Lantern Control has had a rough time in Modern lately. As the format has evolved, most of the top decks are very hard for Lantern to beat, so it's basically left the format. Consider the most played archetypes, roughly: Humans, U/W Control, Mono-Green Tron, Affinity, Ironworks, Mardu Pyromancer, Hollow One, and Burn. Let's discuss.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 1 Kessig Malcontents
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
In my mind, this is a close matchup where almost none of the games are close. One side basically rolls the other every time and the game is usually functionally over by turn five at the latest. Humans either stops Lantern from getting Ensnaring Bridge onto the battlefield by using Kitesail Freebooter, Meddling Mage, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Phantasmal Image, or it fails to do so and Ensnaring Bridge enters the battlefield. From there, the Humans player tries to finish the game with Noble Hierarch, which rarely works but can from time to time. Sometimes, I'll see the Humans player concede to Ensnaring Bridge, but more experienced Humans players will attempt to use Meddling Mage to trap cards in the Lantern player's hand so that they can attack again. Still, a weak Lantern lock is generally able to prevent this line from working.
Who has the better end of it and by how much is something I've seen debated enough that I'm fine settling on calling it close, but my personal experience leads me to think Humans is favored unless Lantern sideboards fairly heavily for the matchup, but I don't think it's that hard to include a few more Porphyry Nodes or Pyroclasms than you might otherwise and they go a long way.
U/W Control has picked up as the most played deck in the format recently, which I believe is largely a result of players coming to understand the real power of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, the second coming of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which has proven even better in Modern than Jace.
This is a tough matchup for Lantern because after sideboarding, they just have so many tools. They get to cut all their creature removal for a weird mix of counterspells, artifact removal, planeswalkers, and enchantments that are good against Lantern. It's very hard to establish any kind of real lock through this because they have card draw and almost no cards you can really ignore and they're fighting you every step of the way.
Mono-Green Tron has been the nightmare matchup for Lantern ever since the Whir of Invention version became popular and/or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger was printed. The problem here is similar to U/W Control, but it plays out slightly differently. They're not fighting you early as you set up, so you're free to establish a lock and control their draws, except that they have Chromatic Sphere and Chromatic Star to draw cards that are really important to them, and they'll have some number of cards that will be very hard for you to beat in their hand at the beginning of the game. You really need to Thoughtseize them at least once.
Even once you've done that, all of their land search can find Sanctum of Ugin, which is extremely scary because even if you Pithing Needle their big planeswalkers, they can still use them to find Ugin and you'll lose if they ever cast Ugin, so you have to try to deny their mana, but you have to let them draw something and most of their deck is mana, and you can't ignore many of their spells without using more Pithing Needles than you have.
The way most games play out, you can actually establish a decent lock, and though it's very difficult, start to almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, but then something slips through; it all falls apart like the literal house of cards that it is.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 3 Etched Champion
- 1 Master of Etherium
- 2 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Signal Pest
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 4 Vault Skirge
- 1 Glint-Nest Crane
Okay, this one I actually think is a good matchup for Lantern. Not one of the best, and it's not a blowout because they have a lot of play with zero-power creatures with Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating, and they present a fast clock, but they don't do anything in game one to stop you from setting up. Their counterplay folds to Pithing Needles. Game two is a little trickier, as they'll have Ancient Grudges, but you can also set them back enough to make the game trivial with your own Pyroclasms or other sideboard creature hate, like Ghirapur Aether Grid.
Game one, if you don't Pithing Needle Engineered Explosives, they'll find one quickly and destroy whatever else you were trying to do. If you do Needle Engineered Explosives, you're still playing against a combo deck with basically unlimited card draw and a gameplan that doesn't care about anything you're doing. Unless you get a second Pithing Needle onto the battlefield and name Pyrite Spellbomb, at which point they can only win by attacking with creatures, so they lose to Ensnaring Bridge. So all you need to do is get two Pithing Needles down before they kill you, but you're fairly horrible at stopping them from doing that, so you don't have much time.
Game two, you basically lose all hope, as they get to add Nature's Claim, which they're very good at finding because of all their instant speed card draw, and if you're leaning on a Pithing Needle, and when they kill it, you basically lose on the spot.
Kolaghan's Command is their scariest card. Stopping someone from drawing a single card is generally something you're good at doing, but Faithless Looting and Bedlam Reveler give them draws you can't control. You need Grafdigger's Cage or Pyxis of Pandemonium to stop them from using Faithless Looting and those uncontrolled draws can chain into more uncontrolled draws until they find Kolaghan's Command and everything falls apart. The other threat is that they stick a Blood Moon, and that at some point that traps a Whir of Invention or some other colored spell in your hand and suddenly all their 1/1s can attack through Ensnaring Bridge.
That said, they have few enough cards that matter that I believe you're favored in game one. Even if a Faithless Looting slips through the cracks, it's not actually that likely to give them a card that matters.
Game two, things get worse because they get more cards that matter and sometimes they'll be tricky ones that you weren't necessarily prepared for like Kambal, Consul of Allocation. Despite that, I think game one is good enough that you're still a small favorite in the matchup, but I'm not extremely confident about that.
- 4 Hollow One
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Flameblade Adept
- 4 Flamewake Phoenix
- 3 Gurmag Angler
- 4 Street Wraith
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
This matchup's actually pretty good. They're an aggro deck that attacks with big creatures and doesn't have a lot of answers to Ensnaring Bridge. Sometimes they come out too fast, usually when they open with Flameblade Adept, but for the most part, they're not doing things that matter. Game two is basically the same except that they're good at finding Ancient Grudge. That's a problem, but if Lantern couldn't beat Ancient Grudge, it wouldn't be a deck.
I feel like I win most of my games at exactly one life against Burn; things just generally time out such that I can exactly lock them out with Ensnaring Bridge + Witchbane Orb right before they kill me. If they draw Eidolon of the Great Revel, I usually lose. Sometimes you can beat it if you have a removal spell, but sometimes needing to do that sets you back too far. This is a close matchup where I think you might be slightly ahead, contrary to conventional wisdom, but you might not, I'd be surprised if it's more than 5% favored in either direction.
I can't imagine anything about that rundown inspired anyone to pick up Lantern. There's no matchup there that I think you're more than a small favorite in. U/W Control, Mono-Green Tron, and Ironworks make up about 20% of the field and you're extremely unlikely to beat any of them. If you wanted to say that Lantern Control is dead, I wouldn't blame you.
But does it have to be this way?
Obviously, you can't change the metagame, you can only adapt, so is there anything Lantern can do to fix some of these matchups? My best guess is that they can try to work Surgical Extraction back into the maindeck.
A brief history lesson for those of you who haven't closely followed the development of the archetype:
Lantern Control first rose to prominence when Zac Elsik won Grand Prix Oklahoma 2015 with G/B Lantern Control, but three months before that he introduced the deck to the world at Grand Prix Charlotte, so its origins were kind of similar to Matt Nass forcing the world to respect Ironworks.
Later on, Piotr Glogowski rebuilt the G/B Control deck as the Whir of Invention Lantern deck and popularized it on his stream, where he played endless matches and kept extensive data that demonstrated the strength of this new build, which became almost universally adopted by Lantern players and peaked with Luis Salvatto's Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan victory.
In the G/B Lantern deck, Surgical Extraction had been a supporting utility spell that was dropped from the deck in the transition to Whir Lantern. On the surface, this change can appear to be a result of the removal of Ghoulcaller's Bell from the deck, which makes Surgical Extraction weaker. In reality, Ghoulcaller's Bell was removed from the deck because Pyxis is better if you're not playing Surgical Extraction and Piotr didn't like Surgical Extraction.
What I'm getting at is that there's very little about the builds that dictates that G/B should play Surgical and Whir shouldn't. The best argument for that would be that G/B has Ghost Quarter, and Whir doesn't, which means G/B can much more easily use Surgical Extraction to break up Tron, which is much harder for Whir, which is true and pertinent, especially when that was the best common use for Surgical Extraction. However, if Surgical Extraction is good in the metagame, there's nothing preventing Whir Lantern from using it, and it still plays very well in the deck.
Am I allowed to just make that statement without explaining it justifying it? I mean, I guess so. This is my article and I can say whatever I want, but Surgical Extraction isn't generally a good maindeck card, so it might be worth discussing why it's different here.
Surgical Extraction is best when you know some cards in your opponent's hand so that you can potentially remove one of them on resolution so that you're not "down a card;" this makes it pair well with other discard spells, especially if your opponent has two copies of card, as then the discard spell and the Surgical Extraction can you take both.
It further benefits very strongly from milling your opponent, especially if you know cards in their hand, as whenever you mill another copy of something, you can fire it off to snag the card you know.
It also provides perfect information, something critical to the Lantern player. When you know exactly what they have in their hand and in their library, you know precisely what you can allow them to draw, which makes your decision-making much better.
Further, you're playing a very long game that involves denying all your opponent's outs. If Surgical Extraction can remove three of them from your opponent's deck, your job can become much easier.
So where could Surgical Extraction help us in today's problem matchups?
VS Humans : It's not going to be good here. The game isn't long and it's not about spells in their hand. If it was good everywhere, everyone would already be playing it. But also, it's not that bad, because the matchup isn't about attrition; it's about emptying your hand. So just having a card that doesn't cost mana can be better than some other bad spell. As long as you're not losing anything important to the matchup, it won't be a big liability.
VS U/W Control : I think Surgical Extraction goes a really long way here. Cryptic Command is a huge part of their game one plan and so is Snapcaster Mage, so Surgical Extraction can make it much easier to lock them out. It's a reasonably high impact free instant, which is going to be good in a counterspell matchup. I think it would be a vast improvement here
VS Mono-Green Tron : Short of dedicated hate like Crumble to Dust, I think this is the best card you can have in this matchup. The dream scenario is that you get to mill a Tron piece they don't have and disrupt their mana for the rest of the game, but failing that, nabbing any high impact four-of payoff card makes your life much easier. One of your biggest problems is that you don't have as many Pithing Needles as you need to answer all the things you need to name, but Surgical Extraction can cover additional cards for you. You can even bring it back with Codex Shredder to remove extra threats. Remember when I described the games that you can get something set up, but then it falls apart eventually? Surgical Extraction is your best tool to build real inevitability.
VS Affinity : Basically the same situation as with Humans, except that here, sniping one of the cards you want to eventually Pithing Needle to stop them from winning through Ensnaring Bridge can be good.
VS Ironworks : If you exile Scrap Trawler, I don't think they can realistically beat you. This matchup will still be bad because while they're going off, Scrap Trawler can prevent you from resolving a Surgical Extraction, but given that you need to steal wins, exiling any of Scrap Trawler, Myr Retriever, Krark-Clan Ironworks, Engineered Explosives, and Pyrite Spellbomb will make your job much easier. Game two will still be rough, but exiling Nature's Claim is another huge play.
VS Mardu Pyromancer : This deck has very few cards that matter, but they matter a lot; that's the ideal spot for a Surgical Extraction "for value" rather than a Surgical Extraction as graveyard hate. If you exile Faithless Looting, Bedlam Reveler, or Kolaghan's Command, their life gets much harder.
VS Hollow One : Weirdly, I think Surgical Extraction is worse here than it is against Mardu Pyromancer, even though it gets to function as direct graveyard hate by nabbing Bloodghast, Flamewake Phoenix, or Faithless Looting. Bloodghast and Flamewake Phoenix are among their weakest cards against you; they're about resilience more than speed, and resilience isn't what the game is about. That said, it's nice to have Surgical Extraction around in games two and three, when Ancient Grudge is involved.
VS Burn : Surgical Extraction is just straight up terrible against Burn. Sorry.
To me, it looks like Surgical Extraction isn't great in your best matchups, but will be among your best cards in every bad matchup. If anything can save Lantern, this seems like the card to me.
So how do we make room for it and what does the deck look like with Surgical Extraction?
I've taken a normal list/my old list and replaced an Inquisition of Kozilek, a Mishra's Bauble, and an Abrupt Decay with Surgical Extractions, Inventors' Fair with Ghost Quarter, and a Mishra's Bauble and a Pyxis of Pandemonium with two Ghoulcaller's Bells. Cutting Mishra's Bauble is blasphemy for a lot of Lantern players, but I've never personally loved the card, the metagame clearly demands some kind of change, and I just think the other cards are more important. You can only have so many non-artifact spells, especially when you're playing Whir of Invention, so I had to cut Abrupt Decay and trim Inquisition of Kozilek. I wanted Ghoulcaller's Bell to make Surgical Extraction better - turning one Pyxis into one Bell was easy - but I also want to try an extra over a Mishra's Bauble. This is a change you could easily reverse.
Once I had three Surgical Extractions in my deck, I thought the value of Ghost Quarter exceeded the value of Inventors' Fair because it's so good against Tron, especially because it you can still use it on yourself to help cast Whir of Invention in a pinch, unlike Inventors' Fair.
How far can this update take Lantern? Time will tell, but I do think this is the best chance Lantern has with Modern looking the way it does.