April 27, 2016

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Modern Unbans - What to do with Sword and Vision

It’s been several weeks since the Modern banlist update, and so far fears of a “blue control spring” replacing “eldrazi winter” appear unfounded. Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek are both putting up results, but neither is dominating - pretty much the best case scenario for cards once deemed worthy of a pre-emptive ban out of the format. It turns out that beneath the eminent strength of both cards rests some hidden drawbacks that prevent them from being played in every deck or dominating an entire archetype. While that’s a good thing for the format as a whole, it’s a source of frustration for early adopters of the new tech such as myself. I keep testing and brewing, but I’ve yet to land on a decklist for either card that I really like. I have however learned some useful things about these cards along the way:

I’ve seen it suggested that Ancestral Vision could be used in an aggressive or tempo deck to “refuel” on turn five. I suspect this view is limited to people who routinely go 1-3 at Friday Night Magic. Tempo and aggro decks usually don’t even want to see turn five, let alone play a card that will never do anything before then and will be essentially a dead topdeck in all non-turn-one situations. If you’re convinced your aggro deck needs a way to refuel try Browbeat or Day’s Undoing, but don’t come to me when neither card works very well. Refuelling your hand in an aggro or tempo deck simply isn’t a thing that sort of deck should try to do.

Slightly less embarrassing but still in the “no” category is the idea of dropping Vision into a combo deck as a way to draw more combo pieces. Most combo decks are more interested in card selection than raw card advantage, so try Serum Visions or Thirst for Knowledge. True, Ancestral Vision has seen some success in decks using Thopter-Sword combo and Scapeshift, but this is mostly because those are control decks with a combo finish. It hopefully goes without saying, but this card does not belong in something like Ad Nauseam.

Control decks on the other hand are a reasonable archetype for Vision, as they are designed to survive early pressure and usually prefer raw card advantage over card selection. They can also realistically suspend it in the mid-game and still be playing magic when it comes time to cash in for the three cards. The challenge for Ancestral Vision in Control is displacing instant speed value plays like Sphinx’s Revelation or Snapcaster Mage targeting Kolaghan’s Command. When an end-of-turn play like those goes wrong the result is rarely catastrophic; but tapping most or all of your mana on your upkeep to defend your Vision from a Remand can leave you unable to respond to your opponent’s next sorcery speed threat and easily cost you the game. Control decks usually win on the slimmest of margins, so the risk of an upkeep step counterspell war is worse than it might otherwise be.

The archetype that comes away as the big winner with this unban is Midrange. Decks like Jund and Abzan play cheap efficient cards that retain value throughout the game, trading resources with the opponent until they can pull ahead with superior individual card quality or incremental advantages like manlands. Ancestral Vision is a midrange card at heart because so many midrange cards are valid at all stages of the game - Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt, Liliana of the Veil, Lingering Souls, etc are good on curve and still good on turn seven. That being said, after quite a bit of testing I do not believe Sultai Midrange is a good deck. The gains from Ancestral Vision do not compensate for the loss of Bolt/Command or Path/Souls, and as good as Snapcaster Mage is it feels a lot less broken when the best thing you can target is an Abrupt Decay.

I am far more optimistic in Temur, Jeskai, and Grixis midrange strategies making use of Ancestral Vision. All three options allow Snapcaster Mage to play with Lightning Bolt, as well as enabling the very strong play of Goblin Dark-Dwellers targeting Ancestral Vision. That’s too slow for an aggro or tempo deck, and too cute for a control deck, but perfect for the deck that puts the opponent into topdeck mode and can then slam a 4/4 menace and draw three cards. I would also argue that the Grixis and Jeskai decks currently seeing success with Vision are more Midrange than Control, as there seems to be an ever diminishing count of Celestial Colonnade and Cryptic Command in these lists in favour of things like Ajani Vengeant or Thopter-Sword.

It will be a while before we see sufficient results to firm up what the Modern metagame really looks like and which of Temur, Jeskai, or Grixis is the pre-eminent home for Ancestral Vision. If you’re still brewing away just remember that as amazing as three cards for one mana is, five turns is an eternity in Modern. The fundamental challenge is finding a deck that can give up its first turn to suspend Ancestral, survive four more turns, and then draw enough relevant cards at that point to effectively win the game.

Like Ancestral Vision, the Thopter-Sword combo looks like it could just be dropped into any deck that can support the colours (i.e. UWx or UBx). Nearly any deck - as I’d hope even the nuttiest brewers don’t see this as a combo to be used in tempo or aggro decks. The Thopter-Sword combo is however a fundamentally sound inclusion for just about any Midrange or Control shell that can support it.

Of course “fundamentally sound” does not mean good or even correct; if it did we would already be talking about returning Sword to its seat in the penalty box. The basic drawback of the thopter-sword combo is how lousy both pieces are on their own. I’ve paid four mana to turn my Snapcaster Mage into a Watchwolf; I’ve also paid three mana and a card for a thopter token and a point of life; neither play felt like it belonged in any constructed format let alone Modern. If you compare the individual pieces to the Splinter Twin combo the shortcomings should be very obvious - Deceiver Exarch was a strong blocker and could buy time by tapping down large threats or just choking an opponent’s mana by tapping a land; Splinter Twin could be put on a Snapcaster Mage or Wall of Omens if the game-ending targets did not present themselves. Thopter-Sword has a much worse worst-case scenario, while also having a less oppressive best case scenario. The new combo is the “fixed Twin”, and the lower floor and lower ceiling means it doesn’t belong in every deck that can theoretically support it.

That being said, the upside of the Thopter-Sword combo is very, very real. If you don’t die within two turns of putting both pieces on the battlefield your odds of winning are extremely high, bordering on inevitable against non-combo decks. But where does it go? The successes of the combo to date have been a mix of Gifts Ungiven decks that play a single copy of each alongside Academy Ruins and Crucible of Worlds as a Gifts package, and UWx decks that range from simply killing time to draw both pieces naturally or actively seeking them with Muddle the Mixture, Tezzeret the Seeker and Thirst for Knowledge. I dislike that it's yet another graveyard based win condition for Gifts Ungiven decks, but if it works it works. I’m personally more optimistic about the control decks that run a couple copies of each card and have both alternative win conditions and ways to discard the pieces when the combo doesn’t materialize.

In the more untested area of Thopter-Sword I’m surprised by the lack of results to date with Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. The blue/black planeswalker is very strong, and plays extremely well with the Thopter combo and Ensnaring Bridge, closing out games under a bridge with a speed that Lantern Control players can only dream of. I’ve seen Tezzeret brews of straight U/B as well as splashes into Sultai, Esper, and Grixis, but none seem to have found their competitive legs. From what I’ve seen, this is in large part due to how bad the deck performs against aggro and burn if Ensnaring Bridge is either not found or destroyed. I have personally tried shoring this up with Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt, and Timely Reinforcements respectively, but each iteration felt clunky - especially with a set of Darksteel Citadel in the deck cluttering up the manabase.

The other Thopter-Sword interaction I would expect to see more of is the use of Monastery Mentor, Young Pyromancer, and Lingering Souls tokens to return Sword of the Meek to play. Paying two to cast and two to equip is terrible, but getting a free +1+2 on a token is decent value, and two swords on a token for free would be excellent value. Mentor probably remains just a shade too costly for Modern, but the ability to play a Mentor and then immediately Gitaxian Probe to create a token and attach a pair of swords to it for a free 3/5 prowess creature has to be worth exploring. Extra points to mentor for turning a weak stand-alone Thopter Foundry into a monk and a prowess trigger, and generally cards like Sword and Souls play well with Thought Scour which in turn can be used to enable delve creatures like Gurmag Angler. It may be time for an Esper Mentor resurgence!


I am hopeful that the Modern banlist will be stable for a while, and that there is time for us to sort out the post-Twin, post-Eldrazi meta and find the right places for both of these new Modern pieces. The difficulty in finding a home for these cards is a good problem to have, as it means they are probably well balanced for the format and to the extent they see play they will represent new decks or at least significantly new flavours of existing underplayed archetypes. And if I happen to get a Lotus Cobra-esque epiphany on what to do with these cards, MTGCanada readers will be the first to know.

Until then, may your Ancestral Vision dodge all Remands and your Thopter Foundry avoid all Abrupt Decays!