In his assessment of the latest spoilers, David commended Throne of Eldraine for bringing the brewing fun back to Modern with its innovative, flavorful design. Restrictions breed creativity, they say, and I agree that after the format-crushing power of Modern Horizons, it's refreshing to have a Standard-power-level set to tinker with.
Today's article focuses on one such restriction-based creature: Vantress Gargoyle. A lover of undercosted beaters and cantrip-heavy aggro decks, I've long had an eye on Jace's Phantasm, for which the stars have never aligned. With Gargoyle in the picture, brewing with Phantasm turns from pipe dream to possibly doable—we may now have enough payoffs to justify running the necessary enablers.
Animating the Gargoyle
On their surface, Phantasm and Gargoyle are as good as opponents make them. Against decks like Dredge and Phoenix, opponents grow the creatures for us; other strategies will require us to do the heavy lifting. A deck featuring them as primary win conditions must then have the ability to execute such a task reliably, but nonetheless not clog on pieces once "reverse-threshold" is achieved.
Maximizing Phantasm, or Gargoyle, is a simple as resolving a single Archive Trap—or Glimpse the Unthinkable, or whatever. In other words, pilots will need to hemorrhage a card, and a specific one. They'll also need to expend however much mana that spell costs.
So are these creatures worth it? In "Beat This: Evaluating One-Mana Beaters," I established a metric to answer this sort of question. Jace's Phantasm is a Stage 1 combat creature that requires a unique resource: cards in opponents' graveyards. Since getting cards into enemy yards may well require mana (Thought Scour) or card economy (Archive Trap), these spent resources also enter the equation. Gargoyle follows suit, except it's more of a Stage 2 creature thanks to its cost, but is better on defense before we've met its condition.
With eight creatures in the deck and not four, running enablers en masse at least makes sense. The best one is certainly Archive Trap, which is frequently live for its alternate cost of 0 mana thanks to Modern's fetch-centric manabases. Not costing anything to cast lets us spend mana on actual spells, so all we're losing is the card economy, which isn't such a big deal in this tempo-focused format.
Another promising enabler is Thought Scour. While it doesn't immediately activate our beaters like Glimpse, Scour critically costs half as much and replaces itself, preventing clog. If opponents are putting cards into their own graveyards, which they often are regardless of the deck, Scour helps hit that magic number so we can start applying serious pressure. Just as players are comfortable running Scour to power out Tasigur, the Golden Fang and other grave-reliant creatures, we can point it at opponents to build our own threats—Scour doesn't count itself in this instance, though, and these creatures have tougher requirements than the delve ones.
When it comes to incremental millers like Scour, every card matters, giving Vantress Gargoyle the advantage over Phantasm early on. Gargoyle also blocks creatures before we meet its graveyard condition. But Phantasm still costs just one mana, has an additional point of toughness, and isn't an artifact, making it preferable in pretty much any game state where opponents have a heavy graveyard.
Version 1: Mono Blue
In truth, the first build I put together splashed red for Lightning Bolt, a tempo deck's best friend. But I fast found the instant to be superfluous; 5-power fliers don't really nickle-and-dime opponents, they just kill them. And it's not like we need to clear the ground for Phantasm and Vantress to get their hits in. As cheap interaction, I chose Force of Negation and Disrupting Shoal. These free spells let us spend mana sculpting a gameplan, protect our threats for a couple crucial beatdown turns, destabilize opponents while we attack them, and rid our hand of additional enablers.
Removing Bolt made Snapcaster Mage less appealing, although I did like it alongside Thought Scour. But I soon swapped out the 2/1 for Mission Briefing. While Briefing lacks the tempo bonuses Snap brings to the table, it can retrieve a larger number of spells, since not using the flashback keyword forgives alternate casting costs. Archive Trap, Force of Negation, and Disrupting Shoal can all be cast for free from the grave with Briefing. Surveil also helps us piece together a gameplan.
I still felt the need for more threats in the first version, so took a page out of the Bennyhillz Book of Beaters with Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror. Straight blue lacks board interaction, and Thing keeps creatures at bay all while attacking opponents from an angle not reliant on the graveyard. Thing required a heavy suite of cantrips, leading to the inclusions of Opt and Serum Visions alongside Thought Scour. Also featured is Visions of Beyond, another way to turn extra enablers into relevant spells and a bonkers mid- to late-game card with a fine floor.
The final mainboard inclusion was Ghost Quarter. Quarter doesn't really cast any of our spells, so I didn't count it as a land. Rather, its purpose is to turn on Archive Trap against decks that don't run fetchlands.
Out of the sideboard, Vedalken Shackles and Vendilion Clique served as extra plans. I did win a fair number of games with Shackles, but opponents would bring in artifact removal anyway after seeing Vantress Gargoyle, so this plan ended up being hit-or-miss.
As for the mainboard, it had its fair share of problems, chief among them consistency. When things went according to plan, the deck felt unbeatable, as with turn one Phantasm into Trap into Vantress into Force of Negation. But success hinged on whether we could resolve Archive Trap early or not. In lieu of the titular instant, Thought Scour just didn't mill enough cards unless opponents were feeding graveyard synergies themselves. (It did, however, often combine with Trap to put opponents over the 20-card threshold for Visions of Beyond by the mid-game.)
I went so far as to try Serum Powder to locate Archive Trap more reliably, but Powder requires decks to play far more lands, as it necessitates pilots to be comfortable going to 5 or less looking for their dream card. Since Trap isn't a land, finding that card alongside a land or two and some payoffs was too much to ask of my mulligans. Powder also clashed with Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, which prefers blue consistency tools.
And when I'd open or draw Archive Trap naturally, it still wouldn't fire 100% of the time. If opponents wouldn't search their libraries, I had no way of casting it. That's where Ghost Quarter comes into play, except Quarter was so bad the rest of the time its inclusion was hardly worthwhile; I started with 4 copies and finally had to trim to 2 and just kind of hope opponents fetched. When I had the "combo," spending a land drop and going -1 to turn on Trap felt awful. I needed another way to force opponents to search.
In any case, other niche options for increasing Trap's functional numbers included the pricey Trapmaker's Snare and the Shoal-unfriendly Chancellor of the Spires. But I didn't have a chance to test these cards, as one was spoiled that deeply altered the deck's course.
Version 2: Blue-Black
That card was Drown in the Loch. Drown could act as removal or permission, giving it utility in every matchup on top of its clear synergy with our Plan A. Having a card that so dependably slowed the game's pace increased consistency in its own rite, since the longer the game goes on, the more cards hit the bin to feed our creatures. But dipping into black at all provided me with another missing link.
Unlike the blue cantrips, Scheming Symmetry is a pure tutor, letting us pull Archive Trap right out of the deck. With any blue cantrip in hand, Symmetry is essentially a modal Glimpse the Unthinkable: we pay B for Symmetry and go -1 on card economy, putting Trap on top of the deck; pay U for our cantrip, drawing the Trap; then pay 0 for Trap since we've forced a search this turn, milling 13 of our opponent's cards. And Symmetry only improves the more options we have. Should we draw the tutor alongside Trap, we can just put whatever card we most want on top and Trap opponents off their own choice. Similarly, Thought Scour interacts favorably with Symmetry, milling the opponent's card while immediately drawing us our own. An active Gargoyle can also tap to remove an opponent's searched-up card after we've drawn our own.
Mission Briefing and Archive Trap had provided a makeshift mill plan in the mono-blue deck, but with more reliable Traps and tutoring functionality, UB is better at achieving that plan should we need to. We therefore have more ways to close, as well as more removal thanks to Drown; these changes rendered Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror superfluous.
A couple of newer tech choices are Mystic Sanctuary (spoiled yesterday) and Temporal Mastery. Mastery can be searched up with Symmetry when we plan on not drawing the card this turn, such as to Trap opponents immediately. It's a great find when we've got a beater in play, as it significantly increases our clock. It can also be cast with an instant-speed cantrip on our opponent's turn.
But milling Mastery with Scour or Briefing is usually preferable to having it in the deck, where it can be accidentally drawn by something like either Visions (far from the end of the world thanks to Force of Negation, but still not ideal). With Mastery in the grave, though, we can crack a fetch for Sanctuary and put it right back on top of the deck. Doing so lets us set up and execute an attack even from an empty board position (first turn deploy threat, second turn swing), or double up on hits (turning one creature into 10 damage, or a pair of them into 20!).
The land can also be used to get back the best instant in the graveyard at a given time. That's sometimes Drown in the Loch or Force of Negation, both of which protect us from enemy topdecks; more often, it's Visions of Beyond, which chains into other copies of itself as did Treasure Cruise. Because of Sanctuary's Island requirement, I went from 4 to 2 to 0 Darkslick Shores.
Touching again on the sideboard, black opens up Fatal Push, a critical tool for disrupting small creature strategies. I added Fumble after struggling to deal with Batterskull; the card is a bullet to search with Symmetry, and seems to me like the best option for quickly dismantling the lifelinker.
Proceed with Caution
Drown was only just spoiled this week, so things are still up in the air. This weekend, I'll be testing a UB build that runs Chancellor in addition to Trap to turbo out threats, and when I do, Mission Briefing will be the first cut. The prospect of Chancellor and Trap doubling up in openers to immediately turn on Beyond is very alluring, and those extra draws make up for the functional disadvantage of drawing 7-drops late, especially with Negation in the picture.
I'm excited to see what other goodies Throne holds. Overwhelmed Apprentice and Merfolk Secretkeeper // Venture Deeper kind of miss the mark for this deck, but the intent is there. Still, I doubt we'll get payoffs on the level of Gargoyle or Drown, the latter of which looks to be a playable Modern card even in non-mill decks, as does Sanctuary. But hey, I'll take more all-around Modern playables, too!