“Sphinx’s Revelation for five.”
Grand Prix Portland was this past weekend—my first opportunity to play Modern since Bloodbraid Elf, Seething Song, and Second Sunrise were banned. It was clear going in that there are a lot of cool decks you could build for Modern if you have the time to test for the format.
Of course, the Pro Tour is just days away, so basically all available time has been split between Block Constructed and Draft. By Draft, I mean the Pro Tour format, Dragon’s Maze-Gatecrash-Return to Ravnica, of course, not triple Dragon’s Maze. Full block Booster Draft has been totally awesome in my humble opinion—one of my favorite Draft formats in years. We’ll see how replayable it is, but I have been shocked at how fun and interesting the drafts and the games have been. Triple Dragon’s Maze doesn’t interest me at all, and the cards were clearly not designed for such a format.
Team SCG arrived in Portland Monday and spent the week testing the PT formats, so with zero time to test Modern, I had to make a decision. What to play? Finkel, Zvi Mowshowitz, Tom Martell, and I discussed just skipping the GP (or playing one round) to spend the weekend testing Modern, but we decided to give it a shot, sort of assuming a number of us would bomb out and be able to go test.
Of course, obviously now we’re all in day 2.
In deciding what deck to play, I went through a fairly normal routine.
Step 1: Did anyone break it? Since no one tested, I guess this one’s a no.
Step 2: What do I have built? Oh, it looks like U/W from when I loaned Paul Rietzl a deck for the last Modern GP.
Step 4: What would Wafo do? This is the step where I quit messing around and move all-in on a Wafo deck in the dark. I don’t always recommend this step, but when I do, it’s good times.
In this case, I knew that Guillaume Wafo-Tapa had won a PTQ with U/W/R Control, so I got in touch with him to see if the deck was still good. He hadn’t played since the PTQ win but had a lot of useful advice that helped inform a number of changes that I made to his winning list. With added input from Andrew Cuneo and Sam Black, I arrived at the following list:
Unlike many of the U/W/R Flash decks that people play, this build actually tries to play a pretty pure draw-go game. The opportunity to play a true control deck in a format where it is actually good and not everyone plays it was very appealing. I always enjoy playing Wafo-Tapa decks anyway, as he is one of the few men that loves drawing cards as much as I do.
As I said, I did make a few changes to his list based on conversations with him, Andrew, and Sam. The first of these was making room for a fourth Spell Snare and a third Supreme Verdict. I certainly don’t know that these are right, but my thinking was that Voice of Resurgence was enough to justify the Snare and I just kind of like sweepers a little bit more than Wafo does. While I am reasonably confident that these two cards added to my overall win percentage, I am not confident at all that I cut the right cards.
By the time I determined I was playing U/W/R Control, I didn’t have a ton of time before decklists had to be submitted. As a result, I trimmed Wafo’s pet card, Electrolyze (there is no one on Earth who has cast as many Electrolyzes in sanctioned play as Wafo), which I like but thought could be kind of slow. While that decision was defensible, I also trimmed a Think Twice, which was basically a terrible move on my part. I definitely underestimated how many openings I was going to get to play it. Playing less than four is probably quite foolish.
As for the sideboard, I added an Ajani Vengeant (against Wafo’s protests) to give me another answer to Birthing Pod as well as opposing Ajanis, not to mention having another victory condition for the mirror. Wear // Tear is an easy and obvious upgrade to Disenchant, and while I never drew it (on day 1), I boarded it in many times and it would have been incredible. It was surprising just how many people had both artifacts and enchantments, but I would bring it in even for just one of the two. Overall, I was pretty happy with the sideboard, but if I could do it again, I would play another Engineered Explosives instead of the second Celestial Purge.
Jumping back over to the maindeck, I want to call attention to just how much card draw we can fit in here.
I played twenty card draw spells in Portland, which is so far beyond what most would ever consider.
Of course, Wafo played 22, so there is that.
Literally every card in the deck except Lightning Bolt, Spell Snare, Mana Leak, and Supreme Verdict draws at least one card or makes mana. That is my idea of a good time. Modern gets a lot of flak, but I really love that I can actually play a deck this, it can be competitive, and not everyone feels compelled to run it.
The Wafo school of deckbuilding is a dying art it seems, largely because of the types of cards WotC makes good these days. Playing twenty card draw spells does some surprising and non-intuitive things to your decklist, but I highly recommend it as a weapon to have in your arsenal. For the curious students of the game, a detailed breakdown of this school of deckbuilding can be found here.
One of the big bottlenecks in Modern is the ability to make good plays for one mana (as there are relatively few outside of creatures that make mana). Lightning Bolt is probably the best of the spells (Deathrite Shaman being the best one-drop by no small margin) and goes a long way towards buying us the time we need draw some extra cards and play a real game.
I’m a big fan of the four Spell Snare, three Mana Leak, four Cryptic Command package with two Counterflux in the board. Spell Snare give us much needed tempo (and is just a very high quality card), though I would not fault someone for only playing three. The Cryptic Commands are sort of vital, as they provide some hard counters, the ability to solve difficult problems (possibly by bouncing something), and additional card advantage. Even though we have Sphinx’s Revelation, it is super important for a control deck in this format to be able to look at a lot of cards since not having the right answer at the right time is super punishing.
The Mana Leaks are less good but are better than either Rune Snag or Remand, and we really do need some two mana counters. The number one target? Three-drops, but really we just need a bridge to get us out of the early game.
Remand fails too often due to one-drops, opponents playing a two-drop on turn 4, and just not stopping the actual threat. Rune Snag is unreliable with less than four, and besides, by the time you get ahead from Rune Snag, you don’t need the extra power in that spot. You just want to make sure your early game gets as much juice as it can since you can make up the rest later with Sphinx’s Revelations.
Azorius Charm is less good in Modern than it has been in Standard, but it is still respectable. I boarded it out a lot, but that was probably largely because of my matchups. Even though it only temporarily slows an attacker, it can be an important way to deal with Goyfs too big to Bolt, particularly when followed up with a Spell Snare. The fact that it cycles makes it far better than a card like Path to Exile (which you have to bend over backwards to turn into a card against creatureless opponents by Pathing your own guy). Besides, I want to deny my opponents mana by killing their mana dudes and Tectonic Edging them. I don’t want to give them more mana!
Electrolyze deals with creatures sort of the opposite way Azorius Charm does but also “cycles” against opponents where removal is not good. The ability to play so much removal without getting caught with countless dead cards is one of the major draws to this style of control deck. Contrast this with Grixis that uses cards like Terminate.
Honestly, I think if I was going to work on Grixis, I would take a good look at cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir and Liliana of the Veil, looking for ways to keep our removal count as high as possible while not getting stuck with dead cards. Going this route, I would even consider a couple Repeals, which can be a mediocre sort of removal but can double as sources of card advantage when targeting your Snapcaster Mage (or any other creature with an enters the battlefield trigger).
As much as I love Cruel Ultimatum, Sphinx’s Revelation is just better at playing this role. In both cases, if you get to spend seven mana or more mana on them, you are in real good shape. While Cruel delivers than Sphinx at exactly seven, Revelations has the benefit of being highly customizable, including the not embarrassing Revelations for two. Sphinx’s Revelation is not as demanding on our mana base (making it no problem to play cards like Tectonic Edge), but what really sets it apart is it being an instant. This means we can actually play full-on draw-go.
While the Standard metagame has swung away from Sphinx’s Revelation, it is important to remember just how insane of a card it is. This is quite literally a card stronger than actual Braingeyser. Why? I mean, obviously it is an instant, but what makes this one better than Blue Sun’s Zenith and Stroke of Genius? Stroke wins if we want to be able to target our opponent, but setting aside that corner case, neither it nor Blue Sun are in Sphinx’s Revelation’s league. The life gain really is that important.
When you are drawing a bunch of extra cards, what do you want the most? Some time, some board position. In general, if we are playing a format like Standard, Modern, or Block and end up being able to trade mana for cards, being able to trade cards for life is a real appealing proposition. I’d generally say that three life is worth at least a card once we are in this spot. Sphinx’s Revelation doesn’t even charge us! The cost is slightly more restrictive, but the net cost in mana is actual zero despite this effectively drawing one or more extra cards above the other instant speed X spells that draw cards.
What is an extra card worth? This one’s easy since we are in a spot where we can trade mana for cards. This means, Sphinx’s Revelation effectively costs a mana less than its peers. Here’s a hint: its peers were already very powerful cards. You can’t just add an extra mana’s worth to tournament powerhouse cards and expect it to not have an impact.
Why isn’t Sphinx’s Revelation making big waves in Legacy or Vintage? Well, it will show up, to be sure, but life points just aren’t worth as much in those formats because such a higher percentage of games aren’t about little repeatable packets of damage. Those formats are much less about reducing someone to zero and are more focused on “executing your game plan.”
Why Think Twice over Desperate Ravings? As always, Sphinx’s Revelation makes us want to Think Twice instead. We rely on it so hard that we just can’t afford to chance discarding it. Additionally, Cryptic Command is the type of card that can end up taking up a lot of space in your hand but that you don’t want to risk. Not every deck is trying to actually permission lock opponents, but when you are, Ravings loses some utility. Because of Sphinx’s Revelation, Ravings has been largely relegated to Storm combo, which believe it or not is back. As of this writing, Jon Finkel is 8-1 with Storm combo using Burning Vengeance instead of Seething Song.
In day 1 alone, I sat next to Storm without Seething Song, Jund without Bloodbraid Elf, and Eggs without Second Sunrise (replacing it with Open the Vaults). Of course, it should also be noted that despite this the format is actually quite diverse and anything but static. Here’s a quick look at the Top 20 decks after day 1:
*Trying to force Robots to happen is awkward.
There are really two types of U/W/R Control, depending on if you are playing non-Snapcaster creatures or not. Personally, I think the more pure control builds are better this week, but that is sure to keep fluctuating. As for the other two big ones, Pod is no surprise (Voice of Resurgence gives a lot to a deck that was already good, plus you get Sin Collector), and G/W/B Midrange seems to have climbed ahead of Jund (since it is basically a Jund deck with Lingering Souls instead of the now-banned Bloodbraid Elf).
U/W/R Control certainly doesn’t beat everything, but it sure seems to have a good game against Pod. I played against two copies on day 1, and both times I felt strongly favored (and my opponents confirmed that it wasn’t a matchup they wanted to face). Usually the way the games go, you just kill every single creature they try to play.
Supreme Verdict can really get you ahead in games where they try to win without Pod. When they have Pod, removal is great, as is countering each creature and the occasional Shadow of Doubt blowout. They aren’t “slow,” per se, but when you can remove their first two or three creatures, many of their creatures don’t really do anything on their own. This leads to finding an easy window to Sphinx for four. A turn or two later you can Snapcaster it and make sure the game is cemented up.
On my way to a 7-2 day 1 record, I faced a variety of decks that left me with a positive take on the current state of the format. My first opponent was playing four-color good stuff with cards like Deathrite Shaman, Birds of Paradise, Tarmogoyf, Loxodon Smiter, Liliana of the Veil, Lingering Souls, Ajani Vengeant, Path to Exile, and Inquisition of Kozilek. A turn 2 Shadow of Doubt stole the first game (prompting a judge call to confirm that I really had Shadow of Doubt maindeck), with game 2 decided by a Sphinx’s Revelation followed by Supreme Verdict with Elspeth in play.
Wafo told me that Elspeth was really fantastic, though I didn’t get the message that I should go up to two in the board until after decklists had been turned in. The one Ajani was solid, but Elspeth would just have been better. I wanted to be able to lock down Birthing Pods, but those matchups turned out to be so good that we don’t need the extra help. Meanwhile, Elspeth won a shocking number of games for me for a one-of. I’m talking actually changing the outcome of the game, not just doing the twenty damage. I don’t know why I still underestimate that card. Brian Kibler went a stretch where he added Elspeth to four of my decks in a row, crushing every time.
I’m not sure how I feel about Gideon yet. He has been ok but not great, so I could definitely see cutting him if we need room. I was tempted before the tournament to sideboard a couple of Baneslayers, but the problem is too many opponents we’d want to board it in against will actually have answers. Jund has Liliana and Olivia, G/W/B has Liliana and Path, Affinity has Shrapnel Blast, and even Zoo can double Bolt it (and that’s if they don’t Tribal Flames it). If I was going to do anything along these lines, it would for sure have to be Wurmcoil Engine. That said, I was happy with the planeswalker approach to sideboarding additional victory conditions, particularly Elspeth.
My second round (I guess fifth round?) was against G/W Auras, a deck I knew about conceptually but didn’t have a ton of real world experience against, at least in this format. I have to admit, the Umbras took me by surprise, making Supreme Verdict much less Supreme than it otherwise would have been. I ended up losing, and it’s not even like my opponent’s draws were very good. I have to imagine this is a bad matchup for U/W/R Control.
If I was going to play this deck again, I would swap a Celestial Purge for an Engineered Explosives, and this matchup is a large part of the reason why. An Explosives for one that hits a Slippery Boggle with tons of Auras, including Umbras, is still going to live, but it is a big improvement over Supreme Verdict since it wipes the slate clean of all enchantments, not just Umbras. Besides, all I want is more sweepers, so getting one for even cheaper is all I could ever ask for.
Rounds 6 and 7, I faced the aforementioned Pod decks. The only thought I would offer here is that I was surprised with how many Pod decks had access to only a single Voice of Resurgence. I would definitely want access to at least three after board if I was playing Pod. It is a great tool against control (and you really need the help), plus it is a great tool against attrition-y decks like Jund.
Round 8 I had a feature match against Melissa DeTora piloting W/B Tokens. Despite four mulligans over three games, I managed to pull it out thanks to Elspeth backed by the power of Spell Snare and Supreme Verdict.
Finally, round 9 I took a loss in the semi-mirror. By this point, I was pretty worn out from a long day battling, and we had some serious time pressure. While there is nothing I could have done to change the Auras match’s outcome, I am confident I could have won this match with tighter play. In the first game, we play a half hour marathon that ended with me playing a Tectonic Edge after a giant Sphinx main phase (leaving me with an Edge and three fetches for untapped lands). A flurry of Bolts later and I was left unable to Spell Snare the lethal Snapcaster (getting another Bolt) due to being stranded with just the Edge once my life total hit one.
Game 2, my opponent had a mana-light hand, and he conceded as soon as I stuck a Gideon. Game 3 was more interesting, particularly since we were both playing blisteringly fast. I should have been countering his Bolts earlier since I knew he kept them all in as well as Lightning Helix from looking at his hand in game 2 with Vendilion Clique.
I was certainly unlucky to miss seven land drops in a row and have to discard to hand size over and over, but if I had just countered the first two Bolts (when I was at twenty), I would have had a lot more breathing room later. Eventually, I discarded two Mana Leaks anyway while we were both playing draw-go. When the game ended, I was dead to the last card in his hand, a Bolt, while I still had a Snapcaster, a Cryptic Command, and an Electrolyze in hand (but completely out of mana). Unlucky to have missed so many land drops? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter, as the victory was mine to take if I had just played tighter. Unlucky is never having a chance in the first place. If you have a chance and miss it, that is just a mistake.
It always amazes me how blind people can be to their own mistakes. In my experience, in almost half of my losses I can identify misplays I made that either cost me the game or serious percentage, and that’s just the one’s I am aware of. I have no doubt I am punting even more games without seeing it even after. There is no need to despair, of course. Honest reflection, having the courage to face the truth, is one of the most powerful ways to get better. If you can’t be critical of your game, where it really is, you aren’t playing the game of getting better at Magic; you are playing the game of convincing yourself that you’re already better.
Ok, I gotta get some sleep for day 2. Anyone looking for a Modern deck and dying to play real control? I definitely think this one is decent. I gotta say that I am pleasantly surprised with the format as a whole. Before the event started, I was strongly considering dropping after day 1 if I had a record of 7-2, but I am enjoying playing the tournament so much that I’m not even close to being on that type of time. I want to not only play out the next six rounds of Swiss, but I want to go undefeated so that I get to play three more!
Thanks everybody for the suggestions and ideas last week. What would Wafo do? Yeah, you know it…
See you this weekend at Pro Tour San Diego. I have been having an absolute blast playing Magic this past week, and I have a feeling this upcoming week will be even better. See you there!