Modern has been at the bottom of my priorities for many years. I had the pleasure of battling in Worlds 2011 when the Modern format was created and in the Modern Pro Tour that followed, but since then it's been a here and there format for me. Legacy has always been a part of the Open Series and Invitationals, but now times have changed and so must I. I have posted the most recent version of Esper Stoneblade on the Shaheen Soorani Facebook page for you all to see and sleeve up for #SCGNJ in a few weeks, but now it's time for Modern.
The format has a few issues which I addressed in one of my more controversial articles, and I still stand by those words. One of the biggest culprits that has to be addressed at some point is Amulet Bloom, which was originally a Cloudpost combo deck prior to its banning. The deck can play a Primeval Titan attacking on turn 2 and flat out kill you if the draw is spicy enough, which damages the format as a whole. Besides combo decks that kill before turn 4, the format has a few odd sets with 8th and 9th Editions that contain unnecessary hate cards that aren't necessary for a format dependent on shocklands to be successful.
I often hear the argument, "Stop playing a greedy manabase!" but after hearing that line, I often look down at my two-color deck with six basic lands, realize that they weren't drawn, and my game officially ends on turn 2 or 3. The very existence of Blood Moon and Choke promotes a lack of gameplay in the second most played Constructed format. It's time to give these sets the ban-hammer, which provides Modern enthusiasts with an Urza Tron ban as icing on the cake. I've had this discussion with the big shots and average gamers alike and the consensus is there. Those core sets had cards that were required to correct the evils that lurked in the Standard and Extended of old, but we live in a different world now.
This article is not a sequel to my format health debate, but instead a declaration on the amount of effort I'm prepared to put into this format to help ignite the control population. I had a U/W Control slash Esper Control deck that I used with great success, an Esper Mentor deck that was sweet but never really panned out, and now I have for you an Esper Gifts control deck that I'll be battling with next week at #GPPitt.
Look at all of these four-ofs! My usual control decks, for any format, contain less copies of each card with more ways to dig in order to have powerful options across the board. The beauty of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Liliana of the Veil is their ability to ditch excess or weak cards when needed. I have never been a proponent of playing eight hand disruption spells in a control deck, but in this particular instance, it's completely viable. Playing the full eight allows us to have one or two very early on and prepare for our finisher. Control in Modern is tough to pull off these days because of the power level and hate cards present. We have to adapt by putting some type of combo element in our own deck, which happens to be the Gifts Ungiven engine.
Gifts Ungiven can be used either as a method to drop Iona, Shield of Emeria and an Unburial Rites into the graveyard, or as a value spell to stock the hand and graveyard full of control elements. People have danced around the idea of building a true Gifts Ungiven control deck in Modern, but I don't think it's possible to pull off at this point. The reanimation of Iona, Shield of Emeria or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite on turn 5 is the avenue we are taking with the powerful Kamigawa draw spell. Locking an opponent out of one color in Modern will usually do the trick as long as you have prior help from your supplemental spells. The eight hand disruption spells, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy/Snapcaster Mage to flash them back, and Liliana of the Veil limiting their answer count all help put the control lock on an opponent prior to the powerful Angel entering the battlefield.
It's all about setup with this deck, and it plays out in that exact manner more often than not due to the number of four-ofs. Cards like Path to Exile and Mana Leak provide assistance for threats that somehow escaped our opponent's hand and they do it well. Path to Exile is still the best removal spell in Modern for control enthusiasts, and it's a must play if you're not using the Lightning Bolt strategy. I usually get a little emo when I give my opponents' land while holding Mana Leak, but this isn't your typical control deck. This deck packs four copies of Gifts Ungiven, and if something happens to your ability to win off the back of the legends, then there are four Creeping Tar Pit with a Lingering Souls to help seal the deal.
Lingering Souls is a card I want to play more of, but there just isn't room in this type of deck. I play one to add value to a Gifts Ungiven when one of the other pieces has already been drawn. For example, if we have an Unburial Rites in hand and have to cast Gifts Ungiven in order to fetch an Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, why not grab a Lingering Souls on the way out? It also provides an alternative win condition in case something goes horribly awry when setting up the one-two punch.
The manabase for this deck has been crafted to be more Choke/Blood Moon resilient, so fetch up those five basics and go to town. I worked with Frank Karsten to perfect the mana, and I only changed it a hair in order to give us more wiggle room against the hate enchantments that try to lock us out of the game. Luckily, we have so much discard that it's pretty tough to sneak one through in the earlygame. When building a manabase for a Modern deck, you have to keep in mind the amount of damage taken is very relevant. My initial manabase had way too many fetchlands, and I did quite a number on my life total. The Isolated Chapel helps preserve more life against red decks or other aggressive strategies.
My first attempt at building a Jace, Vryn's Prodigy style control deck was straight U/B. It did quite well against the combo and midrange decks, but couldn't steal a game against red. There are simply no sideboard cards in that color combination that deal with deadly burn spells or terrifying artifacts. White is a must include just for the sideboard. I remember in ancient days I was able to play a turn 4 March of the Machines and Affinity would be toast, but I don't think that'll fly today. The maindeck of that U/B Control deck took full advantage of the graveyard, using Tasigur, the Golden Fang/Gurmag Angler and spicing it up with Thought Scour to get the engine moving quickly. I found that the U/B win conditions used in Grixis just don't have that power punch to knock opponents out fast enough. Adding the Gifts Ungiven reanimation package has made my aggro matchup much better and gives this control mage the ability to steal wins with a single card.
Here are all of the white cards that are hiding in the Esper Gifts deck. I've already gone into great detail on the power of these white cards in my previous Esper or U/W Control articles, but it can't hurt to do so again. Cards like Timely Reinforcements or Kor Firewalker cannot be replaced by blue, black, or red. Mono-Red is always a huge force in Modern events, so giving up that matchup is not possible. For this reason I pack the amount of heat in the sideboard required to defeat them. With three Timely Reinforcements, a Dispel, two Celestial Purges, and hand disruption to prevent a Skullcrack effect, we can defeat the red menace after sideboard. Did I mention that Iona, Shield of Emeria on red is pretty good against them? No more draw-go, giving them a chance to peel burn spell after burn spell. We survive with lifegain, end them with the combo, and then call it a day.
The Celestial Purges are multi-purposed in Modern. They are good against black win conditions like Tasigur, the Golden Fang, they fling off a Splinter Twin, demolish a Blood Moon, destroy Liliana of the Veil, obliterate a Goblin Guide, and even slay that menace Dark Confident. It's going to be tough to get me off of a deck with white in Modern just based on the applications Celestial Purge has in the format.
Stony Silence is the other killer of unfair decks like Ad Nauseam, Affinity, and G/R Tron. It locks out the key artifact mana and activated abilities that drives us crazy for the small cost of only two mana. Stony Silence is a card I want to play more of, but Modern has such a wide range of scary decks that we have to be very conservative with our sideboard slots.
The Bribery helps against unfair decks and is brought in specifically for G/R Tron, but has some splash damage against decks that may have Primeval Titans or other fatties hiding inside. It's a super sweet card and provides us with an alternative win condition if our graveyard gets shut down, or if the combo has already been broken up.
Monastery Mentor is a card I first used in the sideboard of the initial list. But I hate completely giving up on the combo before we even see a Rest in Peace/Relic of Progenitus, so I just threw in a Disenchant, a couple Fulminator Mages, and a Bribery to give some more added pressure to the threat of Creeping Tar Pits, Snapcaster Mages, and planeswalkers we already have.
The Fulminator Mages are usually a package deal with our Surgical Extractions in the sideboard for G/R Tron. Having four Thoughtseize, four Inquisition of Kozilek, the flashback team, and Fulminator Mage increases the power of Surgical Extraction tenfold. If you're playing against G/R, that's obviously good, but it even demolishes Scapeshift, fair draws from Amulet Bloom and even Twin decks. The real test for this deck is the sideboarded games from opponents that have access to Rest in Peace. Graveyard hate is part of the risk we have to take in order to end games quickly. We have the ability to disrupt their graveyard hate with our hand disruption, but once resolved it does become an issue.
Leyline of Sanctity is also lights out for this Esper Gifts deck, preventing Liliana of the Veil, our hand disruption, and the actual spell Gifts Ungiven because it targets the opponent for some awful reason. I fit the aforementioned Disenchant in the sideboard for these reasons, but cut the second one after needing the space for more prevalent threats in the format. It may be correct to have more answers, but at this point I've been fairly lucky dodging the hate and/or destroying it with the spicy one-of in the sideboard. I had one match online that had both Rest in Peace and Leyline of Sanctity resolved on me and I won by reaching the Jace, Telepath Unbound ultimate. That's a rare, fringe angle, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do!
This is going to be the final build used for #GPPitt, so I'll give a battle report after the event for sure. Modern is the way of the future for SCG and WOTC alike, so it's time to get serious my control brothers and sisters.
For now it's time to get back to Sealed practice for #GPAtlanta. See you guys there!