I love to gain life in Magic. Few things are as satisfying as undoing 3 turns of Rift Bolts and Lava Spikes with a single stroke. What card can do that you ask? Martyr of Sands of course!

With that in mind, here’s what I played at GP Calgary, nabbing an 18th place finish:

It’s Marytr Proc. An oldie, but a goodie. And let me tell you, it smashes Faithless Looting decks into next week. Phoenix, Dredge, even Grixis Death Shadow can’t hope to compete with your lifegain and powerful maindeck answers.

Your primary gameplan is to gain a ton of life with Martyr of Sands and once you are safely above 30, Serra Ascendant becomes one of the premier threats in the format. A one-mana 6/6 lifelinker with flying is no joke. No doubt it’s a control strategy, but you can easily win games in the first 5 turns against an unprepared opponent.

The last time we saw the deck put up a major finish was Elias Klocker’s GP Stockholm Top 8 performance last year:

The metagame has shifted in a big way since. Here are the major changes I made to the deck:

Kami of False Hope > Weathered Wayfarer

Kami has always functioned as a poor man’s 5th Martyr. Unfortunately, It just doesn’t measure up these days. Weathered Wayfarer, on the other hand, brings tremendous utility. It not only helps us in getting to Emeria when we’re stuck on lands, but it also allows us to choke off our opponent’s mana by activating Wayfarer in response to activating Field of Ruin.

Archangel Avacyn & Sun Titan > Lyra Dawnbringer & Baneslayer Angel

Sun Titan is a glorified Kindercatch that has kept creeping into Martyr decks over the years despite rarely, if ever, being good. Baneslayer Angel is a must-answer threat that can often
stone-wall aggro decks, while gaining life to turn on Serra Ascendant and being a quality Emeria target.

Some games can be won by simply Pathing your own dude to ramp into turn 4 Baneslayer. The creature is that dominant in this format.

Sorcery Sweepers > Settle the Wreckage

Perhaps the most important change is the upgrade to Settle. It’s absolutely back-breaking against Phoenix and Dredge whereas Wrath of God is almost irrelevant.

Creatures > Enchantments

Thraben Inspector was the big innovation for this deck in 2018, supplanting the largely ineffective Ghostly Prison. The problem with Inspector is that it’s always good, but rarely great.

Having a single copy to tutor with Ranger of Eos and recur with Proclamation is still certainly a consideration, but in general, as decks are moving toward focusing on a small number of high-impact threats, Runed Halo becomes much more valuable.

Surgical Extraction

It feels awkward to have a spell that requires life payment in a deck all about getting to 30 life, but the sheer power of Extraction in the current metagame is impossible to ignore. It comes in versus the graveyard decks and Tron, while offering utility in almost every matchup except for pure aggro, even if it’s only to take care of a Snapcaster targeted spell.

With that out of the way, I want to cover some common lines of play to be on the lookout for if you choose to take this deck for a spin yourself.

1 Drops

Typically you want to lead with a tapped land and not a 1-drop. It’s critical in some matchups that Serra Ascendant enters play as a 6/6 so it doesn’t get killed by Darkblast, Bolt, Gut Shot or Lightning Axe. Don’t be afraid to play Squadron Hawk on turn 2, before playing and sacrificing Martyr and finally playing Serra; all on Turn 3.

Squadron Hawk

Squadron Hawk may not be Ancestral Recall, but it still draws you three cards (even if those cards are all Hawks themselves). Don’t forget that you can choose how many Hawks to find and it’s rarely correct to find all 3 if you’ll need to discard to hand size afterward. It’s also important to remember that you can Mistveil in response to the trigger to find a dead Hawk. Chump blocking this way can buy you tons of time in threat-light matchups such as Death’s Shadow. Hawks can also be a godsend keeping planeswalkers under control, particularly Liliana of the Veil.

Ranger of Eos

Don’t make the mistake of being too greedy with Ranger of Eos. It’s perfectly fine to tutor for an extra Martyr to play around a burn spell or similar. Finding two Serras that turn out to be 1/1s by the time you play them feels just awful.

Oblivion Ring

It’s important to save Ring in certain matchups for cards that otherwise would be difficult to deal with. Resist the urge to cast it on a Crackling Drake for value and save it for a Pyromancer’s Ascension or Chandra when you can.

Runed Halo

Runed Halo shines brightest when you can name the likes of Arclight Phoenix, Death’s Shadow or Bloodghast, but remember that it can do great work against cards like Gifts Ungiven, some planeswalkers, and even ​lands ​(Ipnu Rivulet). If you ever Surgical your opponent, make a mental note of ways they can actually win the game, so you know what to name later on. Against aggro, you typically want to name whatever creature they play first as a sort of Guard Duty with upside.

Flagstones of Trokair & Mistveil Plains

People often forget that Flagstones of Trokair can find any plains, including Mistveil, which can, in turn, prevent you from losing to running out of cards against control decks or counter a Surgical by tucking the targeted card. You can, of course, get a basic to play around Blood Moon, but that rarely is required. You can also target Flagstones with Ghost Quarter to thin your deck and help you reach Emeria’s threshold.

Matchups & Sideboarding

Izzet Phoenix

Proclamation, Wayfarer


This matchup is extremely favorable as you are purpose-built to beat them. They have a very limited number of win conditions (Arclight Phoenix, Awoken Horror and the odd additional creature or planewalker). Surgical Phoenix as soon as they tap out or drop a Halo and the game is basically yours. Keep your life total high and hold on to your Paths, Settles and Oblivion Rings as a safety net.


Proclamation, Wayfarer


This matchup is also a cakewalk. Don’t bother Surgicaling the dredge cards, you only care about their win-cons. Once you Halo/Settle/Surgical Bloodghast and Prized Amalgam they simply don’t have the reach to finish you off. Remember to keep your life total high to play around Conflagrate and Creeping Chill and you’ll be fine.


Proclamation, Halo, Settle

Surgical, Sphere, Stony

Although I won this matchup three times at the GP, I would only consider it to be slightly favorable. They are ahead in game one, whereas you are a favorite in games two and three. The matchup is much more difficult on the draw, especially if they are playing a version with five or more basics.

The only thing that matters early game is keeping them off Tron. Be prepared to mulligan aggressively. Anytime you can land destruction into Surgical on any Tron piece, do it, typically on the first Tron land they played.

Additionally, playing a creature on turn one is correct in this matchup. Sometimes you’ll even Ghost Quarter them on turn 2 and Path your own Serra to catch back up to Field of Ruin on turn 3. They might sideboard in Thought-Knot Seer or Thragtusk, but you don’t care. Just chump block with Hawks if you need to. Keeping them off 7 mana is your only objective, everything else can be easily dealt with by Oblivion Ring or Path later on.

It’s best to operate under the assumption that they will bring in 4 Nature’s Claims as Stony Silence and Damping Sphere are must-answer for them. Rangering for Wayfarer quickly puts them in an impossible spot as you whittle away their Tron pieces with Field of Ruin, before Strip Mining them with Ghost Quarter after they run out of basics. Remember that Mistviel Plains can ‘reload’ your deck with Ghost Quarters if need be.



Sweepers, Burrenton Forge-Tender

They are a creature-based aggro deck, generally a good target for a lifegain deck. Simply Halo whatever creature you see first, which is typically Champion of the Parish, and keep making trades until you can wrestle control of the game with an Angel and/or a sweeper. Burrenton Forge-Tender is solid against Kessig Malcontents, if your opponent is the type of psychopath who plays such a card.

Overall this is a good, but not great matchup.

Azorius Control

Settle, 2 Path

Surgical, Hex Parasite, 2 Stony

I’m not going to sugarcoat this; this matchup is bad. You get to take out your completely useless cards, but Stony isn’t much better, only stopping Relic and Explosives. Even if you do steal a game off them, games are long and draws are common.

You want to bring your life total up to 30 as soon as possible and start getting in with powered-up Serras and Hawks. Wayfarer is quite strong as it allows you to keep up with their land drops and eventually clear the way for Emeria. Be sure to blow up their Field of Ruins on sight and manlands when they try to activate them.

Their planewalkers are their only real win condition, but they can be close to unstoppable. Sometimes you can get lucky and get to use Hex Parasite to blow up a Teferi and Proclamation’s forecast can bring Hexy back if it dies. Typically you want to Surgical their Paths and then their Cryptics. Eventually, you want to finagle yourself into a situation where you run them out of Spheres, Cryptics and Teferis. At that point you can use Halo to stop Jace from ulting you, allowing you to slowly peck away that their life total with whatever rag-tag assortment of creatures that haven’t been Pathed and Settled.

Death’s Shadow

Surgical, Proclamation, Wayfarers, 1 Settle

Leyline, 1 Wrath

Although Thoughtseize matchups can sometimes be tricky, this matchup is very favorable.

The key thing to remember is that they can really only win off Death’s Shadow, Gurmag Angler and sideboard planeswalkers. As long as your life total is above 24, they cannot one-shot you with a single creature into Temur Battle Rage. Halo on Shadow eliminates half their deck’s win conditions. The Hawk & Mistviel loop is very annoying for them, which they can only partially disrupt with the likes of Anger of the Gods. We swap out a Settle for a Wrath as it’s possible for them to play around the former in some situations. Lastly, Leyline is a massive thorn in their side, turning off roughly 20% of their spells after sideboard.


Wayfarer, Surgical, 2 Settle

Leyline, Burrenton Forge-Tender

I’ve heard more times than I can count that this matchup is a bye (lifegain versus burn, huehuehue), but the reality is that it’s very losable. Skullcracking a Martyr activation sometimes wins the game on the spot and Cindervines is an answer to Leyline. You are happy to see this matchup, but don’t get overconfident.

That said, your gameplan is very simple. You want to Path away one-drops, Halo Eidolon of the Great Revel and gain as much life as humanly possible by any means necessary. Hardcasting Proclamation is a perfectly fine play. Late game, Rangering for one Martyr and the BFT is common. If you can run them out of cards in hand or successfully attack with Baneslayer or a powered-up Serra, you win the game.


Surgical, Wayfarer, Proclamation

Stony, Hex Parasite, Crackdown

Scales has some semi-combo draws that are difficult to beat, but otherwise, this matchup is favorable. Ring is very strong, on the play in particular, to deal with Scales. Settle often leaves them with only a single creature you need to deal with. The only real ‘trick’ is to leave up a Ghost Quarter when you can to ensure you don’t randomly die to a Nexus. Halo normally picks Walking Ballista, which can be an issue otherwise.

Postboard things improve for you. Turn two Stony must be immediately Nature’s Claimed or the Scales player doesn’t get to do anything. Lastly, Crackdown instantly wins you the game at any time.

Other Matchups

The Rock – This is your really terrible matchup. Luckily Black Green isn’t seeing a ton of play right now, as this deck has hand removal, card advantage and Lily, which is your nightmare. Your best bet is to sideboard in your Leylines and mulligan any 7 card hand without one. If you are very lucky, they won’t have a Trophy for it on turn 2 and you’ll be able to strand some discard cards in their hand. If that happens, you usually win.

Whir Prison – This deck wasn’t to been seen at the top tables in Calgary, possibly as more Shatterstorms have started to make there way into Phoenix sideboards, which is great as this matchup is quite bad game one. Your only choice is to try to win the game quickly, often Oblivion Ringing away a Bridge to get in for a final, lethal attack before you are completely locked out. If the game drags on past your 7th turn, you should consider conceding to save time for additional games. Postboard the matchup improves significantly as Crackdown removes their entire board in most cases. Admonition Angel can be played maindeck if you are especially worried about the matchup, as she makes game one unlosable.

Amulet Titan – Admittedly this is the matchup I’ve tested the least. In my experience, it isn’t much of a concern as you can gain enough life to get out of reach of a single attack. You also have Paths and Halos for Titan, Rings for Amulet and Field of Ruins for Karoos.

Changes to the Deck Moving Forward

I’d be very comfortable sleeving up the same 75 for a GP next week, but I think it’s also reasonable to consider a few minor changes.

1) The Manabase

From testing the deck quite a bit, I feel like 25 lands are correct and 33 white spells to reveal to Martyr is the minimum acceptable number. You could cut a Plains and a Oblivion Ring for a Thraben Inspector and a Cast Out, if flooding out is a big concern for you.

That change would also allow you to play a 3rd maindeck Surgical over the 3rd maindeck Settle, which might also make a Godless Shrine worthwhile as a Flagstones target. This would help your Tron matchup a fair amount, so it’s worth considering.

If you do choose to stick with 25 lands, it’s also possible to play an additional maindeck Ghost Quarter instead of a plains, the only cost being your ability to get Emeria online.

2) The Sideboard

As much as I like Burrenton Forge-Tender, I think I would have preferred to have a second sweeper in the sideboard during GP Calgary. People tend to start playing around Settle by the third game, which makes regular Wraths extra punishing. Hallowed Burial or a second Wrath of God would be fine, but I think Day of Judgement is the best choice simply because of Meddling Mage and its cheap mana cost.

If you want to get more adventurous, a second copy of any of the sideboard one-ofs are fine, as is Cast Out or any Ranger-tutorable 1-mana white creature. Figure of Destiny, Loyal Sentry and Order of the Stars are the current stand-outs, but keep an eye on the (Modern) Horizons to see if that changes in the near future.

In summary, Martyr is in a great spot right now. As long as this much of the field is casting Faithless Lootings for card disadvantage, I know I’ll be quite happy to cast ​Ancestral​ Squadron Hawks and gain obscene amounts of life.