I'll give you a moment or two to pick your jaw up from the floor after reading this article's title—believe it or not, I'm actively spruiking the idea you should play a Celestial Colonnade deck at one of this weekend's Modern Grand Prix. Fearless in the face of typecasting and cliche, I continue to push my White-Blue agenda—it's just that this time around, I think we may be onto something.
White-blue decks have had varied fortunes in Modern over the years. In days of yore, Jeskai Tempo decks were the scourge of the format, burning people down from range with the ever-powerful Bolt-Snap-Bolt. After a decline in popularity, Nahiri, the Harbinger was a shot in the arm for the archetype, giving Jeskai mages a combo-esque finish and a much more controlling approach to matches. After a surge in popularity, Jeskai Nahiri went the way of fidget spinners everywhere, lost and forgotten at the bottom of a draw along with everything else the world has abandoned—Tamagotchis, Pogs, and civil political discourse on Twitter.
In recent weeks and months, however, Jeskai Tempo has again risen to the fore. Geist of Saint Traft never stopped being an insanely powerful card, but it's another three-drop creature that has helped this deck to start taking names. Spell Queller is truly emblematic of what this deck seeks to do—it represents powerful and relevant interaction while at the same time being an instant-speed threat. Bolt-Snap-Bolt is truly excellent in a format overrun by Death's Shadow - and this is the best shell to do it in.
I caught up with a pioneer of the archetype, Wayne Dillon—or as he was so named by Simon Görtzen of Team Coverage, "Wayne Dillion Clique." Dillon has forged his reputation through mastery of this deck, tuning it every which way as the Modern format subtly ebbs and flows. When asking him about this deck in the leadup to GPs Madrid and Oklahoma City, he had surprising news—it's not a good choice.
"For what it's worth, I think Jeskai is on the downswing in general," he told me. "It has much the same matchups as other random three-color midrange decks." His concerns extend further afield, too—the relatively diverse field in Modern means that Jeskai has trouble contesting the wide range of decks you may face. "The meta is spreading out. There's as many decks going over the top as going underneath you, and you can't tech for one without losing to the other."
Another key factor in the decline of Jeskai as a viable choice is the success the deck has had since Dillon showed it off at GP Birmingham earlier this year. Previously, people might have played a little loosey-goosey with their life totals when an opponent opened on Celestial Colonnade, only to be Bolted into oblivion. Now, the secret is out and people know what's up—Jeskai is a victim of its own success, and has given up its edge as an unknown quantity.
It's not the end of the line for Colonnade decks, however. Since the printing of Gideon of the Trials, White-Blue Control has had a small resurgence in popularity, but was held at bay due to the ascendancy of Tron strategies. Well, just as Biggie told when he dropped Ready to Die: Things Done Changed. Ixalan brought us Field of Ruin and Search for Azcanta, which were two of the final pieces missing from this particular puzzle.
White-Blue's late game was exceptionally strong if it had maintained a nice full grip or was ahead with an active Planeswalker. In pure topdeck mode, it suffered enormously, leaning heavily on Sphinx's Revelation to pull ahead. Search for Azcanta fixes that problem, with Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin shoring up the late game just as it does in Standard. Big Mana decks were the biggest issue, as a single tasty rip from Tron or Scapeshift in the late game would often be lights out.
Further, White-Blue Control needed both Spreading Seas and Ghost Quarter to be in with a chance against Big Mana—but Field of Ruin is here to cure what ails you. It's perfect in this situation—it doesn't set you back on lands, while Tron decks quickly run out of basics. Ghost Quarter could be a huge liability when suffering from mana issues of your own, but Field of Ruin presents no such problem. According to Dillon, that makes all the difference.
"I think they're even-to-favored against Big Mana now," Dillon explained. "You're only really worried about combo and Dredge, and you can definitely adjust the board for those if you're worried." Control decks have suffered for a long time in Modern, and even Ancestral Vision wasn't enough to put them back on the map—but things might be different now. This deck has a single, solid game plan (unlike Jeskai, which could pivot from aggressor to controller), and is ruthlessly efficient in enacting it. It's classic control: keep the board clear, slowly gain value, and hide win conditions in your mana base.
Irrespective of whether going it on your own in Oklahoma City or sandwiching yourself between two mates in Madrid, White-Blue Control is a supremely powerful choice for this weekend. It has early defense and sweepers for the many aggro decks, countermagic for Storm, land destruction for Tron and Scapeshift, and of course it eats Black-Green Rock decks of all flavors for breakfast. And lunch and dinner, for that matter.
You should expect to face a lot of aggression this weekend, especially in Oklahoma City where there are no holds barred on which decks people can play. Grixis Shadow, Affinity and new kid on the block Five-Color Humans all eat it to Supreme Verdict, and I like Wall of Omens as an early roadblock. As discussed, Big Mana's issues with Field of Ruin means that they'll have a harder time, but you should come prepared to face off against Tron (both traditional and Eldrazi) and Scapeshift.
If you'll be battling in Madrid, it's also an excellent choice for Team Unified Modern as it's one of the least parasitic decks that actually plays colored spells. Believe it or not, this deck has no meaningful overlap with the other major blue deck—you can play White-Blue Control alongside Grixis Shadow without any worries, as long as you divide up Serum Visions and Opt in a way that keeps both people happy.
What your teammates play will generally depend on their familiarity with the format and the archetypes within it, as success in Modern generally comes to those who pick a deck and stick with it. Given a high level of flexibility, however, I would be looking to pair White-Blue Control with either Affinity or Tron in one slot, and either Abzan or Jund in the other.
Given the rise of Field of Ruin in Modern (I don't believe we've seen this card's full impact yet), and due to the fact that I'm a person of taste and refinement, I'd stay away from Tron; Affinity's "free win equity" is just as high, but won't have to tussle with a field of main deck hate. You've got to dodge the sideboard hate, but that's never not true of getting it done with the robots.
For deck number three, Jund is a better choice than Abzan for a number of reasons. Firstly, Abzan wants Path to Exile, which is obviously critical in White-Blue—you can't just whack Condemns and the like in there and call it a day. Secondly, Abzan also has its greedy mitts on all the good sideboard cards, which makes configuring two white sideboards very tricky.
Despite not having Lingering Souls, Jund grinds it out just as powerfully with cards like Kolaghan's Command, in addition to powerful four-drops such as Huntmaster of the Fells and Olivia Voldaren. Another option is Hazoret the Fervent, which I like for a number of reasons—not least of which is her activated ability, which combats silly nonsense from decks like Lantern Control. It isn't impossible to play Lingering Souls in Jund, either—an extra shock land here or there will get the job done, although it's not entirely free to do so.
Regardless of whether you're crushing it with your bezzie mates in Spain or flying solo like Wiz Khalifa in the U.S., White-Blue Control is a deck poised to take apart this weekend's tournaments. With a great matchup against the expected field and little-to-no overlap with other terrific decks for team events, this particular Celestial Colonnade deck is ready to get it done on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Riley Knight