Counting to Ten in Modern

Ten is a pretty sweet number. You can count to it in half the time it takes you to get to twenty. As a bonus, you can do it on just your fingers, so there’s no need to wear sandals. It’s the base number in a superior measurement system and the age I was when I was first taught how to play Magic. When people are durdling around, you can just count it up quickly and still have plenty time left over for lunch. It is also the number of hours I will be driving this weekend for Grand Prix Charlotte. Surely it can’t just be mere coincidence.

I have been playing Infect in Modern basically since Wizards of the Coast told me I couldn’t play Kiki Pod anymore. There have been times when I’ve had to abandon the deck and times when I should have but didn’t. But I would only regret it if I chose to leave it on the sidelines when it is actually a good choice. And given that I have put more work into this Infect list than any other deck in any format, I really want to leverage my experience advantage while the population is ripe for infection.

There are basically two predominant styles of playing Infect.  In one, you jam your threats and pump spells and make your opponents have answers; the other grinds opponents out slowly while guarding your threats and resources. A great player will know when it is appropriate to adopt either role.

Not being a great player, I tend to skew towards playing meticulously, especially when there is a matchup with a lot of interaction (soft permission, removal spells, etc.). I will chip in damage and dare my opponent to act first, meanwhile sculpting the perfect hand to exploit an opening or just forcing them into a spot where they eventually have to do something to stop their steadily increasing poison count.

However, due to recent developments surrounding the arrival of Nahiri in Modern, it might be time to adapt. Sure, there will still be Nahiriless games that play out just like the old Jeskai Control games did, but we can’t count on that anymore. The reason is that while previously the control opponent might be stuck with certain cards that didn’t line up well with us, they can now pitch the cards that aren’t stellar (such as Cryptic Command and Remand) and focus on finding the cheap, more dangerous interaction. In the meantime, we also only have two turns before we get Emrakul’ed out of the game. The matchup is by no means hopeless, but it’s important to both inform our decklist decisions and our gameplay decisions according to this paradigm shift. While it’s very possible to overreact to one weekend given that people tend to stick to their decks, there are a lot of disenfranchised control and Splinter Twin players out there who are itching to resleeve their Snapcaster Mages and Lightning Bolts.

It’s pretty trivial to say, but no deck in Modern is going to have a good matchup against everything. Metagaming is a hopeless battle; what small percentage points you might gain by anticipating the field you might play on day 2 of a major event evaporate quickly when you take into account a lack of familiarity with your deck and the sheer randomness of a diverse field. Knowing your matchups better than your opponents and learning how to drive home a specific angle of attack in an unfavorable matchup will serve you much better than meticulously crafting the best sideboard to account for everything. With all of this being said, when playing a tight, linear deck like Infect, you need to do your best to anticipate the “texture” of a tournament. If you are playing a small local tournament where you know there will be the usual cast of characters carrying their Zoo and Jund decks, then cards like Dryad Arbor, Carrion Call and Wild Defiance have more appeal. When facing combo decks, generally we want to speed ourselves up post-board and hope to prove that 1/1’s and pump spells are the superior combo.

Fortunately there are a lot of popular decks that present a challenge but don’t require us to change our central gameplan (Scapeshift, Affinity, etc.). Others are just not easily fixable via sideboarding (Storm, Abzan Company, etc.). With these we can leverage our understanding and ensure we give ourselves the best chance to win by utilizing that knowledge. You don’t have to be a favorite to win a match, you just need to maximize your chances in the game.

U/G Infect by Charley Murdock

Card Choices

The debate between Slip Through Space and Distortion Strike has been raging on internally in my head on a daily basis. On the one hand, Distortion Strike provides extra damage, and the Rebound guarantees you draw a card next turn that you want to draw: Distortion Strike! But if we are in an environment where we want to push our advantage as hard and as early as possible, then I slightly prefer Slip Through Space. It goes immediately to graveyard, which is relevant when you are also running 4 Become Immense.  I have had a lot of games where I’ve come up one mana/delve short of lethal because I could cast Distortion Strike to get the attacker through, but couldn’t then delve for Become Immense because of Rebound. Additionally, it gives us a chance to draw a major pump spell the same turn. While the odds aren’t great, they will add up over the course of a long tournament and provide you with a chance to steal one or two games you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. As I alluded to earlier concerning the matchup against the New-hiri kid on the block, we might not have the luxury of time in control matchups as we have had in the past. This is an example of our flex slot decisions being informed by the texture of the tournament field.

I believe Infect is in a sweet spot currently in Modern. With the relative downturn in aggressive and interactive decks like Burn and Zoo, Infect finds itself reasonably well positioned. This is evidenced by a slew of recent top finishes in multiple high profile tournaments. The kicker is that it is also vastly more affordable for many players compared to other high end decks, especially since you can slot in 8 of the 9 fetchland spots with Khans fetchlands at virtually no deckbuilding cost (unless someone really wants to get you with a Pithing Needle).

These factors are causing me to make the mirror a higher priority for this weekend than I usually would when considering both my deck’s flex spots and my sideboard. While I can draw from my experience to give me an edge over a lot of opponents, Infect is a pretty scary deck to play against! They only have to count to ten; it’s really unfair! If I think there is an above average chance of facing it more than once in a weekend, then I want to give myself a little bit more help. Here are a few ways I look to do this:

Load up on Spellskites: The entire mirror match tends to fall into a sub-game that revolves completely around this creature. You board in around 8 cards to answer the copies your opponent has, and you throw in as many as you have. Board states with dueling Spellskites prolong the game and become a dance of who can chip in damage and/or wear down the opposing Spellskite first, while you both perform voodoo rituals trying to will a Nature’s Claim or Twisted Image to the top of your deck.

Nature’s Claim and Twisted Image: See above. I even like having access to 1 Twisted Image in the main deck, as it’s never strictly dead since it replaces itself and it also works great against opponents who are playing mana dorks and walls.

Viridian Corrupter: Again, Spellskite. The extra threat is also useful to have, and the 2/2 body means it can hold back a naked Glistener Elf.

Dismember: It answers any threat from Infect, especially Blighted Agent. In an environment where things are slowing down and opponents are not pressuring your life total directly (a la Lava Spike or Wild Nacatl) this becomes a very attractive option for the main deck.

Moving on, here are some cards that have popped up recently or that I have played in the past, but which I am not currently running:

Wall of Roots: The mana boost on both turns and the extra blocker are certainly appealing, but I don’t think we are in a world right now where it’s worth devoting multiple spots to an 0/5 wall. I can certainly envision metagames where I would play this, but right now I want options that either protect my threats or enhance them directly.

Thing in the Ice: Similarly, the blocker is useful at times, but honestly this just hasn’t been good in practice. You can theoretically count it as an extra infect creature, as our opponents will tend to spend life more liberally in post-board games, and having a base power of seven should make the remaining required damage count ten or less. Also, it is pretty cool that Spellskite is coincidentally a Horror. Alas, there are just too many times where you will actually have a chance to kill your opponent with an actual infect creature, but you won’t be able to cast the one or two spells necessary (or the one spell + the option of having a protection or counterspell ready to answer them). So you’re now stuck in a situation where you can’t immediately flip your Thing in the Ice, and you might only be able to get damage through with an Inkmoth Nexus or Blighted Agent, but you also can’t “go for it”. There’s just not really a compelling reason to introduce such a counterproductive element to your game plan for mediocre upside.

Groundswell: This one is subject to some debate and I expect to hear some disagreement. I don’t think it’s a terrible error to include a full playset by any means. However, I will always run four copies of Might of Old Krosa before including the first Groundswell. You won’t always be able to put a land into play, but you will always have a main phase. [Orly? -Ed.] When we’re more “all-in” on killing our opponent quickly, it does push us to include more pump spells. And for that reason I’m including a singleton copy here to give me a slightly better chance of finding that kill card when I really need it.

Serum Visions: Running along the theme of trying to close games quicker, I am cutting the singleton copy from my list. This card is reasonably good when the plan becomes to setup for a big turn in the mid game, but as mentioned before this type of strategy isn’t as reliable currently.

Pithing Needle: We may end up in a place where we just are forced to run this card, but currently I’m going to try to get by without devoting a spot to it. Ultimately it just does not do enough in enough matchups to warrant a spot. It would be our best answer to Nahiri, but currently I am willing to just try and kill them before turn 6.

The other side of the coin is having a strong grasp of the strategy for the mirror match. This has been written about in a couple of places by great players, and I encourage you to seek out as much information and content as you can if you plan on playing Infect in a tournament soon. With that disclaimer being disclaimed, I will still share a few basic but helpful tips and tricks that come up basically every single time I face Infect with Infect.

– Remember that pump spells and effects wear off at the end of the turn. While you might be winning the combat initially with your exalted and/or Pendelhavened Glistener Elf, you’re still going to lose the creature at the end of the turn if they block with an Infect creature of their own because the -1/-1 counter persists. (Inkmoth Nexus is a special case. While the -1/-1 counter will stay on the land, it actually stops being a creature before the rules check to see if it’s dead during cleanup. Take note that if you ever try to reactivate it, then it will die immediately.)

– While many of our sideboard cards are devoted to the Spellskite sub-game, Blighted Agent is actually the key card in this matchup.  Unlike the multiple answers boarded in to answer the 0/4 artifact, you only (usually) have two answers to a Blighted Agent in your deck in the form of Dismember. In this vein, try really hard to save your Dismembers for an opposing Blighted Agent, unless you are either (a) about to die or (b) about to kill them. As a quick aside, Blighted Agent and Slip Through Space/Distortion Strike are so powerful that I strongly prefer the Blue/Green configuration of the deck over the Black/Green configuration if I expect to face any mirror matches.  This is especially true for game one.

– Vines of Vastwood pulls double duty of being a counterspell to any spell or ability that targets an opponent’s creature. You can even do it to fizzle an activation of Pendelhaven, which does occasionally come up. If you want to go get drinks afterwards with your opponent, that’s fine, but I strongly discourage you to kick it with them in this particular situation.

– You have to be willing to die. Games often become more reactive after sideboard, so a lot of the time the highest percentage play is to say “kill me if you can” while deploying out your threat or threats. This becomes a lot easier to stomach if you have or can get a Spellskite out, as they will then have to have an answer plus the requisite cards to poison you out as well. And if they can’t kill you, then hopefully your draw has lined up in such a way that you can kill them the next turn.

Sideboarding should never be a paint by numbers endeavor, but in general this would be my plan for the mirror:

-4 Mutagenic Growth
-1 Groundswell
-1 Might of Old Krosa
-1 Wild Defiance
-1 Become Immense
-1 Gitaxian Probe
-1 Slip Through Space

+4 Nature’s Claim
+2 Twisted Image
+1 Viridian Corruptor
+2 Spellskite
+1 Dispel

Pump spells have less utility as I previously mentioned, so we want to shave on the less powerful ones. Since we are cutting a lot of “free” and 1-mana spells, I also want to go down a Become Immense so I’m less likely to be sitting on multiple copies. Other than that, the gameplan is pretty clear as I outlined. Blighted Agent is the most important card and you need to be prepared to fight the Spellskite battle. Things slow down and become a bit more meticulous (right where I want it), but it can still end quickly in a fierce flurry of cards. Look to maneuver yourself to capitalize on this exchange when your hand allows it.

Modern is hard. It rewards experience and knowledge of the format first and foremost. However, once you have learned a deck and are approaching mastery, you can start to put a finger to the wind to discover some underlying trends in the current. Sometimes that current becomes a riptide of Eldrazi or Treasure Cruises for a short time, but overall when things are healthy the metagame is really diverse. It’s completely impossible to predict what you will play the first day of a large open or Grand Prix, but you can make some informed decisions to give yourself a small edge when the better players and better positioned decks are going to shake out and rise to the top tables. If you are fortunate enough to make a run yourself, then the choices you make in deck selection and construction can give you an edge. There is no replacement for practice, and you can’t fake preparation. But if you’re giving yourself every chance you can, then this weekend might be a great time to see how well you can count to ten.

Charley Murdock
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Charley Murdock

Charley Murdock is a competitive Magic player from Richmond, VA. He is a student of the game, a member of the Scrubland podcast, and a data analyst on his boring days. With a focus on improving and learning, he has managed to find major tournament success in multiple formats, including a semi-finals appearance at Grand Prix Atlanta. His favorite phrase in Magic is ‘quadruple block’, and he will always pause his match to watch whenever it is uttered within earshot. You can find him on twitter at @Charleym_
Charley Murdock
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Published:May 18, 2016


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