How to Tune Your Modern Deck

by Simon Nielsen on 18 March 2019, Monday

Simon Nielsen

I’m on my way home from Grand Prix Los Angeles. I decided to travel there alone after the Mythic Championship in Cleveland, and I greatly enjoyed my time there. In the actual tournament I put up a brave 8-7 record with my beloved Valakut deck. At least the deck managed a Top 8 appearance for the third consecutive Modern GP, so I don't have a reason to quite give up on my trusty Mountains quite yet.

 

The interesting thing about my preparation for this event was that since I had been focused on testing for the Mythic Championship, I didn't spend any time to test Modern. And in the days between the tournaments I spent a lot of time travelling and sightseeing. Since I don't even own a laptop, I couldn't rely on my usual endless grind on Magic Online to prepare.

 

Instead I gathered some smart heads and relied mostly on theory. And I thought this process could turn into an interesting article where I use my tuning of Valakut as a baseline example to talk about Modern deck tuning in general.

 

Because let's face it, you are much more likely to just update your deck than you are to switch decks in Modern.

 

The starting point

 

Last time I played Valakut was at GP Atlanta back in October. This was another event where I mostly theorycrafted as I was again submerged in Pro Tour testing. I did manage a 12-3 result however, and this was the list I played:

 

Simon Nielsen’s Red-Green Valakut

 

4 Primeval Titan

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

1 Wood Elves

2 Anger of the Gods

2 Explore

3 Farseek

4 Scapeshift

4 Search for Tomorrow

4 Lightning Bolt

2 Summoner's Pact

2 Relic of Progenitus

1 Prismatic Omen

3 Cinder Glade

2 Forest

1 Misty Rainforest

6 Mountain

4 Stomping Ground

4 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

1 Verdant Catacombs

1 Windswept Heath

4 Wooded Foothills

1 Sheltered Thicket

 

1 Anger of the Gods

1 Relic of Progenitus

2 Tireless Tracker

1 Thragtusk

1 Reclamation Sage

4 Obstinate Baloth

2 Nature's Claim

1 Damping Sphere

2 Abrade

 

This list is largely my usual tool, playing the same main deck choices and sideboard plans that I’m used to. I updated them a bit for the metagame back then, such as 2 Anger of the Gods main deck because Creeping Chill just got printed and I expected lots of Dredge.

 

Generally, there are a lot of good arguments to play the list which you are used to, but at the same time you can't be outdated. If you play mostly the same cards you usually run, you will know how to sideboard in most matchups and you’ll generally be more comfortable with the little details of the deck.

 

On the other hand, you shouldn’t be stuck in the past, and as the format changes, your deck has to follow along. But if you change too much about your deck, you might lose the edge of familiarity that you've built up over so much time. As with most things, it's a balancing act.

 

Establish a Network

 

Since I knew that I wouldn't be able to do any testing of my own, I decided to call upon the Valakut Squad. The Volcano Avengers if you will.

 

I made a Messenger group chat with the brightest and most committed Mountain Minds I know, in order to lean on their experience and thoughts on the format.

 

Thien Nguyen has a GP Top 8 with Valakut, has been loyally sticking with this deck through thick and thin and was the person who originally taught me how to play Valakut.

 

Becky Adlman doesn't play many GPs but has two SCG Open Top 8s with the deck. She proudly flies the Valakut flag on Twitter and is a big proponent of the Through the Breach version.

 

Marshall Jankovsky recently top 8'ed GP Oakland with RG Valakut. He manages his own website exclusive to Scapeshift content and was the only one of the three to actually go to Los Angeles, so I knew he'd have done a lot of testing I could lean on.

 

I understand that most readers aren't in a position to just reach out to successful players and start a group chat (though it can't hurt to try). However, most Modern archetypes have a Facebook and/or Discord forum where lots of discussions are had. These sites have a lot of noise, but as long you can filter that away and figure out who you should listen to, these are gold mines of information.

 

Keeping up with articles on your deck is also important, even if you already feel you know it well and disagree with what is said. It's important to be exposed to different takes, because sometimes you’re wrong even if you've done something for years, and you need to be open to this.

 

Get a Grip on the Metagame

 

Despite being a huge non-rotating format, the Modern metagame is still always in flux. Sometimes it's because of bannings, sometimes new printings make way for new archetypes or reignite old ones. And sometimes the metagame naturally shifts as the top predators slowly get hated out.

 

Whatever the reason is, if you look at two snapshots throughout Modern’s history just six months apart, the top decks are often wildly different. This is especially true now that the new sets seem to add more Modern playables than ever before. This also means that you need to stay up to date and do your homework.

 

For the current Modern metagame, there are two big changes that have impacted the format: the banning of Krark-Clan Ironworks and the printing of Arclight Phoenix. The hivemind has finally had enough time to work out what the best Phoenix-deck is, and it turns out that it’s Blue-Red with Thing in the Ice. KCI also happened to be one of the bad matchups for Izzet Phoenix, so once that got chased out of the format, Phoenix stood atop as the clear “best deck”.


Dredge also picked up a lot, both with the printing of Creeping Chill and with the banning. It also happens to be quite good against Izzet Phoenix.


I expected those decks to be the top two choices at GP Los Angeles, and I still think so for upcoming events. We can also see what impact this has on the way decks are built, as Phoenix decks now maindeck up to two Surgical Extractions. They serve double duty as extra free spells and as impactful graveyard hate against these two top decks. It’s important to sift through new deck lists in order to pick up on these trends so you don’t get blindsided at the tournament. This includes looking through main decks as well as sideboards.

 

Additionally, decks like Hardened Scales, Grixis Death’s Shadow, BG Midrange, Burn and Whir of Invention Prison pick up in popularity. At the same time, control decks and creature decks such as Humans and Spirits are on the decline. Those decks were still quite popular not too long ago, so I’d still expect them to show up more than some of the decks that are on an upswing. Anyway, it’s still important to be aware of these changes, so you have a better idea of how the metagame will look in the future.


Also, remember to not put too much stock into these metagame reads. Modern is still a very wide format, and you’re going to play against a bunch of different decks over the course of a 15-round Grand Prix. So most importantly you need to play a good deck yourself and play it well.

 

Cut your Darlings: Sometimes you are wrong

 

Talking to the Valakut squad was quite interesting as we got to exchange how we each viewed the deck and wanted to build it. I noticed that they were much higher on Khalni Heart Expedition than I had ever been. On the other hand, I’ve always sworn by my one maindeck Prismatic Omen. It’s horrible in multiples, not essential for your game plan but can create some explosiveness when you do draw it. To me, it seemed like the perfect one-of, but nobody else played it.

After thinking more about it, I realized that the Expedition and Omen are quite similar cards in that they need help in order to do something, but they can make your deck more explosive. The thing about Khalni Heart Expedition is that it also counts as a ramp spell by itself. I went to a hypergeometric calculator to figure out how much those extra ramp spells were needed. And it turns out, it’s quite a bit.


With my 14 ramp spells (not counting Prismatic Omen) I have a 68 % chance to draw two ramp spells by turn 3 on the play, not factoring in mulligans. Drawing two is important, because this is what lets me enact my main game plan of turn 4 Primeval Titan.
Marshall had a list with 16 ramp spells. The same 14 as mine, but with 2 Khalni Heart Expedition on top. His list has a 76 % chance to double ramp by turn 3 on the play. That’s a pretty significant difference.


I still didn’t like the idea of drawing multiple Expeditions, but I could see how it was better than Omen. Since I didn’t have time to try it out and wanted to keep Relic of Progenitus in my main deck, I opted to play just 1 copy.


Now that I switched to Khalni Heart Expedition, fetchlands become more valuable. I had to turn my other darling, Sheltering Thicket, into an extra Windswept Heath. I was a little concerned with this, because it brings down my Mountain count (and almost cost me a game in my very first round). But it does also make it less likely that I get clogged up with tapped lands in the early game.

The lesson here is that even though you’ve played your list a certain way for many years, that might not be correct. Maybe it never was, maybe it just no longer is. And you have to shake away your pride and deeply consider if you could in fact be wrong about this.
This ability is probably the hardest when it comes to deck building, but you simply have to go through it.

 

My other changes: Finalizing the list

 

As a Valakut player, my Izzet Phoenix matchup is fine, but it mostly depends on if I can kill Thing in the Ice on sight. A 7/8 on turn 3 is almost impossible to deal with, and our removal spells can’t even kill the front side because they only deal 3 damage. Because I expected Izzet Phoenix to be the most popular deck, I played a single Flame Slash over a Lightning Bolt. They are often going to be the same card, but most of the time Bolt will just be better. Instant speed and going to the face or to a planeswalker are both very important, so I could only hedge so much.


In the sideboard there’s room for more answers to Thing in the Ice. They also double as answers to Grixis Shadow, which can be a bad matchup if you aren’t prepared.

 

We had 2 Roast, but I decided to change one of them to my beloved Spitebellows. In comparison to Roast it kills flyers like Pteramander and Crackling Drake, and against Grixis Shadow it dodges Stubborn Denial and Inquistion of Kozilek. Spitebellows served me well in the Modern GP in Birmingham that I Top 8’ed, so I’m certainly not one to leave it behind.

Marshall had informed me that he added two Courser of Kruphix to his main deck and was very impressed by them. Burn continues to be quite popular, and even the top two decks are interested in burning out your life total, so that extra buffer is certainly welcome. It also helps a lot in grindy matchups postboard, especially combined with Tireless Tracker.

 

I wasn’t quite as sold on the card. I find it problematic that you can’t play it while ramping which essentially delays your own game plan. Also, getting double Green mana on turn 3 before you play your land drop isn’t always trivial. So I decided to only run a single copy with similar logic as the Khalni Heart Expedition. Cutting the one Courser also allowed me to maindeck two copies of Relic of Progenitus.

I made some updates to the sideboard after the guidance from Marshall. Having access to just a single Shatterstorm, especially with Tireless Tracker in my deck, is the difference between night and day against Whir Prison. It’s easy for them to lock you out, but they often give you a lot of time and can’t really beat Shatterstorm or prevent you from drawing it now that they no longer play discard and Lantern of Insight.


Destructive Revelry replaces a second copy of Nature’s Claim because the mana might not always matter, but the extra 2 damage can mean that you kill with Scapeshift a turn earlier, particularly since the decks where Naturalize effects come in are frequently going to stay above 18 life.


I don’t quite buy the argument that Marshall gave me, because on the draw it can be very important to kill Amulet of Vigor or Hardened Scales and also I cut Scapeshift much more than he does, which makes the life totals matter less.

 

The Final List

 

After all the discussion and fine tuning, this is where I ended up. There’s a lot of 1-ofs here because I decided to hedge in a bunch of spots because I didn’t have the practice to be sure about my decision one way or the other.

Simon Nielsen’s Red-Green Valakut by the Squad

 

1 Courser of Kruphix

4 Primeval Titan

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

1 Wood Elves

2 Anger of the Gods

2 Explore

3 Farseek

1 Flame Slash

1 Khalni Heart Expedition

2 Lightning Bolt

2 Relic of Progenitus

4 Scapeshift

4 Search for Tomorrow

2 Summoner's Pact

3 Cinder Glade

2 Forest

1 Misty Rainforest

6 Mountain

4 Stomping Ground

4 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

1 Verdant Catacombs

2 Windswept Heath

4 Wooded Foothills

 

1 Abrade

2 Damping Sphere

1 Destructive Revelry

1 Grafdigger's Cage

1 Nature's Claim

3 Obstinate Baloth

1 Reclamation Sage

1 Roast

1 Shatterstorm

1 Spitebellows

2 Tireless Tracker


On Saturday morning, I was in the shower thinking about my list and how to incorporate Engineered Explosives. That would be an additional answer to Thing in the Ice as well as just being a flexible out in many scenarios.


I realised that I could move a Relic of Progenitus to the sideboard to make room for it, and cut Spitebellows from the board, as it’s good in matchups where Explosives is good anyways.


I dried up and went to see if I could change my list in the last minute. But alas, at that time it was 9 am and deck list submissions had been closed.


Moral of the story is, I guess: Take shorter showers!

 

This article was written by Simon Nielsen in a media collaboration with mage.market.







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