Praetors, Tuskers, & Titans—Oh My!

Glenn tells you about the Gifts Ungiven deck that he played at Grand Prix Kansas City and why he recently returned to work on it again. Check it out!

Why don’t we have a sports team called the [City/State] Tuskers? The novelty hats alone would be worth millions . . .

I gave myself a little Grand Prix vacation this year and played in Kansas City, the most recent Modern Grand Prix. I’d been planning on Storming, as I mentioned last week, but on the plane I figured out how to fix a major hole in a brew I’d been playing around with on Magic Online.

The deck I’d been playing was essentially U/W/R Control, except that I’d cut the Cryptic Commands and Sphinx’s Revelations for a Gifts package. At the time, Melira Pod was so dominant that skewing my deck heavily towards beating it sounded like a great idea—Voice of Resurgence had given them some serious edges against Cryptic, but Gifts Ungiven into Unburial Rites + Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite was good game almost every single time.

The shift wasn’t a freeroll. The Jund matchup was already relatively even in my experience, and losing Cryptic made it much worse. Liliana of the Veil became virtually impossible to beat without access to Cryptic and Revelation, and none of the Gifts targets were actually "good enough" to beat Jund—assuming you didn’t get Deathrite Shamaned in the first place. Beyond making my Jund matchups worse, I was also becoming a strictly worse version of myself in mirror matches. Having no Cryptics put me at the mercy of other U/W/R players, especially the smart ones who figured out where the cuts came from.

I knew I’d be able to fix the U/W/R issue in sideboarding, as there are tons of ways to play that mirror matchup. But Jund? I had nothing. My deck was almost folding to just Liliana of the Veil, with the creatures usually being easy enough to handle. I was considering Char and Guerrilla Tactics as cards that were decent against creatures but could also kill Liliana, but I eventually gave up. I shelved the deck . . . until that plane ride.

I’d fallen asleep on the plane (as usual), but when we hit a bump, I woke up and suddenly knew the answer to my problem. When Liliana of the Veil has you down, who better to call upon than the Spirits of the afterlife?

Lingering Souls gave me the crucial missing piece I needed to cast Gifts Ungiven for strong value against Jund while also offering me an effective tool for attacking Liliana of the Veil. My brain wasn’t done yet, though—splashing black opened up access to Dreadbore, which could kill the planeswalker and any creature! Picturing a Dreadbore targeting Karn sounded too awesome, and because my deck would run so heavy on Snapcaster Mages, I knew that I could just toss the Dreadbore into a Gifts pile and access it whenever I wanted.

I played a few games against Stephen Mann’s Jund list on site, and after going 6-1 I was sold on the deck. Joe Demestrio, our other roommate, refused to believe these results; I only dropped one match to him while proving the matchup had changed during some games back in our hotel room. At one point, he lamented me having not told him about the deck before the event, denying him the opportunity to play it.

Here’s the list I played in Kansas City:

. . . Where I put together an embarrassing three or four wins before dropping. Hear me out, though.

1) I played zero matches against Jund and Pod, my two best matchups (and the two most popular decks).

2) I played against a wide range of non-standard decks, which meant my control deck was hard-pressed to solve certain problems. Amusingly, I beat the mainstream decks I played against, U/W/R and Scapeshift, despite them being horrible matchups.

3) I’m really bad at Magic and threw away matches against Auras and G/R that my deck was perfectly suited to handle.

After looking at the list, several common questions were raised by many players. I’ll address each in turn.

Terastodon vs. Iona, Shield of Emeria

Iona is not very good. Unburial Rites targeting Iona against Jund may give you an unkillable 7/7—assuming they don’t have a Liliana in play already, which is actually not unusual—but they can beat that. I’ve done it myself many times! Every other deck in the format either doesn’t care or has multiple removal spells capable of defeating the Angel. The only matchups which differ in this regard are Storm and Splinter Twin, with an honorary mention to the unpopular cascade combo decks.

Nasty Terasty is very good against a lot of other decks, especially Tron, and still highly playable in the other matchups as a Rites target. Storm literally can’t beat Iona, but they also very rarely beat triple Stone Rain. Rites basically never resolves against Twin anyway, but Terastodon is a big clock that can bottleneck their mana.

It’s much worse against cascade combo, but that’s a trade I happily accept considering how much better it is against Jund and many other random decks. It wasn’t uncommon for me to Terastodon myself down to two lands in many matchups and just present eighteen power backed by a handful of Bolts and Snapcaster Mages.

The inclusion of Terastodon led to my singleton Izzet Charm—I could hold or Gifts for the Charm, with Snapcaster Mage ensuring I gained access to its effect. Really, though, I should’ve just played Faithless Looting. I got too cute with Charm, looking for a reasonable anti-creature measure that could also counter a Liliana. I should’ve just played the card that was best at its job, which in this case was guaranteeing good Gifts piles.

Also, I named the deck Dumbo Gifts in honor of the elephant. That’s gotta count for something!

One Crucible of Worlds

Early versions of the deck incorporated a Sun Titan package (spoilers!) so that I could Gifts for Sun Titan + Unburial Rites + Crucible + Tectonic Edge. I wound up cutting this because resolving the Rites was so hard against other control decks and the more vulnerable combo decks could either go under me (Tron) or out-counter me (Scapeshift).

One thing I did notice, however, was that just drawing Crucible of Worlds was always insane. It was good in tons of matchups, generating value against Jund and being unbeatable if you resolved it in U/W/R mirrors or against Scapeshift with a Tectonic Edge. So when my first draft of the deck left me with an open slot in the maindeck, the Crucible just seemed ideal. Most decks like this run something along the lines of Think Twice to help ensure land drops; Crucible of Worlds is much better than Think Twice and can actually overpower some opponents. I’ve never played this deck without the one and doubt I ever will.

The Sideboard

I expected a lot of Blood Mooning in Kansas City, between Splinter Twin and Brian Kibler popularizing another version of the Zoo deck that xMiMx had championed for several months. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, so I built most of my sideboard to be functional under a Blood Moon against these decks and included two basic Plains with an extra fetch for them.

I later realized finding room for a singleton Azorius Signet probably would’ve been smart, but alas, I am stupid.

The Geists are good if you don’t know what you will play against, which is fairly common at the Grand Prix level. Against "random" decks I would just board in everybody’s favorite Spirit Cleric once they’d seen my basically creatureless maindeck. Cast it, close your eyes, and cross your fingers—it’s more effective than you’d think! Geist was one of my best weapons against Splinter Twin as well because he could slide under Blood Moon and legitimately threaten them before they assembled an unbeatable sequence.

That basically brings us to today. This past week, I decided to go back to the drawing board with Dumbo Gifts since it was a ton of fun to build and very powerful in the right matchups. I knew some unfavorable things had happened in recent months—namely the printing of Scavenging Ooze and the popularization of Restore Balance online. However, I felt the Ooze was beatable with some modifications and figured the cascade decks would eventually die down, as they always do.

I’d thought of a few more interactions, so I started brewing once more. Here’s the updated list I’ve been playing online:

Obviously, several things have changed. Once more, I’ll just run down the list!

Sun Titan vs. Terastodon vs. Iona, Shield of Emeria

Sunny T is also not very good—I’ll admit that. Path to Exile isn’t everywhere, but it’s in enough places that you will often only get one trigger here. Unchecked, he dominates mirror matches and is absurd against Scapeshift, but he’s relatively rarely unchecked.

One super cool interaction I found, however, is that Sun Titan lets you Gifts for Blood Moon. On a scale of one to adorable, this ranks pretty high!

Sun Titan also gives you a maindeck catchall you can Gifts for in Detention Sphere, which has been useful but not exceptional. I thought that I would cut the Faithless Looting when I cut Terastodon, but weirdly enough the card has still been performing for me. It’s never awesome, but it can be a really sick draw in certain matchups and helps you to dig your way through a glut of several irrelevant cards, which is not uncommon in this archetype.

I’m weaker to a lot of combo decks now, but those combo decks are also not as popular . . .  and I’ve altered the sideboard to improve my odds against them. I’m not 100% sold on Sun Titan, but he’s the most maindeckable fatty of my four and can actually be cast through Mana Leak enough of the time that he’s going to be at least a consistent performer, if not the most powerful one.

Depending on the metagame, this slot could easily go to one of the other two options, leading to a lot of adjustments elsewhere. My deck has been built based on what I’m playing against on Magic Online.

Azorius Signet

The Azorius Signets I added let you survive your own Blood Moon, ramp into turn 3 Gifts Ungiven, and are also targets to get back with Sun Titan. Should you want to try a singleton Blood Moon in the maindeck, I might even cut a land for a third! They’ve been testing pretty well so far, although I’m iffy on exactly how many lands and Signets I want to run. The deck feels like it wants a number very close to but under 27 lands because it doesn’t have Think Twices or the full amount of Electrolyzes.

I would not be surprised if the solution to balancing out this deck came from Gitaxian Probe. Not only does Probe provide a very valuable Peek, but it lets you finesse your mana ratio a little bit by shorting the deck a virtual card.

Lightning Helix, Spell Snare

Aggressive decks are pretty common on Magic Online, but Lightning Helix is also capable of killing Scavenging Ooze more often than Electrolyze. With Lingering Souls glutting up my three-drops and Signets providing me the possibility to do a lot more stuff on turns 4 and 5, Helix gets the nod here.

Likewise, Spell Snare got better because three of the best cards against my deck (Remand, Voice of Resurgence, and Scavenging Ooze) all get Snared.

No Wraths, No Mana Leaks

Mana Leak has been a sad but seemingly necessary evil for control decks in Modern for some time. In this deck, which plays a pretty consistent game and is looking to line up against the opponent rather than fend them off, it just wasn’t an especially intuitive option. It’s very easy for smart opponents to blank or bait Mana Leaks, and they are often very bad on the draw. Once again, just not interested.

The sweepers are less good with the additional removal in the maindeck, and I only really wanted them against Auras and G/R anyway. I’m fine with taking a percentage loss in those matchups to avoid drawing blanks against many of my other ones. They were pretty good against Jund, but now that any Ooze has to be killed on sight, I don’t think I’ll gain as much value by sandbagging the sweepers. They can just play no guys and beat me to death with one at a time!

Playing Against Relic of Progenitus

This will be very common for you, and you should be prepared for it. You don’t have to board in Stony Silence just for Relics, though I’ve tried it and it hasn’t been too bad. Just make sure you don’t fill your deck with a bunch of Gifts/Titan/Rites-reliant options. Be patient, and plan ahead to get the game towards a critical point where you can start making them expend mana and defend themselves.

Make sure your deck can win without going all in on Gifts and Rites. This is not to say that the card Gifts Ungiven is bad against Relic—in fact, it’s your best weapon for beating one! Learn how to Gifts for value instead of for combos.

My two most common piles against an onboard Relic of Progenitus?

Lingering Souls
Faithless Looting / Gifts Ungiven
Snapcaster Mage

This will offer you enough plays to start pulling ahead, with a few of the cards good enough to tempt many players into blowing the Relic before you untap. Gifts still generated a fair bit of value even if they do so while leaving your primary combination plays intact.

For more fun, mix in a Stony Silence or Damping Matrix and see how keen they are to give you one of those! That’s not a bad option when you have another Gifts Ungiven available. It’s also not unusual to mix in a Lightning Bolt if their life total is getting low.

A Useful Land
A Useful Land
A Useful Land
A Useful Land

This is just good value in a deck that can be pretty mana-hungry. I’ve considered adding more utility lands to the deck in order to make the "lands Gifts" a little more intimidating, but I haven’t happened upon anything especially fantastic. You can cut a Tectonic Edge for a Ghost Quarter to help out here, and other options include Encroaching Wastes, Buried Ruin, Academy Ruins, and even some more novel options like Mikokoro, Center of the Sea.

Right now, I’m staying pretty conservative with my mana, but feel free to go nuts. There are a lot of options, and I haven’t even tested most of the ones I know about.

I hope you guys have had fun checking out my own Modern brew. After playing it all week, I don’t think now is the time to be casting Gifts for Unburial Rites, but the time will eventually—inevitably?—come for that card. I wouldn’t sleeve it up in Detroit, considering the recent hype for Restore Balance and Fulminator Mage in the Jund-like decks, but it’s a deck I know I’ll return to in the future. Gifts one of the most fun and most powerful cards in Modern, and this deck rewards its pilot with some highly interactive games. Enjoy!

Glenn Jones
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