Sometimes, innovation takes time. Endless nights of preparation, countless hours of practice, hundreds of games contributing to spreadsheets of statistics that inform close, calculated changes. In Magic (and Modern especially), this is the most common form of innovation we see. Death’s Shadow Zoo lists tend to fall in one of two camps, but within those camps, most players are playing almost the exact list, all the way down to the sideboard Forest. While universally maligned as “netdecking” by old couch-potato Magic players from a bygone era, the fact remains that the groupthink culture of Magic is potent. When hundreds of other players are contributing to the massive spreadsheet of data with you, reaching the “optimal list” comes about that much faster.
There is another form of innovation, however. It comes in the black of night, cutting through the darkness like a bolt of lightning (or perhaps a Lightning Bolt). When it hits, the resulting blindness sponsors questions of disbelief. “How did I not notice this before?” “What did they see that I overlooked?” “What does it mean to ‘kill em’ with the shoulders?” This past week, on my Twitch stream, innovation struck. Behold the new face of Modern. I give you UW Blink.
With this list, I went 11-3 last Monday and Tuesday, including a 5-0 performance in a Competitive Modern League. We’ll start by discussing Spell Queller in general, and then we’ll move on to talking specifically about my list and my thoughts behind it.
Spell Queller in Modern is reality, plain and simple. I haven’t been paying attention to what people are saying about it for Standard, but a quick five-game league with a rough list was all it took to convince me (and my five opponents). I’ll admit, at first, I was skeptical of how often a 2/3 for three would survive in a Lightning Bolt format, but I quickly came around to it’s power. While today it is me, we all shall fall. You might be skeptical too, and I get that. We’re ahead of the curve, and Eldritch Moon released online just a week ago. Trust me when I say that while this Spell Queller deck is the first, it won’t be last. The bandwagon hasn’t even left the driveway yet, but you have a chance to ride shotgun.
To start, we’ll evaluate it on rate first, followed by synergy, and lastly we’ll look at positioning. In this way, hopefully we’ll gain a closer understanding of not only how good Spell Queller is/isn’t, but why/why not it is that way.
As a 2/3 flash flying creature for three, Spell Queller isn’t turning any heads on stats alone. Flying is nice, and flash plays well in blue-white colors, but dying to Lightning Bolt is a pretty big strike against it. It blocks Goblin Guide, and can eat a Signal Pest, Snapcaster Mage, or Dark Confidant, but beyond that we’re not excited about what Spell Queller is doing inside the declare blockers step. Flying definitely gives it a step up, however, as trading with Delver of Secrets or flying over a Tarmogoyf to hit Liliana of the Veil gives us a lot of play with the card.
Still, if the ability is worthless, this card is not seeing play, which means the ability has to be consistently powerful for us to want to play this card. This distinction is important to make, as too often we can be blindsided by focusing on “best-case” scenarios rather than the statistical average. Think Tireless Tracker in Jund, or, to a lesser extent Master of Etherium in Affinity. Sure, some of the times they are doing great things, but (in my experience) they are often underwhelming or not worth the cost (real or opportunity) that we are paying for them.
So, the ability. In a format where four-mana spells win the game, Spell Queller eats everything. Removal spells, threats, counterspells, combo pieces, you name it. Liliana of the Veil out of Jund. Cranial Plating out of Affinity. Scapeshift out of Scapeshift. Voice of Resurgence. Thought-Knot Seer. Tarmogoyf. Goblin Guide. Spell Queller is actual Cancel, but instead of being a three mana clunky answer-all it comes attached to a 2/3 flash flyer.
Also, and most importantly, we’re exiling spells, and not countering them. This means we get to eat Supreme Verdict or Abrupt Decay. Thought-Knot Seer off of a Cavern of Souls. Cards cast off a Boseiju, Who Shelters All. The Cavern of Souls scenario is a big one, because it makes tough matchups like Merfolk and Eldrazi much easier to manage. Eating Supreme Verdict just feels unfair, especially when we get to cheat in Spell Queller for free with Aether Vial, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Spell Queller finally offers reactive strategies a broad answer that is not embarrassing (Dissipate) or clunky (Cryptic Command).
I know you’re itching for me to get to the downside, so I will. Yes, they can just kill the Spell Queller and get the spell back, and Spell Queller is easily killed. Quelling a Supreme Verdict, only for them to Path to Exile the Spell Queller and Verdict our board anyways does not feel nice at all, but you have to realize we were losing our board and subsequent creature to those spells anyways. Supreme Verdict isn’t supposed to be interacted with; the fact that we even can should be considered a huge advantage.
Against Jund Midrange, Spell Queller has a tough time staying on the field for sure, but it isn’t until you actually play with the card that you see how frustrating it is to play against. Sure, say they play a Tarmogoyf or something on turn three, and we eat it, just for them to untap and Terminate our Spell Queller and get to recast Tarmogoyf for free. It might seem that Spell Queller “did nothing,” but look at what happened in that scenario. Not only did we Fog the Tarmogoyf for a turn, we forced them to take mana resources away from developing their board to answer our play. Meanwhile (jumping ahead again) we’re ticking up our Aether Vial and getting our Wall of Omens engine rolling and pushing towards the midgame, while we’ve stunted our opponent’s development.
Even when they kill our Spell Queller easily, we gain value by forcing them to play our game. In a deck full of creatures, that’s one less removal spell for our other threat. In a deck with few other removal targets, we’re making them consider keeping Bolts and Terminates in post-board, which any control deck would love, as it reduces the velocity and threat density of the opponent. Making an opponent virtually mulligan by stranding semi-dead removal spells in their hand is every control player’s dream, and part of the reason why I continue to love Gurmag Angler in Grixis to this day (come on, you really thought I could go 3000 words without mentioning Grixis?). Dispel is (and has been for a while) one of the best sideboard cards in the format, and forcing them to interact with us (on their turn) plays right into it. They spent four mana playing a Dark Confidant and attempting a Terminate, while we blew them out with Spell Queller and Dispel. The game has changed.
Against most of the format, however, Spell Queller just eats a spell for the rest of the game. Infect has a couple Dismember, Suicide Zoo has two Lightning Bolt, and Merfolk might have a few Dismember or Vapor Snag. I feel like that sentence doesn’t really do my point justice, so commence visual aid:
Here is a list of archetypes in Modern that contain fewer than five ways to kill a Spell Queller in their 75.
- Affinity (4+1)
- Suicide Zoo (2+2)
- Infect (1+2)
- Dredge (0+2)
- Bant Eldrazi (4+1)
- Merfolk (all over the place, usually 4-5)
- Tron (0-4, depending whether they play Bolt or if they’ve chosen Firespout for the board)
- Ad Nauseam (0)
- Living End (0)
- Abzan Company (1+2)
*(x+y), where x is maindeck and y is sideboard (on average)
For those unfamiliar with the current metagame state, that is every major deck in Modern besides Delver, Jund, Jeskai and Burn. I feel like Ryan Gosling in The Big Short illustrating the teetering housing market with Jenga. Every deck in the format is so focused on doing their own thing, without any care in the world for interaction, that they’ve left themselves wide open to utter destruction. Against a deck with 20+ creatures and multiple ways to blink them, five removal spells isn’t going to cut it. By sleeving up Spell Queller, we’re shorting the Magic metagame market. They chose to leave themselves wide open by cutting all their removal. Blinded by the desire to have their cake and eat it too, they haven’t even noticed we’ve started our own personal bakery.
After a little bit of tuning, here is the current version of my UW Blink brew featuring Spell Queller. I’ll start by talking a little bit about my philosophy for the deck, which will explain some of the directions I took with the archetype. Spell Queller specifically (and UW Blink as a whole) can be configured in many different ways, thanks primarily to the individual strength of the cards and the depth of power available to blue and white in the format. I’m not saying mine is the only way to build it, or even the best. Currently, this version fits my playstyle and what I want to be doing in Modern right now, but I could see myself changing literally any card in the deck given the right conditions.
My original interest in UW Blink came out of a simple desire: to determine if Spell Queller was playable in Modern. I wanted to build a deck that worked to take full advantage of the strengths of Spell Queller without directly relying on the card in a “build-around-me” sense. With this in mind, I chose to build a UW Tempo/Flash style archetype that could use Spell Queller as a reactive source of disruption just as easily as it could use it as a simple 2/3 flyer for 3. Such an archetype would be interested primarily in dealing damage and creating inefficiencies for our opponent, either in their sequencing, mana, or post-board configuration.
I chose to start with a base two-color build to determine if the core (blue-white at this point, the two colors that we need to cast Spell Queller) contained enough power to compete in the format without relying on complicated synergies. Instead of a Taxes approach that uses cards like Leonin Arbiter and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, I chose to focus instead on a strong engine of spells that are individually powerful on rate alone, yet have synergistic value when paired together.
Calling back to my Colors of Modern series, I knew that the power of blue and white lies primarily in their spells, and not their creatures. Leonin Arbiter and Aven Mindcensor have synergy with Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter, but I’d rather pass on the situational creatures and just play good spells. This clashes slightly with Spell Queller and my desire to be aggressive, which necessitates attacking with creatures. Luckily, blue and white offer enough strong creatures that a mix can be achieved without dipping into sub-par options.
Once I dodged the poor creatures trap so many others fell into, my next goal was to ensure the reactive elements of my deck played along nicely with the aggressive half. Spell Queller rides that line nicely thanks to flash, which allows me to disrupt if necessary and deploy threats if our opponent refuses to play along. You can probably guess where this is going, so the second card that made the cut became Snapcaster Mage, and the third card became Aether Vial.
I’m not an Aether Vial deck. I’m not a Snapcaster Mage deck. I’m a reactive blue-white deck interested in playing good spells, disrupting my opponent and getting in damage when possible. Aether Vial lets me deploy threats without spending mana, and allows for Flickerwisp/Spell Queller tricks faster. Snapcaster Mage lets me get more mileage out of Path to Exile, Serum Visions, and sideboard spells, and I cast it as Ambush Viper just as often as I hold it for value.
While not necessary, playing counterspells alongside Spell Queller does make our Spell Queller better, as we’re more likely to be able to keep whatever it takes exiled. Remember my earlier point about making the opponent play my game? If I can push my opponent into a post-board configuration where they are diluting their threat-base by bringing in (or keeping in) removal for my creatures, they play right into my threat-dense, efficient-answer strategy. When you can craft the gamestate to a point where your opponent is running removal headfirst into Flickerwisp and Restoration Angel, you’ve won not only the game, but the moral victory of really pissing off your opponent. Tricks are fun, and there’s nothing better than this play:
Opponent: Attempt to cast Liliana of the Veil again, for free.
Opponent: Flip Table.
While all these tricks are nice, plan A is kill our opponent, and flashy 3/x flyers are great for racing and making math hard. Alongside Wall of Omens clogging up the ground, even a Flickerwisp plus a Spell Queller is a four-turn clock, and can be very dangerous backed up by tricks and protection. I’ve found that in the early turns we might look to our opponent like a do-nothing Wall of Omens durdle deck that they can just deploy threats against at ease. By the time they realize they need to kill our flying creatures quickly, we’re already in a position to blink away their removal (or have just drawn into more threats with Wall) and threatening to win the game in a few turns.
As hardly anyone is playing flying in Modern anymore, our opponents are torn between trying to kill our flyers or blow up our Wall of Omens to race on the ground. Unfortunately for them, both of those options are horrible against our entire deck. Really, any player with experience playing Flickerwisp knows how awesome it is to put our opponent in a position to run right into our Flickerwisp with their removal, and Spell Queller does just that. I’ve never felt so in control over the pace of a game (with a deck filled with 20+ creatures, no less!) than I have playing this list.
Matchups at a Glance
While I intend on soon writing a dedicated primer for the archetype analyzing matchups across the board, for now I just wanted to make a few points that might not be immediately apparent when looking at the list.
First up is the fact that Wall of Omens blanks a large percentage of the format. Most decks in Modern simply have a bunch of trouble with an 0/4. Death's Shadow Zoo needs a Mutagenic Growth or combo pieces just to get through. Burn’s best case scenario involves Searing Blaze, when they would much rather be playing an Eidolon of the Great Revel or another threat on turn two. Merfolk needs a large board to get to 4/4 and above, and while they do have islandwalk, we actually don’t play many islands at all. Just blocking a Matter Reshaper or Eldrazi Displacer lets us focus our Flickerwisp and other tricks on slowing down Reality Smasher and racing in the air. In every matchup so far, Wall of Omens has either been solidly great, or has overperformed immensely.
I spent most of this article talking about removal-light decks, but kind of skated over grindy decks like Jund Midrange and Jeskai Control. I wasn’t dodging these bad matchups in the hopes that you wouldn’t notice---in fact, these matchups are so good that I’m actively excited every time my opponent goes Overgrown Tomb, Inquisition of Kozilek. So far, I’m 4-0 against Jund, and 8-1 in games in those matches.
Wall of Omens stops their early aggression and gives us Liliana of the Veil protection, and if we get to blink it even once we’re pulling ahead. With Snapcaster Mage flashing back Path to Exile and Condemn, and extra Ancestral Visions out of the board, we have access to a lot of card advantage to fight through their disruption. Blinking out of the way of a Lightning Bolt doesn’t sound game-breaking, but every match against Jund I’ve looked across the table in the midgame to find them with three cards in hand while we still have a full grip. If you want to beat Jund, badly, this is the deck for you.
Jeskai Nahiri is, somehow, even easier. They have few ways to apply pressure outside of Nahiri, the Harbinger, which gives us more than enough time to grind them out. Wall of Omens is, again, way better than how it should be against a deck with few attacking creatures. Most of the time Jeskai is letting Wall of Omens resolve, which gives us a free card to replace it. With Aether Vial, we then just have to flash in a Flickerwisp to net another card, unless they choose to Path to Exile our Wall (which has yet to happen, as they now have a Flickerwisp to worry about). Our gameplan becomes “blink Wall as much as possible” while our opponent starts to fall further and further behind.
Really, their only way to catch up is with an unanswered Nahiri or a bunch of Snapcaster Mage value, which is why I actually am considering Rest in Peace for the matchup. Usually, Rest in Peace is a poor option against a card advantage archetype like Jeskai, but when Snapcaster Mage is literally their only option to keep up with us, it ends up being worth it. When you can fight through a turn one Ancestral Vision, you know there’s something here.
Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about Burn. Burn has been pretty underrepresented online (for a few reasons) which has allowed bad matchups like Death's Shadow Zoo to flourish. We’re at a point now where players are starting to pick Burn back up, and this deck crushes Burn.
We might seem a little too slow and durdly to claim a good matchup, but you have to look at what our cards do here, especially Spell Queller. Kitchen Finks gains life, and we have eight ways to blink it. We take barely any damage from our lands. Ojutai's Command is a powerhouse. Spell Queller might look poor against a deck full of damage-based removal, but once you see that it’s at worse a three-mana “gain 3” its value becomes apparent. I’ve even cast Condemn on my own Restoration Angel to gain four in a pinch. I have yet to lose against Burn.
The above list is only a first draft of what I’m convinced will eventually become a steadfast archetype in Modern. It might end up looking nothing like the above list, but I can confidently say that Spell Queller will make an impact of some sort in the metagame. If Spell Queller is good, then it follows that Tidehollow Sculler is good as well. It’s possible that the archetype might grow to involve black, which will give us Sculler, discard, and possibly a few other options.
The Eldrazi Displacer has overperformed for me every time I’ve cast it, but I don’t intend on adding Eldrazi Temple anytime soon. Ojutai's Command is probably the worst card in the list currently, but returning Wall of Omens and countering a Thought-Knot Seer just feels so good. I could see myself moving away from Snapcaster Mage and adding in more creatures and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, but I’ve been enjoying navigating the complicated lines that this style of the archetype presents.
Adding green for Tarmogoyf would give us a hard-hitting two-drop to push the tempo aspects of the archetype, and tutoring up Spell Queller with the hot Traverse the Ulvenwald sounds pretty fun as well. For now, I’m sticking to blue-white, but my eyes and ears are open.
If you’re interested in learning more about the deck, stop by my stream and join in on the discussion. Possibly I’ll give a more in-depth primer next week when I’ve hopefully finalized the list and have some more data to analyze. Thanks for reading, and good luck!
The_Architect on MTGO