There is a famous saying: "Don't fix what's not broken." It's intended as a warning that when you got something working as intended, there is no reason to meddle with it any further. It can be easily applied to Magic and deck construction. When you've got a deck that functions as intended, wins games, and runs smoothly, you might as well just run that build for as long as the previous is true. However, some people take a different approach. They are innovators who strive for greatness, always on the lookout for potential improvement. The deck is good, but can it be better? I win a lot, but can I win even more? Can I make my deck less vulnerable to what's in the meta? Thus begins the journey of taking a stable deck and making upgrades with the tools at our disposal.
Now, not all intended improvements are actual improvements. Players less proficient in deck design might actually do harm to a build and weaken it, for example by getting rid of what made it strong or messing with the proper ratios and proportions. While a lot of people try to innovate, only a handful succeeds. Let's take a look at some successful innovations that put decks a tier higher or simply improved something already solid.
One of the best decks in current Modern is RUG Rhinos. It all began, as most things did in the current era of Modern, with Modern Horizons 2. Specifically, I'm referring to the addition of Shardless Agent. It allowed the cascade decks to eschew cards such as As Foretold and truly play a one-card combo. Now you got both Agent and Violent Outburst to have consistent cascades on turn three. One of the first successful shells around these cards looked something like this:
|RUG Rhinos by Aspiringspike, Modern Challenge|
As we can see, it's essentially a green-blue-red control deck with something akin to a combo finish. The big upside of this shell is that it can have these strong early game openings where you put 10 power onto the battlefield on turn three and then never tap out again. Thanks to the rulings behind both Adventures and split cards, the deck can still run efficient interaction while satisfying cascade's deck-building restrictions. The initial version focused on controlling the game so much that it included two Jace, the Mind Sculptor and three Cryptic Command.
|RUG Rhinos by D00mwake, 4th at Modern Challenge|
Players then tried to identify if it could be further improved in any way. The deck was picked up by D00mwake, a popular Modern grinder and streamer. He came to a conclusion that now looks pretty natural: He cut the four-mana spells from the deck. But if I said that's the only thing he did, I'd be disingenuous. He identified the deck's shortcomings and how it could better keep up with the metagame. For example, the deck lost to Chalice of the Void and may have encountered the problem of drawing the wrong half of its cards a bit too often. Enter Prismari Command.
We're already quite red dense so might as well add some Fury and exploit the big presence of small creature decks. In fact, the color requirements are quite easy for the deck, so how about Blood Moon? It helps combat Urza's Saga and big mana strategies. And as a cherry on top—a singleton Murktide Regent to diversify the threats against popular hate such as Engineered Explosives, which kills the Rhino tokens. So much innovation!
D00wake took the tools which had already existed in the formats and expanded on the deck's potential. But he wasn't done yet!
|Modern Challenge, 6-2, D00mwake|
He presumably looked at Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp and thought, "Is there really nothing better than a two-mana Shock?" Enter Seasoned Pyromancer. It goes wide, recycles dead cards, and has utility from the graveyard. What's not to love? It made sense to trim on the removal too, considering the deck already runs four Fury, four Fire // Ice, Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft, and some Dead // Gone.
Honestly, I do not know how much further he can take the deck, but the process of its evolution is supremely fascinating. What's key is that he does not just take a newly-printed and obviously good card but rather re-explores what's already available.
A very similar albeit much more gradual process took place with White-Blue Control. White-Blue and control decks in general have had their core established a long time ago, and there was barely any innovation taking place. Rather, there were different versions based on personal playstyle preferences.
|White-Blue Control pre-MH2|
Sure, when Modern Horizons 2 dropped, the deck picked up Counterspell right away and Prismatic Ending more tentatively (hard to believe now). But the real innovation, while partly predicated on the availability of these tools, came later.
The control hive mind took a look at the tools available and did something that had never been done before: people added Chalice of the Void. It's great against cascade and those hyper-efficient one-drop decks, and it does not hit our deck as we'd already started playing Prismatic Ending instead of Path to Exile. All of this while identifying that Cryptic Command is not good enough, cutting the four-drops altogether and maxing out on Archmage's Charm.
|White-Blue Control with Chalice|
Another step in the deck's evolution was to look at its creature base. Snapcaster Mage has never been at its best in White-Blue, so seeing it low in numbers comes as no surprise. We see just one copy of Solitude in the above because we don't want too much card disadvantage … or do we? If we're already locking a lot of our opponent's cards out with Chalice and there is just a handful we care about, we might as well go a bit out of our way to make sure we have an answer. Additionally, the deck has a ton of card advantage in it, enough to support Force of Negation as well. So players started to run a full four copies of Solitude, and it turned out to be a massive jackpot. Despite the fact that Solitude had been at the players' disposal since its release, it wasn't until a few months later that they realized it's a great tool.
|White-Blue Control, Final Form (for Now)|
Running Solitude as the sole creature also had relevant implications for the sideboard. Kaheera can keep us company now, and without Snapcaster shenanigans Rest in Peace looks better than ever as another lock element. Of course, this is but the most recent step in the deck's evolution. Some players are already experimenting with Yorion, Sky Nomad to make the deck go even bigger, probably to gain an edge in the mirror.
Sometimes, however, there are some ideas that make perfect sense on paper but are not actually that good in practice long term. One idea that comes to mind is incorporating Dark Confidant into Hammer.
|Hammer by AN_ACTUAL_POTATO, 4th at Modern Challenge on October 10|
Basically, 90% of the deck is stock Hammer. But this player decided to change it up a bit and added a strong card draw element. In this deck, Dark Confidant will on average cost you less than 1 life so it can sit on the battlefield forever and keep netting cards. That's exactly why it's another threat that the opponent will have to deal with eventually.
There is a twist though. This deck doesn't care about "eventually." Confidant remains a two-mana creature that does not add anything to the battlefield as far as killing your opponent is concerned and does nothing on entry. It's competing with Ingenious Smith, which replaces itself by drawing a card you actually want and grows every turn and turns into a threat way faster. And so after that one great result, people have come back to the Smith. The attempt was there, but it seems like it did not cut the mustard.
That's it for today. I hope I've given you a better perspective on how innovation and changes look in Modern. As always, hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!
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