It’s the epitome of attrition. A civil war that goes deep into the round, where graveyards can end up larger than libraries, hands are typically empty, and the battlefield is a complicated stalemate.
This match reminds me of cartoons from when I was growing up. Anytime someone got into a fight, a large ball of dust would appear. You couldn’t see anyone actually hurting the other person, but you could see fists and feet appear from the cloud, accompanied by the sounds of slapping and punching. Then, when the dust would suddenly settle, one character would come out on top.
The match can often play out like that. The beginning turns can be a slug fest of attrition, trading resources back and forth. By the end of it though, when every resource has been exhausted, the person with any resemblance of a threat left over is the one who usually pulls ahead in the match. This is why this match is one of my absolute favorites to play. No one is dying on turn two and no one is hating the other player out of the game. Each player will get to play plenty of Magic and will have numerous choices and paths to take, making for really fun and rewarding game-play.
The G/B decks of Modern are the most popular mid-range options and take on many different variations and flavors. The decks are built to be able to answer any threat. They can pivot into a control deck against aggro and an aggro deck against control. The powerful combination of discard, removal, and efficient threats gives it resilience in any meta. Their flexibility makes them difficult to target and allows them to be adaptable to meta shifts. If you’re interested in the history of these decks, you can read this article to learn more.
The most powerful spells in this match are the spells that gain you card advantage and the spells that two-for-one. Cards like Dark Confidant, Tireless Tracker, Bloodbraid Elf, and Lingering Souls are extremely potent here. These cards make it difficult to trade one-for-one because they either replace the cards being traded for, or split themselves into two separate portions that each require their own answer. Lightning Bolt is laughably bad against Lingering Souls when it’s used to kill one spirit token. This exchange has Bolt trading itself for 1/4th of another card. That kind of rate is down right embarrassing for a deck that wants to trade one-for-one.
The worst cards here are simply the cards that don’t do enough late into the game. This typically comes down to discard. It isn’t long before both players are out of resources in hand, and when that time comes, discard can be a worse draw than land. Cards that effect the battlefield are very important and discard spells just don’t fit the bill. Sometimes if you have more cards to bring in than take out, you’ll even see players shave a land to ensure their deck has the maximum amount of relevant late game draws in it.
Out of the sideboard, this is the match where you throw everything but the kitchen sink into your deck. Sweepers, additional threats, more removal, and anything else that’s relevant. You’ll see players bring in cards like Huntmaster of the Fells, Kitchen Finks, Obstinate Baloth, Damnation, Liliana, the Last Hope, and sometimes even Fulminator Mage. Each of these decks run four to seven discard spells, most of which players are more than happy to trade out for something else more exciting.
Let’s look at some examples, starting with Jund sideboarding against Abzan.
As noted before, discard can be very weak in a match that will eventually come down to top-decking. We’re replacing them with more threats and more removal. Liliana, the Last Hope and the sweepers are particularity important against Abzan because Lingering Souls can be such a difficult card to deal with. While Lingering Souls is single-handedly the best card against Jund in the match, I don’t think that it quite deserves dedicated graveyard hate like Grafdigger’s Cage. Those cards may just be a tad too narrow. Nihil Spellbomb is the only piece of graveyard-hate I would consider since at it’s worst, it cycles into a new card. Spellbomb can be especially good if they are playing more graveyard reliant cards like Grim Flayer or Traverse the Ulvenwald.
Against Jund, I would keep the sideboarding strategy mostly the same, though I could see an argument for keeping in the Thoughtseizes to try and snag Bloodbraid Elves. Bloodbraid Elf is good enough, especially in the mirror, that it could merit keeping Thoughtseize in you felt it was necessary. Anger of the Gods is one of those cards you could leave in the sideboard for Thoughtseize since there is a chance that it won’t actually wipe the board the way it would against Abzan.
Now let’s look at how Abzan adapts to the G/B mirror.
In either Jund or Abzan, there could also be consideration for Fulminator Mages. On the play, the card can aggressively attack the opponent’s mana by putting them behind a turn. Going into your fourth turn while your opponent is replaying their second turn is a huge tempo advantage. The card can also take out creature lands which can be difficult to remove when you have conditional/sorcery removal like Liliana of the Veil, Abrupt Decay, and Maelstrom Pulse. At its absolute worse, it’s a “Grey Ogre” that can attack and block as a 2/2. The ceiling is very high for the card, but the floor is also very low. Personally, I like them on the play where there is a chance I can gain that early tempo advantage by attacking their mana, but I like them less on the draw when they feel more slow. I don’t like them at all if my opponent is playing Wrenn and Six when they’ll just be able to buy it back.
Maelstrom Pulse is a bit of a weird card in this match. It’s great removal but there’s a chance it can put you in an awkward position where it also removes your own stuff. It doesn’t come up a lot since Pulse is usually a one-of but it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t read “under opponents control.” I can understand taking them out for this reason, but really only if you having something better to replace it with. At the end of the day, it’s still a really good removal spell, regardless of the possible awkwardness. If Lingering Souls is involved in the mirror, then I would certainly keep them in.
So long as you are replacing most of your discard with upgraded threats and removal, your odds of winning should increase. Whether you believe the Fulminators should replace the discard package, or that the Damnation effects should, most will agree that either are better than Inquisition of Kozilek.
The best advice I could give for this match is to have patience. There will be multiple possible lines to take every turn and it’s important to consider the outcomes of each one. Very rarely will anyone get ran over in this match. The match will go on for a while so there’s no need to feel rushed into any plays that would otherwise make you vulnerable.
There’s a good chance the first couple of threats you play will be removed prettily easily. For this reason, I like sandbagging my better threats for when my opponent has already expended a good amount of resources. I would much rather my opponent kill my Tarmogoyf on turn two than my Dark Confidant. If I save my Dark Confidant for last, there’s a much higher chance I will get to draw two to three extra cards before my opponent finds a way to kill it than if I had just ran it out there on turn two. Those two to three extra cards could mean the difference between falling behind and pulling ahead.
This patience can help you sequence your removal as well. If your hand is removal light, be very selective about what you kill. How absolutely necessary is it to kill the threat presenting itself at that moment? It’s important to ask because there’s a good chance your opponent is also sandbagging their best threat for last. Use your life total as a resource and don’t be afraid to take a hit or two if you feel you need to.
A good example to illustrate this was a match I played against Abzan while playing Jund. I was beating them down with a Bloodbraid Elf while they got in with two spirit tokens. They had one to two cards in hand and I had a Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push in hand. I also had an Engineered Explosives on zero and refused to crack it.
For three turns I took two damage without cracking my Explosives, taking a total of six damage down to seven. My opponent took nine damage down to six over the course of these three turns from my Bloodbraid Elf. Why didn’t I crack the EE (Engineered Explosives) and save myself the six damage? The answer is simply because I could. The worst thing that could possibly happen would be for me to trade EE for two spirit tokens only to have my opponent follow up with another Lingering Souls. My opponent had held onto one to two cards over the course of these turns so I drew a likely conclusion that they may have another Lingering Souls in hand and didn’t want to commit it into the EE. I was winning the race and using my life total as a resource to negate my opponent’s possible spells in hand.
The game continued a couple more turns until drew another Bloodbraid and cascaded into another Bolt and used the one in hand to finish them off. I never cracked the EE but my opponent also never got to play their best card against me. In the end, I was rewarded for my patience, and careful pacing helped tip the match in my favor.
The fair matches of Modern can be incredibly rewarding to play. Often times the games can come down to exhilarating Dark Confidant flips, Bloodbraid Elf cascades, Siege Rhino top-decks, and fantastically orchestrated sequences. These are the matches in which I enjoy Magic the most, where I find it to be the most interesting, and what I wish the game was like every time I played it. The mid-range mirrors reward game-play over deck choice, so don’t expect any free wins; instead expect a hard fought battle of wit and attrition.