Treasure Cruise, and to a lesser extent Dig Through Time, are the types of cards that naturally rise to the top of the Modern card pool. They are both hyper efficient at what they do and ask for contributions from a resource that is readily available in Modern decks. There is a reason Tarmogoyf is an All-Star in Modern and was only ok in Standard and that is simply that graveyards fill up faster. The pace of the format pushes players to make moves early which leads to cards being used. In addition, the presence of fetchlands means that even if a player chooses not to play spells, they are likely still contributing to the size of their graveyard.
The delve cards also have a pretty unique element to them in that decks that want to hate out that sort of thing have a pretty difficult time doing it themselves. I can run Stoneforge Mystic alongside Divine Offering looking to both abuse and stop the best threat in the format, but pairing Treasure Cruise with Rest in Peace? Relic of Progenitus? Gaddock Teeg? We could probably piece something together, but in general you are either Cruising, or stopping Cruise, but rarely both.
Last weekend, I played in Grand Prix Omaha, which was Modern and featured the delve cards. I say that because I believe there is a high likelihood that the ultimate answer to Treasure Cruise is to simply ban it, most likely after the Pro Tour, but possibly before. The card is fun to play with, but as it continues to exist, we will see the dichotomy of Cruise or Anti-Cruise become more and more defined, at which point, it will get the boot just to promote a healthy environment.
I decided to take an approach that was fighting Treasure Cruise because I thought that was largely the more unexplored of the two sides. Everyone wants to be playing Cruise and it has therefore been tried in a lot of different shells. The people looking to beat Treasure Cruise have a massive card pool to choose from and the supporters just seem outnumbered, so I figured I would back them in their efforts.
Luckily, I had some friends stay with me for Grand Prix Denver who were able to light a bit of a fire under me. The premise was simple: Martyr of Sands is good again. That was all I needed to have my interest piqued.
The theory was rooted in some sound logic as well. There were multiple decks in the format that simply could not beat 15 or 18 life out of one card. Burn would need to resolve a lot of Treasure Cruises to make up that distance and in the meantime, you are going to gain life from something else. And Delver is not far off from where burn is. While they have more permanent damage sources, they also have a lot of cards in their deck that don't do any thing, so outpacing them with a Martyr is very real and very consistent.
Even when we look at the midrange decks, we have seen gradual shifts that have strengthened Martyr. Birthing Pod decks care less about comboing now and prefer to simply grind out an attrition game; something Martyr can outpace.
There were some decks that would not care about life, but most of them had been pushed aside in favor of decks that better utilize Treasure Cruise. Splinter Twin is possibly the best example here as they can go for infinite damage, forcing you to do things a bit differently. But playing Twin when you could be on Storm or Jeskai Ascendancy doesn't appeal to most people, and those are two decks where your life gain is certainly more relevant.
But simply having Martyr of Sands does not really get you anywhere. As it turns out, the ability to gain extremely large amounts of life is not only desired, but pretty abusable across multiple shells. From what I could tell, there are two big Martyr camps, with plenty of orbiting moons around each. With only a week to prepare though, I decided to just stick to the major camps and figure the rest out on my own.
The two camps consist of a more aggressive take on the deck, utilizing Soul Warden and Ajani's Pridemate. This is a descendant of an old Standard deck of mine and so it is probably the Martyr variant I know best. The other Martyr deck is one that wants the game to go longer and then to abuse Proclamation of Rebirth and Emeria, the Sky Ruin to grind out an advantage. The former is more aggro while the latter is more control.
I had some issues when trying to adapt either one to the current Modern metagame though. Soul Sisters, as a strategy, just has so many cards that don't do anything. Topdeck a Soul Warden in the mid game sometime and you will know exactly what I mean. The deck is excellent when it comes out blazing, but you often rely on Ranger of Eos to do all of your heavy lifting in the late game, a time when your deck is not going to be strong against any noncreature strategy.
You have a very similar issue with Martyr Proc decks. These strategies are built to prey on aggressive strategies or creature based decks, but they have a real hard time doing that while fighting off combo and control. I wanted something that could abuse Martyr, but I didn't want to play such a fragile shell around it.
While I was looking up various Martyr decks, I naturally checked out the white weenie strategies next door to it. Death and Taxes in particular seemed like the kind of deck that might be able to work Martyr into it without disrupting natural flow. Death and Taxes, at its core, is just a hate bear style deck that uses some mana denial and resource taxing to slow down the opponent for long enough that it's two and three power beaters could deal 20.
Ultimately, to benefit from Martyr in this format, you need not really look much further than just that. Gaining 15 life against Burn and then deploying a frustrating clock immediately after is going to win you most games. The same could be said for Delver. You would want threats with evasion or ways to protect themselves, to have as consistent a clock as possible, but the deck sounded reasonable on paper.
Beyond Martyr, including other pieces and synergies made sense so long as they fit nicely into our shell and shared common goals. Some control lists would be fine just running Martyr and Proclamation for late game dominance without any desire for further synergies. Again, I wanted to avoid bad cards or cards that did nothing on their own, so the pool from which I would be drawing was slimmer.
The list will be much easier to explain once you can check it out, so here is what I played this past weekend:
For any Death and Taxes players out there, you will surely recognize some of the elements in this deck. At our foundation, we are a hate bear deck looking to stall the opponent on resources just enough for us to squeak out a win. Denying aggressive decks resources can be a problem, however, which is where Martyr of Sands comes in. When a single card can Undo three or four cards out of the opposing deck, it is ok if our Leonin Arbiter is just a bear.
I tried my best to Infuse cards into the deck that could play well in an aggressive role, but also served some function in messing with my opponent. Leonin Arbiter, Aven Mindcensor, and then duo of Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile showcase this well. You can actively deny the opponent mana while beating down in the air. Add cards like Thalia to the mix and the strain is even more intense.
Angel of Jubilation is possibly the strangest card to see in the list, but it very much follows in line with that concept. It pumps our squad to win the game faster than we could otherwise, it protects our team from Electrolyze and Electrickery, and it prevents a deck like Birthing Pod from operating at all. While Angel is in play, here are the popular things that become disrupted:
Birthing PodFetchlandsArcbound RavagerDismemberGitaxian ProbeGriselbrandSpellskiteSakura-Tribe ElderVault Skirge
Some of these are just game ending. Birthing Pod and Griselbrand tend to be the backbone of their archetypes, for example, and when hindered, the entire deck can cease to function. Alternatively, we could be running Restoration Angel, but our number of enters the battlefield effects is pretty low.
Flickerwisp is actually the popular three-drop of choice in Death and Taxes lists because of their high number of 187 effects to abuse alongside its ability to Remove a blocker or disrupt a permanent when combined with Aether Vial. We went a slightly different route using similar logic, mostly because I wanted to be blue anyway for Geist of Saint Traft.
To me, Geist is the missing element that many of these hate bear decks lack; A fast and difficult to disrupt clock. If you cast a turn two Leonin Arbiter into Geist of Saint Traft on turn three, your opponent doesn't have time to wait around and pay two mana to access his lands. Instead, he is probably just dead. Other cards can pack the same punch as Geist, but not as consistently. Green/white is a natural direction to explore and cards like Knight of the Reliquary promise much of what Geist does, except for the vulnerability to removal and the requirement of needing to run your own fetchlands: a big no-no when Leonin Arbiter is a centerpiece of your list.
Geist would be nearly unstoppable against Burn, Delver, combo decks, and control decks. Really, the only match ups where it might lack in effectiveness is against midrange with abundant creatures of a big size. Eiganjo Castle lets Geist attack into anything with 3 power already. This is where Lyev Skyknight comes in. While Flickerwisp Removes a blocker to let Geist get in, it also comes with a lot of caveats.
Look at Birthing Pod lists. Do you really want to be Wisping a Kitchen Finks, or Siege Rhino? Do you really want to Remove that Goyf only to get attacked back for four on the next turn? Do you really need to have Aether Vial on three in order to profitably interact with an opposing Birthing Pod on their upkeep? Skyknight just gets around all of these scenarios while providing additional utility against all sorts of stuff. In five rounds at the Grand Prix, I managed to detain the following cards for actual value:
Arcbound RavagerWayfarer's BaubleRestoration AngelCranial PlatingVenser, the Sojourner
Unfortunately, my tournament did not last as long as I would have liked and perhaps that list of cards is a telling reason why. While I was preparing for Treasure Cruise, Pod, Scapeshift, my opponents were not willing to play those decks against me. Such is Magic!
My third game against Affinity was especially brutal. I won game two on a Serra Ascendant into Martyr on turn two to have a 6/6 flying lifelink. In game three, I drew my hate and decided to keep a double Stony Silence hand with Ranger of Eos and Geist of Saint Traft. My opponent was having none of it as he played four manlands, Chalice of the Void on one, and then three Etched Champions. The game was close, but ultimately my two dead copies of Stony Silence were just enough card disadvantage for him to win while on three life.
Speaking of that Martyr package, as you can see, it is rather minimal here. We have four copies of Martyr and three copies of Serra Ascendant as payoff. In the late game you can utilize Proclamation of Rebirth, often hardcasting it, to set up some trio such as two Martyrs and an Ascendant, leaving you with a 6/6 flying lifelink in play and a million life to maneuver with. Ranger of Eos sets all of this up beautifully of course. Just don't forget that Leonin Arbiter is universal in nature!
In general, this list was a lot of fun to play and it played out great when it was able to. I am definitely going to keep evolving the archetype, so expect more about it in the near future. Until next week where we will be rolling out our week long Fate Reforged set review, thanks for reading!