Enchanting To Beat You

This week Glenn highlights a Zur the Enchanter decklist while mentioning a couple of other spicy Modern brews from Magic Online.

Some Modern decks are just so sweet that you really want them to actually be good. For me, the sillier the interaction, the more enamored I become.

Most of these decks are laden with synergy over raw power—that’s why they wind up failing to catch on. Any synergy-reliant deck tends to be natively vulnerable to Thoughtseize, one of the defining elements of Modern. If somehow one of these decks can escape the Thoughtseize trap—or simply accept the accompanying losses—then they’ve got to contend with racing faster combo decks and not dying to hate cards that everyone already has.

This is a surprisingly onerous task.

In my experience, the more "normal" a deck looks, the more firmly it can find footing on the second tier in Modern. Now, that’s a double-edged sword—no deck that meets this kind of criteria will ever be a perfect deck for the weekend because they’re not hugging the poles. Depending on the event and my mood, I’d rather be playing the "crazy" deck that has a good shot at spiking on the right weekend than a deck I’m expecting to bat an average 60% with unless variance helps me along.

An example? Certainly!

Consider the Goryo’s Vengeance combo deck that started picking up popularity, culminating in Todd Anderson Grand Prix Kansas City Top 16. That deck was relatively unique in the format and pushed its concept to the breaking point—that’s what made it a potential contender, albeit briefly. It was doing powerful things and stressing both a weak point—less graveyard hate—and favorable variance results when the opponent fails to interact.

By contrast, the U/W/R Twin deck is playing such fair Magic that it can’t really find a similar place anymore. Sure, the weekends where Jund recedes might be a little better . . . but this deck isn’t explosive enough to really capitalize on open holes in the metagame and bears enough similarity to existing archetypes that you’re going to be overlapped on sideboarding fights. This deck is cool, fun, and not "bad," but at the same time I’d be pretty unlikely to pick it for an important event.

This week’s deck likely exists in that same space, but it’s certainly cool enough to merit consideration!

Zur the Enchanter is a deceptively potent creature in the Modern format for a four-drop with one power. Just take a look at the upsides:

1) He doesn’t die to Lightning Bolt.

2) He doesn’t die to Abrupt Decay or Smother.

3) He can’t be discarded by Inquisition of Kozilek.

4) He doesn’t die to Pyroclasm or Firespout, and Ratchet Bomb isn’t likely to visit his range.

So yeah, he’s basically bulletproof. Oh, I forgot one!

5) He’s the same color as Thoughtseize.

That’s a pretty healthy set of pros. The cons? Primarily his casting cost, significant color commitment, and the space required for his "package" of value-add enchantments. Taking a look at BlindNavigator’s list, we see how he approached building a deck that both supports Zur and operates without him—no small feat.

First off, the core of the deck is a pretty basic Esper tempo strategy in Modern. We’ve all seen decks like this in a variety of colors, including Esper, so many of the choices and cards featured aren’t even especially surprising. Of course, most of those cards are also not enchantments, so there’s that. BlindNavigator chose to go very small with his package for Zur—just Detention Sphere and Steel of the Godhead.

These two have pretty simple applications. Facing an army that could potentially eat Zur? Steel your resolve. Fighting off a troublesome permanent? Send it to Detention. Detention Sphere is already a Modern playable, restricted in its playability only by casting cast and the widespread adoption of Abrupt Decay in midrange strategies. In Legacy, Detention Sphere is much more commonplace because there are fewer Abrupt Decays and more must-answer permanents.

Steel of the Godhead, however . . .

Steel of the Godhead is best known for its widespread casual appeal. As an Aura with a particularly popular set of buffs—size, lifelink, and evasion—Steel has continued to fulfill this role in Commander and the like following its rotation from Standard. The biggest thing Steel has going for it is that it’s hyperefficient, offering everything for one mana. That means it’s actually a pretty potent Aura, but its biggest problem is that putting it on most creatures leaves you vulnerable to getting two-for-oned, as most Auras do.

Remember that laundry list of bonuses Zur has? Well, an immunity to the most common and efficient removal in the Modern format is one of them! Zur comes with a built-in protection from getting two-for-oned. What’s more is that Zur searching up the aura is obviously card advantage—but don’t forget that the "Lightning Helix" it gives you is also worth an honorable mention. Damage ain’t free!

Of course, you don’t want to have just Zur to wear those Steels. That’s a critical deckbuilding flaw—adding inflexible cards that require you to draw a specific piece of your deck. Fortunately, there are plenty of good gold creatures to choose from in Zur’s color combination. Ideally, they’ll offer a similar durability to removal. When it comes to Geist of Saint Traft, Steel of the Godhead is a perfect fit! Not only is Geist about as removal-proof as creatures come, but he is specifically in the market for a powerful form of evasion!

This particular intersection of synergy is what made me sit up and take notice of the archetype.

The incorporation of Meddling Mage with Gitaxian Probe is also worth examining. A Mage that bricks a card in hand and picks up a Steel could easily kill some opponents. Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique offer additional Peeks if you find yourself in need, meaning the Meddling Mage should generally be a lot more like Tidehollow Sculler and a little less like Cabal Therapy. The Mage has no express synergy with the deck’s primary game plan, but it’s an interesting package to consider. I do like gaining Probes to go with these Snapcaster Mages!

Now, Geist’s primary vulnerability in Modern has always been to Liliana of the Veil. Most of the Liliana decks can consistently stick Liliana or a discard spell prior to Geist resolving, neutralizing him efficiently and leaving the Geist player scrambling. Zur shares this weakness—he’s not much better against Liliana. However, having eight creatures for Liliana to handle can help you overload the planeswalker in a pinch, and Detention Sphere offers you a natural draw to remove her before playing one of your haymakers. Plus, Meddling Mage can be both bait and disruption for the oncoming planeswalker.

One of the natural defenses against Liliana of the Veil that is available to these colors is Lingering Souls, a spell that BlindNavigator interestingly chose to eschew. He’s obviously running a little heavy on three-drops between Geists, Spheres, Vendilion Cliques, and (theoretically) Snapcaster Mages, but I think Souls is probably better than at least the Cliques. Lingering Souls is such a good weapon against Liliana that I’ve splashed it into decks in order to attack her in the past, but I’ll admit that the times are changing a bit. The two most popular Liliana decks play either their own Lingering Souls or Chandra, Pyromaster, making the Spirit spell slightly less efficient . . . but probably still worthwhile.

Side note: this deck is rather removal light for Snapcaster Mage. If you’re going to run Snapcaster, you need a plan for handling Deathrite Shamans; this deck is lacking one. Based on BlindNavigator’s configuration, I can only assume he is gearing himself heavily against combo and control here because Steel helps him race creatures down in a hurry.

One of the bigger draws to Zur is also this sideboard. There are several good cheap enchantments in the Modern format, and Zur offers a way to make them higher impact. Drawing a Seas against Tron is a delaying play, but if that delay gets you to the point where you can start attacking with Zur, you’ll likely build a gulf too wide for the opponent to swim across.

Threads of Disloyalty is even more absurd against Tarmogoyf decks, creating a cascading form of card advantage. You might even be lucky enough to surprise them with the first one out of the deck, drastically affecting their play and Zur evaluations for the remainder of the game and the match. They’ll have to figure out how to beat not just what they know he can do but also what you might reasonably be capable of having after sideboard!

Now, this list was initially built prior to the release of Theros—a block one might assume would have a lot to offer. Well, that hasn’t really been the case, although I of course have high hopes for the remainder of the block. However, a couple of cards did catch my eye.

Gift of Immortality is a useful bullet against Supreme Verdict decks or archetypes with similar sweepers. I wouldn’t go overboard on them, but Zur fetching Gift would likely be pretty obnoxious for U/W/R Control players to handle and popping one onto a Geist is going to be beyond them altogether. You can go crazy with the archetype and try to engineer a Gift-based deck . . . but trying to recur three-drops and four-drops is going to leave you behind against midrange and dead to most combo decks. Steer clear!

The other card—and the one I found most appealing—was Chained to the Rocks. Now, call me crazy, but I really think this card is on an appropriate power level for Modern even considering Abrupt Decay. I’m most interested in pairing it with basic Mountain due to the popularity of Tectonic Edge in the format, so that means rebuilding the mana base a fair bit, maybe even skewing the deck into a completely different direction. It’s an attractive idea in my head, but it might be too untenable for what Modern mana allows.

This week I’m actually offering up a few extras. I spotted another very spicy brew in the Modern Daily Event results . . . but after thinking it over, I knew that even with my profound predilection for prolonged pontificating that I’d be unable to write a whole article about the following deck:

So you counter their spells and make both players draw a bunch of cards, and then you Time Walk a bunch to fuel the next round of fighting or use the turns to deck them with Jace Beleren. Any questions? The Laboratory Maniac in the board covers opponents who might have Emrakul, which is pretty cute, and the rest of it is mostly self-explanatory. I can’t really say this deck is any good—it’s probably got a very narrow range of good matchups and not much fight to it when it’s in trouble—but it certainly looks like fun.

I’ve already spent a lot of time addressing both Merfolk in Modern and Loam strategies, but I figured it’s worth noting when these fringe players start to pick up. First off, here’s Todd’s update to Merfolk, which has been doing well online in the past week:

And lastly, an interesting take on the Young Pyromancer / Retrace version of Loam I suggested previously. I thought a more aggressive variant that went just into R/G might have legs, and czarro_pl did me one better; he brewed up the deck and took it into battle! To be clear, full credit to czarro_pl—I have no idea whether he even read my article. It’s just really cool to see someone else’s mind take it in the same direction and wind up with a successful product!

That’s it from me for this week. I’m enjoying a little bit of a break from the grind of covering the Open Series, with a PTQ in Durham this weekend and the Legacy Grand Prix in Washington DC after that. I haven’t decided on what I want to be doing in Legacy—I’m not nuanced enough with sideboarding to play a combo deck, but finding the right fair deck for this particular metagame is definitely a challenging proposition. Hopefully I at least get to play something interesting! I’ll be sure to keep you guys updated both here and on my Twitter, so stay tuned.

Glenn Jones
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