Help Me Break Restore Balance!

Last week, Ari Lax took on the Swans of Bryn Argoll challenge in his video. That didn’t quite work out, so this week he’s going deep on another Modern deck. After an extensive Gatherer search and plenty of testing, he’s ready to unveil the new and improved…Restore Balance?!

“The thing that interests me the most about Restore Balance past this weekend is how oddly flexible the deck is for a cascade shell where you can only play higher cost cards. It turns out there are a lot of weird hate options out there once you spread across four colors.

If anything, you are actually presented with more options due to having to cut the obvious ‘best’ ones out of the way. How else would you get to Mardu Charm?”

– me, last month

With no pressing events or sets and a reason to look harder at new options for Restore Balance, this seems like the perfect time to address this.

What are the options available for what has rapidly become my favorite deck in Modern?

The Shallow End

Prior to running a huge search, these are the cards already on my mind.

The first slot I want to discuss is the default three-mana removal slot currently occupied by Anguished Unmaking. Simply put, I think that specific card is garbage. The life is completely unaffordable even against basic stuff like Jund, except in weird spots where you are already winning. The exile matters in rare occasions, but one exile against Dredge isn’t going to cut it.

I want to try Maelstrom Pulse, but I have to consider the effects on the mana a little. The cost of 1GB forces you down a road where you fetch Forest, Swamp, Sacred Foundry, which clashes with Mardu Charm and can tie up your mana on turns you want single red for Greater Gargadon and white for basically any spell in your deck.

If I wanted to kill a specific card type, I would just select the exact answer for it, but I want to catch them all with a single card. The draw to an instant-speed removal spell is catching a creature-land like Inkmoth Nexus, and I’m guessing that my mana denial and Blood Moon strategy is a bit less concerned than other Mardu Control-style decks with those in the long-term.

Dismember is pretty bad except when it is the best thing possible. It is exactly what you want when your opponent has creatures you want to kill but is too fast for Restore Balance. For now I’m okay relegating this card to the sideboard for Infect and leaning on Simian Spirit Guide and the sideboard to get my early removal going. Shriekmaw is more of the same, but hedges slightly against Burn at the cost of a lot of percentage against creature combo.

On to other evoke creatures, Ingot Chewer is one that pops up a lot in other cascade decks. It’s a fine sideboard card specifically to beat Cranial Plating, but as a maindeck option it doesn’t work as the Shatter is non-optional, meaning you can’t just card-dump evoke the Chewer pre-Balance if you have a Borderpost. With Affinity on a huge downswing, I’m not too concerned, and I think Lingering Souls provides more than enough edge in that matchup while being flexible elsewhere.

I really like Gideon Jura and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in Modern, but I don’t think either fits Restore Balance. The card Restore Balance does all of the creature crushing big Gideon wants to do, and sadly for the best card in Standard (and many others planeswalkers), making creature tokens is directly opposed to this deck’s strategy.

Moving to another non-token-making planeswalker, Chandras of various kinda are eliminated due to mana cost. Double red isn’t reliable due to how your lands and Borderposts line up. You want eight red Borderposts, reducing the desire for extra red lands and basic Mountains, reducing your ability to assure the second red. Chandra, Flamecaller is powerful, but six is not reasonable in my mind.

What a card…..

Let’s save this one for later.

Or just get this out of the way. Yahenni’s Expertise has a lot of people excited about the prospect of cascade-style decks, as you can combo with a Restore Balance to cast the extra copy from hand. I think this is a lot worse than it looks at first, but it is a reasonable backup plan.

To compare, how good would Balancing Act be in Modern? It was good in Extended when it was legal, but never broken. Yahenni’s Expertise acts in a similar timeframe but requires a bonus card to combo, which is fine, but again, not broken. A cascade card technically works, but if you had a cascade spell, wouldn’t you just cast it first?

The exciting thing is that Yahenni’s Expertise into Liliana of the Veil is also awesome. Clear the creatures, Edict the big threat. Clean and simple. The card doesn’t just combo with Restore Balance; it works as a normal Magic card.

That alone makes it worth looking at.

A fine sideboard option against a narrow set of combo decks where you want to assure an Armageddon even if you don’t have Greater Gargadon. For those unaware, any time a spell instructs you to cast a split card without paying its mana cost, you may cast either half (or both with Fuse), so you can transform out of Restore Balance and cascade into Boom // Bust. I’m not seeing enough of these decks to move forward with this plan and likely would just lean towards another deck if I did, as the matchup isn’t inherently great.

If you want to bury your opponent in the opposite direction, you can cascade into Beck // Call as four 1/1 Birds and four cards, which probably finds you another cascade spell, which hits another Beck // Call, etc. I don’t know if that’s actively good anywhere, but it’s there.

I feel like Phyrexian Unlife should be the best sideboard card against Burn, but it suffers from overlap on Destructive Revelry and Borderposts. I think it is still better than trying to resolve Timely Reinforcements into tons of Atarka’s Commands and Skullcracks, but might be worse than Leyline of Sanctity’s wider spread or just going to Kor Firewalker as your cascade target.

Gatherer Time

And the deep dive. I only looked at instants, sorceries, and enchatments outside of blue, artifacts that cost three or four, and suspend cards here. If there’s a creature I failed to consider, I’m willing to accept defeat there.

Cards that put you up in terms of raw cards aren’t what you want. It’s not just that being up cards conflicts with Restore Balance, but that playing high-resource games and playing low-resource games is completely different. Your entire A-game is dedicated towards cards that work well when players don’t have much going on. If you want an attrition and value card, you likely want something that deprives them of resources.

Also worth noting: sacrifice effects aren’t super-necessary, as Restore Balance covers hexproof creatures. Liliana of the Veil is just too good as a card, but hitting the thing you want to hit is more important with your other cards. I also want to take this moment to say Hit // Run is an awesome Magic card and it would not shock me to see someone die to it in the future of Modern.

Dimir Machinations is a pretty cool tutor for a cascade spell if we go down the double-black manabase road. Beseech the Queen doesn’t work, as triple black sucks and you are likely down lands to Borderposts.

I’m unsure if two damage is good enough, but Jund Charm might make a sideboard line up on numbers.

Nahiri’s Wrath is a kinda cool way to bin your hand before Restore Balance fires off.

Again, if we end up heavy black, Sadistic Sacrament taking Laboratory Maniac and Lightning Storm is technically a harder knockout against Ad Nauseam than Slaughter Games, as they could still win via Laboratory Maniac plus Spoils of the Vault. It’s also a kill against blue Scapeshift lists that only play two Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.

I will forever hate Battle for Zendikar for putting devoid cards in my searches that exclude a color.

Your maindeck Blood Moon and Armageddon deck shouldn’t need a ton more in the land hate department, but Simian Spirit Guide puts Crumble to Dust into the “fast enough to fight Tron” category.

I don’t know how much of this card makes the cut with Yahenni’s Expertise covering a similar slot, but Damnation is an option to lock up a sweeper. I wouldn’t say the same about Wrath of God, as I can’t imagine wanting to aim for double white in my manabase.

There are matchups where you want to spam discard over multiple turns. Nightmare Void lets you really pick apart a control deck over several turns if one exists.

Ricochet Trap is a card that Living End has leaned on in the past against control. I think Restore Balance generally needs fewer targeted answers against countermagic, as it has planeswalker threats to grind away with and the real issue is when your opponent casts Nahiri, the Harbinger, but Ricochet Trap is definitely above the quality bar for sideboard play.

You don’t want to blow up your own Borderposts in the process of shutting down the Affinity or Lantern Control deck. Sorry, Shatterstorm.

A bit of a classic played in Standard formats long past, Thoughts of Ruin is the best backup Armageddon if swapping over to Boom // Bust isn’t on your radar.

I have no idea if things line up well enough over a game, but Haunting Echoes can one-shot Dredge in ways other cards can’t. I’m mostly interested because Restore Balance can set up their graveyard with creatures and because the black-focused lists are going to be light on Anger of the Gods due to color requirements.

I’m not sure either Collective Defiance or Incendiary Command is up to snuff, but the idea of cycling my hand away is exciting in a deck that can flood on dead cards at times. I’ll be looking for other stapled-on Winds of Change effects in the future.

Get wrecked, opposing Nahiri, the Harbinger.

The primary goal of Ghostly Prison is acting as an anti-Dredge swarm card that hits against other aggressive decks. I don’t think it hits hard enough to make the cut, but it’s worth considering if you need the overlap slot.

It’s very likely Spirebluff Canal was a death knell for these cards, but Boil and Choke seem like great ways to break certain counterspell-heavy decks.

If I play a heavy black list of Restore Balance, there will be Night of Souls’ Betrayal in it. Shutting down Infect, Affinity, much of Dredge, and more with a single card is definitely worth it.

I’m not sure if this actually stops Lantern Control in a meaningful way, but Culling Scales is a way out of a larger number of lock pieces that also buys you draw steps where they can’t re-extend.

Another anti-Lantern Control card, Damping Matrix has applications in shutting down the combo aspects of toolbox decks.

While you have difficulty winning under Ensnaring Bridge, you can Greater Gargadon it away when you want to end the game. The question is whether you can get hellbent reliably enough for it to matter (hint: there might be some black cards that have something to say about this).

Rebuilding for Yahenni’s Expertise

I keep mentioning this base black Restore Balance deck. What do I want that to look like?

This is a first draft of the base-black list. There are a few huge pushes that have to happen to make this work.

The first is realizing you can’t get Blood Moon and good base-black mana to work. You are too reliant on Overgrown Tomb to get double black and green, for example. This echoes down to sideboard slots spent on Crumble to Dust or similar cards.

Big-picture takeaway #1: If you shift the mana, your secondary cards have to shift a lot more than you think.

Nahiri, the Harbinger has some similar mana issues. I would almost go as far as to say the biggest issue facing the base-black Restore Balance deck is the lack of a solid planeswalker win condition. You can Liliana of the Veil away all of their permanents, but how do you actually win the game?

With Liliana of the Veil to empty your hand, Ensnaring Bridge becomes really exciting. It isn’t a Lantern-esque hard lock against everything, but you can definitely use it to shut out something like Dredge that comes at you in an oblique way you can’t otherwise fight.

Again, this fights against your own Nahiri. I don’t think Ajani Vengeant is a significantly more legitimate kill condition than something stupid like Nahiri-Emrakul looping your deck and Restore Balances to answer their entire deck of permanents. It might be a while before the card I want actually exists.

Big-picture takeaway #2: How are you killing them? Nihilith is not a real answer.

Ensnaring Bridge cuts down on the Dredge hate you need in the sideboard, as you can actually kill your opponent with your “normal” Magic cards Game 1. Nice!

One really cool thing: there’s sometimes a tension between Restore Balance and Lingering Souls. With Yahenni’s Expertise, you can bridge the gap and clear your own tokens prior to Restore Balance resolving!

Still, there are questions. A bigger shift may be warranted.

If you want to go another layer in, let’s explore a similar Esper list going down the Ardent Plea road. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas are valid win conditions. The mana is even “fixed” by Yahenni’s Expertise casting Ardent Plea!

The missing element here: Disenchant effects. I know there is one that this should be playing, but I don’t know what it is off the top of my head. The mana also needs a bit of work, but it’s not as bad as I expected.

Yahenni’s Expertise isn’t cracking anything open, but it does pose an interesting enough question that I think it is worth exploring.

Recorded Lessons

With the focus on Modern, it’s worth talking about lessons learned from the video set I did last week with U/R Swan Skred. While I think the deck overall was a miss, there were definitely some big things to glean.

Swans of Bryn Argoll is a great combo engine but a bad creature. Don’t try to attack with it.

The U/R base felt really good and did before when I played Jeskai a few weeks ago. Snapcaster Mage is great at burying creature combo, and Anger of the Gods plus Cryptic Command does a great job of breaking and racing Dredge. More people than Corey Burkhart should be playing Grixis nonsense right now.

As stated above, Anger of the Gods is an actual Dredge hate card if you can cast it multiple times a game. The fact that it is a normal card means that this is the hate card you should avoid splash damage from. Wild Nacatl, Birds of Paradise, and Geist of Saint Traft are off the table.

Skred is not a good Magic card. It just takes too long to get off the ground.

Spell Snare is not in a great spot right now. It has targets against Infect, Death’s Shadow, and Dredge but it isn’t broadly effective there. It is great against Abzan, but the drop-off in Affinity has really hurt the card.

Remand, on the other hand, does work but isn’t something you can afford to flood on. It’s a tool to get into position for a bigger play, but you won’t kill fast enough to Time Walk someone out of the game with multiples. I would look at including two copies in my blue decks and no more.

Blood Moon is now an actual card against Lantern Control. They have additional colored cards in Glint-Nest Crane and additional value lands in Inventors’ Fair to lock out, and the value lands can be devastating for the “fair” Blood Moon decks.

Even if a deck is a failure, you can learn a lot if it is close to functional.