I’ve played Tron decks off and on since 2005. It’s one of those decks that was my guilty pleasure. “I’ll never play that in a tournament,” I’d tell myself. “I don’t want the added variance. Sure, it’s really fun when you find your Tron pieces early since you just obliterate your opponent, but what happens when you draw four Urza’s Mines?”
Oh, how the times have changed.
Variance, or the appearance of it, has always been the thing keeping players away from Tron decks. Sure, when you Tron up your four or five mana spells seem like they cost half as much, but when you’re forced to operate like a mere mortal? It’s not pretty. You might as well be playing an 80-card deck with all Forests and Craw Wurms.
The trick is to build your deck in such a way that when you achieve Tron you’re able to come from behind very quickly. If you’re ahead or at parity the game should end soon. If you can’t achieve those things, why are you even trying?
Tron typically consists of upwards of 40 mana sources, so you need the gas to keep flowing. To this end, I try to play as many things that draw cards to obtain velocity. For this reason, conditional soft counters like Remand and Condescend are often better than things like Mana Leak. After all, you’re not looking to attrition your opponent out; all you want to do is prolong the game until your engine can take over.
I’m not exactly sure what the original Tron decks were or when the first one made a splash in tournament play. However, since I’ve been playing Magic Tron has been around, so I have a pretty good grasp on the recent versions.
I think the whole craze started here. Tooth and Nail was a block deck made popular by Gabriel Nassif, but only Cloudpost was available in Block. Once people realized that the Tron lands made a better Tooth and Nail deck, they quickly made that change. Tron plus two green mana entwined Tooth and Nail all too easily and was achievable on turn 4, so it made sense.
Ant’s deck was the blue side of the coin. While not as robust as Tooth and Nail, moving over to blue made sense. You gained more interaction, and while you didn’t goldfish on turn 4, you had inevitability against most decks.
A year later, Tron finally became a popular Standard strategy. With Karoos, Signets, and Compulsive Research, midrange blue control decks were quite popular, and Tron basically couldn’t lose to those decks.
Nassif’s version was the beginning of the Tron innovations. He was the first one to splice Tron into an existing shell, and while his version never really caught on, it blazed the trail for future Tron decks.
Tron in Extended was almost a laughable concept. Sure, maybe Tron could pick on the midrange blue decks in Standard, but what good matchups could it possibly have in an Extended format where Mind’s Desire was legal?
Awkwardly enough, Shaheen proved the naysayers wrong. He took this Tron build to a 5-0-1 finish, eventually finishing in 9th place.
This ended up being the epitome of the Tron deck for its era. You had some fatties, card drawing, and counterspells, all of which were turbo charged once you had Tron. Overall, there weren’t many things in his decklist that were only good with Tron, aside from arguably the pair of Fireballs.
Shortly thereafter, a completely unknown Yuuya Watanabe took this version of U/R Tron to a first place finish at Grand Prix Kyoto. His Tron build was more aggressive than most, opting to play a little beater maindeck in Sulfur Elemental.
In my mind, Tron was supposed to give you a late game advantage so there was no point to being aggressive. However, it’s worth noting that because of the reach from Demonfire, every little point mattered.
- 1 Willbender
- 1 Silklash Spider
- 1 Mystic Snake
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 1 Brine Elemental
- 3 Thelonite Hermit
- 2 Vesuvan Shapeshifter
- 1 Deadwood Treefolk
The other interesting part of that Top 8 was Naoki’s Tron deck. Again, we get to see the splicing of a different archetype into Tron, this time with the Brine Elemental / Vesuvan Shapeshifter Pickles lock.
I was never really sure if the U/G Tron lists were good or not. It seemed like no one else but Naoki, the Prince of Simic, could win with it.
This is where things started to get interesting. If you want, you can take a look at these articles:
Up until then, Gifts Ungiven was a cute card but not one often seen in Tron decks. The fact that Gifts could set up a permanent Mindslaver lock by searching for Academy Ruins, Crucible of Worlds, Petrified Field, and Mindslaver opened up plenty of new doors.
It was like splicing another deck into your deck, but it kind of broke Gifts open too. From then on, it wasn’t about using Gifts for value but about using it to kill your opponent in a turn or two.
Still, there were some who didn’t like Gifts Ungiven. That’s understandable. Casting Gifts means you need to know what you want and how you can get it despite your opponent getting “choices.” On the other hand, casting Fact or Fiction means you get to choose which cards you want and is better at being a hard card drawer. It’s easy to visualize casting a Fact or Fiction and having that equate to a win. Doing the same with Gifts was difficult.
Shuhei didn’t bother with Gifts. Instead, he stuck to the tried and true method of Fact or Fiction. He also took a page out of Yuuya’s book and ran Meddling Mage maindeck. Not only is a Grizzly Bear an odd inclusion, but attempting to cast Meddling Mage on turn 2 is a little ambitious. Those Skycloud Expanses must have been doing a ton of work!
Mihara went with the poorly named Tenacious Tron route. They both tested together, they played different variations, and both did well. As of Pro Tour Valencia, the Tron camps were still split.
LennyB broke the mold with this one. He played nearly the same deck in Valencia but it never quite caught on. After putting him and his buddy Zach Hall in the Top 8, U/G Tron broke out overnight. That type of performance typically isn’t a fluke.
Gifts for Life from the Loam, Academy Ruins, Mindslaver, and your missing Tron piece was just so much cleaner than messing around with garbage like Petrified Field. He even had Lonely Sandbar if you decided to bin the Loam. In short, his deck was miles above other Tron decks. The only thing I would really like to see in his list is Explore.
A few weeks later, Adam Yurchick decided to revisit Shuhei’s Tron list. Yurchick is more of the raw card drawing type than the person who is going to cast Gifts and say, “Hey! Look how clever I am!” It was no surprise he chose the style he did. Since he did so well, the camps were split again.
To Gifts or no?
Nowadays, you’re either going to run up against U/W or U/R Tron. They both function similarly, but each has their own pros and cons. For a little more info, you can check out my articles here and here.
The short version is that both Tron decks are about equally viable in Modern. They both feature backup plans spliced into an already solid shell (think Dark Depths/Thopter Foundry), and no one is playing very much hate right now.
The long version is that Gifts/Unburial Rites and Through the Breach are incredibly powerful things that lead to turn 4 kills. Both have their upsides in certain matchups. For example, Through the Breach is much better in the mirror match, while Unburial Rites-ing a fatty often does close to nothing.
Overall, I like the Unburial Rites package more for a few good reasons:
1) It’s more compact: It’s more compact: Rites and two fatties takes up three slots, whereas Breach plus two or three more Eldrazi is a lot more. That gives you more room for removal, disruption, or maindeck hate. With the U/R version, it’s a struggle to find room for all the removal you want, which is evident in my newest list.
2) White is arguably a better color than red: It all depends on what you expect to play against though. I like Path against giant green monsters whereas red is better against Vendilion Clique and Affinity. You can play sweepers like Wrath of God or Day of Judgment, but those are color-intensive and very, very slow.
5) It’s closer to a guaranteed KO: Often you have to Gifts for three Eldrazi anyway, and they end up giving you a mopey Kozilek. How often does annihilator four kill all their permanents on turn four? Sadly, the answer is not enough.
Breach isn’t without it’s upside though. As I said, it’s better in the mirror, red is better than white in some matchups, and it doesn’t expose you to graveyard hate.
I can’t fault you for playing one version over the other, but right now I favor the U/W version. How about some decklists?
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
- 1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- 1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Other cards to consider: Spell Snare, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, Faith’s Fetters, Condemn, Spreading Seas, Annex, Wurmcoil Engine, Wall of Shards, Trinket Mage, Minamo, School at Water’s Edge, Eiganjo Castle, Boseiju, Who Shelters All, Hurkyl’s Recall
Of these, the U/W list is certainly more tuned than the U/R version. For U/R, I’ve decided to cut Gifts Ungiven. The piles I could make just weren’t very good and would almost never get me closer to a Through the Breach. At least with Compulsive Research, I’d have a better chance of finding one.
I also wouldn’t mind more maindeck removal or maindeck Relics. Relic is just a solid card in the format and kills a Tarmogoyf with the help of a Bolt.
In the U/W version, not much has changed aside from the sideboard. My maindeck has a Ghost Quarter as a concession to the mirror. In the sideboard, I now have a Terastodon and another Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Nasty Terasty is mostly for other Tron decks but could be used against multi-colored control as well. Elesh Norn is just a nice natural draw against aggressive decks like Affinity.
Relic of Progenitus and Mindbreak Trap took the place of some Cages and Orbs to diversify your hate. Relic is still fine against Melira and Storm, but it’s great against the Loam decks. They can easily beat you with Loam/Crime or Loam/Ghost Quarter, so you should be ready for those.
Mindbreak might be worse than Rule of Law against Storm, but it’s fine against Twin and in the mirror match, so it gets the nod.
Pithing Needle might be the card I’m most proud of. I was losing to Tectonic Edge, Ghost Quarter, and Cranial Plating, and this solves all those issues. Against Affinity, you can usually stall the game until you get to four mana, but you end up dying before you ever get to untap again.
If you had that extra turn, you probably could’ve won with Unburial Rites. Pithin Needle should alleviate some of the pressure that Cranial Plating puts on you and give you time to set up Gifts. Affinity is one of the tougher matchups, so you need something in your sideboard to help. Hurkyl’s Recall and Kataki are far too narrow and rarely win the game on their own anyway.
No matter which version you play, there are some easy tips I can give you:
1) On the play vs. a deck with discard, I will often lead with Expedition Map over an enters the battlefield tapped land like Celestial Colonnade. Developing your mana is very important, and Map is one of the first cards they’ll take with an Inquisition of Kozilek if you need it. Obviously this depends on your hand, but it’s something to think about.
2) Post-board, that might change depending on if they have Ancient Grudge or not. For the most part I try to play around Grudge, but sometimes your draw dictates that you can’t.
3) Also post-board, if you have natural Tron plus a Signet, I might wait until turn three to play that Signet so I can use it to cast a card drawer before they blow it up. This might be the difference between winning and losing.
4) I could write a whole article on casting Gifts Ungiven, but here are the basics. If you need something specific, like that third Tron piece, just Tutor for it. If you’re Gifts-ing for removal, you can often put the third Tron piece in a pile, which they can’t really give you. This also works no matter what you’re Gifts-ing for.
You have to think about what you want and what they’ll likely give you. Sometimes it comes down to a crazy situation where you need a Through the Breach and already have an Eldrazi. You can search for and reveal an Eldrazi, then fake tank about something else, and then grab other cards. If they notice you pulled out the Eldrazi right away, they might infer that you need that card so it’s an obvious thing to Gifts for, and they’ll bin it immediately.
Gifts-ing for Gifts, Thirst, X, and Y is perfectly acceptable assuming a neutral board state or one where you already have Tron and can afford to spend that mana drawing more cards next turn. Sometimes the clearest path to victory does involve sifting through more cards.
Post-board, if you’re on the Unburial Rites plan and you think they might have a Surgical Extraction or some such, you don’t have to shove on the Rites plan. This is especially true if the board state is neutral and you can find more card drawing, or if you’ll likely win by Gifts-ing for value anyway.
5) Blood Moon isn’t a big deal for either version. Both of them have Signets and Unburial Rites or Through the Breach. Blood Moon plus pressure might beat you before you get a chance to stabilize, but often Blood Moon is just better off as another threat. I don’t think I’ve lost a single game to Blood Moon that I wasn’t already losing.
6) Learn how to make your land drops correctly. Sometimes, you might be facing down some aggression and want to fetch an Island over Hallowed Fountain to save yourself some life, and that’s fine. However, be mindful of when you might need double white down the line, as fetching an Island could actually cost you life at that point.
7) Against most blue decks, your plan is to eventually cast Emrakul. Unburia Rites and Through the Breach are pretty weak against them, so they can get the axe. When that happens, don’t be scared to side down to the bare minimum of win conditions.
On the flip side of that coin, there are some decks, like Affinity, that are too fast for you to rely on Eldrazi. With U/W, I don’t mind siding out Eye of Ugin, Emrakul, and shaving slow Expedition Maps.
Some matchups, like Martyr, you don’t need the Ulamog and against others, like Jund, Ulamog is sufficient and you probably don’t need Emrakul.
Tron is a great deck in Modern, at least until everyone starts packing extreme hate. The variance that I talked about earlier basically doesn’t exist in the Modern versions. You have Expedition Map to find your Tron pieces on the cheap and awesome backup plans in case you don’t. For the love of blue mana, don’t play less than four Expedition Maps. The fact that Luis did it does not make it correct.
PS: Some other articles on Tron that you might enjoy: