I once cancelled a flight to a Legacy GP many moons ago after playing a few matches against what was going to be the deck of the tournament, Hulk-Flash. Part of the beauty of Magic is I can pick and choose what tournaments I'd like to attend. There are so many tournaments that I want to attend this year that involve a long drive or flight, which allows me to be a little picky. But one rule I do have is that I will always attend a tournament in my backyard, so when the Open Series comes to Baltimore in February, you will find me there even though the format is Modern. I hope that the bannings will take out both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time by then, which would be a hot fix to a format that was pretty awesome before those two cards were printed. Wizards really goofed on those two and damaged both Modern and Legacy heavily as a result. These two cards aren't as oppressive as Flash or Survival of the Fittest, but they promote the power of blue to an almost unbeatable level. When you have Mono-Red decks splashing for a four-of blue card like Treasure Cruise, you know the format has reached a breaking point.
U/R Delver in Modern reminds me of Cawblade in Standard. The decks are beatable, sure, but both decks warped their respective format, making many strategies unplayable. I built Esper right before the popularity of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time exploded and performed fairly well against the Modern decks of old. I then started getting destroyed by decks that incorporated the broken delve cards, which pushed me into adding them to my decks as well. Both Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise work well in Esper and U/W builds I've worked with, but none can compete with the efficiency of the more aggressive strategies. The U/R Delver deck in Modern has the punch of its Legacy brother, and that's a huge cause for concern. When the best removal spell is Path to Exile, and it becomes a must-cast on turn 1, then loss after loss is in the near future for the control mage.
Today I'm going to go through the various steps I've taken to try to tackle the format, discuss the problems that each face, and offer a few suggestions to help certain matchups. I've personally retired from Modern until the upcoming banning announcement, but for those of you who want to continue to fight the good fight, I'll do my best to give you the best control option out there.
The power of Treasure Cruise in a control deck is less than that of Dig Through Time, but sometimes the additional mana makes it tough to make additional plays in the same turn. The split here is reversed from the U/W version of my deck because of the loss of Thoughtseize. It becomes less of a rush to build a large graveyard and more of a long run plan when dropping the black from Modern control blueprints. The black in this deck gives us a few powerful cards with little sacrifice in the mana department.
This card will regain all of its former glory once the delve draw spells bite the dust. The theme throughout this article is my full expectation that both cards will receive the ban hammer. There are some that believe it will be Treasure Cruise or nothing, but I think that if one goes, the other has to as well. Modern formats without Treasure Cruise would probably be fine, but I think that Wizards will conquer both delve cards to be safe. Thoughtseize is the fuel for the delve fire, but is much better without opponents packing instant answers to an empty hand. Once Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand were spoiled, I knew that Esper would emerge as a player in the Modern arena. Thoughtseize's versatility combined with a Mana Leak, a Snapcaster Mage, or a moderate threat to follow up with can be lights out for an opponent. Thoughtseize is good against every deck in the old Modern format besides Burn, and even then it saves a couple life points. I've done well with it in the current format when facing against Jeskai Ascendancy Combo, Siege Rhino decks, or anything that doesn't have cheap threats with hand replenishment options like U/R Delver.
Thoughtseize will never be a bad card in any format that it's legal in, so sleeve up with confidence.
We all knew this was coming. Lingering Souls is a fantastic card against both aggro and midrange decks, which warrants it a spot in the maindeck. The synergy with Lingering Souls and Liliana of the Veil is something to look forward to, but you may have noticed that I left out the planeswalker in this current list of Esper. My original Esper list has more black sources, Liliana of the Veil, and no Tectonic Edges, but I had to slim the mana to a less painful set. In today's world of Modern Burn, we don't have the luxury of bolting ourselves every turn to do what needs to be done. After the bannings, plan to see a greedier manabase, more Lingering Souls, more Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and additional hand disruption. After playing six-hand disruption spells in Standard, I realized that a similar strategy would work in Modern. Using the early turns to tear their hand apart allows you to then refill with efficient card draw and lay a threat on the table. If you start off with a Thoughtseize, then an Inquisition of Kozilek, a Lingering Souls, and then a Sorin, Solemn Visitor, the Esper world is at peace. You can always toss a Serum Visions, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage, or some other interaction that prevents an opponent's plan from coming together as well.
Lingering Souls is a card that is decent right now, but will be better with Liliana of the Veil after the bannings. It has the same advantages that have been covered in past rantings by this Esper mage. The spirits attack, block, get pumped, are mana efficient to create, and can get countered or removed without stressing too much. I wish my favorite black planeswalker was viable now, but after losing to a thousand U/R Delver players in a row, I decided she'd have to warm the bench.
Cards like Sorin, Solemn Visitor replaced Elspeth, Knight-Errant from my U/W Control deck that I did well at Grand Prix Richmond with. The need to gain life in today's Modern is more important than ever, and tapping out to make a soldier token just doesn't cut it nowadays. I never thought I'd see the day when a Sorin is better than an Elspeth, but that time has certainly come. Sorin, Solemn Visitor may be worse than his Lord of Innistrad counterpart in a vacuum, but the lifegain from the Standard legal planeswalker is more impactful than the other. Every option is better than the other against certain matchups, but in this day in age I don't see any other option. There are very few plays that are better than summoning spirits, pumping their power, and lifelinking out of the danger zone. Even after the bannings, I see myself using this version over his old, "better" counterpart until the masses drop their Lightning Bolts and Delver of Secrets.
I have a couple copies of Disfigure in the sideboard, because I believe it is the best answer for the most popular threats today. I tried to use them in the maindeck, but the four copies of Path to Exile are currently taking up all of the space. There are some matchups, combo included, that having too many spot removal spells can spell doom for the entire match. I like having Disfigure in the sideboard, but I can totally understand someone adding them into the maindeck after losing to the same old U/R Delver deck for the fifteenth time in a row.
Those are the reasons why I'm running black currently over my old U/W version. If the cards that I speculate exiting the format do indeed leave, I would suggest using the following U/W Control deck over Esper. I think that Esper packs more punch than U/W does, but the consistency alone allowed me to walk into one of the biggest GPs of all time without a day of testing and qualify for the Pro Tour with ease. Consistency tends to always edge out power in a long tournament, which are the events I prepare my awesome readers for, in general.
U/W Control runs a bit more smoothly than Esper. I discussed the benefits of packing heat from the black spells allotted to us, but in this control deck it is all about a grindy finish with planeswalkers and Celestial Colonnade. The Lingering Souls from Esper allow for a speedy finish, with hand disruption clearing the path to do so. Before Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time, U/W Control utilized Spell Snare to deal with the disadvantage of being on the draw, but the only spell that punishes you in this day in age is Young Pyromancer, as Dark Confidant, Voice of Resurgence, Arcbound Ravager, or any other powerful two-drop we are used to seeing are currently on the decline.
You may be curious about the Stony Silence still in the sideboard, and my explanation is simply that I hate Affinity and refuse to lose to it. I will always pack a piece of hate or two that shuts down specific decks, so don't be shocked to see the hate still alive and well. I think Spell Pierce is better than Spell Snare currently, but after the bannings, I will be switching back. The amount of fetchlands, existence of Kitchen Finks, and a copy of Sunlance are all pieces of the puzzle to help us survive in a delve world. Kitchen Finks is the best answer to Burn that we have in this day in age, and Engineered Explosives is a removal spell that doesn't hurt us when used early. The rest of this deck is reminiscent of better days, so switching it around will not be too difficult.
After losing to Mono-Red in the last GP I played in, I decided to search for a powerful answer to the burn threat, and Kor Firewalker was the best soldier for the mission. He attacks, he blocks, he gains a lot of life, and he doesn't die to anything. After using him with great success in the old days, I decided to try him in today's Modern. He does well against the Young Pyromancer + Monastery Swiftspear blitz, but is slightly awkward against Delver of Secrets. However, I've found that Kor Firewalker in combination with Engineered Explosives and Path to Exile should be enough to keep you alive.
The rest of the sideboard should make a lot of sense, as it hasn't changed with the times too much. The only difference between then and now is the win percentage I've experienced. I've tweaked, altered, and modified these decks for some time, but I haven't found the solution. I don't lose all of the time and have done decent in some Magic Online Daily Events here and there, but I lose three times as much as I did before Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time burst onto the scene. I described the reasoning for my choices in both of these builds, but it hasn't panned out to my level of victory that I demand from the decks I advertise in my articles. I welcome all of you to take these builds, do some alterations, and see if you have success and report back. I will have a follow-up article once the bannings announcement kicks in and describe the plan if Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time leave or if they stay in Modern.
Those two cards are bad for Modern and bad for Legacy, and I think Wizards realizes this. Let's hope they do the right thing and free the older formats once again so control can reign supreme.