Limited Modern Mastery
This week I had some technical problems preventing my access to the mailbag (firstname.lastname@example.org), so I am going to talk about the recent Modern Masters release. This is an exciting limited format available on Magic Online June 14th and at Grand Prix Las Vegas on the weekend of June 21st.
The first thing to know is that Modern Masters drafts more like a cube than a regular limited format. Packs have 15 cards (the normal land slot is replaced by a foil), and the power level of the cards is substantially higher than normal. This means that draft decks will end up with well over the number of playables that they need if they draft “on color” and “on theme”. Personally, this means I want to take more risks drafting high impact cards out of color or theme (removal or bombs) since losing a pick isn’t as costly if it doesn’t work out, and also to make sure I take color fixing since I have extra picks and these will enable these splashes. This isn’t right for every archetype, but I think that’s right for most archetypes.
Speaking of archetypes, as in Ravnica, each pair of colors has a mechanic that unites them in Modern Masters (MM). I’ll identify them each, and talk a little about how I’d want to approach the strategy.
White/Blue – Affinity/Artifacts/Modular. For the most part MM is a slow format. A lot of the colors don’t have meaningful 1 or 2 drops, there are few combat tricks, and it’s more about assembling slower big synergies and card advantage. This is one of the few color pairings that can produce a good aggressive deck. It is the only deck with a 2-power one drop, Court Homunculus With a critical mass of artifacts, the deck can deploy very quickly, such as Myr Enforcer as soon as turn 3. Equally often I expect it to turn into a more card-advantage oriented archetype like Shards’ Esper using Sanctum Gargoyle and Faerie Mechanist to keep applying evasive beats while keeping the tank full of gas (which can both be absurd with Esperzoa). Either way, a “skies” strategy of evasive creatures finishing the job started by cheap creatures, and removal and bounce based disruption will work well here. Don’t be shy about mixing in other aggressive subthemes. In particular Amrou Scout can help keep the pressure on by tutoring for evasive Amrou Seekers and Avian Changelings. Equipment plays well with all of these cards making Bonesplitter a higher pick. The card that would make me most want to move in on an artifact strategy would be Auriok Salvagers, which is a complete bomb with Spellbombs.
White/Black – Rebels. Blightspeaker and Amrou Scout are the heart of this plan. Each can spend 4 mana to tutor for any rebel with CMC 3 or less into play. The choicest targets for most decks will be the versatile removal Bound in Silence and Rathi Trapper. To me it feels like Rebels could be the core of a W/x aggro deck, especially since Blightspeaker can provide some much-needed reach. However, in general it seems that it’s fairly mana intensive to get the most out of your rebels, so it’s going to work best as a module in a slower deck. Saltfield Recluse is an enormous pain for opponent’s combat math, and is a good one to pick up late. One thing to keep in mind is that Bound in Silence is premium white removal and won’t be seen that often, but Rathi Trapper is second tier black removal, so should be open even when black is getting cut a little.
White/Red – Giants. The third, and last of the potentially aggressive white color combinations. The ability to be aggressive is dictated largely by the plethora of white 2-drops creatures. In this case Kithkin Greatheart particularly shines. Blindspot Giant can be a huge threat for its price, and Stinkdrinker Daredevil can turbo-charge the rate at which the more expensive Giants can deploy. Changelings counting as giants is very helpful here. This deck gets Crush Underfoot, which no one else wants and can come extremely late. The deck can also have a huge amount of reach since red is very burn heavy. The best cracks to move someone into this archetype are Thundercloud Shaman, Feudkiller’s Verdict, Cloudgoat Ranger and Stonehewer Giant. They are all fantstic cards that work well in any deck, but get a bit better with some of the deck’s synergies.
White/Green – Fungus/Tokens. Saprolings feels like more of a midrange strategy. Sporesower Thallid and Sporoloth Ancient give you the best increase in rate of Saprolings generated. However, that’s a 5-drop, so games probably have to be going long to make that work out. Fortunately green’s only common 2-drop Thallid Shell-Dweller is a 0/5, and can hold down the vast majority of ground creatures in the format. Aside from winning with a bomb, this deck looks like it wants to set up Tromp the Domains, Stir the Pride, or the very tricky Ivory Giant into Gleam of Resistance. In general these cards feel weaker for the mana than other good cards from the set as well as being more situational. I’m not enthusiastic about moving into this archetype. However, I could see where rares like Verdeloth the Ancient or Doubling Season could make me want to try it.
Blue/Black – Faeries. The thing about faeries is that they are individually very small, and not terribly powerful. The tribe can get some fierce synergy, especially with multiple Dreamspoiler Witches in play, but in the face of much removal or big creatures can be at a loss. When in these colors I’m more interested in powerful removal spells and utility creatures like Mulldrifter, Aethersnipe, Rathi Trapper, and picking up faeries as an afterthought. Throughout the release event I attended, I rarely saw any faeries decks at the top tables, and those that were were being supported by powerful bombs like Meloku the Clouded Mirror or Oona, Queen of the Fae. Bonesplitter would go a long way to making the tiny faerie creatures big enough to fight cards from other colors. Then the combination of their “comes into play” effects combined with a boosted body might be enough for them to keep up in combat or race in the air. Scion of Oona is also pretty good at bolstering the tribe, though can create frustration if you also have equipment.
Blue/Red – Arcane. Blue and red have the largest numbers of Arcane spells and Splice into Arcane effects. Glacial Ray, Torrent of Stone, Reach through Mists, and Petals of Insight are all good value propositions. Of course, you can also try to build a more combo version, mixing in Desperate Ritual to enable storm, or going after all the Dampen Thoughts to mill an opponent out. One can go nearly all-in on spells, and there’s a point where Peer Through Depths becomes a highly desirable option. I’ve heard of people winning with mill in what can be an incredibly slow format. Lava Spike in an aggressive deck with Glacial Rays could also be a way to build your own Lava Axe or Searing Blaze. Obviously, the more blocking bodies you have and the more card draw you have, the more time you have to assemble these spell combos. Since Glacial Ray and Torrent of Stone are high pick removal spells, I’d want to see these coming first before moving in. Conversely, I’d feel pretty good moving in on these two early since I’m sure they’re going to be useful no matter what winds up being open.
Black/Red – Goblins. Without opening or getting passed a lot of uncommons such as Auntie’s Snitch, Mad Auntie, Marsh Flitter, and Tar Pitcher it looks hard for these tribal creatures to compete. The main thing they have going for them is that red and black have tons of removal spells. Therefore, a few guys can be dropped early, and then the path can be kept clear for them. You are likely to get as many Facevaulters from the table as you want, and they can be okay with the right follow-up. Goblins can play an attrition game with Warren Pilferers or Death Denied, but I worry that a lot of strategies just go over the top of recycling low powered ground creatures. I suspect the added reach of burn and Blightspeaker, and borrowing some of Faeries’s flying creatures are what this strategy needs to score the last points of damage. Like in all the decks that push smaller creatures and fliers, Bonesplitter is going to be excellent. Phthisis is another card that would make me think goblins, since they can cause a lot of damage early, and leave the opponent in the awkward position of having to throw down his biggest guys to stabilize.
Black/Green – Dredge. It seems there are a few main ways to go about leveraging dredge. The first is to snag one or more Worm Harvest and use it to overwhelm games that go long as support to some other primary strategy. The other is using dredge to provide card selection for recursion effects like Death Denied, Warren PilferersHana Kami, or Sanctum Gargoyle. There are also a few nice retrace cards in black (and one in white) that work well if you happen to have a Life from the Loam. More immediately, it can also be a tool to get out a cheap Tombstalker early. Unlike a lot of the pairings, it seems a lot of dredge fuctions well in one color without necessarily the other. (Probably because the best enabler is hybrid mana.)
Red/Green – Suspend/Storm. In all the drafts I did, it seemed the storm cards were virtually untouched. My sideboard was often full of Grapeshots that nobody wanted. It’s not a very good card unless you’re willing to work for it. These two colors set you up to do that, with Durkwood Baloth, Giant Dustwasp, Nantuko Shaman, Search for Tomorrow, and Rift Bolt are all there to do just that. The “problem” with all of these commons is they are each great cards and high picks on their own. You’re not going to get too many of these as late picks, as people are going to be filling their decks with this sort of stuff anyhow. Should you find them, or their less common counterparts Pardic Dragon or Greater Gargadon, Rift Elemental can help line them all up to be cast on the same upkeep. The “real” enabler for storm is likely to be Grinning Ingus or similarly unpopular Desperate Ritual. Since these cards are mostly “useless” to other people, this seems like the combo deck that is most likely to be open. Of course, it takes a lot of Grapeshot to kill a player, and Empty the Warrens better be big and/or early to make it count. I suspect these cards are better for value plays than going for the full win, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised otherwise. Pyromancer’s Swath or Tromp the Domains may be keys to making full on combo the way to go.
Blue/Green – Draw extra cards. Led by the flagship Cold-Eyed Selkie these colors are full of ways to get more cards. Citanul Woodreaders, Nantuko Shaman, Masked Admirers, Mulldrifter, Careful Consideration, Perilous Research, and Petals of Insight all offer ways to juice up your hand. Okay, seriously, apparently the mechanic is Ramp/Sunburst. The idea is you’re supposed to play Search for Tomorrow and Kodama’s Reach to enable Etched Oracle and Skyreach Manta. Provided the right mana the oracle is excellent as either a 4 mana 4/4 or a 5 mana Harmonize. Skyreach Manta may surprise you as a bomb, but a 5 mana 4/4 or 5/5 flier is no joke; especially when it can come out on turn 4. Despite fitting well into a lot of token strategies, Tromp the Domains still shines here by pumping for full value.
Now that I’ve spent ten paragraphs talking about synergy in colors, I’m going to tell you that card power trumps it all day long. Unlike a lot of limited formats where there are few bombs or near-bombs and you must have synergy to make your rag tag band of commons find victory, Modern Masters is a horse of a different color. The rares and uncommons in this set are the best of the constructed playables in an eternal format. The ones that aren’t are EDH staples, or were chosen to balance out the constructed playables. Many uncommons in the set were initially printed as rares, and they are still every bit as strong. Because of the power level of the packs, it isn’t too surprising to see a Cloudgoat Ranger third pick, or an unconditional removal spell fifth pick.
When drafting, I want to spend my first several picks just taking the most powerful card out of each pack. I want to do this normally, but even more so in this format. Especially cards with only 1 specific mana cost are very easy to splash off only a couple sources. Because there are so many playables, if I lose these picks it’s not so much of a big deal. However, there is so much fixing I feel it is unlikely I will lose these picks. Even deep into the boosters once I know which archetype I am, I will still snap up a card that is of a high power level.
Here’s an example draft deck that went undefeated in 4 rounds at Cafe Mox:
1 Greater Gargadon
1 Pardic Dragon
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Cloudgoat Ranger
1 Kitchen Finks
2 Etched Oracle
1 Skyreach Manta
2 Saltfield Recluse
3 Rathi Trapper
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Rift Bolt
1 Torrent of Stone
2 Fiery Fall
2 Path to Exile
1 Bound in Silence
1 Vivid Grove
1 Vivid Marsh
1 City of Brass
1 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Amrou Scout
1 Veteran Armorer
1 Kithkin Greatheart
1 Hillcomber Giant
1 Thundering Giant
1 Blind-Spot Giant
1 Erratic Mutation
1 Traumatic Visions
1 Myr Enforcer
1 Walker of the Grove
1 Fury Charm
1 Sylvan Bounty
1 Reach of Branches
The deck started on Greater Gargadon, into some burn spells followed up by white 2-drop creatures and a Path to Exile. I figured I was going to wind up in giants, as many of the cards in my SB reveal. Because I was picking up Amrou Scout, I was also noticing Rathi Trapper coming awfully late, and thought it would make sense to move into black and maybe splash the red cards I already had. I spent late picks in pack one picking up City of Brass over mediocre playables, and a Vivid Grove no one wanted.
Going into pack 2 I decided that people were underdrafting color fixing, that rebels was wide open, and that I wanted to be a three color deck so I could support all my high quality cards. I opened a Cloudgoat Ranger, was passed Meloku the Clouded Mirror, and then picked up more of the stuff you see on the list. I can’t imagine what the guy to my left took over Meloku, but since he was in green it seems it couldn’t be right. There’s no way in two packs he couldn’t have come up with the fixing to splash him, and the card wins games by itself.
To me it seems the basic landcycling cycle of cards is the key to drafting successful multicolor decks. Having so many of them be unexciting playables means they’re always floating around late and it’s sort of easy to do whatever you please with your manabase. With enough of these I think it’s reasonable to go down to 16 lands, but you don’t want to go down more than that since you get rocky on mulligans and/or have to waste a lot of time in the early game activating them. Traumatic Visions is actually a great card, and Fiery Fall is expensive but is removal that works on almost everything in the format. (Traumatic Visions was more or less Tiago Chan’s first try at an invitational card before Wizards turned down the design and he had to come up with Snapcaster Mage as a consolation prize. His design was a land that could be cycled for 2UU as a counterspell.) Even Gleam of Resistance can be useful, my final round opponent said he frequently got people with the surprise untap.
Anyway, because I prioritized fixers and land cyclers, playing a 3c deck with a splash was no sweat, and the mana was about as solid as normal 2c decks. I had 8 ways to make red by turn 2 so I could reliably landcycle and I had 8 ways to make black by turn 2 for my rebels. 9 ways to make white by turn 3 was alright for rebels, though the WW spells would have appreciated a hair more. Finally, Meloku and the sunburst cards appreciated that I had 7 ways to make blue. I don’t want to overstate the value of mana fixing, but keeping mental track of what your manabase could look like at the end of the draft will help a lot in shaping a MM draft. Having good mana means leaving yourself open to powerful cards you get passed, and you want to be able to play every powerful card you can.
I think this deck is a good example of leveraging a bit of a subtheme (rebels) with powerful cards to get something that will play well in the format. Too many rebels and the deck would have been underpowered, but the engine of all these cards together makes a powerful subunit of the deck.
In terms of sideboard, there are a few cards that have stood out as excellent to me. The first is Relic of Progenitus. Dredge decks can be anywhere from annoying (recurring Stinkweed Imp) to dangerous (recurring Worm Harvest). This matchup can get a lot easier if you can nerf the graveyard zone. Terashi’s Grasp and Dispeller’s Capsule answer unique threats, as well as being a solid removal spell vs. Affinity and Sunburst.
I hope that all was useful. If you have any questions about this, comment and I’ll do my best to answer. If there’s a topic you’d like to see discussed in two weeks, hit up the mailbag (email@example.com); I’m sure the technical issues will be ironed out by then.
Until next time,