(Editor’s Note: Season 4 of the Faithless Brewing Community League will feature a throwback to 2014 Modern, an era often praised as Modern’s Golden Age. For more information on the FBCL, see this post.)
It’s 2014, and Modern is in the air! Mishra’s Bauble is cheap and Serum Visions is expensive. Spellskite is in nearly every sideboard and you don’t dare tap out against a Blue deck after they have three lands in play. This was one of the most fun times in Modern, in part because the field was very wide and there was not much difference in competitiveness between Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks. The game play was some of the most back and forth that Modern has ever seen and the players that knew their decks inside and out had an upper hand going into each match.
If I had to define the format in four pillars I would go with Overgrown Tomb decks (BGx decks, Rock decks, Lili-Goyf decks), Steam Vents decks (Twin, Jeskai Control/Tempo, Blue Moon), Pod decks (Melira and Kiki Pods), and the very loosely defined ‘Linear’ decks (Ad Nauseum, Affinity, Burn, Infect, Storm, Tron). Each of those pillars were incredibly diverse and there was lots of room to brew around new approaches for each of them.
I’ve tried to delve into each pillar to help give an idea of what to play during next week’s league matches. I’ve mostly covered the linear decks in the Banned Cards section, since a good deal of those decks have had a card or two banned.
Overgrown Tomb Decks (BGx)
The Overgrown Tomb or BGx decks were composed of straight Black-Green, Jund or Junk (now referred to as Abzan). Jund was the most (in)famous of the BGx decks due to its access to the most powerful card in the format, Lightning Bolt. Access to Anger of the Gods against Pod was also huge boon to the Jund colors.
Despite Jund’s infamy, when it came to playing the BGx mirror match, you 100% wanted to be on the Junk side of the table. This was exclusively down to the card Lingering Souls. In fact many Junk builds splashed white for only Lingering Souls and a few Stony Silences in the sideboard. It was a house in the mirror, straining the opponents 1-for-1 spells and making their reliance on their Liliana of the Veils laughable. When Jund pilots were expecting lots of 1/1 spirits clogging up their opponent’s board, they packed cards such as Chandra Pyromaster and Thundermaw Hellkite to break free.
Straight Black-Green was less common than the other two and it exchanged cleaner mana and resilience to Blood Moon for clunkier removal such as Victim of Night.
To learn more about these archetypes during this time I recommend Jund master and Hall of Famer Wily Edel’s masterpieces on the deck: “So you want to play Jund?” and “Junk is the new Jund.”
The strength of the BGx decks was their ability to break up the opponent’s game plan using the most efficient removal and discard spells Modern had to offer. That gave these decks an edge against decks that relied on the synergy of multiple cards at the same time to create their advantage, including Twin, Scapeshift, and Storm.
In general BGx was weak against strategies that went “bigger” or “wider.” Bigger could be decks such as Tron, or cards such as Keranos, God of Storms. Wider could be decks like BW Tokens, Affinity and Living End. BGx could also be caught off-guard by Blood Moons!
Steam Vents Decks
The Steam Vents decks primarily consisted of Twin and various URx control decks, although you could probably lump some Delver decks in there as well.
Twin was probably the most powerful deck in the format most of the time. It won the first ever Modern Pro Tour and never left its Tier 1 status until it was banned. Even now you can do well in Modern with the much worse Kiki-Exarch combo. I only ever played the deck a handful of times, but I loved playing against it (as long as I wasn’t playing a linear combo deck). The games were always edge of your seat kind of Magic and were usually won on very thin margins from a slight mistake by one player four turns before the game ended.
There were several flavors of Twin, starting with the most popular stock UR Twin that played the most consistent and least painful manabase. It allowed for the smoothest transition to a Blue Moon style deck post board, when the combo was unlikely to come together. Builds could vary between being more tempo based with the maximum number of Pestermites and Vendilion Cliques or more all-in combo with main deck Spellskites and Dispels. Most played a somewhat in between version. Note that some UR decks are sometimes marked online as Temur due to splashing Green for Ancient Grudge.
Grixis Twin really took off during the Khan’s Block with the addition of Tasigur but did see a little bit of play due to better removal and potentially discard against combo. Jeskai Twin was probably the least played version, with pilots preferring to have a Resto-Kiki combo in a more controlling build (see below).
The most popular color splash was the Green splash. The idea behind this deck was to trade some percentage points against non-interactive decks (i.e. decks where your primary win condition was completing your Twin combo), with a huge advantage against other Twin decks by slamming a Tarmogoyf onto the battlefield. Once resolved, a Goyf was very hard to kill against other Twin decks and presented a much faster clock than chip damage from 1/4s and 2/1s. This innovation was done by Twin aficionado Patrick Dickmann and you can read more of his thoughts here.
The strength of Twin decks was that you brought two distinct game plans to the table each match. A disruptive combo deck or a tempo-ey Blue-Red control deck. Depending on the matchup, you could play either. Your opponent would often assume the worst (that you were going to go for the combo on you next turn), which would ‘tax’ their mana by making them leave lands untapped for removal spells at the end of their turns.
For a great write up on BOTH UR Twin and Blue Moon, as well as the difference between them, I highly recommend this article:
The Twin decks were typically favored when the opponent couldn’t interact with the combo well. Twin’s weaknesses then were a fast clock, discard, and removal. These cards are most of what makes up a BGx deck, so you can see why they were favored against Twin. However, in my experience Twin was unfavored game one, but the match became much closer and more interesting post-board. In general, it was usually more effective to interrupt the combo with a Galvanic Blast or Slaughter Pact then it was to play static hate pieces like Torpor Orb.
If you wanted to play Steam Vents and not be as vulnerable to BGx decks you could opt to play control (although you couldn’t play Opt)! Some of these are still kept in a combo, usually Resto-Kiki rather than Splinter Twin. These decks had a much more robust game plan against interactive decks, but were a turn slower against linear decks that you needed to race. Shaun McLaren won a Pro Tour with Jeskai and shares his thoughts here. He also elaborates on his thoughts on the Kiki version here.
For something a little more off the beaten path, see Paul Cheon’s write up on Grixis Cruel Ultimatum Control here:
Birthing Pod Decks
You could always spot the Pod lists as you were scrolling through a deck dump for two reasons: the number of one-ofs really stood out and there were usually a lot of them!
The strength of Pod decks was that if they couldn’t or failed to combo, they could use Pod or Chord of Calling to search their deck to find the silver bullet needed to get them out ahead on board. That also meant that every one-of sideboard creature that you brought in felt like it came in multiples. The combo itself was quite strong and came together in multiple ways, but most common was assembling a Melira, Sylvok Outcast, a Viscera Seer, and a Persist creature (usually Kitchen Finks) to gain infinite life. If that wasn’t enough, you would often scry a Murderous Redcap to the top of your library and kill the following turn.
Unlike Affinity, and cards like Shatterstorm, Pod didn’t have a single card that obliterated its whole game plan. Rather, most hate pieces simply forced the pod player to shift their game plan in a different direction. Grafdigger’s Cage and Torpor Orb were great pieces to shut down the value and tutoring. However, they did little against the creature beat down backed up with a Gavony Township. Anger of the Gods was probably the best card against Pod for the other pillars of the format; both Jund and UR decks had a minimum of two in every list. In fact, I believe that in between Voice of Resurgence and Anger of the Gods being printed, Pod was the clear best deck in the format!
The following articles give a good overview of the deck, but I recommend watching some videos if you’ve never played the deck before. Some of the Pod lines aren’t super intuitive and the decisions about when to pull the trigger on comboing are very interesting. Also, I recommend having a screenshot of your deck handy when playing to know what Pod can grab you at any point in the game. Jacob Wilson writes about his 2nd place finish at PT Born of the Gods here, and this article by Sam Pardee is also helpful:
For a different take, Kiki Pod decks played a slightly different suite of creatures, opting for the Resto-Kiki combo rather than the Melira combo. This deck trades some speed for some beefier creatures like Restoration Angel. See this article.
The life gain of Pod decks played a pretty big role in keeping Burn down. I didn’t have a better place to address Burn so I snuck in it here. For a while, Burn was mostly considered a budget deck in Modern, having to resort to ‘allstars’ like Spark Elemental and Keldon Marauders to make a full 60 card deck. Burn was frequently recommended as a gateway deck that could be a soft landing for new players getting into the format.
However, as the Khans block approached, Burn was slowly cementing itself as a serious contender, having received powerful new toys like Boros Charm and Skullcrack in Gatecrash and Eidolon of the Great Revel in Theros. At the time, it still lacked a strong one drop to partner with Goblin Guide. Monastery Swiftspear was just around the corner, which I believe pushed Burn to be a solid competitive choice. If you were playing Kitchen Finks, you probably weren’t too worried about Burn, but if you weren’t prepared to see it in a tournament, you could be starting 0-1.
The State of Cards that have Since Been Banned
Were they too good then???
Eye of Ugin
Obviously the cheap colorless Eldrazi from Battle for Zendikar had not been printed yet, but before that, did the once Tier Zero land see any play? Yes! It was a staple of Green Tron decks that allowed them to get an Emrakul (the 15 mana one) and win the game against do nothing control decks that had countered all your other big mana spells. Or you used it to chain Wurmcoil Engine after Wurmcoil engine against no-combo decks.
In general, Tron was a very hit or miss deck against the field. It struggled to interact against combo and the most aggressive decks. It often dedicated a huge portion of its sideboard to beating Twin, because the matchup was not great. It was also very common to maindeck up to four (yes four) Pyroclasm to give it some kind of hope against Affinity and Pod. The one thing that Tron did have going for it was the BGx decks were as good as byes. When Jund or Abzan was the most popular deck in the room, Tron was still a competitive choice.
Faithless Looting // Golgari Grave-Troll // Bridge from Below
These three graveyard bombs are feared today but pre-Khans they weren’t really on anyone’s radar for bannings. In fact, the graveyard strategy I was most afraid of at the time was my opponent casting Gifts Ungiven on my end step and choosing Unburial Rites and Iona, Shield of Emeria. I’m not really sure I ever saw any Golgari Grave-Troll or Bridge from Below decks that I can remember. Faithless Looting was mostly used as a card smoother in decks like Storm and Seismic-Loam decks, often as a one- or two-of (Chris Fennell’s PT Born of the Gods Top 8 list played 3 Lootings; see the Git Probe section for a brief discussion on Storm).
Probably the most notable Faithless Looting deck was the Grishoalbrand deck that popped up and made a decent name for itself. It was capable of some of the most busted starts in Modern at the time, but was very much a glass cannon. Several folks claimed that the Grishoalbrand deck was super busted after it took its designers of the deck deep into the Grand Prix that they debuted it at. However, it never really became a pillar of the format. It wasn’t a deck that made people double or triple the amount of Graveyard hate in their sideboards, so what happened?
I think a big part of the initial success was due to the sneaky Blood Moon plan in the sideboard. However, once the list was out, competitive players knew to respect the Moon and adjust their fetching in games two and three. That cut down on a lot of free surprise wins and the deck never really gained a large metagame presence. You can read more about the deck here:
One graveyard deck that did catch my eye when looking back at this format was this beauty. I’ll admit I never played against, but four Footsteps of the Goryo can’t be wrong, can it?
Gitaxian Probe was played in only a few decks as a four-of, however, many decks played fewer to smooth out draws. Tarmo-Twin usually played two, to ensure that its Goyfs could survive a Lightning Bolt. The decks it saw the most play in were UR Storm, Infect, and the Death’s Shadow Suicide Zoo style decks. It wasn’t until we had new Delve spells from the Khans block that this was even considered one of the more powerful spells in the format, though in hindsight, it may have been underplayed.
Storm used Git-Probe to quickly turn on Pyromancer’s Ascension and raise the storm count. Storm was always a minor player in the metagame that was prone to fizzling almost as much as it killed on turn four. This was partly due to the fact that it was much harder to play than today’s Storm deck that kills deterministically with Gifts Ungiven packages.
Despite Storm never dominating the metagame it was responsible for the highest number of bannings ever from a Tier 2 deck, notably the highly controversial and totally unpredicted Seething Song ban in 2013. There were some stalwarts of the deck, most famous of them was Johnny Magic himself! It was usually Mr. Jon Finkel’s Modern deck of choice and you can read his guide to playing the deck here.
There is not much to say about the state of pre-Khans Infect as the deck was pretty much the same as it is today. The only significant maindeck changes are the now banned Gitaxian Probes and some slightly worse pump spells (bonus points to anyone who knows what Phytoburst does without looking it up). You can read Tom Ross’s 2014 primer here.
Death’s Shadow had existed in Modern since its inception but was never the format staple that we know today until after Pod had left the format. The Grixis and 4-color builds lacked the extra consistent cheap big bodies that Gurmag Angler and Traverse the Ulvenwald brought to the table. Not to mention the hyper-efficient Stubborn Denial and game ending Temur Battle Rage that came along in the Khans Block.
This doesn’t mean that Death’s Shadow decks saw no play, but it was most common to see it in a four or five color hyper-aggressive “Suicide Zoo” style build alongside Gitaxian Probes, Wild Nacatls, Goyfs, and Goblin Guides. These decks were much faster than the midrangey/aggro-control builds of today and with so much BGx in the format, you didn’t want to be caught running a threat-light deck against a fist full of removal.
I mostly remember Krark-Clan Ironworks as the justification that the colored artifact lands were banned. I did run into the deck a few times but it wasn’t as scary as the version that was banned much later. For one, Scrap Trawler and Sai, Master Thopterist hadn’t been printed yet. Second, artifact hate was everywhere in sideboards, especially Stony Silence and Ancient Grudge which ate the deck alive. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some brave souls trying. For the adventurous artificer, see Caleb Durward’s build and gameplay in the video below:
Poor Affinity, you’re no longer able to ramp into Metalcrafted Etched Champion and slap a Cranial Plating on it on turn three! However, in 2014, the perfection of Mirrodin had not yet died for Urza’s sins. Affinity was an absolute force in the meta. It produced a blistering clock with just enough disruption to keep your opponent’s game plan on their toes. It had some of the most complicated game states in the format but the match often came down to sideboard bombs. You were doomed to come across it if you left your Stony Silences, Shatterstorms, and Ancient Grudges at home, and you were guaranteed to avoid it if you prepared for it.
Some of the best content about the deck was written by Frank Karsten and here is a sample:
Karn the Great Creator hadn’t been printed yet. That’s all there is to see here folks!
Summer Bloom was a core part of the Amulet Titan deck that still exists today, without the Blooms of course. The story of the deck was kind of a strange one in that the deck went from relative obscurity into clamoring for bans within a month or so.
I had a friend who took the deck to almost every PTQ, PPTQ, SCG Open and GP within a 200 mile radius that he could get to starting in 2013, well before it became a Tiered deck. I stopped by and asked him some questions about the history of the deck and why he thought it wasn’t played more.
It turns out it was considered mostly a meme deck that was just a glass cannon. At the time, combo decks were judged on how robust their backup plan was if they weren’t able to pull off their combo: think Twin’s shift into a control deck, or Pod’s ability to beat down with a wide board of creatures. Amulet didn’t really have one, so if you couldn’t combo, you were kind of just dead. However, the combo is so explosive and so fast that you could still do well with it. One of the pilots who first did really well with the deck eventually got caught cheating due to palming opening hands and winning on turn one or two!
There were a few different ways to build the deck, some builds had Hive Mind, some played Simian Spirit Guide. My friend claimed the best way to build the deck involved a Gift’s Ungiven, but I’m not totally sure how that worked? I asked him if the deck was always broken and his response was “the deck was always good.” Anyway, here is a video on the deck:
Other viable decks not covered in Detail:
Delver (yes, Delver!)
4(+) Color Gifts Ungiven Control
Death & Taxes and/or Maverick
BONUS! Top 3 Spiciest Lists I Found While Researching This
Jeskai Geist by Shahar Shenhar
“Flash Hulk” by Joe Klopchic
Eternal Command by Shouta Yasooka
Happy brewing and see you in the Leagues!
Soren Wellman has been playing casual Magic since Mercadian Masques and tournament Magic since Innistrad. He is an electrical power systems designer by day and a Dimir deck designer by night. He enjoys all deck archetypes but has a penchant for control mirrors.