By: Dom Harvey
Blue-based Urzatron decks have been fan favourites in Standard and Extended for years now, putting up many pilots into GP and PT Top 8s. They also made their voices heard in Modern, where UW’s most high-profile finish came in the hands of LSV and Gerry Thompson at Grand Prix Lincoln eons ago:
As Jund became dominant and decks like Robots and RG Tron rose up as answers, UW Tron was regretfully edged out of the format. However, with Modern shaken up by the bannings, things have changed in a way that’s favourable to UW Tron; and interest in the deck was rekindled when Reid Duke sleeved it up at GP Richmond:
Why play UW Tron?
- It’s powerful. In a format as varied and unforgiving as Modern, you need to have a strong, proactive plan; UWR Control is a good deck, but you don’t want to be grinding out small edges all day unless you’re much more skilled than your opponents. I’d much rather force my opponents to be scared, and UW Tron does that well – you ‘earn’ a ton of free wins with T3 Gifts Ungiven or early Tron.
- It’s fun! You get rewarded for tight play if that’s your thing – between lands that enter tapped, Tron pieces, X-spells, cards that vary in strength throughout the game, and tutors, the deck forces a lot of important decisions on you – but you also have insane Tron-fueled turns that satisfy a more primal urge.
- Many people aren’t used to playing against it, so they sequence their cards poorly and value them incorrectly. With Unburial Rites in the mix, Gifts Ungiven rarely gives them a choice anymore, but when it does you see a lot of questionable splits.
- It’s as well-positioned as it’s ever been (‘not very’, I hear you cry). Jund was always a dicey matchup, and that was before they sideboarded Fulminator Mage; the Wrapter-style BG lists with DRS, Scavenging Ooze and quad Tectonic Edge were basically impossible to beat. Zoo is a much easier litmus test to pass, and UW Tron is one of the few decks that can claim a good Pod matchup.
- It’s cheap! In a world of $80+ fetchlands, many players are priced out of Modern; and when it comes to budget decks, people grimace at the thought of Burn or Soul Sisters (which both need fetchland-powered splashes to be optimized anyway). UW Tron is that rare animal: a blue control deck that doesn’t need fetchlands! The deck clocks in at a very reasonable price for any format, and is one of the cheapest decks in Modern.
The most important thing to understand about UW Tron is that it’s not a dedicated ‘Tron deck’. The Urza lands certainly inform your card choices – bread-and-butter UW Control decks aren’t casting Mindslaver – but assembling Tron isn’t always your first priority. The question that’s always asked (“Why play this over RG Tron?”) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of both decks. RG Tron wants to Tron up as fast as possible every game and must do so to win; UW Tron is a control deck that abruptly changes its gameplan if and when it gets Tron online. The deck is configured with Tron in mind – note Remand and Condescend to dig for missing pieces over the more conventional Mana Leak, or the sacrifices made to accommodate all these colourless lands – but this isn’t its singular focus.
It’s worth looking at how individual card choices further that strategy.
Celestial Colonnade: The deck isn’t busy on the first turn and needs good UW dual lands, so Colonnade is basically free. In Jund’s heyday its primary function was shooting down Liliana, but that’s less of a concern now; and the deck doesn’t rely on it to win as UWR does. As such, I don’t think it’s an automatic part of the deck any more, not least since we have:
Temple of Enlightenment: People are looking for excuses to play Temples in Modern, and this deck is a good home for them. Colonnade is better in the late game and in many board states, but the deck already has the best late game in the format; Temple gives some much-needed help early. One-land hands with Colonnade are auto-mulls, but replace it with Temple and you have a serious decision. In a deck with many matchup-dependent cards and that’s often looking for something specific, Temple is a natural fit.
Tolaria West: Largely a relic of the past given the other options, this card shows up as a 1-of for Gifts piles and the 5th Expedition Map. Having virtual copies of Tormod’s Crypt, Chalice of the Void, Engineered Explosives, or Pact of Negation is useful if you run them (Map -> West -> Pact can be a common line against control or combo).
Seachrome Coast: You want at least one as a pain-free untapped dual to Map for; beyond that, I find it worse than Hallowed Fountain most of the time. Having your second coloured source enter tapped is the difference between winning and losing far too often.
Fetchlands: Despite what I said above, fetchlands can perform a useful role here. They let you fetch a basic to play around Blood Moon, and in conjunction with Hallowed Fountain you can regulate your life total to turn on Timely Reinforcements.
Expedition Map: At first glance this is an easy 4-of, but there are real concerns about space. Signets are mandatory, you need enough actual lands that you’re not relying on Maps to make your land drops, and you need enough coloured sources that you’re not forced to mulligan or put all your hopes on a Signet resolving; and yet you increase the risk of flooding with every Map or land you add. You can address this by giving your Maps a secondary function as spells as described below; but, as the lists above show, this is enough of an issue to make the Map count an open question. Reid played two, opting for 25 actual lands; Luis played 3; Gerry Thompson argued vigorously for 4.
Personally, I’d rather err on the side of having too many Maps; it’s possible that playing fewer than 4 is just a mistake.
Gifts Ungiven + Unburial Rites: This interaction pushes the deck from fringe FNM choice to serious contender. It racks up a shocking number of free wins, and offers an angle of attack that shrugs off nonbasic land hate and most other tactics used against Tron decks. Elesh Norn is a mandatory target, and Iona is both your best target against many decks and your catch-all answer to random things. Terastodon was necessary in the days of RG Tron, but now Sundering Titan subs in as the ideal target against Zoo/Scapeshift/UWR.
Remand/Condescend: Your first line of defence against combo and valuable ways of seeing cards early. Remand is better when you want to play another spell in the same turn, but Condescend is a permanent answer to the most troubling cards for the deck – Liliana, Geist of Saint Traft, Deceiver Exarch, Vendilion Clique, Birthing Pod, and many more – and seeing the extra card with Scry tips the balance in its favour. Reid made the interesting move of sideboarding 2 Remand, noting that the card was much better on the play; in many matchups you either want the counterspells or you don’t, but against decks like Jund their usefulness is largely determined by the die roll.
Repeal/Oblivion Ring/Detention Sphere: You need some number of versatile answers to handle things like Liliana, Birthing Pod, Stony Silence, and other things that can’t simply be swatted away with a Path.
Day of Judgment/Wrath of God(/Supreme Verdict): I never liked MD Wrath effects, but their stock has risen in a format defined by Pod, Affinity, and Zoo. That said, against Zoo I would generally prefer cheaper removal and Pod has a lot of cards that survive through or frustrate Wraths, so I only really want them against Affinity. That matchup is shaky enough that it might be worth it, but I’d rather have a sleeker maindeck and overcompensate in the sideboard. Supreme Verdict is not a realistic card if you actually want to cast it on turn 4, so if you want to Gifts for three Wraths I’d play Noxious Revival or Hallowed Burial. Consider Oblivion Stone as an all-purpose colourless sweeper that’s fine against Twin and is a lock with Academy Ruins.
Timely Reinforcements: Another card with a broader remit than you might think. Everyone knows how strong this card is against Zoo (though less so with Ghor-Clan Rampager in the picture), but it sounds bizarre to say it’s good against UWR Control; yet, although it’s on the cutting block when you sideboard, it has a unique duty in game 1. Your deck is well set up against UWR if the game goes long, so their best hope is to be very aggressive with burn and Snapcasters and use their countermagic offensively; Timely stamps on that plan. Likewise, the easiest way for Pod to win if they don’t draw Pod is to flood the board and get you dead as soon as possible; Timely buys you a lot of time against those starts. UW Tron makes the best use of Timely of any deck I’ve seen, and that fact is key to understanding the deck: you’re not a control deck that needs permanent answers to everything, you’re a combo-control deck that wants to keep pace until your lategame cards can take over. The 2W mana cost fits neatly into the deck’s starts – something like T3 Map + Remand with a dual + 2 Tron pieces in play, T4 crack Map for the third Tron piece + play Timely to buy time is common.
Snapcaster Mage/Noxious Revival: These make your non-Unburial Rites Gifts piles much more potent – you can Gifts for SCM/Revival/Tron piece/X to set up Tron, SCM/Revival/Path/Timely against aggro, and so on. If you run Ruins/Mindslaver, SCM/Revival/Ruins/Slaver gets you there immediately. The downside is that both of them can be awkward to draw naturally, but I think that’s overstated. Snapcaster may not be at its best here given the pressure on your coloured mana and the lack of cheap spells, but it’s still solid; and, if you look at UW’s common SB cards, most of them are exactly what you want to replay with Snapcaster – Disenchant, Celestial Purge, Negate. The card is also filthy with Timely Reinforcements, and lets you be more fearless with Gifts against decks with countermagic.
Noxious Revival is not something you put in your deck for any fair purpose, but it does decent work. The card disadvantage doesn’t matter if it furthers your game plan, and I’m happy ‘losing’ a card to rebuy Timely Reinforcements against aggro or a Gifts against discard. It also has some cute but relevant corner-case uses versus Snapcaster, Eternal Witness, Past in Flames, etc.
Eye of Ugin/Emrakul, the Aeons Torn vs. Academy Ruins/Mindslaver: The attraction of Eye is that it adds inevitability and lets Expedition Map do something when you already have Tron; my problem is that Emrakul is a blank card before you have the game locked up, whereas Mindslaver is faster against combo decks and is more likely to do something game 1 against aggro; Ruins also works with possible SB cards like Wurmcoil Engine, Sundering Titan, Spellskite, or Torpor Orb. You could run Eye and Ruins, but then you’ve burnt your open slots; or you could sideboard Emrakul, but even control decks are trying to be more aggressive against you post-board. I prefer making Academy Ruins into a game-ender by having more relevant artifacts to recur (Mindslaver, Sundering Titan, Oblivion Stone), but this also demands quite a few slots. Note that Eye is a spell in disguise, and shouldn’t be counted as a land.
Wurmcoil Engine: When Jund was the deck to beat, you wanted as many copies of this card as possible; now, the aggro decks have Path or are full of fliers. It’s still nice to have against Jund or as a way to increase your range of possible nut draws, but it’s not the auto-include it is in RG Tron.
Karn Liberated: This card is much less brutal here than in the RG Tron deck, where it can come down on turn 3 or 4 with a scary frequency. For us it’s an overpriced Vindicate most of the time, and you should be winning the games where you have fast Tron anyway.
Sphinx’s Revelation: I understand the temptation to play this card – I really do – but when am I supposed to want it? The deck doesn’t need more cheap card draw, and if it did you wouldn’t turn to Revelation given how inefficiently it converts mana to cards. It’s only usable when you have Tron, but then it’s competing with Mindslaver, Eldrazi, Wurmcoil Engine, Sundering Titan, Karn… all of which have a more immediate impact, and none of which demand WUU in a deck with 12+ colourless lands. I can imagine a Tron deck that plays towards Revelation, but it would lean far more heavily on Signets and Talismans than the Urza lands.
Sideboarding usually involves tinkering with the finishers so you have a suitable Rites target and don’t draw irrelevant and expensive cards, but your priority is ensuring you have enough cheap interaction – hence Dismember against creature decks, Celestial Purge against Storm/Jund, countermagic against control/combo, and so on. Your sideboard plans should also anticipate theirs. Most white decks will have Stony Silence, so you could swap out the Mindslaver kill and shave a Map. Torpor Orb is great against Twin but they’re already bringing in Ancient Grudge, so maybe you look at Suppression Field or Ghostly Prison instead. UWR might get more aggressive with Vendilion Cliques, so you don’t want all countermagic and no removal…
Gifts Ungiven makes crafting your sideboard that much trickier – instead of doubling down on your strongest card for the matchup, you have to consider deliberately opting for ‘weaker’ cards to diversify your Gifts piles. Sometimes the loss is negligible – Day of Judgment/Wrath of God – but occasionally the best option is so much better that there’s a real downside. Suppose you want a Gifts pile for Robots. Most of the time Unburial Rites on Elesh Norn will be good enough, so you first have to decide if the failure rate is high enough to warrant another plan. If it is, you look at the likes of Wrath of God and Hurkyl’s Recall; but Recall is so good that playing more copies of it and hoping to draw it naturally might be better.
As for playing the deck, I can’t overstate the importance of careful sequencing. Mapping out the game’s opening turns is a crucial skill for any deck, but especially so for UW Tron. Take an opening hand of Temple of Enlightenment, Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Tower, Expedition Map, Condescend, Gifts Ungiven, Path to Exile. Your instinct might be to lead with Temple, but when are you playing Map? Turn 2 Map means that you can’t Condescend that turn, but you can crack it on 3 and have full Tron on 4; however, if you Condescend on 3 you can’t complete Tron and play Gifts next turn.
Alternatively you can hold up Condescend for their 2-drop and then play Map with 2 mana up on turn 3; but then if they force your Condescend on turn 3 you’re in the same predicament. Starting with Temple also leaves you in the dark for scry; you’re definitely keeping a Power Plant or a Signet, but what about Timely Reinforcements? Future draws can change the flow of the hand – if you pick up a coloured source or an expensive colourless card, you would rather have led with a Tron piece.
Making good Gifts piles is about understanding what your opponent’s scared of. People want to stop you completing Tron, so throwing in the missing Tron piece is a good way of narrowing their options; if that Tron piece is what you’re after, you usually have to put at least 2 ‘copies’ of it in – against Zoo, for instance, Gifts for Path, Timely, [Tron piece], Map generally forces them to give you the latter two and hope you have nothing to ramp into. You can apply the same principle with any card that happens to be good at the time – if you seem to need a Path but already have it in hand, searching for one will secure you access to whatever you actually want. One nice tactic if you know you’ll have Tron is to Gifts for the third Tron piece, an expensive card (such as Elesh Norn or Mindslaver), and two decent spells; they will often try to strand the expensive card by giving it to you and binning the Tron piece, playing right into your hands.
When it comes to breaking up Tron, people automatically gun for Urza’s Tower unless given a reason not to. This is the right play, but one that’s easily exploitable if you have time and mana to spare. If you can assemble Tron already and have a redundant Map, you can Map for the ‘last’ Tron piece and draw out their land destruction with it, letting you recomplete Tron from hand next turn; or if they have something like Spreading Seas that they want to use proactively, you can play a redundant copy of the land as bait (this is especially nice if it’s a Tower).
If you’re setting up Timely Reinforcements, be aware of how the opponent’s life total might change in the window before you play it; a Zoo player cognizant of how good the card is will be using fetchlands and shocklands very aggressively to whittle down their own life total and can use burn spells on themselves in response to Reinforcements; likewise, a Pod player might have Spellskite or Redcap. The same goes for their creature count. Timely Reinforcements was one of the few ways to protect a Rites target from an on-board Liliana against Jund unless they were willing and able to kill their creature at the right (Rites?) time; and if you were relying on the Soldiers to block a Raging Ravine, a Dark Confidant might take one for the team and ruin your day.
One way for decks to beat you is to overload your coloured mana; if they force you to cast multiple spells in a turn and you time them poorly or don’t have enough sources, a close game can easily be lost. This worry is very acute against Twin, where Exarch can put pressure on your Signets or force your hand on a Map, or against any deck with Tectonic Edge. If you’re relying on having Condescend up for their spell, take time to confirm that it’s actually safe to use your other blue source on a Thirst for Knowledge.
To address a common concern, Blood Moon is much less scary than you might think. Between Signets and basics/Map, you can either ignore it or find a spot to remove it; it’s tougher if they’re attacking your Signets, but in general Moon only delays the inevitable or wins games that they were going to win anyway. That said, you want to have access to answers so that you’re not always living in fear.
Here’s the list I’m playing at the moment:
1 Celestial Colonnade
2 Temple of Enlightenment
3 Hallowed Fountain
1 Seachrome Coast
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Tolaria West
4 Urza's Tower
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
1 Academy Ruins
4 Expedition Map
4 Azorius Signet
1 Talisman of Progress
Gifts Package (9)
4 Gifts Ungiven
1 Unburial Rites
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Sundering Titan
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Path to Exile
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Snapcaster Mage
1 Wrath of God
1 Day of Judgment
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Mana Leak
1 Pact of Negation
1 Venarian Glimmer
1 Hurkyl's Recall
2 Celestial Purge
1 Ghost Quarter
Some of these cards weren’t mentioned in detail above, so a few remarks:
- Sundering Titan occupies the Wurmcoil Engine slot; you want a colourless haymaker that rewards you for assembling Tron, and Titan is better against Twin/Pod as well as UWR Control and various other decks (while being a little worse against Jund and bad against Robots). It’s possible that it should be another Mindslaver, but Titan is the best Rites target a lot of the time and you would want it somewhere in the 75 anyway.
- Mana Leak is there as an all-purpose answer to add to Gifts packages when you need a counterspell, but its efficiency means that you can bring it in even when Condescend and Remand are lacklustre.
- Venarian Glimmer is a rare blue discard effect; I had Vendilion Clique for a while, but Glimmer does the same thing much of the time while not replacing the card and is also easier on the mana (and nice in conjunction with Snapcaster).
- Ghost Quarter is an important Map target against manlands and gets brought in whenever your Signets/Talisman are under attack as a 25th land (of sorts)
This only scratches the surface of what can be said about the deck; Reid Duke sums it up nicely in his article:
For further insight, Gerry Thompson’s archives contain a number of good pieces:
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to read any feedback on the forums.