Dark Ascension In Modern

Reid Duke looks at the creature-based strategies and non-creature strategies of Modern with Dark Ascension. What are going to be the big players? Will Tokens make a comeback? What will Faithless Looting do to the format?

The post-banning Modern format has already proven to be wide open and full of surprises. If seeing new decks break out with each passing PTQ wasn’t enough, Dark Ascension is sure to shake things up in a big way. It adds impressive creatures, useful tricks, and an endless amount of graveyard-based ammunition to what Innistrad already gave us. The new expansion seems to have something for everybody, from those who like to attack and block to those who want to gun through half their deck by the third turn.

Creature-Based Strategies

Looking at a new set can be overwhelming, but we have to start somewhere. What better way to begin a set review than to continue where I recently left off? Last week I suggested that a creature deck that used Knight of the Reliquary and Baneslayer Angel could overload the removal in Jund and generally be a powerful and well-positioned strategy in Modern. One card from Dark Ascension fits this strategy like a glove.

Faith’s Shield

My guess is that of all the card’s in Dark Ascension, Faith’s Shield was not the one to set off alarm bells for most people, and rightly so. Faith’s Shield will not be format defining, but it may be a useful tool. It falls in between Stave Off, which bordered on Constructed playable, and Brave the Elements, which was a multi-format powerhouse, while being playable in two- and three-color decks.

Knight of the Reliquary and Faith’s Shield work perfectly together. Most obviously, Knight is a game-winning creature, and Faith’s Shield can protect her from a removal spell. What’s more, though, is that Knight of the Reliquary can combine with Sejiri Steppe as an extra layer of protection, making it possible to base your strategy on protecting a single, crucial creature.

That “crucial creature” can be a Baneslayer Angel against opposing creature decks, a Dark Confidant against control, or a disruptive hate-bear against combo. What puts Faith’s Shield over the top in my mind is the fateful hour bonus, which conveniently gives the card more utility in many of the matchups where you’d already by happy to have Stave Off.

Consider the W/G/B vs. Jund matchup. Faith’s Shield can come in with the goal of protecting a Knight of the Reliquary or Baneslayer Angel but can swing a race when fateful hour comes online, either to make your creatures unblockable or to save you yourself from lethal damage. Along the same lines, it can counter a finishing burn spell out of Boros or Mono Red.

Perhaps the most exciting application comes against Storm, which cannot win through an Ethersworn Canonist. But if you fail to draw the Canonist and things aren’t going your way, keep your faith! Your opponent can cast a Grapeshot for twenty, fifty, one hundred, or ten thousand, and all you need to do is go down to five life and cast Faith’s Shield to give yourself protection from red, and force them to go off a second time later in the game to finish you off.

Between Faith’s Shield, hate bears, discard spells, and graveyard hate, this suggested decklist will make mincemeat out of storm combo. Careful readers may have noticed another Dark Ascension card that fits easily into the above decklist and adds one extra layer of insurance in the matchup. This card’s a little more exciting than Faith’s Shield.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Thalia is the most maindeckable hate bear ever printed, as she provides an effect that’s useful against the majority of decks in any given format. In addition to hosing storm combo, Living End, and Hive Mind, I predict white players will be pleasantly surprised with how good she is against Splinter Twin as well. Cantrips become inconvenient, and sculpting a hand consequently becomes a painful process. Making Splinter Twin cost five will already be helpful, but consider that to cast Splinter Twin and a Dispel in the same turn will cost seven! Thalia, in a deck that already has a few weapons against Twin, will have the potential to dramatically change the matchup.

What puts Thalia over the top as a maindeck card is her application against control (and even some types of creature decks!). Imagine you cast Thalia on turn 2 when you’re on the play. Your Urzatron opponent might have had any combination of a Signet, Remand, Repeal, or Condescend ready for their turn, but now what can they do? With a strong follow-up, your opponent can be all but locked out of the game before they even begin!

Sadly, for every time Thalia will be saved by Faith’s Shield, she’ll be killed ten times over, as Dark Ascension also offers a new, multi-format removal spell.

Tragic Slip

Though we often think of black as the best color for removal, until now it has had a glaring weakness at the one-mana slot. A player who needs to spend two mana to answer every Goblin Guide, Steppe Lynx, and Grim Lavamancer that the opponent plays can quickly find himself on the back foot. Consequently, black players often stretch to find one-mana removal, even though Disfigure is quite narrow, and Dismember is a painful way to handle a turn 1 Goblin Guide. Tragic Slip seems to correct a lot of problems because it’s efficient when you need it to be efficient and powerful when you need it to powerful. It can also only become better and better as you add more spot removal to your deck.

Any one-mana instant is powerful with Snapcaster Mage, but Tragic Slip really takes it to a whole new level. With Tragic Slip in the graveyard, you can flash in Snapcaster Mage during combat to chump or trade and afterwards use the Slip to take out their Soul Warden, their Primeval Titan, or their Krosan Cloudscraper, free of charge.

U/B Delver was already among Modern’s most successful decks, and Tragic Slip will be at its best in such a deck. However, keep it in mind for any black deck looking for efficient spot removal. Tragic Slip will be a big card in the coming months and years.

Annoying 2/1s and cute combat tricks are certainly fine and good, but some of us prefer pure aggression and more meat on our creatures. Huntmaster of the Fells and Vorapede are powerful enough to be considerations for Modern, though I can’t say how likely they are to replace the cards currently seeing play in their spots on the mana curve. However, Dark Ascension does have one or two cards that manage to outclass the staples of the powerful Modern format.

Geralf’s Messenger

Geralf’s Messenger is among the most brutal creatures ever printed, but it has the catch that it can’t fit in just any deck. However, if there’s one format where a BBB mana cost is manageable, it’s Modern, where you can play with as many dual and filter lands as you like, and staple colorless lands like Wasteland and Mishra’s Factory aren’t in the picture. There may not be a current Modern deck that can support Geralf’s Messenger, but one certainly could be built. The Zombie is also a good excuse to breathe new life into an old card, Phyrexian Obliterator, which can do big things in Modern.

This is only one of many ways to build a black-based aggro deck. You can splash any color or remain mono-black. You can be suicidally aggressive or play more of a midrange game. Gravecrawler and Bloodghast are good enough for Modern, and recursive weenies can quickly become a nightmare when they’re combined with Bad Moon, Lashwrithe, or other equipment. I’m eager to see the variety of things black mages are sure to come up with over the course of the PTQ season.

Up to this point I’ve focused on individual cards from Dark Ascension that will influence creature strategies in Modern. However, what about the obvious token synergies built into the set?

Gather the Townsfolk, Lingering Souls, and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

Combining Dark Ascension’s new tools with the already-successful modern Token decks will be explosive.

Swarm strategies have a number of advantages in creature mirrors, and a build that has access to black’s disruption is one that’s capable of really performing in an open field. This deck may not have Bitterblossom, but Sorin and Intangible Virtue are huge additions, and compared to previous incarnations of W/B Tokens, this deck’s mana is impeccable. Lingering Souls is terrific in the way it allows Tokens to maintain a modest mana curve while minimizing the chance of flooding out in the late game. This deck will be a big consideration for me the first time I have an important Modern tournament after Dark Ascension’s release.

Non-Creature Strategies

Finally, we come to the reason why all of my suggested decklists above are packing three Nihil Spellbombs in the sideboard.

Faithless Looting

Faithless Looting may prove to be the most influential card in Dark Ascension. Using Faithless Looting as a card selection spell is good but fair. Using it in a deck that can also take advantage of the graveyard can get out of hand very fast.

I recommend at least three anti-graveyard sideboard cards for the first PTQ after Dark Ascension. I give the nod to Nihil Spellbomb (in a black deck) over Relic of Progenitus, which is a change from last week, because of the speed with which Faithless Looting and Thought Scour can fill a graveyard.

Even if things don’t change much, the Spellbombs will be powerful against Past in Flames and applicable elsewhere. However, if Faithless Looting decks are half as powerful as they look on paper, we could find ourselves painfully underprepared even with three hate cards.

This build of Storm Combo emphasizes the powerful and reliable Past in Flames kill in the maindeck. I no longer like the idea of including Pyromancer Ascension, since by doing so you allow graveyard hate to disrupt both your plan A and plan B strategies. However, Empty the Warrens is an excellent card for either maindeck or sideboard to surprise an opponent who is too focused on stopping your Grapeshot kill. Similarly, while Pyromancer’s Swath is a bit less consistent that the alternatives, it can be brutally fast and dodges graveyard hate.

Storm is yet another example of a successful Modern strategy that Dark Ascension will take to a new level because of Faithless Looting and Thought Scour.

Thought Scour

Much like Tragic Slip, Thought Scour might serve as a small upgrade in a lot of decks but is unlikely to make any new decks viable. Especially with Preordain and Ponder banned (though Thought Scour is good in combination with Ponder as well), it’s one more cantrip-plus-small-bonus card that blue players can choose from. It’s worth noting that Thought Scour is good with both Delver of Secrets, because it can mill a card you’re unexcited to draw, and with Snapcaster Mage, because it fills the graveyard so quickly.

There are dozens of ways to utilize flashback and graveyard recursion in Modern, but so far there’s been nothing to resemble the broken Dredge decks of past formats. However, I feel that Faithless Looting may be the final missing piece for a red-based Dredge deck in Modern. I’m not qualified to offer a decklist, but consider all the options available to graveyard experts:

Ways to fill your graveyard: Faithless Looting, Burning Inquiry, Goblin Lore, Life from the Loam, Stinkweed Imp, Golgari Thug, Shambling Shell, Dakmor Salvage, Rotting Rats, Drowned Rusalka, Hedron Crab.

Ways to take advantage of your graveyard: Crypt of Agadeem, Fatestitcher, Extractor Demon, Bloodghast, Life from the Loam, Vengevine, Gravecrawler, Bridge from Below, Rotting Rats, Gnaw to the Bone, Spider Spawning, Sedraxis Specter, Unburial Rites, Worm Harvest.

In particular, I like the way that Life from the Loam provides raw quantity of cards, and the red draw-and-discard spells can turn them into something useful (or enormous dredges). Wirecat gave us a quick glimpse at how powerful that concept can be in a control shell, when he finished seventh in the last Magic Online PTQ with this innovative deck:

This is a deck that will happily adopt Faithless Looting for a handful of reasons. It can convert excess lands from Life from the Loam into quality spells. It can help to dump cards like Haakon, Stromgald Scourge into the graveyard (note the combo with Nameless Inversion). And it’s simply one more efficient flashback spell for Burning Vengeance.

My recommendation of Nihil Spellbomb is a safe bet for combatting these strategies, since it can always replace itself if you need to cash it in for a card. However, Dark Ascension offers what is perhaps the best colorless hoser of dedicated graveyard strategies yet to be printed.

Grafdigger’s Cage

Flashback, persist, undying, and reanimation are all made impossible by Grafdigger’s Cage. That means Past in Flames and Melira Combo are shut down cold. Snapcaster Mage and Unburial Rites are turned off as well, but the fact that the Cage costs a card itself means that you would likely only want it against opponents whose main game plan depends on the graveyard. It’s certainly an option to keep in mind, but we’ll have to see how the metagame develops before we can know just how it compares to Nihil Spellbomb and Relic of Progenitus.

Other Cards to Watch

Mystic Retrieval

Does Gifts Ungiven come to mind? So far, the only Gifts Ungiven control deck that has been widely accepted in Modern is Urzatron. Once in a while a deck will pop up that only uses Gifts Ungiven to stack the graveyard with Unburial Rites and a target for it. However, Gifts Ungiven is certainly a powerful card, and I believe there are plenty of unexplored options for control players in Modern. Mystic Retrieval is slow, but so is Mystical Teachings and Gifts Ungiven itself, and those cards have been used successfully as card advantage engines in many formats.

Chalice of Life

A fast clock when you can flip it and the tools to do so are there in Modern. Martyr of Sands is an easy way to gain twelve or more life, making it all you need to flip a Chalice in many cases. Soul Warden and Soul’s Attendant are useful cards in modern anyway as they protect you from the Splinter Twin combo. The Chalice itself helps make Serra’s Ascendant and Ajani’s Pridemate powerful threats, and putting all these things together may make “Soul Sisters” a viable strategy in Modern. I can’t say for sure whether Chalice would even earn its slot, but the fact that it attacks from such a different angle from the white weenies that make up the rest of the deck makes it appealing. It would be excellent against control decks, which I would expect to be the toughest matchups for Soul Sisters.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

Probably not the best six-drop to cast from your hand in Modern. However, Mikaeus combines with Triskelion for an infinite damage combo. Triskelion pings the opponent twice and itself once, returns to play with an extra +1/+1 counter, pings the opponent three times and itself, dies with no counters on it, and returns again to repeat the process. So what can this mean for Modern? It can mean that Tooth and Nail is a one-card, instant kill, no matter how many millions of life points your opponent has gained from Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Kitchen Finks.

I’m not sure just what a Tooth and Nail deck would look like, but it ought to be possible in Modern. Modern offers Boseiju, who Shelters All, the Urzalands, and all of the best mana ramp from the past decade. What’s more, we all know how amazing Primeval Titan is, and it can serve as an “intermediate” threat in a green ramp deck. Does the threat of a removal spell make you scared to fetch Mikaeus and Triskelion? Well you can grab two Titans and stock your board with manlands and Mosswort Bridges in case the opponent has Doom Blade, Damnation, or anything else. That’s a beautiful option to have when it comes from fatty creatures that you’re happy to draw anyway.

I’ve spent the week pouring over the Dark Ascension spoiler and carefully analyzing the Modern format. Faithless Looting will revolutionize Modern, and I expect the W/b Tokens deck made possible by Lingering Souls and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad to become a major player as well.

Beyond that, Dark Ascension is jam packed with “options,” which is what I love to see in a new set. The cards aren’t so powerful that they destroy existing strategies and force people into archetypes they’re uncomfortable with. Instead, Dark Ascension simply offers plenty of useful tools and tournament-level fringe cards. Something like a Huntmaster of the Fells, a Tragic Slip, or a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben can go in your deck or stay on the bench, depending on your own personal preferences. I ask only that you keep an open mind towards the new cards, and find the ones that can be positive additions to whatever strategy you choose in Modern.