Riley's Modern Life: Breaking Down the Best Decks

12 min read

Hello! This is Riley Knight, from the official Magic coverage team. You may have heard my silly nonsense on the Magic Twitch channel covering various Grand Prixs around Europe over the past few years. More recently you may have caught me at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, where I lost my marbles on stream when PV did the old reverse sweep on poor Seth Manfield.

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I’ve been doing coverage since GP Melbourne in early 2014, but I’ve been playing Magic for over five years and I have to say I’m a lot better at calling the game than I am at playing it. That’s not saying much though, one of the proudest results of my Magic career was once going 2-0-4 while Sphinx’s Revelation was Standard. What a time to be alive! I love slow, grindy control decks with no win conditions, except when cube drafting, when I always force ramp.

It’s been a blast to get involved with Standard recently while preparing for the Pro Tour, and I think there’s a ton of room to explore the format. Mono-Red is very beatable, and were it not for the next GP on the horizon I’d be looking for new ways to break [mtg_card]Approach of the Second Sun[/mtg_card] – but right now, all my attention is devoted to investigating one of my absolute favourite formats: Modern, as that’s what will be played at GP Birmingham. I absolutely love playing Modern, and this is the first in a series of articles I’m going to write on the format.

learn from the past artwork

To part the kimono just a little bit here, preparing for coverage is super important and something that all the broadcasters take pretty seriously. Not knowing a key card or interaction while live in front of thousands is the stone-cold worst, and with a format as intricate and wide-open as Modern is, you have to do your homework. Besides, you know there are going to be all manner of sweet brewskis chucked around in the opening rounds, and as a broadcaster you just have got to be on top of them.

Happily, this means that I’m in a good spot to break down the decks I expect to be on your screens next weekend while I’m covering GP Birmingham. Let’s get to it!

The Aggressive Decks


[d title=”Affinity by Alex Vess, SCG Modern Classic Atlanta, 1st Place”]
3 Memnite
4 Ornithopter
4 Signal Pest
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Steel Overseer
4 Vault Skirge
4 Master of Etherium

4 Galvanic Blast

4 Mox Opal
4 Springleaf Drum
4 Cranial Plating

4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Inkmoth Nexus
1 Mountain
4 Spire of Industry

1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Stubborn Denial
2 Thoughtseize
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Whipflare
1 Blood Moon
1 Dismember
3 Etched Champion
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid

Affinity is a cornerstone of the format, the aggro deck that has offered experienced pilots huge returns over the years. It has successfully dodged the banhammer for a very long time, and offers Modern a consistent, well-performing aggro deck that you simply can’t afford to ignore. It is capable of blazing fast starts, and cobbling together the most improbable victories thanks to its absurdly powerful synergies. Most of these synergies are based out of various 1/1 creatures, which is a bit of a head-scratcher, but you won’t have much of a head left to scratch once it’s been beaten in by a million-power [mtg_card]Arcbound Ravager[/mtg_card].

While easily hated out with cards like [mtg_card]Stony Silence[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Ancient Grudge[/mtg_card], the number one thing you should consider when your opponent spews out six permanents on turn one is this: they have probably played Affinity for a long time, and know the deck inside out. Many players will play the deck du jour, jumping to whichever 75 they think is poised to perform well on a given weekend. Not so with Affinity players – they’re in it for the long haul, and will typically know every twist and trick.

How to beat it in five words: sideboarding, kill all two-drops

Grixis Shadow

[d title=”Grixis Death’s Shadow by Patxi, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0″]
4 Death’s Shadow
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Street Wraith
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
2 Gurmag Angler

2 Liliana of the Veil

4 Fatal Push
2 Stubborn Denial
4 Thought Scour
2 Terminate
1 Kolaghans Command

2 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Serum Visions
4 Thoughtseize

2 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Island
4 Polluted Delta
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Steam Vents
1 Swamp
2 Watery Grave

2 Ceremonious Rejection
1 Stubborn Denial
3 Collective Brutality
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Izzet Staticaster
1 Kolaghan’s Command
1 Liliana, the Last Hope
4 Leyline of the Void

A relative newcomer to Modern, thanks to the amount of time it took people to take Death’s Shadow seriously. I first remember encountering this deck in early 2015, where people thought it was a jolly good laugh to fetch for untapped shocks and Bolt themselves. Then, it was known as “Super Crazy Zoo” – today, it’s known as the deck that has its 1-mana 13/13s go hard in the paint, and is without a doubt still the deck to beat.

The most successful iteration of this deck has been in the Grixis colours. Key pieces of blue interaction – [mtg_card]Stubborn Denial[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Snapcaster Mage[/mtg_card] – have paired like a fine wine with crucial pieces of red removal like [mtg_card]Kolaghan’s Command[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Terminate[/mtg_card]. This deck can also go the distance with huge Delve creatures, although sometimes is a bit of a glass cannon thanks to its fast and loose approach with its own life total. I’ll be keeping a close eye on a new card from Hour of Devastation in Birmingham – [mtg_card]Claim // Fame[/mtg_card] might give this deck yet another angle to go long.

How to beat it in five words: lifegain, removal, having enough burn

Naya Burn

[d title =”Naya-ish Burn by Kevin Toolan, SCG Team Constructed Atlanta, 4th Place”]
4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Boros Charm
4 Lightning Helix
4 Searing Blaze
4 Skullcrack

4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt

4 Arid Mesa
4 Bloodstained Mire
3 Inspiring Vantage
3 Mountain
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Stomping Ground
3 Wooded Foothills

1 Grim Lavamancer
3 Path to Exile
2 Atarka’s Command
3 Deflecting Palm
4 Destructive Revelry
2 Kor Firewalker

Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the Fun Police. Burn is here to keep you honest, and if you don’t respect the [mtg_card]Goblin Guides[/mtg_card] of the world, you’re going to have a bad time. This deck looks to turn each of its nonland cards into between 3-6 points of damage, and is exceptionally good at it. “Naya” Burn might be a bit of a stretch these days, as [mtg_card]Atarka’s Command[/mtg_card] has fallen out of favour more recently, but you can safely expect to face off against Boros Charm and Lightning Helix.

This deck is extremely linear and rarely has any kind of backup plan. Unlike Grixis Shadow, who can ride the mighty Banana King to victory in the late game, the Burn player has to hope the top of their library treats them kindly once they’ve emptied their hands. Having said that, this deck is consistent and fast, and cards like [mtg_card]Eidolon of the Great Revel[/mtg_card] can cause massive headaches when interacting with it.

How to beat it in five words: lifegain – it’s pretty simple, really

Big Mana Decks


[d title=”Scapeshift by PietroSas, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0″]
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
4 Primeval Titan

2 Summoner’s Pact
4 Lightning Bolt

3 Explore
3 Farseek
4 Search for Tomorrow
1 Sweltering Suns
4 Scapeshift

2 Relic of Progenitus

3 Cinder Glade
2 Forest
6 Mountain
4 Stomping Ground
4 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wooded Foothills

2 Engineered Explosives
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Nature’s Claim
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Roast
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Beast Within
1 Reclamation Sage
2 Obstinate Baloth
1 Primal Command

Scapeshift is a deck that has been around since the unbanning of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle in 2012, and it has had varying levels of success since then. At its core, it is a simple combo deck with the one-card finish of Scapeshift with enough lands in play. Traditionally it was played with the Temur colours, but recently its pilots have moved away from blue, instead opting to play just a clean red-green. This has meant less of a combo-oriented finish backed up with cards like [mtg_card]Remand[/mtg_card], instead getting up and about with [mtg_card]Primeval Titan[/mtg_card].

Prime Time means that the Scapeshift decks attack from a slightly different angle, and can get their Valakuts online with greater consistency – even if it means they’re not dinging you for 18 in one go. [mtg_card]Hour of Promise[/mtg_card] is a new piece of technology from Hour of Devastation, and it may indeed be promising for Scapeshift as it is essentially a legless Titan, able to search out any two lands. It goes without saying, that if you’re wanting to go toe-to-toe with Scapeshift, attacking their lands is the way to do it. Don’t leave your [mtg_card]Ghost Quarters[/mtg_card] at home!

How to beat it in five words: land destruction, get underneath them



[d title=”Eldrazi Tron by xshazam, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0″]
4 Walking Ballista
4 Matter Reshaper
4 Thought-Knot Seer
4 Reality Smasher
2 Endbringer
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

2 Karn Liberated

2 Dismember
1 All is Dust

4 Chalice of the Void
1 Basilisk Collar
4 Expedition Map
2 Relic of Progenitus

1 Cavern of Souls
4 Eldrazi Temple
3 Ghost Quarter
1 Scavenger Grounds
1 Sea Gate Wreckage
4 Urza’s Mine
4 Urza’s Power Plant
4 Urza’s Tower
2 Wastes

2 Hangarback Walker
1 Basilisk Collar
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Pithing Needle
1 Relic of Progenitus
2 Ratchet Bomb
3 Spatial Contortion
2 Warping Wail
1 Witchbane Orb
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I absolutely hate Tron – I hate playing with it, against it, and no person of any taste or refinement enjoys turn three Karns. I invariably get crushed by these decks and so I’m saltier than a sea dog when thinking about them. With that said, Tron seems to be here to stay, so when facing down these degenerates it’s important to have a gameplan. That gameplan may be totally useless, because of course they always bloody have it, but it’s essential to lie to yourself and pretend you have a chance against them.

Generating seven mana on turn three is no joke, but right now there is disagreement as to what this mana is best spent on. Eldrazi Tron is the new black, with realities being smashed by hasty trampling 5/5s or enormous Walking Ballistas lobbing thick wet sausages all over the place. Traditionally, however, Tron looks to play anything from Wurmcoil Engine to Ugin to Ulamog, fiddling through their deck with Chromatic nonsense until they’re online.

Attack their mana, and make them feel the shame of holding six- and seven-mana cards in a turn-four format.

How to beat it in five words: land destruction, attacking their hand

Midrange & Control

GBx Midrange

[d title=”Abzan by James Wohlmacher, SCG Team Constructed Atlanta, 11th Place”]
3 Noble Hierarch
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Voice of Resurgence
3 Knight of the Reliquary

3 Liliana of the Veil

1 Fatal Push
4 Path to Exile
3 Abrupt Decay

3 Inquisition of Kozilek
3 Thoughtseize
4 Lingering Souls

3 Bitterblossom

2 Blooming Marsh
2 Forest
1 Gavony Township
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Godless Shrine
2 Marsh Flats
2 Overgrown Tomb
1 Plains
1 Shambling Vent
1 Swamp
1 Temple Garden
1 Vault of the Archangel
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Windswept Heath

1 Ghost Quarter
1 Fatal Push
1 Thoughtseize
1 Abrupt Decay
2 Collective Brutality
2 Stony Silence
1 Zealous Persecution
3 Fulminator Mage
1 Maelstrom Pulse
1 Creeping Corrosion
1 Damnation

Despite the lack of recent strong finishes, GB decks will always be a percentage of the Modern metagame, because – like Affinity – they have the staying power. Decks like Jund and Abzan aren’t strong enough to warrant bannings (not these days, anyway – RIP [mtg_card]Deathrite Shaman[/mtg_card]) due to their 51% matchup against more or less every other deck outside of Tron. These decks are powerful and consistent, and forego synergy for raw power level.

siege rhino mtg card

There are many flavours of these decks, and I’ve lumped them all together because, broadly speaking, their angle of attack is the same. GB Midrange decks look to grind you out with undercosted threats ([mtg_card]Tarmogoyf[/mtg_card]), efficient removal ([mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card]), and value cards ([mtg_card]Lingering Souls[/mtg_card]). Whether red or white is the better pairing right now is up for debate, but I believe that cards like Path to Exile and Lingering Souls have the edge over Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan’s Command. Plus, you get to pretend it’s 2014 and just [mtg_card]Siege Rhino[/mtg_card] them all over again!

How to beat it in five six words: go bigger, don’t rely on synergy

Death and Taxes

[d title=”Death & Taxes by Cheesen, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0″]
4 Thraben Inspector
1 Weathered Wayfarer
4 Leonin Arbiter
2 Serra Avenger
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Blade Splicer
4 Flickerwisp
2 Mirran Crusader
4 Restoration Angel

4 Path to Exile

4 Aether Vial

1 Cavern of Souls
1 Eiganjo Castle
4 Ghost Quarter
4 Horizon Canopy
9 Plains
4 Tectonic Edge

2 Burrenton Forge-Tender
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
4 Relic of Progenitus
2 Kor Firewalker
1 Phyrexian Revoker
3 Stony Silence
1 Mirran Crusader

Mono-white mages from around the world have worked hard to port the Legacy all-star across to Modern, and have been met with a reasonable amount of success for their efforts. Modern’s take on Death and Taxes isn’t quite as powerful as protecting your [mtg_card]Stoneforge Mystic[/mtg_card] with a [mtg_card]Mother of Runes[/mtg_card], but it’s just as irritating – cards like [mtg_card]Leonin Arbiter[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Phyrexian Revoker[/mtg_card] are here to make your life hellish. The key to this deck is Aether Vial – without ways to cheat out extra creatures, this deck just becomes an anaemic beatdown deck that is way, way too slow.

Given that the deck is mono-white, it has access to the very best sideboard cards in the format, positioning it well in games two and three. Additionally, Death and Taxes relies on its creatures working to interact with and disrupt an opponent’s gameplan, with Path to Exile and Aether Vial usually the only noncreature spells it packs. This would leave it pretty cold to removal, were it not for Thalia or Restoration Angel. Use your removal with precision and patience, and always remember to pay for the stupid Leonin Arbiter before you crack a fetchland!

How to beat it in five words: sweepers, timing your removal well

UW Control

[d title=”U/W Control by Kevin Burgess, SCG Modern Classic Atlanta, 8th Place”]
2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Wall of Omens

2 Gideon of the Trials
2 Jace, Architecht of Thought
1 Gideon Jura

4 Path to Exile
3 Mana Leak
1 Negate
1 Sphinx’s Revelation
1 Think Twice
2 Cryptic Command

4 Serum Visions
3 Supreme Verdict

4 Spreading Seas
2 Detention Sphere

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Flooded Strand
2 Ghost Quarter
2 Glacial Fortress
2 Hallowed Fountain
1 Irrigated Farmland
5 Island
3 Plains
2 Tectonic Edge
1 Temple of Enlightenment

1 Condemn
2 Dispel
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Negate
2 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Timely Reinforcements
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

I’ve saved the best for last! I’ve been playing UW Control in Modern since my [mtg_card]Glacial Fortresses[/mtg_card] rotated out of standard, and I’m heaps amped to see that it’s finally breaking through to the top tables in Modern. The recent permutations of this deck rely heavily on planeswalkers and other sorcery-speed cards, which I’m less than pleased about, but the answers the deck has access to line up very well indeed against many of the questions currently being asked in the format.

celestial colonnade mtg card

Hard removal like Path to Exile and [mtg_card]Condemn[/mtg_card] in addition to “land destruction” like [mtg_card]Spreading Seas[/mtg_card] line up well against both aggressive decks and the big mana decks respectively. If you can bridge your way to the lategame, cards like [mtg_card]Cryptic Command[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Supreme Verdict[/mtg_card] will keep you ahead, and then something like Sphinx’s Revelation will put the nail in the coffin. The single most important card in these lists is Celestial Colonnade – they allow the deck to skimp on win conditions and beat their opponents to death with 4/4s once the game is all locked up.

How to beat it in five words: be fast and disruptive, Thrun

I have a lot more to say about this deck – keep an eye out for the next installment of Riley’s Modern Life, where I’ll talk about the various flavours this deck comes in and argue its positioning heading into tournaments like GP Birmingham!

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