Riley’s Modern Life: Breaking Down the Best Decks

Riley's first article for takes you through some of the preparation involved for covering Grand Prix Birmingham and breaks down all the best Modern decks along the way. Welcome to Riley's Modern Life.

orator of ojutai artwork by zack stella

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 Approach of the Second Sun – 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


Affinity by Alex Vess, SCG Modern Classic Atlanta, 1st Place

Creatures (27)
Signal Pest
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Vault Skirge
Master of Etherium

Instants (4)
Galvanic Blast
Artifacts (12)
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Cranial Plating

Lands (17)
Blinkmoth Nexus
Darksteel Citadel
Inkmoth Nexus
Spire of Industry

Sideboard (14)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Stubborn Denial
Ancient Grudge
Blood Moon
Etched Champion
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 Arcbound Ravager.

While easily hated out with cards like Stony Silence and Ancient Grudge, 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

Grixis Death's Shadow by Patxi, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0

Creatures (16)
Death’s Shadow
Snapcaster Mage
Street Wraith
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Gurmag Angler

Planeswalkers (2)
Liliana of the Veil

Instants (13)
Fatal Push
Stubborn Denial
Thought Scour
Kolaghans Command

Sorceries (10)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Serum Visions
Lands (19)
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Ceremonious Rejection
Stubborn Denial
Collective Brutality
Anger of the Gods
Izzet Staticaster
Kolaghan’s Command
Liliana, the Last Hope
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 – Stubborn Denial, Snapcaster Mage – have paired like a fine wine with crucial pieces of red removal like Kolaghan’s Command and Terminate. 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 – Claim // Fame might give this deck yet another angle to go long.

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

Naya Burn

Naya-ish Burn by Kevin Toolan, SCG Team Constructed Atlanta, 4th Place

Creatures (12)
Goblin Guide
Monastery Swiftspear
Eidolon of the Great Revel

Instants (20)
Lightning Bolt
Boros Charm
Lightning Helix
Searing Blaze

Sorceries (8)
Lava Spike
Rift Bolt
Lands (20)
Arid Mesa
Bloodstained Mire
Inspiring Vantage
Sacred Foundry
Stomping Ground
Wooded Foothills

Sideboard (15)
Grim Lavamancer
Path to Exile
Atarka’s Command
Deflecting Palm
Destructive Revelry
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 Goblin Guides 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 Atarka’s Command 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 Eidolon of the Great Revel can cause massive headaches when interacting with it.

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

Big Mana Decks


Scapeshift by PietroSas, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0

Creatures (10)
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Primeval Titan

Instants (6)
Summoner’s Pact
Lightning Bolt

Sorceries (15)
Search for Tomorrow
Sweltering Suns
Artifacts (2)
Relic of Progenitus

Lands (27)
Cinder Glade
Stomping Ground
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Verdant Catacombs
Wooded Foothills

Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Grafdigger’s Cage
Nature’s Claim
Relic of Progenitus
Ancient Grudge
Anger of the Gods
Beast Within
Reclamation Sage
Obstinate Baloth
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 Remand, instead getting up and about with Primeval Titan.

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. Hour of Promise 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 Ghost Quarters at home!

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



Eldrazi Tron by xshazam, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0

Creatures (20)
Walking Ballista
Matter Reshaper
Thought-Knot Seer
Reality Smasher
Wurmcoil Engine
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

Planeswalkers (2)
Karn Liberated

Instants (3)
All is Dust
Artifacts (11)
Chalice of the Void
Basilisk Collar
Expedition Map
Relic of Progenitus

Lands (24)
Cavern of Souls
Eldrazi Temple
Ghost Quarter
Scavenger Grounds
Sea Gate Wreckage
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Power Plant
Urza’s Tower

Sideboard (15)
Hangarback Walker
Basilisk Collar
Grafdigger’s Cage
Pithing Needle
Relic of Progenitus
Ratchet Bomb
Spatial Contortion
Warping Wail
Witchbane Orb
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

Abzan by James Wohlmacher, SCG Team Constructed Atlanta, 11th Place

Creatures (12)
Noble Hierarch
Voice of Resurgence
Knight of the Reliquary

Planeswalkers (3)
Liliana of the Veil

Instants (8)
Fatal Push
Path to Exile
Abrupt Decay

Sorceries (10)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Lingering Souls
Enchantments (3)

Lands (24)
Blooming Marsh
Gavony Township
Ghost Quarter
Godless Shrine
Marsh Flats
Overgrown Tomb
Shambling Vent
Temple Garden
Vault of the Archangel
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath

Sideboard (15)
Ghost Quarter
Fatal Push
Abrupt Decay
Collective Brutality
Stony Silence
Zealous Persecution
Fulminator Mage
Maelstrom Pulse
Creeping Corrosion

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 Deathrite Shaman) 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 (Tarmogoyf), efficient removal (Lightning Bolt), and value cards (Lingering Souls). 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 Siege Rhino them all over again!

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

Death and Taxes

Death & Taxes by Cheesen, Competitive MTGO League, 5-0

Creatures (29)
Thraben Inspector
Weathered Wayfarer
Leonin Arbiter
Serra Avenger
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Blade Splicer
Mirran Crusader
Restoration Angel

Instants (4)
Path to Exile
Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Lands (23)
Cavern of Souls
Eiganjo Castle
Ghost Quarter
Horizon Canopy
Tectonic Edge

Sideboard (15)
Burrenton Forge-Tender
Grafdigger’s Cage
Relic of Progenitus
Kor Firewalker
Phyrexian Revoker
Stony Silence
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 Stoneforge Mystic with a Mother of Runes, but it’s just as irritating – cards like Leonin Arbiter and Phyrexian Revoker 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

U/W Control by Kevin Burgess, SCG Modern Classic Atlanta, 8th Place

Creatures (4)
Snapcaster Mage
Wall of Omens

Planeswalkers (5)
Gideon of the Trials
Jace, Architecht of Thought
Gideon Jura

Instants (12)
Path to Exile
Mana Leak
Sphinx’s Revelation
Think Twice
Cryptic Command

Sorceries (7)
Serum Visions
Supreme Verdict
Enchantments (6)
Spreading Seas
Detention Sphere

Lands (26)
Celestial Colonnade
Flooded Strand
Ghost Quarter
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain
Irrigated Farmland
Tectonic Edge
Temple of Enlightenment

Sideboard (15)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Rest in Peace
Stony Silence
Geist of Saint Traft
Timely Reinforcements
Vendilion Clique
Supreme Verdict
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

I’ve saved the best for last! I’ve been playing UW Control in Modern since my Glacial Fortresses 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 Condemn in addition to “land destruction” like Spreading Seas line up well against both aggressive decks and the big mana decks respectively. If you can bridge your way to the lategame, cards like Cryptic Command and Supreme Verdict 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!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the content, give us a follow on Twitter or a like on Facebook, we greatly appreciate any and all support.

Riley Knight

Riley Knight is a member of the Magic coverage team, and has covered top-level events around the world since 2014. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, his favourite formats are Modern and Cube. Riley enjoys playing most of his Magic during his opponent’s end step.

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3 Responses to “Riley’s Modern Life: Breaking Down the Best Decks”

  • Hi Riley,

    Nice write up. I really enjoyed watching you on coverage last weekend, and was interested to read your comments on Modern–also my favorite format. If I may, I think your advice on fighting Grixis Death’s Shadow is a little bit off. The number one way to bring that matchup into your favor is Graveyard hate.

    They gain so much value from their graveyard: Delve fatties, Snapcaster Mage, Kolaghan’s Command. Take that away from them and they are a below average midrange deck. Bonus points if your ‘yard hate is an enchantment, because if they don’t discard or counter it they have virtually no way to remove it.

    Once their graveyard is answered, their only real threat is Death’s Shadow, which can be answered cleanly with Fatal Push to Exile, Path, Terminate, Abrupt Decay, or even Blessed Alliance. They typically only run ~18 lands, which means they’ll never cast their Delve creatures at full cost. Strand those in their hands, and turn Snappy into Ambush Viper, and you’re well on your way to winning.

    Cheers mate, looking forward to catching you cast at the GP.

  • Administrator

    Thanks for the kind words JoJa. I’ll make sure Riley sees this. He’s got another article coming out about 6 or 7 hours from this comment, so come back and check that one out too.

  • […] Last week, I went through the eight decks I’m expecting to see at the top tables of GP Birmingham. Modern GPs are invariably excellent fun, and I’m looking forward to spouting more energetic claptrap in the booth all weekend, and as a result I’ve played a lot of Modern in the lead up this event – I want to know the format cold for coverage. Even though no-one is going to cast the cardboard brain aneurysm that is Chains of Mephistopheles, it’s my job to pretend I know what happens when you have Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Murderous Redcap out at the same time, and so I like to get in the reps on Magic Online. […]

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