All About That Jace

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
2/15/2018 11:01:00 AM
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Originally, I planned on writing about my Grand Prix Toronto experience last weekend. And an experience it truly was. I know of no other word that sums it up. I battled flight cancellations, bad matchups and all matters of hate cards aimed at my Trusty Machete, Lantern Control. I played some intense matches, made some wild plays and won and lost to some exciting topdecks. It was truly an epic weekend with quite the non-epic conclusion, a solid-but-unexciting 11-4 and Top 64 finish.

But alas, I cannot in good conscience write that article, because something preposterous happened.

They unbanned Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern. I've long thought that Jace was at an appropriate power level for Modern, but I never thought they'd actually pull the trigger this soon. Now here I stand, conflicted on how to feel about it.

On one hand, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is one of my favorite cards of all time. Back when I was a wee young lad (actually, I was in my 20s), I had to quit playing Magic for years because I couldn't afford the game. Eventually, my financial situation improved and I came crawling back to Magic. The most recent set at the time was called Rise of the Eldrazi, but everyone was still talking about this card called Jace, the Mind Sculptor from the previous set. At the time, I played nothing but control decks, and U/W Control was my favorite of the bunch. Naturally, I fell in love.

 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
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I played FNM every week for months. Every time I won a prize of store credit, I bought as many packs of Worldwake as I possibly could in hopes of opening a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I didn't realize how bad of a method this was at the time, but I also got lucky and managed to open two Jaces in a couple of boxes. I traded away lots of fetch lands and other great cards for the other two Jaces.

Then I played the full four Jace, the Mind Sculptor in every single Standard deck I registered for the remainder of its life span. Eventually, I started playing Legacy and discovered that Jace, the Mind Sculptor was pretty good in that format too. Almost every single Legacy deck I have ever played has contained Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I continue to play almost exclusively with Jace. Even now, the two Legacy decks that I would consider playing in my next event are Czech Pile and Miracles, two decks that both are based around the power of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Jace is a powerful card, and exactly the kind of Magic I enjoy playing. I'm excited I get to finally play with it in Modern.



With that being said…

On the other hand...

Modern is currently the best format in Magic. It's an extremely diverse format with incredible gameplay. It routinely gets the best attendance and best viewership numbers. Modern is simply great. Every event features different decks performing well, and as one deck rises up to perceived dominance – like Death's Shadow did months ago – other decks adapt enough to push it back down into being a powerful but manageable part of the format again. Lantern Control won the last Pro Tour, people adjusted and it didn't even manage to Top 32 the most recent Grand Prix.

There is no reason to rock the boat with Modern. Seriously, why would they do this? I think that Jace is going to be fine in Modern. I believe that Jace can be adjusted to the same way Death's Shadow was. However, unbanning Jace still comes with enormous risk. What if I'm wrong and it truly is broken? This is the kind of risk that there is no reason to create, when Modern is as awesome as it currently is.

Jace is one of the best cards of all time and cards with that obscene of a power level really do carry a potential to ruin Modern. Jace might destroy the diversity that is currently a part of what makes the format appealing. Jace could easily just become the finisher of choice for every single blue deck in Modern, homogenizing entire archetypes into just playing the best Jace version of the deck.

The thing is, even if they just ban Jace again at the next cycle, that doesn't mean that Modern will be fixed. Part of what makes Modern awesome is that we haven't broken it yet, and maybe we never will. The problem with powerful cards like Jace is that they speed up the solving of a format, even if they eventually get banned. Banning a card like Jace doesn't mean that the format will just revert to what it looked like before Jace.

History seems to support this. Take Legacy, for example. Treasure Cruise came out and completely revolutionized Legacy. Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time pushed a lot of decks out of the Legacy format because they weren't powerful enough to compete with those cards. When Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time eventually were banned, those decks didn't come back to prominence like they were supposed to. Shardless Sultai is the prime example – it couldn't compete with Treasure Cruise, but then after Cruise was banned it still didn't seem good enough to compete.

 Treasure Cruise
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The reason is that powerful cards like Jace or Treasure Cruise force us to build our decks better. They force us to streamline our lists into finely tuned machines designed to maximize the power of these cards. When they eventually get banned, that doesn't suddenly mean that we lose the knowledge we've gained or the shells we've built to surround these cards. We learn that we can replace cards like Treasure Cruise with cards like Gurmag Angler, and suddenly our decks are still better than what they used to be, even though the offending card is gone. The decks that got pushed out of the format stay pushed out of the format.

Take Death's Shadow in Modern. We pushed the boundaries of how great Gitaxian Probe was in Death's Shadow. The banning of Gitaxian Probe did not suddenly invalidate Death's Shadow as a powerful strategy. Death's Shadow remained a dominant strategy, and a lot of linear non-interactive decks got pushed out of the format because they couldn't compete with the interaction and speed of Death's Shadow. The lessons we learned from maximizing the power of Gitaxian Probe didn't suddenly go away with its departure. If we lose a lot of decks from Modern that can't compete with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, those decks might never become a part of the format again.

What I think they should have done is unban only Bloodbraid Elf. Bloodbraid Elf is likely to reinvigorate some archetypes, like Jund, that have fallen by the wayside, but the risk of Bloodbraid Elf is way lower than the risk of Jace. We already know what Bloodbraid Elf is capable of in Modern. Bloodbraid Elf will change the format some, but like similarly powered cards like Bitterblossom or Ancestral Vision before it, Bloodbraid Elf is most likely going to just slot in as another powerful card in the format that fits into some decks and adds to the format in a meaningful way.

 Bloodbraid Elf
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At the next cycle, assuming Bloodbraid Elf has proven itself to be a fine card for Modern, they could take a risk and unban another card. The next card to get unbanned should have been Stoneforge Mystic. There is this huge fear surrounding Stoneforge Mystic that I don't believe is justified. Jitte isn't legal. Stoneforge can only get Batterskull, and creating a 4/4 lifelink, vigilance creature on turn three after investing four mana into it is not scary at all in Modern. Ensnaring Bridge, Cranial Plating, Kolaghan's Command and Thoughtseize exist. People are killing each other on turn three. People are putting two 4/4's into play on turn one. Stoneforge has some tough competition to compete with.

I think they should have saved a high-risk unban like Jace, the Mind Sculptor for a time when Modern could use the boost. All good things eventually come to an end, and I imagine there would come a time when even our current Modern format would start to grow stale and could use a boost like a Jace unban to reinvigorate it. That's when you pull the trigger. Doing it now might turn out fine, of course, but it's like when your opponent is dead on board and you're holding a Counterspell in your hand. Should you tap out for another irrelevant creature or hold up the Counterspell? Hold up the Counterspell. Don't create the risk.

I will enjoy playing with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I'm excited to build around it. I just hope it doesn't ruin a good thing. I hope the tradeoff of my enjoyment of playing with Jace isn't that Modern becomes a bad format.

Ultimately, though, none of this actually matters. I'll play with whatever cards they tell me to play with. If they ban my deck, I'll play a different deck. If they unban some card that is powerful, I'll play that card. There is really no use in complaining about what they do or don't unban. I might not like it, but I have no control over it, and I can either adapt or not. They chose to unban Jace and Bloodbraid Elf, so I will be adapting to either play with those cards or play a deck that can beat the decks that become good in this new world. Most likely, I will do what I've done in every other format where Jace is legal. I'll play Jace.

Where Does Jace Fit Into Modern?

The obvious conclusion to jump to at first is that Jace is going to Make Control Great Again in Modern. Unfortunately, I don't think it is that simple. Sorry, Shaheen Soorani, but I think Jace might actually hurt control decks more than it helps.

Unlike a card like Stoneforge Mystic, which is just another creature against control decks but is itself a powerful threat to play with in control, Jace is a double-edged sword for control decks. While Jace is certainly a powerful addition to a control mage's repertoire, Jace is also the nightmare card for a control deck to play against. What I suspect is most likely to happen is that other decks adopt Jace, the Mind Sculptor and use it to punish control decks.

I think Jace fits best in high-power, low-to-the-ground archetypes. Grixis Death's Shadow, for example, is the perfect archetype to use a card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The deck has an issue with flooding, has cards like Thoughtseize to shuffle away that it doesn't want later in the game and puts a lot of early pressure on the opponent, which makes Jace often able to come into play onto a stable or favorable board.

With that said, I don't think Grixis Death's Shadow is going to be a good deck anymore, at least in its current configuration. Grixis Death's Shadow also doesn't have any game against Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Jace's -1 ability is insanely good against Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, and Grixis has a low number of powerful threats, which is exactly the kind of matchup that Jace is good against.

 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
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For an analogy, the only thing holding Sultai Delver back from being a dominant archetype in Legacy is that Sultai is very poor against Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Grixis Death's Shadow and Sultai Delver are basically the same deck. They both play a low number of powerful, aggressive threats backed up by two-for-ones, hand disruption and cheap countermagic. They try to ride one or two threats to victory, which isn't where you want to be against big daddy Jace.

Grixis Delver, on the other hand, has game against Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Legacy thanks to cards like Young Pyromancer that put enormous pressure on Jace.

I think we're going to see that play out in Modern as well. Cards like Young Pyromancer and Goblin Rabblemaster are going to become more important threats because they pressure Jace, the Mind Sculptor really well. Likewise, a lot of these decks are also going to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor themselves because cards like Young Pyromancer and Goblin Rabblemaster demand immediate attention be given to them. When opponents are going to be spending their turns two and three killing your threats rather than deploying their own, it makes casting Jace much more appealing, because it increases the chances of being able to play Jace on turn four without your opponent having an immediate on-board presence capable of killing it.

How Do You Build To Optimize Jace?

I've seen a lot of early decklists trying to just bluntly throw in Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and I think a lot of them are really badly designed. I don't think you can just take an existing decklist, remove a few cards at random, then add Jace, the Mind Sculptor into it and voila, solved.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a card that completely takes over a game if you get to untap with it. As a result, the entire point is to build a deck where you get to untap with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play.

I keep seeing people posting UW/x control decks that play something like 10 cards that cost four-plus mana. That doesn't seem right to me. A deck like that is going to get into a situation where you untap on turn four with a bunch of four-mana cards, but Jace has to be the last one you can play because it isn't safe to deploy him, if you even survive long enough to do so.

The cards that play best with Jace are cards that are the cheapest and most efficient at what they do, but that also scale into the late game. You want a card that is good on turn two, but also does something powerful on turn eight. You need to be able to clear a way for Jace, but also do something powerful post-Jace. Path to Exile, for example, is a great card to pair with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You can kill something early in the game and you can also kill something on turn five when you play Jace and Path in the same turn. I see people cutting Search for Azcanta from their decks, but that also is a card that pairs well with Jace. It ramps you into situations where you can play Jace plus protection in the same turn, finds cards to set-up Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and even finds Jace itself. Search for Azcanta also scales well into the late game.

 Search for Azcanta
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Cryptic Command, on the other hand, is a card that doesn't pair very well with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Cryptic Command is a powerful card, but you don't want to get into a situation where your opponent has a few creatures in play and you're holding Cryptic Command and Jace, the Mind Sculptor and neither of them take care of the board. I'd much rather have Supreme Verdict and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, because Supreme Verdict sets up more effectively for Jace the next turn.

I have a feeling that Cryptic Command is going to be a better card than Jace with how we currently build control decks. To make Jace better, we will need to redefine how we think about and build control decks. Tempo or midrange decks can prey on control decks with Jace, the Mind Sculptor by deploying low-curve, hard-to-answer creatures paired with disruptive elements, and then slam a Jace into play on the turn the control deck is forced to tap out to answer these cards. Control decks, as they are currently built, need Cryptic Command to beat these kinds of decks. They need to be able to play at instant speed so they can either counter a relevant threat or answer the board on the opponent's turn.

I think new control decks with Jace must be built just like the tempo or midrange decks to be successful, with Jace, the Mind Sculptor at or near the top of the curve. Expensive cards in the deck should either be cards like Supreme Verdict that punish people overextending into Jace, or cards that help clear the path for Jace.

It's possible that Supreme Verdict is even worse than Terminus, because the value of having a one-mana wrath effect is so unbelievably huge when you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor in your deck. Randomly spiking a Terminus can set you up to play a Jace, completely swinging a game, and Terminus makes a desperation Jace much better. You can play Jace as an expensive Brainstorm that will die to their board, but use it to set up the following turn to miracle Terminus and deploy another Jace, which is a devastating swing, and something that Supreme Verdict cannot replicate.

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Based on what I've seen in Legacy, I suspect there are going to be basically three styles of deck that use Jace.

1. Jace at the top of the curve. These decks, whether they are control, tempo, or midrange decks, either play to the board or begin interacting with the opponent as early as is possible. The goal is set up a situation where you can play Jace into a board where you're likely to be able to successfully untap with it in play. Preferably, this would be on turn three or four, but it can be later. These decks utilize cheap and efficient cards to best facilitate Jace, but it is imperative that they also have cards that scale into the late game. Simply ramping into Jace without a powerful endgame isn't enough to win. Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves into Jace, the Mind Sculptor isn't a winning strategy unless you also have some big guns to win with.

Decks that can do this are decks like Death's Shadow, Jeskai Control, Faeries, or any kind of “blue Jund” deck like Grixis or Sultai.

2. Jace as a sideboard threat out of combo decks. Combo decks will utilize their normal game plan in game one, but will side into Jace, the Mind Sculptor in post-board games to punish people who overboard against their combo. They can either win with Jace's ultimate or use Jace to create so much card advantage that they can simply just grind through the hate eventually. Decks like Storm, Infect or various Goryo's Vengeance decks can accomplish this.

3. Jace as a bridge between early and late game. These decks, like Amulet Bloom or Taking Turns, use Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a transitional element. This only really works as a strategy if the late game of these decks is powerful enough to end the game immediately. Basically, a deck utilizing this strategy needs to be a deck where playing Jace to Brainstorm and Fog is still an extremely powerful play. It needs to be a deck that simply doesn't care if Jace survives or not, but that can do disgusting things if it does, and that uses Jace's Brainstorm effectively to set up for future turns. Amulet, for example, can follow up a Jace turn with an attack from Primeval Titan. Taking Turns can follow up Jace by, well, taking the rest of the turns of the game. In the case of a deck like Amulet, they can also play Jace very early in the game, as early as turn two with a great draw, which also provides added value, since a turn two Jace is likely to survive at least one turn and set up for Prime Time.

Lastly, I want to say that I don't think Jace, the Mind Sculptor is going to be a great threat in Lantern Control. I will be testing it, of course, but Jace is a card that you cannot allow to stay in play on the opposing side of the table, because Brainstorm fundamentally beats the Lantern lock. As a result, it's more likely that you're going to want to be playing Pithing Needle on Jace rather than casting them yourself.

Personally, I'm going to be trying out Lantern Control with main deck Tezzeret. Tezzeret kills Jace or finds Pithing Needles for it in situations where you've already stuck a Bridge. Tezzeret is also a good threat against Jund-style decks, making it a worthwhile card against Bloodbraid Elf decks as well.

Or maybe I just can't play Lantern anymore.

Who knows. I certainly do not. All I or anyone else can do is just speculate on what will happen. Now, if you'll excuse me, Magic Online is back online. It's time to relearn Modern. It's a completely new format now. Time to explore.

- Brian Braun-Duin

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