Resolving Cliffhangers: Project Updates

I’ll be honest with you. There’s a Standard GP coming up in my hometown and preparing for that has dominated most of my recent Magic time. I haven’t had time to come up with anything new for this week. What I do have are updates on several Modern projects that I just realized I’ve left sitting unreported for too long. Convenience!

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Of course, writer’s block altered priorities aren’t the only reason to get these updates done this week. The first is one that I promised a month ago and just never got around to delivering on. Writing about Stoneforge Mystic and the Beginner’s Guide sidetracked me. The second is simply one that I get a lot of questions about, so I think that an update and explanation are in order.

The Copter Problem

Back in October, I started investigating whether or not Smuggler’s Copter had a home in Modern. My conclusion at the time was that it might have a place as a creature buff that wasn’t as tempo-negative as equipment. This was completely speculative, so I tested it in actual tournaments using the decklist I thought would benefit most. For reference:

Copters and Taxes, by David Ernenwein

Creatures (26)
Thraben Inspector
Leonin Arbiter
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Flickerwisp
Blade Splicer
Kitchen Finks
Restoration Angel

Artifacts (8)
Aether Vial
Smuggler’s Copter

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Lands (22)
Ghost Quarter
Tectonic Edge
Mutavault
12 Plains
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After several weeks of weekly tournaments I can conclusively say that this list is…okay. It ran very averagely in a field that was relatively hostile to DnT, and I can’t say that I was too surprised by my results.

smugglers-copterWhat did surprise me was that I was completely right about Smuggler’s Copter. I realize how disingenuous that sounds, but it’s true. It did exactly what I expected it to do and nothing else. It didn’t floor me or disappoint. It exactly matched my expectations, which was unexpected. You don’t anticipate having your null hypothesis confirmed, especially when it’s purely built on theory-crafting. Any yet that is what happened.

This deck was better than a more typical Modern Death and Taxes deck, and the addition of Smuggler’s Copter was the reason. It allowed the dinky disruptive creatures to jump over opposing blockers, broke stalemates, and improved your hand. It also drew removal away from the “real” creatures, protecting your soft-lock pieces by default. All without spending additional mana. A very solid performance overall.

And yet it wasn’t good enough. My overall win percentage with CnT did not improve over regular DnT. The fundamental problem with the deck is that Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is much worse in a format that lacks Brainstorm. There just isn’t the same efficiency and velocity to throw a wrench into things compared to Legacy. Death and Taxes works through a combination of persistent disruption against the velocity of Legacy and playing lots of creatures in a format that doesn’t play much removal. These things are not true of Modern (most of the time anyway) and so the deck struggles against the plethora of large creatures and walls of removal. Just adding a creature booster wasn’t enough to fix the problem.

The Breakthrough

The thing is, I think I figured out my problem well before I tried this experiment with Smuggler’s Copter. Back in August I took UW Spirits to 4th place at an IQ. I thought the deck was fine but it needed more work. The following week I updated the list and explained that the flaws in the deck, mostly the two-drop slot and the weakness against aggro decks, were sufficiently high that I was setting the deck aside. I still hold to the sentiment, despite Caleb Durward’s success with the Bant version. The thing is, on a whim, I made a change I had talked about in the comments of both articles, and it really improved the deck.

That change was to add Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. She was the two-drop I wanted, so I just started playing her. Then I noticed how good she was at constraining my opponent’s mana when combined with Mausoleum Wanderer. Following that discovery, I took things to their logical conclusion and just made a hybridized Spirits and Taxes list.

Spirits and Taxes, by David Ernenwein

Creatures (26)
Mausoleum Wanderer
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Leonin Arbiter
Selfless Spirit
Spell Queller
Reflector Mage
Flickerwisp

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Enchantments (4)
Spreading Seas

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Lands (22)
Ghost Quarter
Seachrome Coast
Hallowed Fountain
Flooded Strand
Plains
Island
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I was shocked at how well this deck ran. All I did was play the good Spirits, the good disruption creatures, and add in Spreading Seas and Reflector Mage. And I was crushing every deck I faced for weeks. It outground Jund, crushed Tron, and raced Infect thanks to disruption. The addition of the Spirits filled the known holes in DnT and added additional strains to my opponents’ mana and answers. It was exactly what I’d been looking for in a disruptive creature deck. I crushed most of September as a result.

Result?

reflector-mageAnd then the metagame adjusted and a swarm of traditional Zoo and Bant Eldrazi crushed me instead. This deck does not want to see larger creatures on the table. Ever. Reflector Mage does a lot of work but it’s rarely enough. To realistically have a chance you need to dedicate most of your sideboard space to beating creature decks. And it’s still a close run thing. It wasn’t working out for me, so I’ve temporarily set the deck aside while I work on control lists and RPTQ testing. That said, if the observed trend away from fair decks towards Infect and Death’s Shadow continues, then SnT may be the ideal ringer.

Do I think this is necessarily the best DnT style deck? No. Eldrazi and Taxes and GW Hatebears have significant advantages in creature-heavy metagames, and tend to kick SnT around as well. However, Infect and combo decks struggle mightily against Wanderer and Thalia, and the additional mana denial turns the screws on fair midrange decks, control, and Tron. If you’re the sort of player who wants to play DnT and you’re willing to put in the work to understand what version you should be playing, I think you should add Spirits and Taxes to your toolbox.

Jace Needs a Home

Anyway, now on to the part you really care about. I have been working on choosing a deck ever since you, the people chose Jace, the Mind Sculptor to be the next banned card I test. I was flooded with suggestions when I announced the project online, and have continued to receive suggestions (sometimes even solicited) in person. It’s a lot to go through, but I am Jace the Mind Sculptormaking progress. I’m still not sure what deck will ultimately be chosen, but I have figured out a number of decks that will not be used.

I’m going to preface this section by saying that none of these decks were necessarily bad. They’re not all good either, but relative deck strength is not a criterion for consideration. I’m looking for decks that highlight the strength of Jace himself, as opposed to the deck. As I mentioned, I’m trying to assess how broken the card is or isn’t, and when possible I want to use the deck that got the card banned in the first place. This isn’t possible for Jace because Stoneforge Mystic and Preordain are also banned, so Caw Blade doesn’t work. And no, I’m not going to test whether Caw Blade is good in Modern. Three banned cards is way too many to test at once. Limit variables, be scientific.

The Rejects

  • UW Midrange/Control – Whether they’re the suggested creature-based midrange decks or control decks like the one I suggested last week, UW is not where I want to test Jace. I like these decks—I’ve frequently run them in the past and I know they’re good in Modern. But they’re not going to produce the instructive or even interesting results that I’m looking for. The problem is that they’re doing a fairly powerful thing that Jace doesn’t compliment strongly. The card filtering from Jace is good, but it isn’t actually better than just drawing cards, and you’re only using the other modes once you’ve put the game away. I’m biased against testing fair decks anyway, and since the initial assessment of Jace is just that he’ll improve these decks incrementally I need to pass.
  • Miracles – Remember when I said that the rejects are not necessarily bad? That doesn’t apply here. Every suggestion I’ve gotten for a Miracles deck with Jace has been bad. Really bad. At best they’re bad versions of the above control decks. At worse they’re clunky piles. The problem is that adjusting the top card of your library once a turn at sorcery speed is not enough to make Counterbalance good. You have to guess and hope. Yes, you do sometimes get lucky and get a few cards off ‘balance, but you cannot rely on it. Crystal Ball was suggested as a Top replacement, but it does a very poor job. Lacking instant-speed card selection, you were at the mercy of drawing your miracles at the wrong time and it just didn’t work. Which is the reason that only Bonfire of the Damned really made an impact outside Legacy. Jace doesn’t make this deck work, so any more time here is wasted.
  • Delver/Storm – These decks had the same problem for testing Jace: curve. Normally their mana curves stop at 2 (Past in Flames is the exception). Trying to squeeze in a four-drop planeswalker was not a good idea. Jace sat unused in hand far too often for a good test. The deck should reliably be able, though not necessarily willing, to play Jace on curve. These decks just don’t deliver, and adding Jace would slow them down too much to be worth it.
  • Grixis Control – There were a lot of good points about the Grixis control lists as Jace platforms. They liked having cards in hand, were high-velocity, and had additional ways to get rid of dead cards after you Brainstormed. It also suffered from some consistency issues going long that Jace was helping to solve. The problem was mana. Jace needed additional blue lands, and that necessitated a manabase change from my original version. This required a lot of additional tweaks to the answer package, and when I started the trials again the deck was noticeably worse. It also had a problem of periodically milling too many blue lands and stranding Jace by accident. I’m sure these problems are fixable, but I’m not willing to spend the time to do that.

Possibilities

  • Jeskai Control – This is the boring, obvious choice. It’s a high-velocity deck with dead draws that needs to find specific answers in specific quantity to win matches. It’s also an easy build: just take out the Nahiri/Emrakul package for Jace and another answer. For the sake of time it’s a good option. It’s also rather boring and predictable.
  • Blue Moon – This deck has been suggested to me more than any other. I’m not sure why—I guess it has a lot of fans? Which makes me wonder why it doesn’t see more play, but that’s irrelevant. It has reasonable synergy with Jace shuffling away dead cards and searching for the right answer. It also has the ability to lock down the game enough without actually winning for you to plus Jace to victory. Value! The main problem is that I’m concerned that the free wins from Blood Moon will skew the results.
  • RUG Scapeshift – This is my current frontrunner. It’s a deck that was once good and has lost its place in the metagame. It’s less fair than the other decks, and it makes better use of Jace’s filtering than the other decks. Unlike all the others, you actually want to shuffle cards back into your deck with Brainstorm. Drawing too many Mountains has always been a problem for RUG, and Jace provides a fix. Combine that with the need to actually find Scapeshift and you have a strong contender.

Looking Ahead

I’m still taking suggestions for decks and looking for input on existing choices. I’m hoping to make a final choice over the next few weeks so that testing may commence over the holiday season. Then the real grind of actually getting the data will start.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

9 thoughts on “Resolving Cliffhangers: Project Updates

  1. Hey David great article as always, I know that faeries seems to be having some success with copter, perhaps that’s the best current shell for the vehicle. But I don’t imagine that is a huge surprise to any readers here.

    I was wondering what your take on Jace would be in something like an Esper Mentor deck. I know the curve is already pretty rough on that particular deck, but upon first glance it seems like he might be useful, and I’ve always heard that that deck needs some intangible “something” to push it in the right direction.

  2. I went 6-3 at SCG Columbus with a list not that different that the UW Spirit list you put here. I might of won the last round, but I hadn’t been able to fall asleep the night before and I was basicly falling asleep at the table which you can’t do vs lantern. He defiantly had game 1, but I had all the tools to win game 2 and just didn’t use them.

    Voltage’s DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
    4 Mausoleum Wanderer
    4 Selfless Spirit
    4 Rattlechains
    4 Leonin Arbiter
    3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
    3 Phantasmal Image
    4 Spell Queller
    4 Drogskol Captain
    1 Kira, Great Glass-spinner

    4 Aether Vial
    3 Path to Exile

    4 Seachrome Coast
    4 Hallowed Fountain
    4 Adarkar Wastes
    2 Cavern of Souls
    4 Ghost Quarter
    1 Moorland Haunt
    2 Plains
    1 Island

    Sideboard
    1 Grafdigger’s Cage
    1 Path to Exile
    1 Disenchant
    2 Negate
    3 Blessed Alliance
    2 Rest in Peace
    3 Stony Silence
    1 Detention Sphere
    1 Worship

  3. Jeskai control seems like the correct deck to test Jace in replacing Nahiri. It’s another planeswalker that costs 4 mana, limiting variables gives the clearest picture of what Jace would be capable of. Also lets you also consider how the game would deviate if it was a Nahiri in hand rather than Jace.

    1. Would it make more sense methodologically to test several shells with fewer samples? I feel like spending a thousand matchups to determine that jace is ok in some midrange shell will still kind of beg the question of what he means for combo or control decks.

      If we had just tested eldrazi temple and eye in the bw oblivion sower decks we may have felt they were both ok for modern – it was the aggressive builds that broke the deck. Since we’re talking about bans the question should be is it oppressive in any shell?

      Up to you but I suspect fewer samples with more variables would be more indicative of how the card would actually pan out. Also in terms of testing I would start with a jace in hand because nobody cares what happens when you dont draw one – or allow yourself to draw jace once per game or something.

    2. I second this. It might be obvious and “boring”, but Jeskai Control is the most logical home for it, and is currently the “best” of the decks that it could slot into, so it makes sense to see if this pushes it over the top.

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