10K, here we come…
Before a big tournament, I always prepare, I look into all viable strategies, and I put in the effort to try and figure out exactly what needs to be done to beat those strategies. I work toward that as a goal.
I pick a deck. I always pick a deck from the word go. I don’t wait, the biggest problem in Magic is that when you are busy working on something in theory space, you don’t really get a feel for how the deck plays out. You can hypothesize and hypothesize only to have all your ideas come crashing down the moment you play the first game. So instead of Hypothosizzle-ing you Hypothe-FIZZLE…
In the infancy of my Magic career, back in 2000, I would build a deck the night before and I would show up to a tournament with a deck full of ideas but nothing set in concrete and my results would show. I blamed my poor performance on the ideas, but the problem was preparation. I put no testing into those ideas. I honestly don't know how many golden ideas I have lost during the two and a half years of not knowing how to formalize ideas into viable strategies.
Finding a deck for 10k - Steff Style
This article is about how and why I started with Esper Gifts and a small breakdown on how to play it.
As we speak, the 10k is a little more than 2 weeks away and I have been working on a deck ever since I saw the announcement.
And where do you start looking for deck ideas?
At the beginning silly…
So where is the beginning for me?
A long long time ago… So long in fact it involves Isochron Scepter, Thirst for Knowledge and the construction of the pyramids.
Back in the day, when Modern was first a thing, Gifts Ungiven was the card draw of choice and Esper was the control deck of choice. I remember how it played. A couple months of being back and I feel like I know the meta fairly well, I liked the way Esper felt in such a wide field, the plethora of answers at your disposal and the consistency of the deck let me believe that even though I am new to magic post 2013, I still have a good understanding of the base of what makes a deck and what makes for good interaction.
I always play decks with loads of interaction.
I mostly like playing decks with loads of interaction so Esper Gifts was the first place I looked. It was powerful, it was interactive and it was familiar. Modern has always been a format where familiarity breeds success.
I chose the deck and immediately started playing with it. First I played about 20 goldfish games. This is where you play by yourself and imagine playing real opponents. You can change opponents between turns and between phases, imagine different boards states and even put yourself in impossible scenarios to try and get out of them. Most of the time, you will get a feel for the mana base and for the flow of the deck. When playing, if you put yourself under pressure, you will expose problems in the deck.
Then rehash the list.
Now the deck is ready for some fun games against a couple of our meta’s gauntlet. I pick a few decks that I could see myself playing against at the local tournaments and played a few games. Should you follow this procedure you should get a feel for how the deck plays out in the local meta.
Then rehash your list.
Now play a couple more games open handed against the same gauntlet. Examine each turn with a magnifying lense and identify the best play with all the information.
After all this you should be ready to face the world with your baby.
And this is my baby…
Brace yourself…She might look ugly, but she works.
1 Academy Ruins
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Logic Knot
1 Unburial Rights
1 Mana Leak
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Wrath of God
1 Noxious Revival
1 Detention Sphere
1 Azorius Signet
1 Isochron Scepter
1 Thopter Foundry
1 Sword of the Meek
3 Path to Exile
2 Snapcaster Mage
3 Gifts Ungiven
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Cryptic Command
4 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Watery Grave
1 Godless Shrine
1 Celestial Colonnade
3 Field of Ruin
4 Flooded Strand
2 Hallowed Fountain
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Sorcerous Spyglass
1 Witchbane Orb
1 Angels Grace
1 Isochron Scepter
1 Pithing Needle
1 Disdainful Stroke
1 Damping Sphere
1 Crucible of Worlds
2 Celestial Purge
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Amulet of Safekeeping
Playing this Monster
The way this deck works is simple, stall the game until you get to cast Gifts Ungiven or until you cast multiple Thirst for Knowledges’. The deck is a toolbox deck with the Gifts engine at its core. You have plenty of ways to recur spells and artifacts and this makes it so that the longer the game goes, the more chance you have to win. The deck has inevitability.
To understand how the deck works, you have to understand what an engine of a deck is. Most decks have an engine or a set of cards that make it work. In most control decks the engine is card drawing spells or selection cards like Search for Azcanta. This means that you can put a critical amount of other spells in your deck so that when you flip Azcanta, you can get the correct answer almost always just off the top four cards of your library. In Mardu-Pyromancer, the engine is Faithless Looting and Bedlam Reveler. These cards allow you to continue playing the game that you want to play.
How does a Gifts engine work?
Simple, it's basically Hieroglyphic Illumination where you get two cards, except you and your opponent get to make the choices together (GOOOO TEAM!!). You first search for up to four cards from your library. Then your opponent picks two of them to go to your graveyard. Seems simple enough but there is a twist.
When building a deck with the idea that half of the cards from a draw spell are going into the graveyard, you can make provision to always have the ones you need come back to your hand. Or you can increase the amount of a certain type of card because that way you can still have draws in the deck even if you get some out.
Before you get to use Gifts Ungiven, you have to put a stop to your opponent's game plan.
To stall the game you have 4 Remand, 1 Mana Leak, 1 Detention Sphere, 2 Engineered Explosives, 1 Wrath of God, 1 Supreme Verdict, 1 Settle the Wreckage, 1 Condemn and 3 Path to Exile.
Once the game is at a pace you can handle, you play your Gifts Ungiven and either:
A. Get your win conditions or
B. Get insurance.
So you've played your Gifts and you want to know what to find. You look through your deck. It's a puzzle. You're confused, no one ever told you how to search for cards using Gifts Ungiven. You're not a mind reader. Well fear not young one, uncle Steff has you covered.
There is a combination of two cards in the selection that gives you access to the other two.
There are some combinations of cards that you can search for that you couldn't care about which ones hit the bin. And there is a combination of cards that allows you to just win against certain archetypes without your opponent even really getting a choice.
Let's cover the Snapcaster/Noxious Revival combination of cards:
These two cards in a Gifts package allow you to literally get any other card from your graveyard and deck to use.
The possibilities are actually in the 1000s and to run through each one of them would bore you. Instead, I'm going to give you a few examples of the kind of lines you can use. Taken from testing matches I played online and from local tournaments.
I'm playing a tight game 3 against someone piloting Mardu Pyromancer. I have a signet, plains and 3 nonbasic lands in play. I just wrathed the board to clear a bunch of pyromancer tokens and he follows up by playing Blood Moon.
I untap. Right now I am only able to tap for 3 red mana and a blue. Or 1 blue, 2 white and 2 red, so the Cryptic Command in my hand is a dead card. I also have a Academy Ruins that would allow me to get back the Thopter Foundry in the yard for the win. At the end of his following turn I Gifts for a Snapcaster / Noxious Revival / Celestial Purge / Isochron Sceptre.
My opponent gives me Snapcaster and Sceptre. The following turn I untap and, during upkeep, play my Snapcaster targeting Noxious, putting Purge on top of my deck. I then draw a Celestial Purge for my draw step, play Sceptre putting Deprive on it, and hold back the Purge allowing me to counter any life threatening threat on his turn with the Sceptre/Deprive combo. After untapping I kill his Blood Moon and counter the last threat he draws. After that I got the Foundry back with Academy Ruins and the game got out of hand and I win.
I'm playing against Wikus Roos(Blue White) in a modern tournament. It's in the 2nd game and it’s a real snoozer. We traded answers until in the end he tapped out for a Teferi. In response, with six lands in play, I Gifts Ungiven, holding a remand for Teferi once I know what he is going to give me. Earlier I had Thirst and dropped a Sword of the Meek into my graveyard. I search for Snapcaster/Noxious/Thopter Foundry/Academy Ruins
Wikus is faced with a tough choice. If he gives me Snapcaster and Noxious I will be able to get either Thopter Foundry or Ruins on top of my library. I'll be able to play one and set up loop so I can keep reoccurring Foundry and eventually lock up the game with a zillion tokens. But if he gives me the Foundry and a Snapcaster I get the loop anyway. This is inevitable. His goal now is to make it as difficult as possible to allow him the most time to get his answers. So he gives me the Snapcaster and the Ruins. Eventually I beat him by playing a Explosives every turn for 0, forcing him to counter while I was spending my draw and the 2 mana to recur the Explosives.
Thopter Foundry allows you to sacrifice any and all artifacts to make 1/1 flying thopters. Sword of the Meek comes into play from the graveyard when a 1/1 enters the battlefield. So I sacked my Explosives, getting my Sword Back and then loop starts. You sack Sword and get a 1/1 bringing sword back and repeat for the amount of mana you have.
Let's talk about the two Card win-con Gifts
The astute readers out there will notice there is a powerful combination of two cards that allows you to cheat some pretty powerful creatures onto the battlefield. One being Iona and the other being Elesh Norn.
The way Gifts Ungiven works is quite cool. When you are searching for 4 cards, you don't have to find 4. If you find 2 then 2 go to your graveyard.
Let's say you play against mono red. You can Gifts for an Iona and Unburial Rites. Once Iona is in play the game stops being any fun for your opponent. They can attack with their 2 guys but Iona is queen of the battlefield.
With this combination of cards, there are just 2 combinations, and what you pick depends on who you are playing and how well you know the opponent's deck.
For instance, if you are playing against humans, Elesh Norn is great after a Wrath of God or if you are playing against Blue White control then Iona on white is best. But mostly, you need to know the decks you are playing against and what the key cards are for disrupting future game plans.
Here are two examples where each different option has drastically different effects on the game. Both win! (GOOO TEAM!!!)
I was playing against Andrea in a Techstop tournament. I was one game down and I was behind on board. Andrea, who was playing elves, had a board full of 2/2s and 3/3s. Luckily some of the 2/2 were the lords. It's her turn 4 going into my turn 5. I Gifts into a Elesh and Unburial rights.
In my turn I clean the board and and the game is pretty much over from there.
I’m playing online against some weird Goblin Burn Deck, and I know he is mono red with some artifacts. I have triggered an Engineered Explosives off in the 3rd round clearing like 6 goblin tokens and a Memnite. I cast Gifts at the end of his turn and get Rites Iona. I was on 9…
I chose Iona because he had a formidable amount of burn in his deck. He could easily deal 9 damage with a Shrapnel Blast and one or two Bolts. But all of this goes out of the window with Iona in play.
From there I just had to reoccur the Explosives with Ruins to keep the board clear while Iona made short work of their life total.
Now let’s talk about the 4 card “I don’t care what you pick” Gifts
Sometimes you don’t need subtlety. You need a shotgun. Sometimes you can’t beat around the bush when you need answers and you need them now. Sometimes you need 2 Wraths or 2 removal spells, and this is where the beauty of the deck comes in.
Searching for four similar or nearly identical spells allows you to take your opponents out of the equation and give you what you want. For instance, maybe you’re facing a Human player and he has 3 creatures down 3rd turn. You need to clean the board in the next turn or so and you play Gifts, what do you search for?
Wrath of God, Supreme Verdict, Settle the Wreckage and Explosives or even a Noxious Revival. As you can see, it doesn’t matter what 2 cards they pick, you will always get the last one that you want.
This is the beauty of the deck, it has inevitably, you will win in the long run.
Again, I could list every set of cards, how to and when to Gifts for them, but it would make for a very boring article. Instead I will give you a list of the changes I have made to the main board and sideboard and give you a bit of a sideboard guide.
Changes for Current Meta
Current Meta in Bloemfontein is very creature centric. With that in mind you want to have more solid removal spells main board and you need to get to them faster and more reliably. With 24 lands and 1 signet I sometimes find myself floundering on 3 lands.
But I like having 24 lands. It has the right saturation for a deck with Thirst for Knowledge. I also feel that anything more and your late game draws get diluted a little more than I would like.
So I took out a mana leak and added another signet. With more signets in play, you really don’t want the same amount of Explosives, for obvious reasons, so I replaced 1 with another Supreme Verdict.
We move the 2nd Explosives to the board.
As far as the lands are concerned, I could see myself taking out a Disdainful Stroke from the sideboard and replacing it with another Field of Ruin. Its amazing in the control mirror matches and busted against tron. But so is a Sceptre with a Disdainful Stroke.
Boarding - Humans
Against Humans, you really can’t rely on your counter magic because they have quite a few ways around it. Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial being the main culprits, so the trick is to make sure you have enough removal to hold out till you get a big-fat-fatty down or until you flood the board with Thopters.
Surprisingly though, a lot of the cards in Humans share Blue or White in their cast making Iona not so bad to play still. Just beware, Illusion on Iona, namely white, will kill your game plan. So don't just willy nilly reanimate your Iona and think the game is locked up, especially if they have a Vial on 2.
Also, their biggest beaters and most disruptive creatures are both Red and Black, respectively, and this makes Celestial Purge better than you would expect (Mantis rider and Kitesail Freebooter).
Storm is a one of those matches that goes from difficult to elementary between main and board, the amount of hate you pack is intense. Although, if they know you are playing so much hate they might put in some artifact removal from their board, but an Iona on Red can also do wonders for the matchup.
Mono Red Burn
Back in the day, my mom always told me that if you play with fire you most certainly will wet the bed…
Mono red is the everstay of budget magic, there are plenty of reasons why it is good but the main reason is because, as far as modern decks go, it’s pretty cheap. So I know when attending a tournament in South Africa, you will most certainly face off against one or even two bedwetters before the day is up. In the matchup you have to go lower to the ground and match their pace. Removing some of the expensive elements of the deck, like Cryptic, can make all the difference.
Surprisingly, the recursive nature of the deck leads to making this deck a bit better in the matchup than if you were playing a simple mirror match. You have lots of tools to make the match very difficult for Blue/White to win. Scepter with Deptrive on is backbreaking for them as well as Iona naming white and they have very little good removal for a Thopter Foundry made army.
After board, you want a clean solution to Teferi and Jace, the Spyglass and the Pithing carry their weight. You also want another hard counterspell and putting it on a scepter is awesome.
You don’t want to take out all of your spot removal because a lot of pilots like to bring in a Lyra from the board because they suspect that you would want to take your removal out, and Celestial Colonnade is still a very decent win condition and having something else to stop it seems very good. I also like the Crucible of Worlds in the matchup because recurring fetch lands is about as sweet as it can get, finally you bring in a spare Engineered Explosives against their Detention Spheres or their Crucible of worlds.
All in all, I am sitting on a 11-3 record offline and something more closer to 65% online. I raised my online rating from 1700 to 1800 working on this deck and it was a blast. I have forced more opponents to rage quit than with any other deck I have played on Magic Online.
Okay, I think this is about it, I hope my in-depth discussion on this deck was interesting, maybe you could pick it up for the next tournament.
Remember, if you have any questions, I will always be there to answer.
Until Next Time
I've been playing Magic since 1997, on and off professionally to spend more time with my family. As a six-time Pro Tour qualifier, I want to take you on a journey and hopefully teach you some Old School Magic along the way.