card if I don’t see Valakut, but that’s fine as nobody else wants Valakut and I can bet on it reaching me. In a 600 card Cube, the Valakut might not even be there! It’s hard enough to justify experimenting with these combos when both cards are in circulation, but when that’ s not even assured you almost always take the safer route. The same applies to a lesser extent to Vampires: building around Vampire Nocturnus is dubious when you’re guaranteed to see it, so when you aren’t…

The strangest part about all of this is I’m not sure black is a problem that needs fixing. In a Cube as creature-centric as this one, efficient and versatile removal backing up solid threats – Desecration Demon, Grave Titan, planeswalkers – has been a very successful strategy for me. Reanimator and ‘Pox‘ (and similar effects) have been tried in other Cubes to various degrees of success. Black aggro, if adequately supported, might yet be good enough. The one systematic weakness that black has is its inability to deal with certain card types – artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. Cutting Swords and Jitte goes a long way towards fixing that, but green and white have a dozen planeswalkers between them and the Cube could stand to lose one of Garruk, Apex Predator and Vraska, Chandra Nalaar, and so on.

If they do give black aggro another go, I’d swap the Vampires for their replacements and then make some minor adjustments:

Anowon, the Ruin Sage
Ascendant Evincar
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth
Captivating Vampire
Dark Impostor
Guul Draz Vampire
Kalastria Highborn
Malakir Bloodwitch
Necropolis Regent
Vampire Interloper
Vampire Nocturnus

+ Bloodsoaked Champion
+ Carnophage
+ Diregraf Ghoul
+ Gnarled Scarhide
+ Knight of Infamy
+ Lifebane Zombie
+ Mesmeric Fiend
+ Nantuko Shade
+ Sarcomancy
+ Spiteful Returned

+ Carrion Feeder, crucial for any sacrifice shenanigans and has crossover value with the token generators in red and white
+ Silumgar Assassin, a much-needed two drop from the most recent set
+ Flesh Carver, a startling omission if you’re taking black aggro seriously

Underworld Connections, too clunky for aggro and underwhelming in midrange decks
+ Sign in Blood, a sleeker draw spell that serves double duty in aggro decks
+ Read the Bones, a more surgical draw spell without the heavy mana/time commitment of Arena or Connections

Crux of Fate
Skinrender, a conditional removal spell that feels redundant when you have Bone Shredder, Nekrataal, Shriekmaw, and the noncreature black removal
Sorin Markov
+ Abyssal Persecutor, the original Desecration Demon and a solid midrange threat for black that creates an interesting subgame
+ Sidisi, Undead Vizier

Diabolic Servitude
+ Makeshift Mannequin, which is unique among the plethora of reanimation spells


For most of us, refining your Cube is a lengthy and gradual process. If you’re lucky you get a draft or two every week, where one card overperforms or something goes undrafted again. You try out the obvious cards from the new set, move on to the less obvious, adjust the rest of the Cube accordingly, and by the time you’ve reached an informed opinion another set is on the horizon.

The Magic Online Cube lies dormant for most of the year, and is then subjected to more drafts in the first hours of its run than most Cubes over their entire lifetimes. There is enough evidence from thousands of drafts that ideas about what does and doesn’t work in the Cube can be backed up by statistics and not just anecdotes or intuition. Randy’s articles explaining his changes are laden with references to these results.

The problem for us is that we don’t have access to the data; we only ever see it when the organizers use it to justify their changes. When we do see it, it often doesn’t support the point being made (or the point remains underdetermined).

Take this quote:

“The really interesting data comes when you compare the average draft pick of cards among people who won their draft to the average position among other drafters. Of the top 30 cards on that list, 29 are mono-red aggro cards (with Sulfuric Vortex having the biggest difference). Clearly mono-red decks are too efficient, and while I am happy to have mono-red be around as an option, it shouldn’t just be easier to win with than all the other archetypes”

Sulfuric Vortex is strong enough to be listed as a top-tier Cube card, no matter how that list is drawn up. But what about Firedrinker Satyr and the rest of Vortex’s groupies? How about the low-tier red aggro cards like Scorched Rusalka? These cards all go in the same deck – and only the same deck – as Sulfuric Vortex, so if red decks have a great win percentage then all these cards will place higher even if most of the work was done by Vortex and other premium cards. Vortex being high makes every other red aggro card that much more likely to be high too; it would be surprising if the list weren’t overpopulated by red aggro cards.

Cards specific to red aggro will look better in this context than cards that are more widely playable or better in the abstract. Lightning Strike is a better card than Skullcrack; if you could only include one in your Cube or your red aggro deck, you would pick Lightning Strike. However, any red deck can find room for Lightning Strike, so these R/G midrange decks or U/R control decks drag down Lightning Strike’s win percentage and lower its position on the list; Skullcrack is certainly higher, and Lightning Strike probably lower, than their power would suggest.

What the data does show is that red aggro cards are ‘poisonous’: a card like Sulfuric Vortex is an automatic pick if you’re drafting the deck and an automatic pass if you aren’t. In this respect it isn’t much different from black aggro, but it’s more successful and has a long pedigree in Constructed and retail Limited so its inclusion has become a sacred cow in Cube. The graveyard theme in B/G was junked for being equally poisonous but less successful – in Randy’s words, “I think we landed in a place where there just weren’t enough rewards in the Cube to justify the enablers (mostly because we cut the rewards because they tend to be super-narrow cards that only work in one deck)”. Ultimately, is there a difference between Shrine of Burning Rage and whatever your reward for the B/G deck would be? With enough delve cards, reanimation effects, and so on, I think there’s room for a successful graveyard deck that offers more interesting gameplay than typical aggro or midrange decks while furnishing black with a distinct identity. The danger is that new Cube designers will look at these results and conclude that this theme, or any unusual theme, is doomed to failure in Cube. As an ‘official’ product this Cube sets the tone for the public’s understanding of what Cube is and what works, so any failed experiments have larger implications.

It’s clear that people were winning a lot with red aggro. What’s less clear is who, and why. Mono red is ruthless at punishing mistakes in deckbuilding and gameplay, and many less experienced players end up with decks that are terrified of Mountains; equally, mono red allows those players to run over better decks and players without engaging them on their level. It’s hard to tell from the statistics how much of red’s win percentage is due to its inherent strength and how much is due to the weaknesses of other decks and players. If everyone paid close attention to their deck’s mana curve, hate-drafted red aggro cards when appropriate, and sent back hands without early interaction, its win rate would be a fair bit lower. Does this matter? The Magic Online Cube isn’t meant to be a perfect test of skill or a purely competitive experience. It stings to ‘waste’ time and money losing to Goblin Guide in five minutes, even if you could have done things differently, and you don’t want to scare newcomers away from Cube permanently.

This same issue applies to individual cards: it’s hard to judge a card in isolation when the other contents of a deck and the skill of the pilot skew the results so heavily. Recently on Twitter, some Pro Tour mainstays were bashing Tangle Wire as a trap that’s only used by bad players in bad decks. Even if their general distaste for the card is on point, the fact that it’s used badly doesn’t make it unusable. Lots of players jam Tangle Wire in decks that aren’t built to exploit it properly, where it’s a waste of a card and mana, and their low win percentage will lower the card’s rating. If, on top of that, the best players are avoiding Tangle Wire, its placement will be solely determined by worse players creating a warped perception of how bad it truly is.

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