Scepter of Secrets: A Modern Analysis from Lincoln

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
2/23/2012 10:06:00 AM
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From Grand Prix Lincoln Champion Bronson Magnon's Top 8 Profile:

“Previous Magic accomplishments: Most TCGplayer Points last year, Caleb and Craig's barn.”

It's nice to see one of my (and Caleb Durward's) barns win a tournament!

. . .

This weekend was Grand Prix Lincoln. I started off with three byes, then rattled off three wins to put myself at 6-0, needing to win only one of my next three rounds to make Day 2 (the cut was 7-2). I then proceeded to lose round 7 due to misreading my own card (Isochron Scepter), lose a close round 8, and then lose round 9 due to misplaying at a crucial moment in the game. While I ended up not doing so well in the tournament, it was not the fault of the deck. The main lessons I learned from this weekend are that (1) Modern is a very skill intensive format and that (2) Scepter of Secrets is a strong deck choice. I also have (3) some brief financial information to share. In order, let's talk about all three.

Modern as a Format

Nearly every time I play Legacy I finish the tournament feeling like the format is extremely skill-dependant. Most, if not all, of my losses are the direct result of a play mistake, and most matches come down to a key decision by each player.

After having played in Pro Tour Philadelphia, Day 3 of Worlds, and now Grand Prix Lincoln, I am of the opinion that Modern is likewise extremely skill-dependant.

The rounds of bannings that followed Philadelphia and Worlds have primarily served to narrow the range of viable combo decks to a short list of choices. The result is that all the other strategies of the format can now manageably prepare for the combo decks in the format without having to ignore all the non-combo decks of the format. Storm and Splinter Twin are the main ‘dedicated' combo decks, though many other decks have combo or combo-like elements (Melira Pod), while other dedicated combo decks still see fringe play (Living End).

There are enough generically useful utility cards that combat a variety of strategies, which makes mid-range, control, and aggro-control decks all viable. For instance, Path to Exile is a way to disrupt Splinter Twin, a way to keep yourself from getting your life total halved by a Cranial Plating, and also an all-around solid answer to Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets, and most any other creature. Similarly, Ancient Grudge handles Cranial Plating and Birthing Pod as well as Isochron Scepter and Vedalken Shackles.

 Isochron Scepter
Store QTY Price  
JCtrades 1 $2.75
The Wizards Duel 1 $2.75
Snapcasters Gaming 1 $2.78
FourOhSix Cards 1 $3.16
Comic Lair 4 $3.46
RicksTCG 1 $3.50
Play More Games 1 $3.50
SharpeTCG 1 $3.50
Wizards Video Games 1 $3.51
Island Games 2 $3.54
Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Isochron Scepter Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

Unlike Legacy, you can manageably have game against pretty much every deck in the format. You don't have to run the gambit of ignoring Dredge, ignoring Force of Will decks, ignoring Storm decks, ignoring Tarmogoyf decks, ignoring Chalice of the Void decks, etc. Since the banned list takes out half of these decks from existence and the more manageable card pool weakens the ones that exist, it's perfectly within reason to show up to a tournament where no matchup is unwinnable.

Unlike Standard, you actually have plenty of decks to choose from, most of which are capable of being tailored to beat whatever you expend to play against. If you want to go aggro, you have Steppe Lynx, Delver of Secrets, Goblin Guide, Tarmogoyf, Kird Ape, Loam Lion, Figure of Destiny, and many others to choose from. If you want to go slightly bigger, you have Noble Hierarch to help you get there. You want to play a linear aggro deck? You have Affinity. Want to go real big? Try casting Karn Liberated and Emrakul, the Aeaons Torn off Urza lands. Want to play a toolbox deck with a combo element? Birthing Pod can go the Melira route or the Kiki-Jikki route. Want a mid-range card advantage deck? Jund. Want to play a blue control deck? Fairies is a deck. Want a non-blue control deck? Bronson Magnan showed us even that is possible!

The banning of Punishing Fire made it such that various removal-centric strategies could flourish - ones that would otherwise be inferior to the Punishing Grove combo, and the banning of Wild Nacatl made it such that various creature-centric strategies could flourish - decks that would otherwise be inferior to Nacatl decks. While I would personally rather have Wild Nacatl in the format, it bodes better for White Weenie if he's not around I suppose. I also dislike Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand. Preordain and Ponder have really spoiled me, though I suppose these bannings are necessary for keeping combo in check.

In short, despite there being so many decks, you have good overlapping answers as mentioned above, which you don't generally have in Standard (at least in recent Standard formats). Also, each of the decks are generally manageable (unlike Legacy) because you don't have such a large card pool, and one full of cards that are of an even higher power level (Lion's Eye Diamond, Sensei's Divining Top, Tabernacle, Force of Will, Brainstorm, Goblin Lackey, Cabal Therapy, Ancient Tomb, Wasteland, Natural Order, etc.). For these reasons, as well as others, games tend to come down to key decisions rather than Mana Screw, bad matchups, or high variance combo draws.

Delver Stick in Modern

Let's shift our focus now to a specific Modern deck, one that I would recommend to anyone looking at playing an aggro-control deck. I played the following list at GP Lincoln:

Scepter of Secrets by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
4 Delver of Secrets
3 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Steppe Lynx
Creatures [14]
2 Deprive
4 Isochron Scepter
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
4 Serum Visions
3 Spell Pierce
2 Spell Snare
2 Vapor Snag
Spells [25]
4 Arid Mesa
2 Hallowed Fountain
1 Horizon Canopy
1 Island (253)
2 Misty Rainforest
1 Moorland Haunt
1 Plains (250)
2 Sacred Foundry
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Seachrome Coast
1 Steam Vents
Lands [21]
Deck Total [60]

1 Combust
2 Disenchant
3 Hurkyl's Recall
4 Path to Exile
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Spectral Procession
2 Sword of War and Peace
1 Threads of Disloyalty
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

The general idea of the deck is to play out a one-drop (I usually mulligan hands without a one-drop), and then follow it up with another creature or an Isochron Scepter. Against combo (Storm, Living End, Twin) you need to hold open Spell Peirce mana, but against most other decks you can keep tapping out to apply pressure to the board. Then once you have the opponent on a clock of some sort, you want to keep Counterspell mana open. Burn Spells can then clear a path for your attackers or they can finish off the opponent, depending on what they're playing.

Boarding in

Against creature decks, affinity, and Twin I board in Path to Exile.

Sword of War and Peace is for Caw-Blade and obscure RDW or Martyr type decks.

Disenchant helps against whatever problematic card an opponent could play (Cranial Plating, Splinter Twin, Sword of Grain and Stump, Pyromancer Ascension, Isochron Scepter, Vedalken Shackles, etc.). Be careful about siding in both copies though. They are mediocre a lot more often than I expected them to be. Maybe it was just variance, but I found myself boarding them back out a lot.

Threads of Disloyalty is a value cards against a variety of different decks, but mostly for Tarmogoyf.

Hurkyl's Recall is pretty much an exclusive concession to hating out affinity. Put that on an Isochron Scepter and they are drawing to a single card in their deck (Ancient Grudge).

Combust is mostly for Splinter Twin decks since they cannot counter it, but it doesn't work quite as well as I had envisioned it working. You see, I failed to account for the fact that they can just tap the Isochron Scepter on my turn, forcing me to use it on the creature in response. This means once they get to 6 or whatever mana, they can still combo off with multiple Deceiver Exarchs and/or Pestermites. In hindsight this slot should have been a second Relic of Progenitus.

Speaking of which, Relic of Progenitus is great against Living End and against Bronson's Loam deck, but it is also a card I bring in against opposing decks that rely on Snapcaster Mage, Grim Lavamancer, or Tarmogoyf. I even used it to good effect once against a Kitchen Finks (exiling it with the persist trigger on the stack).

Spectral Procession was a card I figured would be good against Jund, and Caleb liked it enough to run one main and one side. He didn't run Moorland Haunt though, so his mana could support it a bit better. I don't recall ever drawing the card, and it probably would have been better off as something else. It does seem really sweet with Snapcaster Mage though, and it flips Delver of Secrets without decreasing the threat count of the deck.

Boarding out

Sometimes I'll take out Steppe Lynx when I'm on the draw or against decks packing numerous easy answers to them such as Flame Jab, Sulfur Elemental, or Darkblast. Usually though I don't board out any of my threats.

Spell Snare comes out for one of two reasons. The less common reason is because the opponent simply doesn't have enough worthwhile targets for it. Most decks in the format do though. The more common reason to board them out is because I want to be less counter-heavy in a given matchup. I'm usually siding in answers such as Disenchant and Path to Exile, so sometimes I'll board these out to make room. In such cases, Deprive often gets cut alongside it. Leave in Spell Snare against affinity though, and you almost never want to use it on anything but a Cranial Plating, no matter how tempting it might seem. Plating is by far their best card against us.

I think I boarded out one copy of Lightning Helix against one of the combo decks I faced (Living End, if I remember correctly) and that might not even have been correct. In general, you never want to side out your burn. Against creature matchups you want it to kill their creatures, and against non-creature matchups it accelerates your clock. It also makes Isochron Scepter into a game-winner against pretty much any deck.

Vapor Snag underperformed for me. I was told it was really good in the RUG Delver list, and so I tried it out over Path to Exile main (as did Caleb). At the end of the day we both agreed Path to Exile would have been better main. This deck relies on Scepter in the way the RUG version relies on Tarmogoyf, and this difference is critical with respect to the Snag/Path decision. When your plan is to bash in with a 4/5 or a 5/6 ground creature, bouncing an opposing block and dealing them one is fantastic. On the other hand, when your plan is to take over the game with an Isochron Scepter while your Insectile Aberration gets in there, you'd much rather be getting rid of their threats one at a time, not one over and over again (and never any of the other threats). There is a bit of anti-synergy between Path and Spell Pierce, but this usually doesn't come up, at least not in a relevant sense.

Lastly, Isochron Scepter is the card you will have to make a judgment call on. My plan going into the tournament was to board them out in almost every matchup. I figured since it is my most threatening card, opponents will be boarding in artifact hate (mostly Ancient Grudge). As such, my plan was to render their artifact removal useless since I would then have no artifacts in my deck. Ultimately I decided against this plan though, since as I said, Scepter is my best card. I would rather try and counter the Ancient Grudge with Spell Snare and Spell Pierce/Deprive or just hope they don't draw it. It's sort of a guessing game, but it's hard to board out your best card simply to play around Ancient Grudge.

If there were another modern tournament this weekend, I would play either this deck or RUG Delver because Ancient Grudge just seems like the best card in the format. I also have a soft spot for Tarmogoyf. Isochron Scepter, though, is a really good reason to play this version of Delver instead. Geist of Saint Traft is also really good against everything other than Splinter Twin (since you don't want to tap out against them). I haven't tested enough with RUG Delver to know for certain, but it probably has its own weaknesses and the grass probably isn't actually any greener than it is in this version. Then again, Tarmogoyf does look pretty green. Either deck seems good.

 Sword of War and Peace
Store QTY Price  
Graveyard Games 1 $14.19
Raven's Nest Games 2 $14.22
Instant Speed Cards 1 $14.49
OneBlueBox 3 $14.68
The Bat Cave 1 $14.69
NEPA Gaming 1 $14.80
Deals on Deals 1 $14.87
Tier Zero Gaming 1 $14.91
The Wizards Library 1 $14.92
Mulligans Gaming 1 $14.93
Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Sword of War and Peace Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

Financial Updates

On 4/28/2011 in my Financial Predictions for New Phyrexia article, I predicted that Sword of War and Peace would be the chase mythic of the set and that in 12 months it would sell for more than $50. Many thought the card would hold value, but most people laughed at the prospect of SoWP doubling in value from its initial price between $20 and $25, especially after it declined to about $15 during the set's peak period of being drafted (where the cards prices are typically at their low point). Sword got all the way up to $48 (average TCG vendor price) last week, and was selling for $50 at Pro Tour Dark Ascension. I haven't been right about all my predictions, but this one was a big prediction and it's worth mentioning that I ended up getting it right (though admittedly it stayed cheap for longer than I expected). It was one of the only cards (the only one?) I recommended investing in for the long term (12 months). For those who followed that advice, harvest time has come a couple months early. Unload them now and Reap the profits.

Given that my long term prediction for Sword of War and Peace went so well, I must be a financial genius, right? Well, not so fast. First let's consider my sleeper pick for that same set:

Chancellor of the Tangle

I figured there was a lot of upside to this Beast, and $.50 was such a small investment. As it turns out, either he never caught on, never found a home, or simply is not as strong of a card as I believed he would be. In any case, his price has dropped to bulk price, which is not what I expected. So if you invested all your money in Chancellors, you lost half your quarters. Fortunately each Sword of War and Peace you acquired makes up for approximately 100 chancellors. Here's the math:

100x Chancellor of the Tangle initially at $.50 = $50.00 initial investment
100x Chancellor of the Tangle currently at $.25 = $25.00 worth of equity
1x Sword of War and Peace initially at $25.00 = $25.00 initial investment
1x Sword of War and Peace currently at $50.00 = $50.00 worth of equity

The figures are approximations, but the general idea is that as long as the ratio of Swords-to-Chancellors that you acquired is better than 1-to-100, then you profited from following my advice (with respect to these two cards). I also predicted Birthing Pod and Phyrexian Metamorph would double in price, which they each did. Overall that was probably my best set prediction to date, despite missing on my ‘sleeper pick.' Then again, maybe it simply hasn't woken up yet…

Next up for me is Grand Prix Baltimore, which will be week three of eight consecutive weekends traveling to professional magic tournaments, en route to the goal (Platinum).

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter

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