I’ll be honest, while I believe my natural inclination is to be a control player, I’ve been avoiding control decks in Modern like the plague. Look around, and you’ll see I’m not alone feeling like this. The thing is, this format asks too many different questions for one to ever hope answering them all.
If you’re in the business of countering spells, drawing cards and say “go” a whole lot, you might see your opponent start on Cavern of Souls naming human. If you play a tempo game with Spell Quellers and its friends, you might get overwhelmed by green titans causing a bunch of volcanic eruptions, or giant colorless alien monstrosities. If you try a control deck with a combo finish that stalls the game until it kills out of nowhere, chances are that, at some point, your cleverly designed plan will be picked apart by a flurry of discard spells and you’ll die with a bunch of dead cards in your hand.
Those strategies can sometimes get there if the cards fall your way, but whatever your plan is, you sort of just have to hope that over the course of a tournament, you dodge enough of the decks you can’t really deal with. Granted, this is the case for most Modern decks, but when you choose a reactive deck, this is amplified tenfold because you never get any free wins. Like many before me have stated, there are no answers broad enough and efficient enough to respond to everything that matters in Modern. Then, there’s the fact that a large swath of the format is comprised of very narrow decks that pretty much require pinpoint answers, which often makes a control player feel like he’s throwing darts at a moving target with a blindfold on.
This is why I have always stayed away from reactive decks in Modern, and would rather use powerful, proactive strategies that put pressure on opponents to react. This is why, for me to play control in this format, it would take (puts on sunglasses)… a miracle.
And, well, here we are.
In spite of everything I just wrote, I took a deep breath and registered the following decklist at the Quebec Face to Face Open on March 10:
I finished 5-2-1, in 20th place. I lost to Humans on an unfortunate game 3 mulligan on the draw facing Thalia, where all I could do was wish for a miracle that didn’t happen. I was also defeated by a Grishoalbrand player that made top 8, when I got trigger happy and countered the wrong spell at the wrong time. The draw was non-intentional, against a friend on Blue-Red Moon who also made top 8.
I have to say, the recent printing of Field of Ruin has been game-changing for control decks. Most importantly, it gives them a fighting chance against Tron, which had historically been an absolute nightmare matchup. It also provides a very efficient answer against the various creature lands of the format, while staying at parity in terms of land count, and better yet, you don’t even have to waste an actual spell.
But, as you might have guessed, the actual reason I decided to give this deck a spin is the blue-hooded elephant in the room, the hundred-dollar man himself, free at last from the shackles of the Modern banned list. As difficult as it might seem to resolve a sorcery speed non-creature spell that costs four without dying in the current environment, Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s power was too damn high for me to ignore. In the list I played, the so-called most powerful planeswalker of all time does three very important things:
• It’s a powerful draw engine that enables you, when combined with fetchlands or Field of Ruin activations, to play a bunch of narrow cards that you can find or shuffle away as needed;
• It’s very flexible, either as a board control tool, a value engine or a game-ending threat, depending on the game state, and can be as useful when you’re behind as when you’re ahead;
• It singlehandedly enables the miracle mechanic, which adds a lot of power and unpredictability to a deck that used to be paint-by numbers in its approach.
The miracle thing might be a bit too cute at the end of the day, but on the flipside, there is real power in being able to hit a Terminus in the middle of combat, or make four angels at the end of an opponent’s turn, or even just threaten to do either of those things.
Drawing a miracle in your opener usually isn’t a welcome sight, but it’s not always as bad as you might think. It can also mean that when you use Jace’s zero ability, you are able to guarantee that a miracle will happen exactly when you want it, instead of praying it’s somewhere near the top three cards of your deck. Here’s a play pattern that happened multiple times when playing the deck: with a Terminus or Entreat the Angels in hand and facing multiple non-lethal creatures, I tap out for Jace, draw three cards and put two back. The opponent then attacks Jace. And then I untap and blow them out. Some opponents even leave Jace alone to pressure my life total, thinking I’ll have to tap out to deal with their threats so they can follow up next turn, and then I untap with an active Jace and a lot of cards, spending a single mana to wipe the board.
So, anyway, how do we build a deck with miracles? The biggest hurdle, in a format where you don’t have access to cards such as Brainstorm, Portent or Ponder, and much less Sensei’s Divining Top, is making this work on a consistent enough basis. With that in mind, here are some of the key choices I made, with a few tips along the way.
2 Entreat the Angels: I believe that the miracle package should include four or five cards at most. Some people have asked me why, for example, I’m not taking things further and including things like Temporal Mastery. While, as I just explained, there are situations where having a miracle in your opener can be very good, there’s definitely a ceiling on the number you want to draw early. And that ceiling, depending on your hand and the matchup, is either zero or one. As such, four miracles feels like a reasonable number. Also, Temporal Mastery is stone cold unplayable in your opening hand, and often barely more than a glorified Explore when you draw it later. The reason I have chosen to split evenly between two Entreats and two Terminuses is that Entreat has been surprisingly awesome. Sure, it demands a lot of mana, but whenever you create two angels or more, you get very far ahead on the board and usually win very quickly from there. I have even cast it from hand and re-cast it with Snapcaster Mage more than once (in control mirrors).
2 Terminus, 1 Supreme Verdict: Depending on the matchup, sweepers in Modern are either game-breaking, somewhat underwhelming, or totally useless. As a potential 1-mana unconditional sweeper that can sometimes be played at instant speed, or randomly drawn on turn three, Terminus can swing games that might otherwise be unwinnable against decks like Humans, Bogles or Elves. Those are the decks, obviously, against which the third Terminus in the sideboard comes in. In other matchups, it’s sort of a clunky Path to Exile. Still, the potential for instant speed board sweeping can really change the way many of your opponents play against you. The Supreme Verdict, which replaces the would-be third maindeck Terminus, is better in your opener, is easier to replay with Snapcaster, and interacts favorably against creature decks with countermagic.
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor: While, as discussed above, this card enables the whole strategy, at the same time you can’t lean too hard on it. You need to survive first, and there is a glut of four-plus mana spells. Three is a fine number, because your aim is not to always jam it on turn four, but rather to control your opponent’s board or spell deployment, develop your mana, and then use it to regain parity or pull ahead. You also have plenty of ways to dig for it when necessary.
4 Opt: If you can otherwise set up the top of your library, Opt is the best miracle enabler in Modern. Paired with Jace, you can even put an unwanted card on top of a miracle, scry it to the bottom, and pull off the miracle for full value. Always try, if you can afford it, to hold on to an Opt for as long as possible, until you are ready to unleash an instant-speed Terminus or Entreat.
2 Telling Time: A bit expensive and clunky for what it does, but is useful here in small numbers, as it can help dig for mana, put undesirable cards to the bottom of your deck, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, set up a miracle for the next turn.
2 Serum Visions: A concession to the early game, as it’s way more efficient than Telling Time at digging for key cards and can still sometimes set up a miracle if it’s not exactly the top card of your deck.
2 Search for Azcanta: This is a strange one in this deck. It slightly increases the chances of drawing a miracle when you need it, eventually adds to your mana development, then acts as a win condition when the game goes long. The weird thing here is the interaction with Jace. While it does enable you to reset the top of your deck by sending cards to the bottom, other times it will sit there doing nothing, especially if you left an important miracle on top of your deck. But hey, if you get to that spot, it usually means you’re winning.
2 Vendilion Clique: A very important card in this deck. Of course, it does its usual cliquey things of interacting with combo and control opponents, pressuring planeswalkers, ambushing opposing creatures, and making sure the coast is clear for your important spells. But it has two other very important functions here: it enables you to send an untimely drawn miracle to the bottom of your deck, and can also spike a miracle during the opponent’s turn.
2 Logic Knot, 2 Remand, 1 Spell Snare, 1 Negate, no Mana Leak: As a general rule, I prefer using a varied suite of situational countermagic, to keep opponents guessing and give you more options, especially when paired with Snapcaster Mage. I believe that Logic Knot is the best of them, as this deck doesn’t use its graveyard that much otherwise. Remand is mostly there to slow down your opponent while helping you make your land drops, and can sometimes be used on your own spell for value, or even, in rare cases, trigger a miracle. Spell Snare is sometimes awesome, sometimes useless, so playing more than one really depends on the expected metagame. Negate will more often than not have a worthwhile target. Once again, Jace really helps finding the right counter for the right situation, and get rid of the ones that won’t do the job. On the subject of Mana Leak, I hate playing that card in the same deck as Path to Exile, and it’s also kind of weak against all the big mana decks out there. As far as I’m concerned, Logic Knot is just better here, as you can easily scale it up as much as you need to.
2 Cryptic Command, 2 Snapcaster Mage: Awesome cards, but require a lot of mana, and as discussed with Jace, you can only play so many cards that cost four or more mana. This choice is really all about managing the mana curve of the deck. It’s quite possible we want a third Cryptic, though I’ve been happy with the two thus far.
1 Gideon of the Trials, 1 Blessed Alliance: Situational but flexible spells that can sometimes save your life. Gideon can make your board sweepers better by forcing opponents to overcommit to the board, can act as an alternate win condition, and its emblem can give a few decks fits. Blessed Alliance acts as the clunky fifth Path to Exile, while also giving you life against aggro decks, or giving life to a Death’s Shadow player; in rare cases, it can even untap a pair of angels after an unsuspecting opponent has tapped them down with a Cryptic Command.
2 Celestial Colonnade: While this land is essential in stock blue-white control lists, and is excellent here as well, I went down to two for multiple reasons. First, I wanted to play a large number of basic lands, both to hedge against Blood Moon and enable my Fields of Ruin. Second, I wanted to run a higher number of fetchlands than the usual lists tend to do, so I had to make space somewhere. Third, this deck is very mana intensive and can’t afford to have too many lands enter the battlefield tapped. Finally, with the two Entreats, three Jaces, two Vendilion Cliques and the Gideon, the deck does not need the extra win conditions as much as other blue-white control decks would. Perhaps the second Hallowed Fountain or the Mystic Gate could become a third Colonnade, but I’m not really in favor of such a move in a deck with multiple spells that have heavy color requirements, in blue, white or sometimes both.
4 Flooded Strand, 1 Scalding Tarn, 1 Arid Mesa: Shuffling away useless cards put back on top of the library with Jace is of absolute necessity, a role fulfilled by the fetchlands and Fields of Ruin. More fetches also make Crucible of Worlds better in control mirrors, where you can make land drops every turn win the mana advantage war. Be mindful to go for a white source on the first turn if you can, in case your opponent has a quick start and you randomly topdeck a Terminus. Also, remember that you can search for a land in response to a miracle trigger, as the card is already considered to be in your hand when the trigger goes on the stack. This especially comes up when you have an Entreat on top of your deck, have a fetch on the battlefield, and want to get the land to make that extra angel token.
There are a number of cards I could have played but did not end up sleeving up. Detention Sphere, Oust, Wall of Omens, Gideon Jura and Sphinx’s Revelation are among those. I can see myself playing some number of these in place of the more situational cards in the deck, or in the sideboard. Some of them were not played because of curve considerations. Notably, I found that the Gideon of the Trials often died way too easily (the rise of Lightning Bolt, Bloodbraid Elf and Abrupt Decay does not help its cause), and would probably replace it with a Detention Sphere or something, going forward.
Many of the sideboard cards listed here were not used at the Quebec Open. But that’s not really surprising, as control decks in Modern often need very specific answers with niche applications, which may not even come up during the course of a tournament. For instance, despite having multiple cards to bring in against Tron, I never faced it; thus, the Stony Silences and the Ghost Quarter never came in. The Timely Reinforcements, which were mostly there for the Burn matchup, were only brought in once, against Humans. That being said, the situation might have been completely different in another tournament, or even in the same tournament, but with different pairings, and those cards would have gotten their chance to shine, while others, which did a lot of work this time, spent a good day’s rest in the deckbox. Oh well.
I think most of the sideboard choices here are pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll just make a few general comments on some of them.
Rest in Peace, Stony Silence: I wish there was at least a third Rest in Peace in there. There are multiple matchups where you need early graveyard interaction in order to have a fighting chance, and two is clearly not enough for that purpose. Four might be overdoing it in such a diverse format, but I feel that three is a necessity right now. Stony Silence is fine at two, as you have multiple other useful sideboard cards for the matchups where you want it.Celestial Purge: This is a very important card right now, especially for dealing with Blood Moon and Liliana of the Veil, two cards that can be quite difficult to get rid of otherwise. It’s probably worth it to have access to a second one. Runed Halo: Answers a vast number of problematic cards, ranging from Valakut to Grapeshot to to Lightning Storm to Inkmoth Nexus, as well as things like Death’s Shadow, Mantis Rider, Thoughtseize, Conflagrate, or Liliana of the Veil’s ultimate ability. Due to its versatility, it could very well be a worthwhile inclusion in the maindeck.
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion: A great alternate win condition that can singlehandedly take over the game against most creature and midrange decks, but way too expensive to warrant maindeck play, for my taste.
Crucible of Worlds: Part of the anti-Tron package (along with the Ghost Quarter, the Disdainful Stroke and the Stony Silences). You can also use it, as discussed above, to recur fetches and Fields in control mirrors, as well as protection against the recently popular land destruction decks.
Tinkering and playing with Blue-White Miracles has shown me that, if nothing else, the Jace unban has really improved the power and consistency of control decks in the format, even though they are sometimes still poorly positioned in a wide open field with so many possible play patterns and angles of attack.
This deck is an exercise at building a synergistic deck around Jace’s abilities, rather than just finding an existing list where it happens to fit. However, the surface has only been scratched, there is still a lot of work to be done. I feel like the deck I discussed in this article could be a few cards away from greatness, but truth be told, I’m not sure how far we can take it, at this point. Who knows, there could be a forgotten gem in a Modern-legal bulk box out there, or a card that has yet to be printed, that could finally push this style of deck over the top. Either way, if only for a weekend, Jace sure made me believe in angels.