Threat Evaluation, Part 1: Island, Go

If you are anything like me, then you probably can’t think of February 12, 2014 without a pit forming in your stomach. Most of you that have followed this site know exactly what happened on this date. For those of you that don’t know, this is the day that Pauper Daily Events were discontinued on MTGO.

Pauper was a format with a huge card pool, plenty of room for brewing, minimal cost of entry, and minimal risk of loss. Naturally, this is a brewer’s dream. So your Sunscape Familiar, Thunderscape Familiar, Nettle Sentinel, Goblin Electromancer, Sprout Swarm brew didn’t go infinite enough? Fine. Spend another ticket, and brew another deck.

Then February 12 happened, and a lot of us had no idea what to do. Awkwardly some tried to continue playing 8-mans, but it appears that most have moved on to another format with a broken power-level, non-rotating cardpool, and low financial threshold: Modern.

Being cheap to buy in did not mean that the barrier of entry was low, though. Like wanderers out of exile, players often had to ask themselves what they were up against exactly. Sadly, whenever I saw cards like [c]Tarmogoyf[/c], I would just say I played against “B/G Goodstuff,” when in reality my notes don’t reflect that the matches were against Jund, Pod, Junk, Rock, and myriad other options. Because of my experience with Pauper, whenever I saw a Forest, I ignorantly thought “Stompy.”

This article series hopes to identify the more popular and successful decks, and even some brews, by typical early plays and cards that set them apart from other lists. Here we will start with Island. Again, my naivety led me to think “Ok, Delver.” Actually, I could have been playing any one of the following lists.

The Usual Suspects

If your opponent leads “Island, Go” then you are most likely facing one of these.

Splinter Twin

Not only are you most likely playing this when you see an Island, but also historically you are most likely playing against this in Modern, period. It is often the most common money-maker in Modern Events. This deck aims to resolve a [c]Pestermite[/c] or [c]Deceiver Exarch[/c] turn 3 followed by a [c]Splinter Twin[/c] on turn 4. Each copy of the creature untaps the original, allowing it to create infinite copies and kill you. Unfortunately, all along the way, their burn and soft counters delay you from winning or disrupting.

Tell-tale signs: If you see one of these two creatures, it is most likely too late to identify the deck and construct a counter strategy. I think [c]Peek[/c] is the card that sets this list apart from anything else with Steam Vents.

Variations on Splinter Twin – If you see [c]Breeding Pool[/c] or [c]Stomping Ground[/c], then you may be playing Tarmo-Twin, which combines the combo kill with [c]Tarmogoyf[/c] and has [c]Ancient Grudge[/c] in the sideboard.

If your opponent’s mana-base looks crazy and has things like [c]Razorverge Thicket[/c] followed by [c]Cascade Bluffs[/c], then you are probably playing Kiki-Pod, which will be discussed in another article. The win condition is similar.


Now, very rarely will your Affinity opponent leave you any question about what you’re playing against. Just for the sake of completeness, though, some Affinity lists run 1 Island (which I’ve never seen played turn 1) and 2 [c]Galvanic Blast[/c]s as opposed to 1 Mountain and 4 Galvanic Blasts. The 1 basic is there because of [c]Ghost Quarter[/c], [c]Path to Exile[/c], and [c]Blood Moon[/c].


Ah, the 1-card combo. Scapeshift ramps its mana and rifles through its deck until it has 7 lands in play, and then it targets you with enough [c]Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle[/c] triggers for the win. And 99% of the time they reach 7 lands, they have the [c]Scapeshift[/c]. You thought all along that they spent all their time just digging for lands, but somehow they acquired it as well.

Tell-tale signs: The cards that set it easily apart from Twin variants are [c]Search for Tomorrow[/c], [c]Sakura-Tribe Elder[/c], and [c]Peer Through Depths[/c].


U/R Delver is a cheap grindy deck that rewards tight play, much like its Pauper equivalent. It has a few points of attack, including [c]Snapcaster Mage[/c] + Burn spells, [c]Young Pyromancer[/c]’s countless triggers, and [c]Delver of Secrets[/c] himself.

Tell-tale signs: It is easy to recognize, as other color configurations with Delver are extremely rare. In case you have any question, though, you can also identify it by its [c]Pillar of Flame[/c]s. No other list plays this.

UWR Control

Utilizing hard removal like [c]Path to Exile[/c] and hard counters such as [c]Cryptic Command[/c] as well as soft removal and counters in the form of burn and [c]Remand[/c], this deck is built to go for the long game.

Tell-tale signs: It is easily recognized in the early game by its kill condition: [c]Celestial Colonnade[/c]. When you see this plus a source of red mana, then you know. [c]Lightning Helix[/c] is also played in very few other lists.

Variations on UWR control – You may see a midrange list associated with [c]Geist of Saint Traft[/c], and many players are now opting to play [c]Restoration Angel[/c] and [c]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/c] for the Twin-like kill.

U/R Storm

Prepare to press F6 and sit back or catch up on your snacks, reading, watching Breaking Bad episodes, whatever. For non-MTGO users, F6 tells the game you have no response but don’t want to concede. The critical turn for a Storm player is the one where they play [c]Pyromancer Ascension[/c], Ritual, Ritual, [c]Manamorphose[/c], copy Manamorphose, [c]Gitaxian Probe[/c], copy Gitaxian Probe, [c]Past in Flames[/c], copy Past in Flames, twelve more rituals, their copies, and [c]Grapeshot[/c] for the win.

Tell-tale signs: You know you’re playing Storm, and further, that you had better do something fast, when you see [c]Goblin Electromancer[/c]. Other sure signs are [c]Desperate Ravings[/c] and [c]Thought Scour[/c], as this deck uniquely plays them. [c]Shivan Reef[/c] may be played in U/R Delver, but most likely if you see it, you’re against Storm.

After Careful Consideration

These decks aren’t quite as often played as the former list, but with such an open format, these are quite possible.

Mono-U Tron, “The Well-Oiled Machine”

Whether they have you in a [c]Mindslaver[/c] lock, put you out of the game with [c]Sundering Titan[/c], or resolve a [c]Platinum Angel[/c] that you can’t deal with, the blue-centric Tron deck is a tough one to beat once it gets going.

Tell-tale signs: Whenever you see Islands and Tron pieces, know that you are most likely playing this. What sets this apart from UW Tron is [c]Talisman of Dominance[/c], [c]Solemn Simulacrum[/c], and [c]Spell Burst[/c]. [c]Cyclonic Rift[/c] is featured in the mono-U variant, but often it’s such a blowout that this identification cannot be helpful.


The most appropriately named deck in the bunch, the deck’s creatures are all its namesake. Although this is a blue deck, the disruption is minimal but very effective and serves multiple purposes. [c]Spreading Seas[/c] messes with your lands while filtering cards and making their creatures unblockable. [c]Cursecatcher[/c] messes with your math as you try to race against 5 4/4 creatures you can’t do anything about.

Tell-tale signs: These include Island/[c]Mutavault[/c], [c]Aether Vial[/c], go or turn 1 Cursecatcher. [c]Silvergill Adept[/c] on turn 2 is not unlikely in the event they kept a weaker opener.

UW Control

Since so many powerful cards were added to this archetype in Standard-legal sets, these decks pop up occasionally. Omitting the bolts from UWR control, they max out on sweepers and [c]Sphinx’s Revelation[/c] instead. Kill conditions often include [c]Kitchen Finks[/c] and [c]Sun Titan[/c] (value!), but sometimes creatures are passed by altogether.

Tell-tale signs: [c]Detention Sphere[/c] tells you that your opponent is not just a mana-screwed UWR player, and an early [c]Mystic Gate[/c] is a good sign as well.

Blue Moon

Popularized at Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia, this part blue devotion, part counter-burn, part-2 of everything else that’s useful mess can be quite tricky to play against, provided it draws the right cards for the right match-ups (and at the right time). The mana-base is very basic Island-heavy with enough red to resolve [c]Blood Moon[/c] and a handful of bolts. Its disruption includes counters and Control Magic effects: [c]Vedalken Shackles[/c] and [c]Threads of Disloyalty[/c]. Finally, 2 [c]Batterskull[/c]s function as the [c]Wurmcoil Engine[/c]s of the deck.

Tell-tale signs: When you see a red mana source and [c]Spreading Seas[/c], you know you’re against Blue Moon, but another hint is the preponderance of what seem to be sideboard cards in the main: [c]Blood Moon[/c], Vedalken Shackles, Threads of Disloyalty, et al.


This deck was supposed to be good. [c]Bitterblossom[/c] was banned for no reason to prevent it from dominating. Still, upon the Faerie enchantment’s un-banning, the deck has failed to take off. Perhaps it is in a state of infancy because most of the lists look like their standard counterparts. Once the engine is revved up, though, a Sword equipped on a Faerie Rogue is quite difficult to beat. Beyond that, there are so many tricks with [c]Mistbind Clique[/c], [c]Spellstutter Sprite[/c], and [c]Cryptic Command[/c] for value. That same Sprite can counter four cards before all is said and done.

Tell-tale signs: [c]Bitterblossom[/c] plus a blue source, [c]Secluded Glen[/c], and often [c]River of Tears[/c] signal Faeries.

Cruel Control

Perhaps the deck most filled with powerful spells in this list, here you have roughly 50% lands and a lot of 1-for-1 until the namesake [c]Cruel Ultimatum[/c] resolves. Most people should just concede at this point, but if you’re into being on the receiving end of [c]Creeping Tar Pit[/c] beats, then play it out.

Tell-tale signs: This is the only Grixis list in Modern, so watch their mana-base for UBR capability.

UW Tron

This deck is not to be considered so much as a Mono-U Tron variant, as the two play rather differently. Like Cruel Control, a lot of powerful things are happening here, and the most powerful of them all is [c]Gifts Ungiven[/c]. Whether it is ramped out with an [c]Azorius Signet[/c] on turn 3, or simply played after the land drops allow, its caster often fails to find two cards, placing [c]Unburial Rites[/c] and either [c]Iona, Shield of Emeria[/c] or [c]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/c] into its graveyard to come out and play on the next turn. Barring this plan, the deck has [c]Wurmcoil Engine[/c]s and a trusty [c]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/c] for long games.

Tell-tale signs: The combination of [c]Celestial Colonnade[/c] and a Tron piece or [c]Azorius Signet[/c] are the indicating pieces of the deck.

4-Color Gifts

While the deck looks wildly different from UW Tron, it is helpful to think of them as similar. The four colors are Blue, White, Green, and Black, and in place of Azorius Signet, you have [c]Sylvan Caryatid[/c]. The controlling pieces in place of UW Tron’s sweepers are muchc stronger: [c]Liliana of the Veil[/c], [c]Abrupt Decay[/c], [c]Slaughter Pact[/c], and targeted discard.

Tell-tale signs: What a mess of a deck. The Sylvan Caryatid is a sure sign, and so are things like [c]Life From The Loam[/c], [c]Raven’s Crime[/c], and [c]Maelstrom Pulse[/c] while seeing blue or white.

Ad Nauseam Combo

This deck has three objectives: 1) Ramp to BBW3. 2) Resolve [c]Angel’s Grace[/c]. 3) Resolve [c]Ad Nauseam[/c]. The rest is academic. [c]Simian Spirit Guide[/c]s will generate the mana required to resolve a [c]Lightning Storm[/c] with enough copies to kill you. Unfortunately, [c]Pact of Negation[/c] and [c]Slaughter Pact[/c] make it difficult to win first or interact. Angel’s Grace combines with both of these as well on the kill turn.

Tell-tale signs: [c]Pentad Prism[/c] is the surest sign, but the Theros temples in Esper colors are solid as well. Finally, this is one of the few decks to play [c]Lotus Bloom[/c].

Once In A Blue Moon

These are existing combos that occasionally re-emerge as someone is trying the format out, or newly brewed decks that probably won’t last long enough to be archetypes but could be encountered on MTGO.

[c]Pili-Pala[/c] + [c]Grand Architect[/c]

These two cards together generate infinite mana for a [c]Blue Sun’s Zenith[/c] or simply [c]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/c].


Keeping an eye on Travis Woo’s stream, Facebook, or articles will give you a good ear to the ground whenever you encounter most strange decks on MTGO. This one is no exception. “Island, Aether Vial, Go” may look like Merfolk, but watch for a [c]Voidmage Prodigy[/c] coming down instead. A [c]Sky Hussar[/c] activation tells you this is what you’re playing against too. Some variants even throw in Theros block’s [c]Disciple of Deceit[/c] with Sky Hussar to tutor up, yep, [c]Pili-Pala[/c] and [c]Grand Architect[/c].


This deck is much easier to recognize than it is to beat sometimes, but once you learn some simple tricks like not searching your library for [c]Ghost Quarter[/c] and [c]Path To Exile[/c], it should be cakewalk.

Tell-tale signs: Any card besides [c]Thought Scour[/c] with the milling effect.

Takin’ Turns/The Time Warp

Depending on how their leader, Farfishere, has directed his followers, this can be quick and easy or excruciatingly slow for both players. The quick and easy version ramps into an [c]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/c] with [c]Extraplanar Lens[/c]. The painful method is to take approximately 48 turns in a row and milling your opponent with Jace’s ultimate.

Tell-tale signs: Any card that operates like a [c]Howling Mine[/c] played early. Any time you see something that reads, “Take an additional turn,” it’s likely too late. The exception is a turn 3 lucky miracle.

Ironworks/Open The Vaults

It seems that many lists in this article are available for the players that want their opponents to want to quit not only the match but also the game of Magic altogether. Eggs has never been an exception. The deck hopes to ramp to a [c]Krark-Clan Ironworks[/c] with [c]Mox Opal[/c], [c]Etherium Sculptor[/c], [c]Mind Stone[/c], or assembling Tron, and then generate tons of mana for [c]Emrakul, the Aeons torn[/c] or [c]Banefire[/c], creating loops with [c]Faith’s Reward[/c] and [c]Open the Vaults[/c] for more mana and cards.

Tell-tale signs: [c]Ichor Wellspring[/c], [c]Elsewhere Flask[/c], any durdling activities.

[c]Possibility Storm[/c]

Yes, another combo list, but at least this one has the decency to kill you with panache. After resolving its namesake Return to Ravnica block enchantment, a [c]Tolaria West[/c] or [c]Fabricate[/c] will fetch an [c]Ornithopter[/c], allowing the player to cast [c]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/c] (yes, cast, and thus get the extra turn trigger).

Tell-tale signs: A UWR mana-base with combo-like activities: [c]Serum Visions[/c], [c]Sleight of Hand[/c], [c]Peer through Depths[/c]. [c]Idyllic Tutor[/c] or [c]Tolaria West[/c] may come out in the early game also.

UB Tezzeret

This is a blue black control deck that combines the better elements of Cruel Control with the title Planeswalker and a host of artifacts that do not let your opponent play Magic: [c]Chalice of the Void[/c], [c]Ensnaring Bridge[/c], even [c]Trading Post[/c]!

Tell-tale signs: In Modern, seeing a [c]Trinket Mage[/c] is pretty rare. It is safe to assume you’re up against Tez when you do. Also [c]Darksteel Citadel[/c] takes you off a suspicion of Faeries, since a lot of the other lands are the same. Artifacts like [c]Engineered Explosives[/c], [c]Executioner’s Capsule[/c], and [c]Chalice of the Void[/c] are good indicators.

End Step

I hope you enjoyed and benefited from this article. There are some fascinating things going on with Modern prices now because of people buying in to Legacy and Vintage, but Modern is an interesting format with a lot of room for creativity despite its myriad lists. Consider, all of the above lists are just the ones with blue! Four more articles will come in this series. In the meantime, thanks for reading and commenting.

[email protected]
drinkard on MTGO