I've played various musical instruments for most of my life. As soon as I figure out how to make sound come out of whatever instrument I'm currently learning, I start to compose my own pieces. Music, to me, has always been and always will be about creating. As such, I never deeply thought about the act of creating a song. Somewhere along the way, the process became so ingrained that it was akin to speaking. This presented me with a unique conundrum when a friend of mine asked me what seemed like a very simple question.
"How do you write songs? I have zero concept of how music just comes from nowhere."
Obviously, there are explanations for strong structure based on music theory, but this was not what my friend was getting at. He didn't want to know how music was put together so it would sound pleasing to the ear. He wanted to know how someone could just pull from all the infinite sounds in the universe and decide, "Yes, this is what I (and hopefully everyone else) want to hear." And I didn't know how to answer him. I asked for some time to think about it, and finally I was able to pin down a decent way to explain my process.
I couldn't speak for anyone else, but for me, music was about identifying a single idea that struck me, be it a guitar tone or a noise or an emotion or a certain combination of notes, and slowly building upon that idea with linking ideas until an entire song congealed around that first spark of inspiration. Therefore, once my musical vocabulary had appropriately developed, I only really needed that first "idea seed." From that point, a song was an inevitability. This isn't to say that most (any?) of these seeds blossomed into anything decent, but at some point, the game stopped being about how to link ideas, and instead became about finding the best seeds.
Since you are presently reading this downright airy take about songwriting on a Magic website, you probably have a pretty good idea where I am eventually going with this. I do think there are a lot of parallels between deckbuilding and song creation. Think about the decision to brew a new deck. Where does it come from? Oftentimes, the idea seed is the release of a new card or an effort to maximize an underappreciated one. Other times, the seed is born of a desire to make an already existing idea something new and better. I would classify these approaches as some of the more familiar forms of deckbuilding.
Today, I want to share one of my favorite methods of generating idea seeds, which I've employed to some success for almost as long as I've played Magic: Fuzzy Deckbuilding. The inspiration for Fuzzy Deckbuilding came from an article in the first Magic: The Gathering magazine I ever purchased, an early issue of The Duelist. In that article, the author attempted to share their deckbuilding process for one of the first U.S. Nationals tournaments.
I don't remember the exact date of the article, and it's possible I have some of the specifics wrong here, but here is the general gist. I do believe the author was attempting to prepare for a Standard format (then called Type II) that had only just been created. The author identified several very broad problems they expected their opponents' decks could potentially present. They were concerned about the vulnerability of creatures to Lightning Bolt, the prevalence of land destruction, and direct damage decks. Having identified these three threats, they carefully chose cards that would wholesale invalidate these specific macro-strategies. The author's answers? Creatures with four toughness (primarily Ghost Ship), a ludicrously high land count for the time (maybe 24?), and (I think) four copies of Zuran Orb!
The author's deckbuilding process wasn't about slotting into a metagame and playtesting known matchups: it was about identifying what themes decks in the metagame had in common. It was a "fuzzier" way of thinking about what you might face in a tournament. While the actual process was rudimentary by today's standards, I have always thought the deckbuilding principle was sound.
Today, I want to attempt to use some Fuzzy Deckbuilding to think about what a revamp of Modern control could potentially look like. I so desperately want to be able to play something like Azorius Control in Modern, but my experience (as well as every statistical analysis done over the past six months) points to the fact that it is an abysmal choice in recent metagames.
Part of the problem is the versatility of strategies in Modern. Izzet Phoenix is the first deck to claim actual noteworthy metagame share at a Modern tournament in a very long time, and still, at least 80% of your matches can be played against anything from Abzan Midrange to Zur the Enchanter. Let's see if we can make some broad statements about what the Modern format is about and use those to craft a version of Azorius Control from the ground up.
Reducing the Effectiveness of Opposing Card Selection
My last article focused on the fact that Ancient Stirrings and Faithless Looting make up two of the three pillars of Modern (the other being Mox Opal) and this seems indisputable after the events of the past weekend. Arclight Phoenix lives off its velocity, able to translate that incredible card selection into threats at zero cost. If they have access to this card selection, they can overcome any obstacle placed in front of them.
Other decks in the format may not go as far, but if you think about it, the strategic backbone of most Modern strategies can be found in cards that cost zero or one mana. Amulet Titan has its namesake card and Ancient Stirrings. Affinity is built on its mana advantage generated through Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal. Even Golgari-based strategies live and die by their one-mana discard.
It's time for Chalice of the Void in Azorius Control. One of the true problems control decks have is that their one-mana plays are so behind those of their opponents. Let's give up the race. I want to control the broken engines that fuel the format front-runners. This is going to inform every other decision we make in this exercise, and I think there's probably an entirely different journey through this exercise that disagrees with this conclusion and comes out with an entirely different build. That's fine. There's no right answer here, and we are simply on an exploratory mission.
Once we concede that we're playing Chalice, I'm inclined to believe Simian Spirit Guide is a required next step (at least in the absence of Mox Opal). I'm sure it seems odd that Simian Spirit Guide makes the cut in an Azorius Control deck, but it's hard to overstate the impact of Turn 1 Chalice of the Void on one. Besides, we're not trying to be your typical control deck, and as you're about to see, we're going to place another deckbuilding constraint upon ourselves.
We're going to round out this package with a Gemstone Caverns, as the card is just underplayed in Modern in general and gives us another shot at Turn 1 Chalice.
The Attack Step
While Modern remains a broad format, the two top decks are unquestionably reliant on the combat step to end games. Izzet Phoenix and Dredge both have an extremely difficult time winning though an Ensnaring Bridge, and there are a healthy number of other widely represented decks that share the same problem. Again, Ensnaring Bridge informs many of the other card choices throughout this build, including the Simian Spirit Guides. We must make sure we don't have an issue with dead cards in hand, and every card in the deck reflects that reality. It's a high cost to pay, but when a single card can shut down half the format, you must consider the possibility that it's just worth it.
While typical Azorius Control decks boast reasonable matchups against Big Mana decks like Amulet Titan and Tron, we have some real vulnerabilities due to reduced countermagic. Ideally, Chalice of the Void can impede their ability to find key pieces, but I'll admit that's speculative. More likely, we'll face a challenging Game 1 that can be shored up in sideboard games. It's fortunate that many Amulet decks have cut maindeck Reclamation Sage, since we'll occasionally steal a Game 1 on the back of Ensnaring Bridge. Given enough time, however, Amulet can just beat us to death with Plant tokens and Slayer's Stronghold. That's where the Sorcerous Spyglass comes in, and it can also proactively (if temporarily) deal with a looming Karn from a Tron player.
Like I said, I don't expect these matchups to be great in Game 1s, but even when taking a Fuzzy Deckbuilding approach, it's challenging to account for all possibilities. We could put Spreading Seas in our maindeck, but those could easily impede our ability to get Ensnaring Bridge online. I'd rather have a clearer focus on what I perceive as the top of the metagame and make sure creature matchups are accounted for.
While it's unquestionable that Dredge and Phoenix sit atop the field presently, we are looking to defeat those decks via our Ensnaring Bridge plan. It's not like Rest in Peace isn't a strong card against these decks, but it feels a little superfluous, especially in Game 1s. I'm happy playing a single copy, but there's no need to go further with our present configuration.
In spots where our Bridges can't get the job done, we'll want to lean on cards that are always castable. I went with the infinitely more flexible Cast Out over something like Detention Sphere. Obviously, there are weaknesses, but we are a deck that 1) relies on a small number of specific cards, and 2) must be able to clear our hand in the late-game so as to keep Ensnaring Bridge functional. Maybe Cast Out is playing things a little safe, but time will tell.
Meanwhile, we max out on Cryptic Command, as it's the only acceptable counterspell that can just be tossed in a pinch. Runed Halo remains underplayed in Modern, and the fact that we can use it to counteract occasional busted Izzet Phoenix starts as early as Turn 2 is a real feather in the card's cap. It also does a nice job answering zero-power cards such as Ornithopter or Noble Hierarch that could attack us through Ensnaring Bridge and then grow larger.
Likewise, Timely Reinforcements can either mitigate those scary last few burn spells or just chump block until Ensnaring Bridge comes online. It's probably the narrowest of our "answers" but it's still somewhat modal. Again, we are focused on cards that really don't have specific applications. The cards in this category are attempting to cast as wide a net as possible. Getting this section correct could be one of the most important factors in this deck finding success.
Time to Win
Due to Ensnaring Bridge, this part of our deck must be particularly lean, but thankfully that works with the way I build control decks anyway. I debated for a long time whether it was actually right for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to sit the bench. Again, we're not looking for a ton of cards to clog up our hand, and I like the fact that Jace can be a bit more selective then Teferi. In addition, the reduced number of counterspells in our deck means we're not able to take advantage of Teferi's untap clause.
In the end, I chose to see if I could get by with only Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a true win condition in Game 1. Turn 3 Jace via Simian Spirit Guide will be highly meaningful in a few matchups. If for some reason that won't work, there's always trusty Mistveil Plains, ready to do its best Teferi tuck impersonation.
While we may not be able to look for card advantage, we still need some method of card selection, especially given the fact that several of our cards are bad in multiples. I went with Chart a Course for our primary tool, as it stays card neutral and pitches useless cards. The sorcery speed isn't as punishing in our configuration, and hopefully we are still able to get our Ensnaring Bridge online in time after casting one in the early-game.
Hieroglyphic Illumination is a nice one-mana card draw spell that can be cast with a Chalice of the Void on the battlefield and will dig a little deeper in spots where it's safe to do so. Search for Azcanta won't be the dominant force here as it is in traditional Azorius Control, but it still gives us a play in the early-game and can find key one-ofs as the game drags on.
Finally, I made one final concession to Ensnaring Bridge by including four Mishra's Bauble. We've already talked about how we have a few key cards that we always must draw, and Bauble both helps us find those by effectively shrinking our deck while simultaneously giving us more control over the size of our hand for Ensnaring Bridge.
Having taken this fuzzier approach to threat assessment, our sideboard feels like the place to drill in to some more specifics and assess where we are weak. To account for our Big Mana foes, we're packing three copies of Spreading Seas to hard-target them. These will combine nicely with a trio of Negates that can come in in spots where we don't care about turtling behind an Ensnaring Bridge or don't need Bridge to stop smaller bodies.
I could see Burn decks presenting a problem once they are able to add two-mana removal for Chalice of the Void into their decks, so I wanted to cover my bases with a few more copies of Timely Reinforcements.
While I dismissed the need for graveyard hate against Dredge and Phoenix in Game 1s, I do think that, once they get access to some artifact removal, we benefit from a Plan B. This is especially true if Phoenix is going to rely on Pyromancer Ascension. Two more copies of Rest in Peace are up to the task.
A card I've been dying to give more run in Modern is Meddling Mage. Things are tough for Pikula with all the Lightning Bolts about, but we're a Chalice deck. I considered Nevermore in the slot, but I wanted to pressure old-school control decks a bit more, as I'm fairly certain we'll have to be the aggressor in those games. Snapcaster Mage could make that tricky. Time will tell if we should just be looking for a more evasive threat instead. Maybe Vendilion Clique?
I filled my final slots with a couple more flexible options in Sorcerous Spyglass and Runed Halo, but I think Leyline of Sanctity merits careful consideration as well. This leaves our final 75 looking like this:
What are the odds this deck is ready to bring to SCG Cincinnati this coming weekend? I think it would be a risky move at this juncture. That's not what this exercise was hoping to achieve on the first pass, though. Remember, this step of the process is designed to produce our "idea seed." It's now our job to take this rough product and understand how theory interacts with reality. We need to link additional ideas until the song is complete.
Maybe parts of this approach will prove to be the key that unlocks Azorius Control in Modern. Maybe it will prove to be a complete and total miss. Regardless, there are always new melodic flourishes and knowledge to be picked up along the way. If nothing else, the thought of locking my opponent behind Ensnaring Bridge and Chalice of the Void with Mistveil Plains at the ready definitely gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.