By Dom Harvey
We all saw the Eye of Ugin ban coming; most of us were dancing on its grave long before the announcement came. Almost nobody expected what came with it: the introduction of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek into Modern. Both were fixtures of the Extended format that most resembled Modern and were banned from the start to stop them defining the new format in the same way. As so many cards came on and off the ban list their continued exile became hard to justify, but even those of us who thought they were safe didn’t expect this to happen now. These are exciting times!
One reason these unbans are so promising is that Vision and Sword both demand careful deck construction. You can’t just throw them into an existing deck and expect them to perform well. Additionally, their presence in the format is likely to have far-reaching implications that should inform your deck and card choices. I want to talk about what those might be and highlight some of the common pitfalls that people are already walking into.
Blue decks in Modern have waited so long for a strong, reliable draw engine; between Ancestral Vision and the boost Thopter Foundry gives to Thirst for Knowledge, two may have arrived at once. In particular, Ancestral Vision gives hope to traditional control decks like Jeskai and Grixis that are very popular with a large segment of the player base. This is the best gift they have received in quite some time.
It’s not all good news. All the reasons people cited for Vision being safe to unban still apply. It’s the ideal poster-child for the ‘Turn 4 format’ in a sea of decks that do their best to shun that label. Vision mocks you from exile as Burn or Affinity bash your brains in or Storm and Goryo’s Vengeance sit there pleasuring themselves. In a lot of matchups and situations, Vision is a $50 blank card.
It’s also not the panacea for what ails blue decks in Modern. Your Esper Mentor deck or ‘Sultai Control brew’ was bad before and it’s bad now no matter how many copies of Ancestral Vision you ‘jam’ in there. Vision is likely to exacerbate any consistency issues your deck already has.
This may sound like a hatchet job. I’ll state upfront that Ancestral Vision is a strong card that will probably have a lasting impact on Modern, but focusing on its flaws is a good way to show how and why it works when it does.
Ancestral Vision makes you a promise: “I’ll worry about card advantage, you just buy me time to do what I need to do”. It gives you enough strength in the mid- to late-game that you can and should play more cheap one-for-one answers that prolong the game; you can even afford to trade cards at a disadvantage knowing that Vision will bring you back to parity. This strategy is only sound if the payoff is real: drawing three cards must reliably translate into a tighter hold on the game. This is less likely if your deck is full of situational cards that don’t maintain their value at each stage of the game. It’s no use setting your deck up to survive until a Vision if you draw a redundant land, a Spell Snare with no targets, and a removal spell that’s poorly suited for the matchup. The same principle applies to Vision itself: unless the game goes very long, each extra copy that you draw off the first Vision is dead. The card is self-defeating in that regard.
Think back to the card draw spells that defined Constructed formats. A crucial aspect most of them shared is that you could compound the advantage they generated by chaining them into further copies of themselves. Fact or Fiction revealing another Fact or Fiction was always a nightmare, a small Sphinx’s Revelation gave you enough life and cards to set up a larger Revelation, and it was disturbingly easy to cast back-to-back Treasure Cruises. Interestingly, Dig Through Time was reasonable in Standard despite being completely busted because the cardpool didn’t let it conform to that model; you could put the UB Control decks of THS-KTK Standard in an awkward position by just not letting them use their Hero’s Downfalls and Dissolves so that they couldn’t cast their first Dig, and if they did resolve one Dig it was now that much harder to cast the second. The nature of the card makes it hard to chain copies of Ancestral Vision; there will be games where you suspend it on Turn 1 and Turn 2 and bury the opponent in card advantage, but more often you’ll draw the second one on Turn 4 and wish it was anything else.
Vision also places heavy demands on your manabase. You need enough untapped blue sources to suspend it on Turn 1, so it clashes with control mainstays like Celestial Colonnade or Creeping Tar Pit. If you run too many lands it’s easy for Vision to hit a pocket of land and accomplish nothing, but Vision can’t help you hit your land drops early so you can’t afford to shave lands. A common scenario in the Mono-U Faeries days was that a player would suspend Ancestral Vision, miss an early land drop and fumble, and then make poor use of the extra cards from Vision because they didn’t have enough mana or time. You can rely on other cards like Serum Visions (PSA: Serum Visions, Ancestral Vision) to smooth out your draws, but your deck quickly becomes full of air. It’s unwise to rely on just Ancestral Vision as your draw engine, but it doesn’t leave you room to play much else.
This is a big part of why Vision doesn’t work nicely with the other incentives to play blue in Modern. Snapcaster and Jace both want you to play lots of cheap cards. On the surface that’s fine because you want to unload your hand quickly after Vision resolves, but if the cheap cards you draw are more Serum Visions and Thought Scours you’re just spinning your wheels. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile are close to universal answers in Modern, which is what makes them so good, but Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are highly time-sensitive. Snapcaster and Jace are so much better when they can rebuy your card draw spells, for the reasons given above – think how great they would be with Fact or Fiction! The lack of synergy with Ancestral Vision is a big deal. Vision also doesn’t contribute towards Delve or Prowess immediately, and isn’t great with Thirst for Knowledge either. This is good for the format – rather than having every blue deck start with 4 Ancestral Vision, it’s great if there’s a Snapcaster-Jace deck based on cheap cantrips, a Thirst for Knowledge deck, a Vision deck, and so on – but bad for Ancestral Vision’s chances.
At its core, the suspend mechanic rests on the idea of trading time for mana. Vision directly introduces cards as another variable in that equation. When Vision is good, it’s because other tools exist to convert one of these resources into another. In Extended, Chrome Mox let you cash in a useless Spell Snare – or a second copy of Vision – for the mana to drop your relevant cards quickly enough. From another perspective, Vision gave you the cards that let you justify running Chrome Mox, which was important in keeping pace with the rest of the format. A good way to beat control decks relying on Vision is to choke off their access to one of those resources: sequence your spells wisely to stop them using their mana efficiently, find a way to make the extra cards not matter by playing threats that their interaction doesn’t line up well against, or put them under enough pressure that they can’t afford to spend their time poorly.
When you suspend Ancestral Vision, you’re announcing that a major event will take place in four turns and daring your opponent to be ready. This public information gives a strong incentive for the opponent to finish the game – or at least establish a winning position – before Vision can resolve and give you more options. As a result, sweepers work very well with Vision as you punish them for committing too much to the board. A brutally effective tactic in control decks is to force your opponent to choose which powerful mid-game cards to play around when the right approach for dealing with one is bad against the other. In Standard and RTR Block, aggro decks were pinned between Jace, Architect of Thought and Supreme Verdict: if you held back creatures in fear of Verdict, Jace would come down and halt your offence; if you played out enough creatures to pressure Jace, you might be walking into Verdict. Vision lets you recreate that, although the knowledge that Vision is coming changes the dynamic a little.
Vision warps the pacing of control mirrors in the same way. Unless one player stumbles and their opponent senses weakness, control mirrors often see both players doing nothing for a long time until someone decides they are ready to pick a fight. Vision changes that by scheduling that fight in advance: a showdown will take place in my upkeep four turns from now, whether you like it or not – and whether I like it or not! I’ll use the Mono-U Faeries deck as an example again, since mirrors were often decided one way or the other by Ancestral Vision. The main effect Vision had was to force plays to ‘cluster’ around a specific turn. If I have Ancestral Vision coming off suspend in a few turns, I don’t want to run my Vendilion Clique into Mana Leak now; I want to do it when my Vision is about to be cast, tying up their mana or taking away one of their answers. Ancestral Vision forces this fight to happen during your turn, and before you can make your land drop, forcing you to defend it when you’re least willing and able to. With the Faeries deck linked above, the mirror often come down to expensive sorcery-speed sideboard cards; for anyone familiar with the concept of Faeries, this sounds like the worst plan you could have! It worked in part because Vision forced a commitment on their upkeep: you could harass their Vision with Remand/Mana Leak or Spellstutter Sprite and make them tap low to fight over it, opening a window to resolve a threat on your turn. Additionally, Faeries didn’t have much cheap countermagic that could hit everything, so if you couldn’t cast Cryptic Command the opponent could eventually force something through; blue decks in Modern have the same profile, relying on Cryptic Command as a universal answer or eschewing it altogether. In Faeries, this threat changed over time – Vedalken Shackles, Glen Elendra Archmage, and eventually Future Sight – and we could see Keranos or a similar card fill this role in Modern.
This dynamic is mainly in play in blue mirrors, but it informs how you want to build your deck with Vision in mind. Most of the objections to Vision that I’ve outlined above rest on the opponent’s ability to wrest control of the pacing of the game away from you. If you can get out in front and force your opponent to react to you while Vision is ticking down, you will close the game with a threat a decent amount of the time without losing mid-game superiority thanks to Vision. This is what made the card so strong in Standard Faeries: the whole deck was designed to force the opponent to play on its terms, and the looming threat of Vision removed their ability to adjust properly. I’m not convinced that Faeries improves enough with Vision to be playable in Modern, but the principle is sound. Delver of Secrets, Young Pyromancer, Thing in the Ice, and other cards that require setup are poorly suited to this because you don’t want to draw them off Vision, but Tarmogoyf is perfect; Geist of Saint Traft might see a resurgence for the same reason.
If Vision does end up defining blue decks and Thopter Foundry becomes a Modern staple, what are the implications for the format at large? Remand is already somewhat popular in Modern and a good way to trump Vision and win counter wars in general, so decks that naturally want to run Remand are happy. If Remand becomes important in mirrors, Spell Snare starts to look a lot better; it’s also handy against specific problem cards in most matchups – Eidolon of the Great Revel, Arcbound Ravager/Cranial Plating, Voice of Resurgence – and crucial against Thopter Foundry. It’s unfortunate that both Snare and Remand are awkward draws mid-game, so if your blue decks become inbred to win Vision fights your overall deck quality becomes worse, but these are the sacrifices you make.
The big loser overall from these changes is Affinity: everyone will pack heavy-duty artifact hate for Thopter/Sword, and one of your best matchups in Burn might be less popular in the short term. Meanwhile, Merfolk is already salivating at the idea of slow blue decks becoming popular, can attack through Thopter/Sword in a way that aggro decks can’t, and would love to see Affinity fall back.
For Burn and Infect, the other members of the aggro trifecta that was popular at the Pro Tour, this may well be good news. If Jeskai becomes more popular thanks to Vision, both decks are in for a rough time, but if Vision-based blue decks are edged out by Thopter/Sword, Infect will be ready to pounce. The Thopter/Sword combo is obviously good against Burn if you can get it going, but if your early game is T2 Sword T3 Foundry you might just be dead to one of their better draws. If your white deck wants to hate out Burn, it can; just don’t write off the matchup as an easy win.
Jund and Abzan have capitalized in a big way on blue’s lack of a good draw engine; it’s no coincidence that BGx all but vanished during the Treasure Cruise era. Now that this is changing, they will have to pay proper attention to those matchups. I’ve seen lots of Jund players complacent about Thopter/Sword because of Abrupt Decay, Kolaghan’s Command, and Scavenging Ooze, but this displays an ignorance of how the combo works in practice. As long as they have another artifact lying around, which isn’t hard if they build their deck with that in mind, they can sacrifice that to Foundry in response to your removal and continue sinking their mana into the combo. The early turns will be spent trading, as normal, and eventually they will play Foundry with a few lands open; you can kill it, but they get to effectively cast Lingering Souls – one of the best cards against Jund – on the way out. These decks run Academy Ruins, which gives them a level of late game power that you can’t compete with – Gerry Thompson’s initial list runs 2 Ruins and a Tolaria West to fetch it. It’s also worth noting that none of the obvious responses to Thopter/Sword are good against, say, Baneslayer Angel, which UW Thopter decks have ‘transformed’ into post-board with some success in the past; the same goes for Gideon Jura or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas if that’s a thing. Again, the tools exist to beat this new breed of blue deck, but you have to play them and draw them and use them effectively. Hand-waving and reciting the text of Abrupt Decay is no substitute for good deckbuilding.
If Burn and Infect end up suffering alongside Affinity, the format stands to slow down. This might create an opening for decks like Scapeshift that are slower than dedicated combo but more resilient against blue. Ad Nauseam loves to see blue decks and hates to see Jund, but I’m not sure if the deck is structurally sound enough to be a good choice.
Abzan Company was good pre-Eldrazi, great against Eldrazi, and will still be solid post-Eldrazi. You can out-grind the midrange decks without caring about Thopter/Sword and you can still claim a good matchup against the faster decks. It doesn’t hurt that RG Tron got significantly weaker. One concern is that Jund and Grixis will start sideboarding Leyline of the Void to fight Thopter/Sword, but it will take some time for people to adjust properly.
More generally, there may be an opening for faster combo decks that were held down by Twin. I’ve seen Thopter/Sword compared to Twin as a package that blue decks can play without much commitment to add a new dimension, but the key difference is that Twin acted as a safety valve against random stuff that you couldn’t prepare for: your answers may not line up well against their threats, but you can sometimes just win on Turn 4 and that puts a floor on how bad any matchup can be. The threat of Twin forced opponents to try to win the game quickly and, in doing so, walk into Twin’s interactive cards. Thopter/Sword doesn’t end the game out of nowhere, so you can gauge how much time you have, and you can afford to play around the cards supporting it because it doesn’t put you under that much pressure.
My hope is that, when the dust settles, the metagame we see will be more balanced and interesting than it was before. There are two main approaches to deck selection in Modern – pick whichever linear deck is off the radar or well-positioned at that moment, or play what you know with adequate preparation for the linear decks you do expect to show up – and both are still worth following even as the format continues to change.
Thanks for reading!