The Whitest Wisps You Know

Death and Taxes has been seeing success and gaining popularity in Legacy as of late. Is it viable in Modern? Glenn Jones investigates!

This week’s Legacy Open in Baltimore featured a pair of Death and Taxes decks making it into the Top 8. For those of you not in the know, Death and Taxes was also one of the better-performing decks in the Legacy portion of the New Jersey Invitational. There, Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Bonde crushed the Legacy rounds, while Jonathan Kurpaska made the Top 8 of the Sunday Legacy Open.

I’m sure some of you are thinking "that’s delightful, but what does it have to do with Modern?" Well, take a look at the Legacy decklist and you might find some answers.

A surprising number of these cards are Modern-legal—or have suitable counterparts in the Modern format.

Sure, you can’t lock down mana as well—but opposing mana is also worse!

Sure, you don’t have Stoneforge Mystic—but neither does anyone else!

Sure, you don’t have Mother of Runes—ok, you don’t have her. That hurts.

However, a lot of the losses are less relevant. For example, you don’t really need Karakas when Emrakul isn’t constantly breathing down your neck, and the lack of Legacy’s combo element frees up a lot of slots. The most important aspect of the deck is its ability to combine Aether Vial with creatures capable of disrupting the opponent while advancing proactively onto the board, with ways to use your lands that guard against flood. Even if you have to play different creatures, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, you’re playing a different format! Phyrexian Revoker is Modern-legal, but there’s a reason that basically no one plays it . . .

Let’s take a look at an older list attempting to port over the Death and Taxes strategy.

This is one of the earliest lists I saw for the strategy, dating back to February this year. You can see where Linguica tried to replicate the effects of the Legacy deck with Path to Exile over Swords to Plowshares and Leonin Arbiter + Aven Mindcensor combining with Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge to create pseudo Wastelands. Each of these little guys is somewhat annoying to the opponent on their own, but when combined with the land destruction, you can begin to see how the deck is capable of dodging flood while keeping up the pressure. I have no idea if Linguica’s list was the first—it’s just the one I recall first seeing—but it certainly hasn’t been the last. Since then, a variety of decks have sprung up incorporating the same basic core into their strategy.

Let’s talk about that core. After playing with the deck a fair bit, I consider the core to be this:

4 Aether Vial
3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Path to Exile
4 Horizon Canopy
4-8 Ghost Quarter and / or Tectonic Edge

And that’s about it. From there, you have an incredibly diverse range of options. Let’s examine some lists that have seen Daily Event success over the past month!

As you can see here, vicpc stuck to the model from above for the most part. I can’t condone his trimming on Horizon Canopy; I would tend to assume that’s due to the cost of the land on Magic Online. I not only dislike Mirran Crusader in today’s Modern—I despise it. The vulnerability to Lightning Bolt and basically any Snapcaster Mage is massive, and it also dies to a host of other random events while getting bricked by Lingering Souls.

What’s interesting is his inclusion of those two Swords. Light and Shadow is a fair one against both Jund and Pod, while Fire and Ice is a real beating against the various control and Delver decks in the format. I like Light and Shadow in Modern, and it’s actually pretty underplayed at the moment.

_Soku_ has taken the shell and moved into green, made possible by the obvious Temple Garden and the underappreciated Razorverge Thicket. Alongside Horizon Canopy, you can play up to twelve duals that let you play a turn 1 Noble Hierarch and smooth the heavy white base within the deck’s cards. The biggest shift here is one away from Hero of Bladehold—a decision I agree with. Four mana is a lot, and the Modern format is shifting to skew heavily towards Pod and unfair decks, with Jund and blue filling in the rest. Only Jund is particularly frightened by an opposing Hero of Bladehold, and that’s only assuming you’ve managed to overload their removal.

Getting to the board earlier and fatter with Voice, Smiter, and Scavenging Ooze is good for a lot of wins, although the Ooze is probably at its worst in this deck. Considering that the only removal spell exiles, you’re hoping the opponent will fill up the graveyards. That will only happen when they’re a) blocking because you’re ahead or b) killing all your guys and putting you behind. That said, its power level and utility against Snapcaster, Tarmogoyf, and niche decks like Living End mean it definitely deserves some slots. Just don’t be surprised to find Ooze hanging out in your hand until the time is right to pounce.

This is a little more my speed. This deck’s Vials are the absolute best, with Blade Splicer, Flickerwisp, and Restoration Angel providing much more massive swings than "hey, look, another guy is here!" That said, I’m not excited by Gavony Township. The beauty of running four Horizon Canopys in your Vial deck is that you can crack them for cards like a thirsty polar bear on a warm summer’s day. It comes at the sacrifice of Tectonic Edge, which is a very good Wasteland in Modern that I’d rather be playing. It’s worth noting that these creatures are much more fragile. Grim Lavamancer and Izzet Staticaster are major issues from the red decks, and Forked Bolt is a real nightmare when backed by Snapcaster Mage. That said, I really like the fact that Flickerwisp and Angel can create a massive clock in the skies, emulating Serra Avenger but with a lot more flexibility.

And yes, the red Akromas in the sideboard are adorable. For those not in on the trick, you can morph red Akroma and use Flickerwisp or Restoration Angel to unmorph her in the next end step, a potent trick against decks that are light on removal. It seems like it’s probably at its best against decks really light on removal, such as the mirror and Pod. I could see trying to make it work against some of these U/R or U/W decks as a hail mary, but for the most part it doesn’t feel like that would ever really be good enough. I like the moxy though!

Before we go any further, an aside:

I want to discuss a little card named Lightning Bolt.

In Legacy, Lightning Bolt is among the accepted standard of removal—but it’s not the best spell for the job. Swords to Plowshares can kill anything Bolt can and then some and is much more popular. Being immune to Swords is incredibly valuable, while being immune to Lightning Bolt is taken a bit for granted. After all, due to the nature of the format, Lightning Bolt is pretty dead in many situations. Most combo decks can ignore it until they hit the danger zone, and many creature-based decks can incidentally dodge or weaken it with the likes of Tarmogoyf, Nimble Mongoose, Geist of Saint Traft, Shardless Agent, Baleful Strix, etc.

If your creature dies to Lightning Bolt, that’s not really a big deal because it also probably dies to Swords to Plowshares—but if you have a creature that doesn’t die to Swords, now you’re on to something. Most creatures in the format are powerful enough to warrant playing even though Swords gets them because 1.) the creature generates additional value or 2.) the creature wins the game when they brick. This is why Young Pyromancer will probably have a home in Legacy.

That’s not how Lightning Bolt works in Modern. In Modern, Bolt is the Swords to Plowshares because Path to Exile is much less popular and often reserved for very special creatures. Dodging Bolt is therefore a very big deal—if your creature doesn’t die to Lightning Bolt, then in some matchups it very well may never die! Kitchen Finks is one of Modern’s best creatures on account of this precise feature, and it’s what has made Restoration Angel such a powerful weapon in the format as well. It’s also why Serra Avenger has remained a niche card, seeing play almost exclusively in these decks as a holdover from Legacy, and why I doubt Young Pyromancer will catch on in Modern outside of joining a combo deck or becoming a transformational sideboard tool.

Looking at the above decks, you can see how they have attempted to hedge some of their threats against Lightning Bolt.

Linguica used Kitchen Finks and Hero of Bladehold.

_Soku_ used Loxodon Smiter and Voice of Resurgence.

DrNutzlos used Blade Splicer and Restoration Angel, with an honorable mention to Vial + Flickerwisp.

Each of these methods has their pros and cons, and depending on what’s happening in Modern, they could be alternately good at different times. Right now, however, there’s no reason to not consider combining some of these elements! Among the hot decks of the day, we have Birthing Pod, Jund, Tron, U/W/R Control, U/R Delver, and various combo decks.

Against the combo decks, Tron, and Pod, your disruptive elements are at their absolute best. Not only are these decks light on removal, but they require a certain number of functional pieces to do anything. Pod, however, has a beatdown plan that is no joke! I expect Linguica and vicpc’s lists would perceive Pod as a bit of an uphill battle in spite of all the "hate" for the combo that they have. Their lists would hope to lockdown the Pod and then get there in the air or with Swords. Maybe Hero of Bladehold does the job.

_Soku_ has a less diverse range of options but a more straightforward plan. He just goes for the beats and assumes that by leaning on Avengers, Elephants, and Elemental tokens he can pound through their defenses. DrNutzlos meanwhile has a much sterner air force with Blade Splicer, a surprisingly effective racing tool against the likes of Kitchen Finks. First-striking Golems are serious business!

However, decks with access to Bolt, Snapcaster Mage, and Electrolyze aren’t intimidated by Flickerwisps. They’re more scared of those Smiters and Voices. And Aven Mindcensor? Please. These decks need to be addressed because filling your deck with Grizzly Bears and Goblin Pikers is just not going to cut it! It might be time to morph this deck into something that more closely resembles a G/W beatdown deck or even the Naya deck championed by our own Brian Kibler (and most recently Ari Lax). There’s likely a middle ground between the disruption and the beatdown—one that keeps the Death and Taxes theme intact but makes the deck a sterner weapon.

Here’s where I’m starting:

Less 2/1s for three. More pressure!

It’s very difficult for me to justify Aven Mindcensor right now when it feels like the deck is already capable of playing Magic against the decks it performs the best against. Considering how big a liability the card is when it’s bad—the rate is just atrocious—it feels more like a sideboard card. If the U/R Delver deck didn’t exist (thanks Jeff Hoogland), then I might feel differently, but a man can only throw three mana into Lightning Bolt / Burst Lightning / Forked Bolt / Magma Jet / Electrolyze / Remand so many times! Blade Splicer leaves behind a body ripe for the flickering, and Flickerwisp’s trickiness with Vial and its ability to swing races in your favor are both very powerful. Being able to Restoration Angel opposing creatures can’t be underestimated either . . .

I haven’t begun working on the sideboard, but it’s safe to say that I’ll shift some number of Mindcensors in there and won’t leave home without Sunlances and Kor Firewalkers. Katakis and one or two Swords of Something and Something could also make their way into the sideboard depending on how the chips land regarding Disenchant effects. Loxodon Smiter is a great card against U/R Delver decks, and if I find that the maindeck Voices alone aren’t bringing me the percentage points I need, then I’ll probably begin testing some number of those in the 75. It’s the card I’m most interested to try maindeck, but for now I want to move forward playing the above list before giving up on Flickerwisp after my early positive experiences.

So many variations on this theme are performing well in Daily Events that I have to believe there’s a good deck in there somewhere. The archetype isn’t very popular and hasn’t had a big finish in a major event to give the decklists a foundation; it’s mostly just a bunch of different pilots doing some separate tinkering and jamming games. If Blade Splicer / Flickerwisp / Restoration Angel isn’t the right place to be, then it’s very possible that _Soku_ has it solved with his Loxodon Smiters. His list is certainly the best one when there’s no Vial in play, which is a situation the deck commonly contends with after sideboarding. However, based on the way the metagame is shifting online, I can’t help but feel that the aggressive value engine is better than playing Mindcensor. Time—and testing—will tell the truth. Chime in in the comments with your own ideas for which way to go from here!

Glenn Jones
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P.S. Sorry I didn’t have any sweet photo[shop]s this week—I’ve been a tiring combination of busy and unlucky. I’ll make it up to you!