Push Back: Know Your Linear Decks; Vol. 2
By Roland F. Rivera Santiago
Hello everyone, and welcome again to Push Back. We’re going to continue our look at Modern’s linear decks this week. One note on Elves before we begin: as our current tier standing notes, Elves is currently a Tier 1 deck. However, it was not at this lofty a standing when we began our article series, so it is included here. With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the remaining popular linear decks and how to beat them:
Speaking of Elves, let’s examine that deck and its meteoric rise on our tier standings. This go-wide green-based deck is similar to Affinity in that it employs individually unimpressive creatures in order to leverage powerful synergies (in this case, it’s the ones available to the Elf creature type) and score some quick wins. Here’s an example list:
Elves, by Decipio (5-0, MTGO Competitive Modern League, May 6, 2017)
How it Works
Elves’ goal is to produce lots of mana, use it to cast lots of Elves, and either beat you down with Elves pumped by Ezuri, Renegade Leader, or drain you to death with Shaman of the Pack. Their cheap creatures can produce tons of mana, and some of them become more effective the more Elves are in play. To find its key pieces, it employs lots of card draw and tutors – Collected Company is the main one, but Chord of Calling and Lead the Stampede are also utilized. Archdruid-fueled beatdown plans are also an option in a pinch.
This deck’s ideal start is to get a card like Heritage Druid or Elvish Archdruid down in the first two turns of the game, and then use its ability to go off, reloading with Company/Lead as necessary. Once it has developed a board state, it can go on the offensive and use Chord to slam down finishers or find silver bullets.
How to Beat It
When thinking about how to disrupt Elves, it’s all about the removal – unlike Affinity, they don’t have any card types that have dedicated hosers printed for them, so the main way to beat them is just to get rid of some Elves. There is also one dedicated hoser out there in Hibernation, but mass bouncing doesn’t buy you that much time before they can vomit their hand back onto the battlefield, and it’s outright counterproductive if you’re facing a Shaman of the Pack. Sweepers such as Anger of the Gods, Damnation, Engineered Explosives, and Supreme Verdict do the best job of slowing down Elves, but even cards like Gut Shot can stymie their fast starts by popping a key mana creature they needed to get going. Note that Ezuri can protect other Elves (not himself) with his regeneration ability, so pick him off before you detonate the field.
In general, decks that have access to sweepers and don’t have a “win on T4 or bust” gameplan (such as Titanshift and UW Control) are heavily advised to pack them if they expect Elves, as the deck is very hard to keep down with just spot removal, and their 1- and 2-power creatures can grind you down over time if you just let them sit there. Decks that can race them (such as Burn and fast combo decks) can mostly ignore the matchup, as Elves have little interaction of their own and are thus susceptible to getting ripped by an opponent with a fast start. Lastly, creature-based decks (especially ones light on removal) are usually the ones that struggle against Elves the most, and there usually isn’t much in the way of palatable options to address the matchup. My recommendation here is usually to ignore the matchup and hope that a strong start on your part can carry you through. If you must dedicate sideboard space to the matchup, make sure that it’s multipurpose – watering down your matchups against other linear decks to address one that you don’t have much chance to turn things around against isn’t sound strategy.
Reign of Madness
Next, let’s discuss what may be Modern’s purest example of a combo deck: Ad Nauseam. This spell-based deck is looking to buy time with some defensive tools until it can build up enough mana and the right cards in hand to go off and win the game more or less on the spot. Let’s take a look at a list that recently 5-0’d an MTGO league:
Ad Nauseam, by danielsann (5-0, MTGO Competitive Modern League, May 9, 2017)
How it Works
Ad Nauseam is based around the interaction between its namesake spell and Angel’s Grace/Phyrexian Unlife. Essentially, Grace or Unlife allows them to draw their entire deck, at which point they can win the game with Lightning Storm and a bunch of lands, or Laboratory Maniac and Serum Visions. The rest of the deck is geared around drawing these spells, putting together enough mana to cast these spells, or buying the pilot time so that they can cast these spells. Its only real emergency backup plan is to name a card not in the deck with Spoils of the Vault while Laboratory Maniac is on the battlefield, so it can then win the game when it next draws a card.
How to Beat It
Trying to race Ad Nauseam without interacting is very difficult, as Phyrexian Unlife, Angel’s Grace, and postboard Fog effects make the deck excellent at buying time. Fighting over the Lightning Storm or the Laboratory Maniac once they have drawn their deck is also not advisable, as they will have access to Pact of Negation to keep you from doing much. Thus, there are two common ways to combat Ad Nauseam decks – discard to strip the combo pieces from their hand, or countermagic to keep them from resolving the namesake spell. The deck does feature countermeasures for this sort of thing (Leyline of Sanctity and Pact of Negation, respectively), but they are few, and the upside of going after them in this fashion is very high. If you have the sideboard room for a dedicated hoser, effects like Slaughter Games or Lost Legacy can remove Ad Nauseam, making it close to impossible for the deck to win.
As implied by the disruption strategies above, highly interactive decks like Death’s Shadow usually don’t have to sideboard in much to face Ad Nauseam – your plan A works very well. Anything that struggles to interact with spells in the hand or on the stack, on the other hand, may have to consider dedicated hosers to stand a chance. Most decks fall somewhere between these two extremes, and are thus advised to pack a few counterspells or discard spells. If those are unavailable, ways to destroy artifacts and enchantments can sometimes be handy.
Sunny Side Up
Next, we’ll look at a deck that has mostly been operating on the fringes of the metagame, but seems to be poised for an uptick. The current edition of Eggs is an artifact-based combo that leverages the synergy between cheap artifacts, Krark-Clan Ironworks, and Scrap Trawler to make huge amounts of mana and draw tons of cards in a single turn (be sure to check out our Eggs primer if you are interested in learning more about this strategy). If that goal sounds similar to Storm, it’s because it is – however, Eggs takes a rather different route to get there. Here’s an example list:
Eggs, by discoverN (5-0, MTGO Competitive Modern League, May 1, 2017)
How it Works
As discussed above, Eggs wants to generate huge amounts of mana and draw lots of cards in a single turn. The way it accomplishes this is by sacrificing cheap artifacts that draw cards when they go to the graveyard to Krark-Clan Ironworks, which in turn produces mana. Scrap Trawler allows the Eggs player to loop 0-mana artifacts like Mox Opal by bringing them back anytime you sacrifice an artifact that costs 1 mana or more.
Once an Eggs player has generated these resources, they can go about winning the game. This is usually accomplished by casting an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. They can find it using their card draw, or by casting cards like Myr Battlesphere or Hangarback Walker and activating a Sanctum of Ugin. If they have neither of these cards in hand, they can even fetch them (or any other artifact they may need) using an Inventors’ Fair. This high degree of redundancy means that Eggs has strong inevitability – if left alone for long enough, it will find a way to go off.
How to Beat It
When it comes to beating Eggs, you have 2 major options: go faster than them, or disrupt the combo. Decks like Affinity and Burn are very well-suited to do the former, and thus don’t have to bother overly much with dedicated sideboard hate. Decks slower than that are going to want some hate to bring in for this strategy. The good news is that Eggs overlaps with other decks when it comes to hate pieces – because it uses artifacts, most Affinity hate pieces work well against it. Because the Trawler half of the combo uses the graveyard, some types of graveyard hate can also slow the deck down. Finally, because the deck relies heavily on Krark-Clan Ironworks actually resolving, some of the countermeasures that give Ad Nauseam trouble (counterspells and Slaughter Games effects) will also work well against Eggs.
How many of these hate pieces you should reach for is dependent on how you measure up against the decks its hate overlaps with. If artifact hate or graveyard hate is something you’re already packing, you should be set against Eggs. If you don’t have those pieces (and your preboard matchup feels a bit shaky), you might want to consider reaching for a couple. However, I would advise against going overboard on this, as Eggs is still not a particularly common deck just yet.
Night of the Living Dead
Last but not least, let’s talk about Living End. This is one of Modern’s most unique combo decks, as it relies on the cascade mechanic allowing it to cast its namesake spell for free. The rest of the deck is built around making sure that spell is as devastating as possible. It received some sweet new additions in Amonkhet (as we talked about in an earlier article), and those are already bearing fruit, as the deck has experienced a small but noticeable increase in success. Let’s take a look at the new tech:
Living End, by JogandoPelado (5-0, MTGO Competitive Modern League, May 7, 2017)
How it Works
Living End revolves around 2 types of cards: creatures with the cycling ability, and its cascade spells (Demonic Dread and Violent Outburst). Using the former will let you find your spells and the lands you need to cast them, and it will stuff your graveyard with lots of dangerous threats to revive with a Living End. Speaking of Living End, not only will the cascade spells allow it to be cast (which cannot be done otherwise, as it doesn’t have a mana cost), but they’ll dig through the whole deck to find it. That combined with all of the cards drawing from cycling make Living End very consistent at what it does.
That said, the deck isn’t entirely one-dimensional – Fulminator Mage and Beast Within give it a pretty credible land hate plan, and the cascade spells can be used as combat tricks when they’re not being used to populate the board. Faerie Macabre can also make the Living Ends more one-sided by eliminating creatures in opposing graveyards.
How to Beat It
Living End is a deck that lives and dies with its graveyard – if you can keep it empty via effects like Relic of Progenitus and Rest in Peace, they are going to have to work very hard to win. Because of this, most cards that you bring in to combat Dredge will do well here. One notable exception is Grafdigger’s Cage, which Living End circumvents completely. Creature-based midrange decks should be particularly concerned with this, as those are the strategies Living End is built to beat.
Another important aspect to Living End is that the nature of cascade spells demands that the deck not play any spells with converted mana costs lower than 3. Because of this, Living End will often give you a bit of time to develop your board before it threatens to go off. You can choose to exploit this by either preparing to stuff the Living End with countermagic, or to start aggressively and try to finish them off before they can do anything. The latter strategy is one of Living End’s classic weaknesses and typically doesn’t need much help in the matchup, but the former could use some reinforcement with extra countermagic coming in out of the sideboard.
Putting it All Together
Because Modern has a variety of linear decks attacking from different angles, I thought it would be helpful to try and balance all of the hate pieces I have mentioned across the article series in a single sideboard. Let’s take Death’s Shadow Jund as an example – it’s going to want to pack Affinity and Burn hate because those decks are prominent, and it’s going to want some graveyard hate because Dredge and Living End are tough matchups. However, it needs to keep some room open for cards like Fulminator Mage and Lingering Souls, which help shore up its matchups against control and big mana decks. Here’s an example sideboard for Death’s Shadow, and what linear decks you would bring the cards in question in against:
2 Ancient Grudge (Affinity, Eggs)
2 Collective Brutality (Ad Nauseam, Burn, Elves, Storm)
3 Fulminator Mage (None)
4 Lingering Souls (Affinity)
2 Nihil Spellbomb (Dredge, Eggs, Living End, Storm)
2 Surgical Extraction (Dredge, Eggs, Living End, Storm)
That’s all I have for you regarding linear decks in Modern. Let me know what you think of the article series in the comments. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you all next week.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland F. Rivera Santiago is our senior modern analyst, a longtime paper Magic player, and a recent MTGO convert that is fascinated by grinding competitive play. Roland's academic prowess spills over to his MTG analytics and dissections of competitive metagames that help us understand what to play and why. He focuses most on Modern, and can usually be found in an MTGO league under the username Rothgar13 with his trusty Merfolk deck.