A Modern Top 8 with Coalition Relic: A Gifts Ungiven Tournament Report and Primer
I am always looking for the best deck in Modern, but I find myself uninterested in decks like Affinity and Splinter Twin. They just do one thing, and sometimes they do it terribly! The format is great, in no small part because I can reliably play Gifts Ungiven all the time. First off, let's start with a fundamental concept about the Modern format...
Games reliably go on for a long time after the fourth turn.
Let's continue with another one...
All the great card advantage spells are banned in Modern.
If we go from these two premises, we can draw the conclusion that Modern often involves grind-fests, topdecked bombs and unwinnable game states for decks that only focus on the early game. You can play the Affinity deck and hope to draw Cranial Plating to end things on turn 3, or you can go with a long-form deck that still gives you chances to win all along the way. Splinter Twin can do that; all you need is a Pestermite and the deck's eponymous enchantment and you'll win a game on the turn you were "supposed" to die. Birthing Pod combo decks can do it too, but in another way. Through cards like Kitchen Finks and Birthing Pod, one can get a lot of value from just one physical card. The virtual card advantage in Pod decks is incredible, even though they don't typically run anything that will draw an extra card.
I wanted to design a deck that was full of 2-for-1s. Jund can do this, but it loses steam because sometimes, the 2-for-1 isn't what you wanted. A Bloodbraid Elf into a Terminate with no other targets is a wasted opportunity. A Liliana of the Veil against an opponent with three creatures on the board will act like a glorified Fog. What I wanted was a deck with solid, reliable value cards. When I talk about "value," I'm discussing a pretty simple and abstract concept. If you look at Annihilate, you'll see a value card. It draws into another card, but at 3BB, it's not mana-efficient. Deathmark is another value card; if you kill a Knight of the Reliquary, you've spent one mana and one card to destroy a three mana card. So value can be card savings as well as mana savings. The reason that Counterspell is great and Distress is unplayable is that Counterspell will almost always gobble up some mana on the way; the opponent has to tap lands to attempt their spell. Dismiss simply takes a card without making an opponent waste on-board resources.
Luckily, Modern has a lot of value cards, but you have to know where to look. These cards are strewn across all five colors, which can make normal deckbuilding a challenge. Fortunately, this format has the cure-all to weird mana costs: Coalition Relic. I knew that I wanted to play a deck with four Relics, because if I could land a Relic on the third turn, I would assuredly win the game. That Relic guarantees five or six mana on the next turn. That translates into paying retail for Shriekmaw or casting Gifts Ungiven for a fine-tuned pile of other value cards. Relic fixes mana in an incredible way; I ended up running 25 lands and only 2 basic lands and used Relic to play easily through Blood Moon all day long. The red enchantment is actually a non-factor when you have Relics.
Coalition Relic also encourages you to tap out on your own turn because you have to spend that mana in your mainphase. Against a deck full of counterspells, this can be risky, but we are in luck because counters in Modern are uniformly bad. They are situational or overcosted most of the time, and the counterspell decks will often die to aggressive decks in the first few rounds of an event anyway. So we have an artifact and a manabase that enable us to play the greediest spells known to Modern, a deck that routinely hits eight or nine mana, and we have access to a giant cardpool. The most logical conclusion is this:
Coalition Control, by Doug Linn
What a greedy deck! It takes a little time to explain and the best way to do that is to break it down.
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Withered Wretch
1 Godo, Bandit Warlord
1 Vendilion Clique
These are your value cards; each one is an incredible amount of card advantage in this format. Few decks can come back from a Wurmcoil Engine. The Evoke creatures are fantastic in the early turns and really show off their power when you can cast them for their full price later in the game. Withered Wretch is a necessary element of maindeck graveyard hate. There are decks like Martyr and other Gifts decks with Worm Harvest that have superior lategames, but they are completely dead to a Withered Wretch taking out their graveyard. Godo is perhaps the greediest card in here. I'm unsure of whether he's better than more Wurmcoil Engines, but when he hits, he usually wins the game in the next turn. While Godo only untaps himself, he gives all of your creatures another attack phase. This is irrelevant, except for Batterskull and its Vigilance. Godo lets you clang in for fourteen damage and at least 8 life points on the turn after he comes out. If they kill your Godo, you still have a Batterskull. If they kill the Germ (or have big blockers), you put the Equipment on the Bandit and crank twice with a 7/7 lifelinker.
Snapcaster Mage is a clearly strong card. It's very good in this deck because you will nearly always have something great to flash back. I've seen a lot of Esper Teachings decks try the late control game with this card, but they rarely have anything better than a 1-for-1 to get with it. Do you want to pay 1UUBW to flash back Esper Charm? Is Snapcaster flashing a Rune Snag going to accomplish anything?
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Doom Blade
1 Maelstrom Pulse
This seems like a lot of creature-kill, especially considering that we already have Shriekmaws onboard. The reason that Lightning Bolt is superior to something like Path to Exile is that it is never dead. It can be weak, but it never sits in your hand. The combination of Lightning Bolt and Snapcaster Mage makes for a surprisingly quick clock, too. I wish I had more Maelstrom Pulses; they are highly efficient, but I don't think that the deck can afford more dedicated creature-kill spells. You reach a limit where you'll have nine cards to sideboard out, but only seven to sideboard in. That's not a great place to be in.
It looks like I've done some weird splits to make Gifts Ungiven better, but that's not the case. I simply found that you sometimes just need a Firespout over a Damnation. You want Doom Blade over Smother or Go for the Throat because you must be able to kill artifact creatures like Frogmite. I previously had a lot more singleton kill spells, but if you're casting Gifts, you can get Firespout, Doom Blade, Damnation and Snapcaster Mage and answer just about any problematic creature. There's no need for more kill spells, as long as you can draw enough naturally that you are not reliant on Gifts to power you up.
3 Mana Leak
1 Life from the Loam
1 Ravens Crime
1 Cruel Ultimatum
3 Gifts Ungiven
This is the disruption and lategame package. Mana Leaks are unexciting, but they fulfill a solid role. They make a great threat with Snapcaster Mage and they pre-emptively handle a really busy card like Ranger of Eos, which would otherwise occupy many more resources to eliminate. Rise/Fall is incredible; people have forgotten about how good Hymn to Tourach is in a format without things like Brainstorm. It buys 2+ turns against most combination decks and breaks up things like Proclamation of Rebirth forecasting. Rise is also exceptional, as it makes all of your Evoke creatures pull double-duty. If you are making a Gifts pile, a Snapcaster Mage and a Rise/Fall mean that you'll eventually get any other two spells that you have Gifted for.
Life from the Loam and Raven's Crime are a necessary evil. They make a Gifts into an incredible engine. You simply get Life from the Loam, Raven's Crime, Rakdos Carnarium and another land, like Sunken Ruins. If the opponent gives you the Crime and Loam, you cast both and then start retracing. If they give you the two lands, you dredge Loam, retrace Crime twice, and then cast Loam to do it again! There's no escape! Putting someone into topdeck mode is a good place to be at. Sure, Storm Combo can still draw that Past Into Flames, but when you've put them on that singular out, you're in good shape and you can win at your leisure. If you're wondering about why you get the Carnarium, it's because the card allows you to play a land on the turn that you start Criming and still have a land to Retrace away.
I am not running Iona, Shield of Emeria and Unburial Rites. It can sometimes win the game against combo or Martyr, but it does very little if you are behind in the game. Iona is just about the worst card you could draw, and if you run Elesh Norn, you have to play yet another goofy, uncastable, off-color card to get things to work. I tested it extensively and I abandoned it. If I am going to draw the uncomfortable half of a two-card combo, I want it to be the Batterskull end of the Godo chain instead of a blank Angel.
I originally had two or three Cruel Ultimatums. I am still undecided on whether I want more than one. It's a gamewinner when you cast it, especially when you can turn it into the full 8-for-1. Having one means that you're a little more reliant on a Gifts to get it off and it tends to show up at less optimal times. Thanks to Relic, you can cast this beast of a spell on the fifth turn, and it is like a Raven's Crime engine that is compacted into one card.
Finally, let's talk about Gifts Ungiven. Most Modern decks with this card tend to misplay it. They'll run a bunch of bad corner-case cards and rely on Gifts to set up an Iona combo. I simply use Gifts to double the value of whatever I am doing at the moment. The Loam/Crime engine is my sole Gifts concession. You'll still win the games where you "merely" use Gifts to get Mulldrifter, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage and Wurmcoil Engine. Gifts piles are not hard, either, and if you want to play this deck, you should familiarize yourself with what you'll get with Gifts. If you need to kill an enchantment, you can get Rise, Snapcaster, Maelstrom Pulse and another potent card. If you want to kill a Planeswalker, you can get Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique and Maelstrom Pulse and you'll have a good shot at dealing with it. I think it's pretty shameful to watch someone spend over a minute on putting a Gifts pile together; they obviously didn't do the prep work before the tournament and they'll end up going to time. In the event I played with this deck, I got a Gifts resolved in about fifteen seconds with only five minutes left on the clock. You must be able to do that or you might as well just not play Gifts.
On a side note, if you don't want to play Gifts, I feel that Tidings is a serious option instead. What a great way to start your fourth turn!
A Few Words On The Manabase
This mana is everywhere. People seem to forget how good Reflecting Pool is. The filter lands enable you to cast everything you need, early in the game. You don't need many Ravnica shock-lands because you cannot afford the early damage. Unless you need to cast a Lightning Bolt on the first turn, you'll usually play a fetchland (which gets a shockland) or a tapped shockland. On the second turn, you'll ideally play a filter land that gets you the other colors that you need. On the third turn, you'll aim to play another land that doesn't come into play tapped, because turn 3 is where the deck has to start running. I played a single Urza's Factory and used it several times in the event. It's taking up a spell slot and it's there because two activations usually yield enough guys to end the game. I ran it over a manland because you absolutely don't want your land to get Lightning Bolted and be set back.
I had a few card access issues that limited me from running what I would have liked to play. The Dragonskull Summit is probably better as Blackcleave Cliffs, which is an excellent turn-3 card. The City of Brass is a stand-in for either Crumbling Necropolis or Stomping Ground. You never want to have to get Stomping Ground, but there are occasionally times where you'll need to get it post-board (you are holding Lightning Bolt and Nature's Claim, for example) and Flooded Grove tends to mellow out the card. I ran the two basics not because I feared Blood Moon, but because I found that Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile were much too good if I did not run any basics.
Making Sense of that Sideboard
Yes, that is a crazy sideboard. Let's get the easy stuff out of the way. Tarmogoyfs come in for Lightning Bolts and creature-kill against combo. You side out Loam and Crime against aggro and bring Goyfs and Firespout in. Slay is an insane value card, but it's more narrow without Nacatls to kill. You've got two counters that you can bring in against most combination decks. At one point, I was running Mystic Snake as a potent counter and creature. I haven't completely dismissed it. Venser's Journal is unbeatable against Burn and Boros decks. It's goofy, but it works when it hits. I ran it over Clearwater Goblet because the Goblet is terrrrible with Blood Moon in play. Obstinate Baloth is another beater against control and also works well againt Jund, which I feared. I run Claim as a Snapcaster favorite and kill spell against Affinity and Twin. Seal of Primordium comes down before Blood Moon does and it really constrains an Affinity opponent, who must overcommit their Platings to beat it. It also constrains Twin decks into winning with Kiki-Jiki, which eats Bolts. Creeping Corrosion is a gamewinner against Affinity, but it also kills your Relics; it may be better as another Grudge. Nihil Spellbomb was okay, but it doesn't get past Martyr's Leyline of Sanctity. I'd rather have a Withered Wretch.
If I had all the space in the world, I would run 4 Sun Droplets. Two of those will unwind any aggro deck. I also got a lot of use out of Scepter of Fugue, but my teammate Kevin Cron suggested that I'd rather peel a Tarmogoyf in the midgame than a scepter against control or combo. I also had a lot of fun with Exile into Darkness. That card is a potent machine against Martyr decks, but I simply lacked room.
January 14: 61 People Come to Play in the Modern Warfare Tournament in Columbus, Ohio
I was fortunate to have most of the cards in this deck. I borrowed the other from my teammate and friend, Kevin Cron. Kevin wasn't playing in the event and he was happy to loan me cards. Actual conversation:
me: "Do you have a Vendilion Clique? I think I need one."
Kevin: "Oh, I have a real nice one of those... [produces a Japanese foil copy] I got on that card pretty early."
Portions of my deck ended up superpimped, thanks to Kevin's generosity.
On the morning of the event, I bought a Kashi Go-Lean protein bar because I'm on Tim Ferriss' slow-carb diet. Bad mistake, the thing was dense and awful. I packed some Burt's Bees chapstick - tech I got onto years ago, since you're talking for hours in a tournament and it's easy to get dehydrated. I showered and put on nice clothes because I like to look nice and besides, cardigans are optimal heat-regulating garments.
Here's how the day went!
Round 1: Splinter Twin (featuring Sam Stoddard!)
I had an innate sense that I would be paired against Sam in the first round and it beared out. Sam and I talked before the event; I knew he was on Twin and he knew I had something goofy. Twin usually beats goofy decks, so I was prepared to lose my first match. In the first game, I had the Doom Blade for the first Exarch, but he got the second one through and killed me.
-1 Withered Wretch
+1 Nature's Claim
In the second game, I land a Goyf on turn 2. I cast Fall and take out a Kiki-Jiki and a Splinter Twin on the next turn. I pound Sam down to 2 life, then finish him with a Lightning Bolt backed with two Mana Leaks.
In the third game, I get a Coalition Relic out and then a Tarmogoyf. Sam plays a Blood Moon; I am holding Negate, but I don't fight it because it won't actually affect the game. I attempt to Nature's Claim the Moon later, but Sam peels off a Dispel for it. Sam valiantly played blockers, but my Tarmogoyf was joined by its cousin and a Mulldrifter. I ended the game with three Goyfs in play and a win in the first round.
Round 2: U/R Storm Combo
My opponent was a nice dude, even nicer because he accidentally and obviously flipped a Gitaxian Probe while shuffling. What was seen could not be unseen. I felt bad for him because he lost a significant advantage. In the first game, I had a turn-2 Withered Wretch followed by a turn-3 Vendilion Clique, but those were not enough to overwhelm his combo. He tore through most of his deck and then found three Grapeshots to kill me outright.
-4 Lightning Bolt
-1 Doom Blade
+1 Nihil Spellbomb
Storm decks are graveyard-reliant, so the Spellbomb was necessary to slow them down. They also tend to use Empty the Warrens, so I upped my Firespout count and kept that Maelstrom Pulse in. In retrospect, it might have been nice to have a Nature's Claim for his Pyromancer Ascensions.
In the second game, I get a Goyf early, but I'm only doing 2 damage a turn. He eventually grows to a 4/5. My opponent plays a Blood Moon. He gets Pyromancer Ascension going and puts four copies of Grapeshot on my Goyf. I remind him that it has 5 toughness and I let him take back the Grapeshot. Probably should not have done that, looking back on it. He instead casts Empty the Warrens and then casts his Grapeshot to kill that Goyf. I'm fine with this because I am holding Firespout, so I clear out his board on the next turn. I cast Gifts for the Crime engine and blew away his hand. He had a shot with a Seething Song to flash back Past in Flames, but I had the Mana Leak and it was off to the third game!
In the third game, I hit a curve to die for. I drew a Nihil Spellbomb on my turn, so I took a bolt to the face and played a fetchland into a Watery Grave for it. On the next turn, I played a Blood Crypt and hit him with Fall for two rituals. On the third turn, I played a Tarmogoyf and Spellbombed his graveyard to take out a Desperate Ravings. On the fourth turn, I Snapcasted my Fall to hit him for two more cards. He was out of the game at this point, with only one card in hand. My monsters finished him soon afterward. He said that my deck was made to beat combo, which was news to me - it's kind of an unfocused pile, but it has a little something for everyone.
Round 3: Affinity
Game one, I have the Lightning Bolt for his Plated creature and a Doom Blade for the Signal Pest. I get a Damnation off and he's looking at a Plating without any guys to put it onto. He is in topdeck mode but I am at ONE LIFE at this point. It is imperative to get a Mana Leak to fight any burn spells from him. I have a Leak in hand and a Snapcaster, so I Gifts a pile that nets me another Leak and Snapcaster. When it's that or a Wurmcoil Engine, you get the other cards! I had Godo in hand since Day One, but I needed to get to eight mana so that I could both play Godo and keep Leak up. I hit it several turns later and make Godo and the Batterskull shoot me up to 9 life. He's dead after that.
-1 Life from the Loam
-1 Raven's Crime
-2 Shriekmaw (which cannot kill artifacts)
-1 Withered Wretch
-1 Vendilion Clique
+1 Ancient Grudge
+1 Nature's Claim
+1 Seal of Primordium
In the second game, I am on the draw and he gets me for exact damage on turn 4 or 5.
In the third game, I agonized over whether to get a Forest or Breeding Pool on the first turn. I went with Forest, which made all the difference. I played a Seal of Primordium on the second turn to his Cranial Plating. I played a Coalition Relic and he played Blood Moon instead of attaching his Plating. Big Mistake. I stored up a mana and cast Damnation on the next turn, wiping his board away. He's got another guy out and I have to Seal his Plating to keep the damage off. I eventually Maelstrom Pulsed his two Vault Skirges. He plays a second Blood Moon. There are only five minutes left in the round at this point and I quickly Gifts for some really valuable cards - Ancient Grudge, Snapcaster Mage, Wurmcoil Engine and Cruel Ultimatum. I got the Grudge and the Mage. This entire process took about twenty seconds. I played out my Batterskull and a Tarmogoyf and then used Grudge to contain a Plated guy. Time was called and I knew I had the game locked up. I Snapcasted my Pulse to kill both of his Memnites, then sent in with the team for 12 damage. He died the next turn.
Round 4: UGR Delver
I played against Columbus local and Good Player, Justin Calhoun, who admitted that he was related to John C. Calhoun. I kept a decent hand against creatures and I was scared when he got a Steam Vents on his first turn. My hand was definitely not a combo-breaker. He played a Breeding Pool and Tarmogoyf on the second turn, which I happily killed with a Lightning Bolt. I got a Coalition Relic out on my third turn. He played a Vendilion Clique and I tapped the Relic to Bolt his Clique in response to its ability. J-Cal then passes the turn and I deploy a Batterskull. He's got the Flame Slash for the Germ, but my next two turns involve paying retail for two Mulldrifters. With two fliers and a Batterskull looking to equip something, my opponent scoops and we are off to the second game.
Sideboarding was challenging, since I don't have many good spells against him to bring in. I took out a Clique because it doesn't beat a Tarmogoyf and he plays his own. I'd rather have a Lightning Bolt than a Clique against most of his deck.
-1 Withered Wretch
-1 Vendilion Clique
+3 Tarmogoyf (I couldn't find room for a fourth)
We go back and forth. He uses Ancient Grudge on my Coalition Relic, which is super awkward because I am holding another Relic in hand. He has a Tarmogoyf out that is doing some serious damage to me and I can cast Gifts Ungiven. He has three cards in his hand at this point, and I held two Lightning Bolts that could kill that Goyf. Thus, instead of getting a setup where I had some kill spells, I went for a long-term plan. I ended up Criming away his hand and getting both of my Bolts to take out his green meanie. Unfortunately, I get knocked down to six life, and he manages to get Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage into play. The flip that turns on his Delver is a Cryptic Command, so I needed to Crime that away (he countered and drew) before I could kill his Delver. You can see where going for the two kill spells would have just lost me the game right here.
I ended up casting a Lightning Bolt on his Delver, taking a hit from the Snapcaster, and then playing my own Tarmogoyf to stop his attacking wizard. I was at one life this entire time. I get a second Tarmogoyf down and J-Cal scoops up his cards, knowing he couldn't fight out of a Crime-lock and two Goyfs.
I drew the next two rounds into the T8. Glorious!
Top 8: David Gardner with Martyr
I am not looking forward to this match, since David's deck has a good long game and a hardcast Proclamation that brings back Serra's Ascendants will kill me. In the first game, he gets a Martyr, an Ascendant and two Squadron Hawks into play, which I Firespout off the board. He sacrifices the Martyr in response, but I have the Lightning Bolt to kill his Ascendant before it can become a 6/6. I ended up casting Damnation, but David had constant pressure because he had a Ranger of Eos. I got out a Withered Wretch and dismantled his recursion and got Godo + Batterskull online. I had a Mana Leak for the second Ranger. At this point, he had a Student of Warfare with five counters. I was not attacking because it would kill both of my guys, and the thought never occurred to me to just give Godo the Batterskull and attack in. This cost me the game and I lost.
+1 Nihil Spellbomb
I have a great hand - Spellbomb, Gifts, Rise/Fall. David starts turn 0 off with Leyline of Sanctity, so my hand goes all to hell. I should have seen that coming! I got out a Withered Wretch, which ate a Path to Exile. I played Godo + Batterskull, but he had Path and Oblivion Ring. What a monster. My kingdom for a Tranquility! I can't do a darn thing and I just lose.
I ended up getting some cash and store credit. It was a great venue and I had a blast playing the format. I'm going to continue working on the deck; it may not need Godo, it may not need Mana Leaks. I would probably cut the Journal and Spellbomb from the sideboard for another Maelstrom Pulse and a Withered Wretch. I've got this long list of cards for the sideboard, which I consult when different decks get big. Cards like Persecute and Haunting Echoes, for example, are murderous against Martyr (if you get past their Leylines).
If you're looking for a fun, customizable deck that plays greedy spells but doesn't lose to Blood Moon, this is your deck. On a long enough timeline, this list will defeat just about anyone. Ask questions in the comments below and I will do my best to respond!