A Victory for the Ages

Shaheen Soorani, mastermind of the #freeJTMS hashtag, is in a mood to celebrate! Get his earliest sketches for Modern control featuring the most powerful planeswalker ever printed!

A few years ago, I embarked on a Modern crusade. This war was alongside the control caucus, my blue brethren, to free the iconic prisoner that was unjustly sentenced to life in solitude. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was the hero we needed to return control to glory in the middle format. Control had no issue dominating in Extended, a format that was always riddled with uncertainty, and a format where the “best decks” never stuck around for too long. After that was replaced by Modern, the road for control mages has been tumultuous.

All of you who have read my articles over the last decade or so know my alignment. I do not pretend to be an unbiased source of Magic news, nor do I shed a tear when aggro is at its lowest point. With that in mind, you all know how I feel (felt, actually) about Modern. The format had the illusion of health, with dozens of aggro or combo decks to choose from. I have been in hundreds of debates over the years, arguing with fellow control-leaning magicians that the archetype is not competitive. The following is an excerpt from the announcement that I’d like to use for reference:

The final sentence sums it all up. Their hope, as well as mine, is for Jace, the Mind Sculptor to provide weak control decks a way to finish out games. Celestial Colonnade on its own wasn’t doing it, folks.

U/W leads the pack in Modern on unintentional draws, beating out Lantern Control somehow, and it’s not the fault of the opponent. Draws weren’t the worst thing happening to U/W mages, either. Giving control decks an alternative way to close out prolonged games is a polite way of saying, “Giving control decks a chance to successfully close out games.”

Whatever the motive was to free our leader, the fact of the matter is he is now able to be utilized in any blue deck in Modern. That was my dream when I started the #freeJTMS movement back in 2016 and it became a reality. I, along with all of you that joined the fight, endured countless barrages on social media. People didn’t believe that Jace, the Mind Sculptor would ever be unbanned, that control is just fine as is, and that we should just get over it. But Wizards of the Coast has proven that they listen to the public, time after time, so there was no way that I was going to shut up! Article after article, Twitter argument after Twitter argument, it all became worth it in the end. Did we directly get Jace unbanned? No, but even if we had influence percentage in the single digits, that’s good enough for me.

The mission was accomplished; however, we must prepare ourselves for a rocky future. In most wars, there is a side that was defeated. People who were against the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor from the beginning will be lobbying on the other side (and have already begun to do so). They will call for its re-banning, that it’s too powerful and has destroyed the format. Players have already said these things without playing a single game with or against Jace, the Mind Sculptor in new Modern.

Marshall is right. In his worst-case scenario, blue decks with the head planeswalker in charge may make control a dominant force and some will want it re-banned. My response was said in jest but has some validity to it. Is it such a terrible thing for control to be dominant in Modern? By “dominant,” I mean “win a few tournaments at the highest level.” It has been far too long since that was the situation for any format, so I doubt this unbanning will cause that.

Modern still has a ton of top-tier options, all of which still pose a problem for control decks wielding Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You can fit your control deck to beat certain matchups, some of which got significantly better with the newest win condition, but it’s not possible to guard against them all. LSV had an informative video he posted on Twitter that went over the winners and losers of this unbanning and I couldn’t agree more. The decks that are the lowest to the ground received the biggest boost, because our hero still has its weaknesses. Burn players are salivating the more we talk about a reactive control deck with a four-mana planeswalker that starts with three loyalty. They, along with all the other aggressive players, will be just fine. If Marshall’s doomsday kicks in and control starts putting two or three representatives in GP top 8s, that’s also perfectly all right!

The Starting Point

The Island Army has been discussing where Jace, the Mind Sculptor should ascend to. I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question, as each blue-based control deck has its strengths and weaknesses. I believe that U/W Control was the best control deck going into Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, so I wanted to start there. I wasn’t disappointed. U/W Control has the most consistent and least painful manabase. With an obvious uptick in aggro decks approaching, hurting yourself with shocklands isn’t where you want to be. The amount of basics in this deck is also a nice perk because Blood Moon is a notorious weakness to the three-color control decks.

At Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, I battled against a Jeskai Control player with my Ironworks Combo deck. I was such an underdog in sideboard games that I almost didn’t want to waste sideboard slots for the matchup. I ended up putting in Blood Moon and it paid off big. My opponent slammed a Search for Azcanta on Turn 2 and I untapped with a Mox Opal to end the game immediately. Blood Moon is brutal, so I want to start off with the version that has the most basics for new Modern.

With all the consistency, Field of Ruin is always a bit of a risk. Four colorless lands can hurt sometimes, but U/W Control has game against big mana decks where other versions do not. I’ve spoken to Gabriel Nassif on multiple occasions about U/W Control and our differences in opinion. One of those grey areas we discuss is the exclusion of Spreading Seas. He told me he’s not convinced of the card and thinks it’s not an automatic four-of. He said that he would still play some in every U/W Control list, but I disagreed with him on that.

U/W Control has too much “air” in it, historically speaking. Serum Visions, Opt, Wall of Omens, Spreading Seas, and now Search for Azcanta all help smooth out draws but don’t provide concrete paths to victory. Spreading Seas can lock out opponents, Wall of Omens can block, and Search for Azcanta eventually buries an opponent with card advantage, but all have relatively minimal impact in the early turns. There simply isn’t time to tap out repeatedly in the early turns to cantrip your way into action, and now we don’t have to. Field of Ruin is the Tectonic Edge we always wanted, able to hit Tron early, and it replaces itself. It felt bad using a Ghost Quarter on Turn 2 and it didn’t lead to victory often. Cutting Spreading Seas was scary at first, but the Tron matchup is winnable with just Field of Ruin and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I still would rather not get paired against big mana decks, but this version of U/W Control still has game against them without all the wasted slots.

Removing some of the “air” has lead to higher win percentages against the aggressive decks of the format, and that was discovered before the unbanning. I tested U/W Control for two months before Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan and only dropped it because of the inherent flaws of control that have now been rectified. In that testing, the higher density of answers was paying off dividends against most decks. With Jace, the Mind Sculptor back in action, your control deck needs to have the early turns dominated by keeping the battlefield as clean as possible. This means Path to Exile five and six (Condemn), an additional Detention Sphere, and a full set of Snapcaster Mages to maintain order.

The real controversy of this deck list is the number of Jace, the Mind Sculptors in the main. I had four copies in there for a good twenty reps but decided that three was the optimal number against the aggressive decks of the format. There is no way around playing four total in the 75, but the fourth copy is currently in my sideboard for the control/combo/midrange matchups. Typically, people play two copies in Legacy and four in old Standard, so three didn’t feel too sinful when I landed on that number. It’s likely that I add the fourth copy in the maindeck immediately after submitting this article, and if I do, you all will be notified on Twitter the second I do.

It brings us back to the curve and action point from earlier. For our planeswalker to lock the game up upon resolution, we must be consistent in the turns prior. Having three copies in the hand after a few unfortunate draw steps was a concern and then we are back to our red opponents salivating again. “Three or four copies” is the only substantial change in the maindeck I’m considering at this point.

The sideboard attempts to even the battlefield against the worst matchups for U/W Control. Three Kor Firewalker lead the way, attempting to steal sideboarded games on Turn 2 against the upcoming Mono-Red wave. Kitchen Finks doesn’t cut it here and Timely Reinforcements is not a good card, so we make a three-slot sacrifice to stomp them into the ground. Stony Silence is an obvious choice for any white deck and a third copy may be on the way if artifact-based decks increase. I think the fear of Kolaghan’s Command will keep them at bay, so two copies are right for now.

Surgical Extraction is going to be much more effective than other hate because of the ability to remove enemy Jace, the Mind Sculptors as well as Tron lands permanently. It’s primarily for general graveyard hate but has a ton of upside. The rest of the sideboard falls within the normal parameters of U/W Control decks, giving a diverse set of answers against general control, aggro, and combo decks.

Enjoy the new Modern, my friends. Jace, the Mind Sculptor being returned to us is the best gift I could have asked for from Wizards of the Coast. It’s the solution to the control finisher/card advantage pitfall and is an absolute blast to use. Many of you youngsters haven’t had the pleasure of playing it in a competitive format, so you all are in for a real treat.