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With the changes to the Modern banned list two weeks ago, two old favorites are returning to the pool. Players had experimented with Faerie decks over the past few years, but these decks didn’t have much tribal character to them — they were basically UR tempo decks with some flash creatures. Bitterblossom is the key to making tribal-centered Faeries function, powering up Spellstutter Sprite, Mistbind Clique, and Scion of Oona.
But Faeries isn’t the only deck unleashed by the format changes. Wild Nacatl was a staple of the Modern format in its early days. The Zoo decks of Modern rarely looked much like the Zoo decks of Legacy. Without Wasteland to worry about, they resembled the recent crop of midrange decks in their greedy mana bases. Zoo can be built as fast aggro, midrange aggro, or even aggro-control. With Faeries’ historical weakness to aggro decks well-known, can they really make an impact alongside a popular and powerful deck like Zoo?
To start off, we’re going to look at the traditional card choices for Faeries. We’ll talk about the deckbuilding philosophy of Faeries players through the years, take a look at some new additions to the potential card pool, and maybe figure out what sort of shape Faeries needs to take to have a chance today.
Faeries were popular in Standard for over a year, and enjoyed a resurgence in spring of 2011 during the short-lived experiment that was 4-block rotating Extended. Let’s start off with a look at the cards that made up the core of Faeries during its two runs in competitive Magic. Next to each card, I’ll list the usual number of copies that decks have played.
- Spellstutter Sprite. Copies: 3-4. With the exception of a few early experiments with hyper-aggressive variants, Faeries has not typically played a 1-drop creature. That means that, on the surface, Spellstutter will always be a turn behind an opponent curving out. Bitterblossom changes that match, because when you untap on your third turn, you will have the enchantment plus a token in play, allowing you to Spellstutter your opponent’s 3-drop. With a Mutavault in play to tap and activate itself, this goes up to four, so that even on the draw you are able to keep pace. There are plenty of 1- and 2-mana spells out there to counter, which is why Spellstutter saw play even without Bitterblossom in the format, but countering bigger spells makes for a much bigger tempo swing in your favor. This card gets a huge boost from the unbanning.
- Scion of Oona. Copies: 0-4. This is one of the biggest divides among Faeries players historically. The early Standard lists were very aggressive and typically played a set of these. But there was a definite movement away from the card, as some of the deck’s most prominent players attempted to re-orient the deck away from its aggressive tendencies. Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa (or “PV” for short) has been a consistent advocate for playing the full set of Scions. Perhaps the best Faeries player in the game, he cited them as a key component to Faeries’ ability to quickly switch roles and become the aggressor at a key moment in the game. He played four Scions at PT Hollywood in 2008, and continued to play them as late as the 2011 Extended season. But his opinion was not universally accepted, and over the past couple of weeks there has been a renewed debate on the subject. In some early playtesting on his stream last week, noted blue mage AJ Sacher derided a playset of Scions as “level one thinking”, and began his re-exploration of the deck with zero copies. The ability of Scion to protect Bitterblossom from Abrupt Decay has been discussed, but I think that it will be the overall shape of the format rather than isolated card interactions that determines whether Scion is good this time around. If you can’t reach that critical point where Scion suddenly launches you into beatdown mode, it may not make the cut.
- Mistbind Clique. Copies: 2-4. This is another tribal-oriented Faerie that benefits enormously from having Bitterblossom around. Not only do you have a flood of tokens to champion and less chance of being blown out by removal, but you can also champion the Bitterblossom itself in a pinch. Although the opponent’s upkeep is the ideal time to cast this, you may sometimes want to cast it at his end step during blue mirrors, or even on your own turn if he is tapped out — you don’t always have to “get him” with a Time Walk, if resolving the 4/4 flyer or forcing your opponent to react on his turn might be what you need to actually win the game.
- Vendilion Clique. Copies: 2-4. Along with your discard, this is one of your most direct weapons against combo decks. It also provides a nice clock against those decks, which you’ll need if you didn’t have a Bitterblossom hand. I always liked three of these, but with the change to the Legend Rule in M14, four copies might be supportable. As with Mistbind Clique, there is a “gotcha” time to cast this guy, at the end of the opponent’s draw step. Since he will draw another card off the Clique, casting it on your turn will give him an additional unknown card when he draws. But you may want to get a particular card out of his hand while he’s tapped out, so don’t let yourself get locked into playing Clique in one phase alone.
- Cryptic Command. Copies: 3-4. This is one of the best spells in the deck — indeed, one of the best spells in the Modern card pool. But the mana cost is something to consider and may limit how many utility lands you can use. Entire articles could be written about casting this spell, and I won’t dwell on its general applications here. In the particular context of Faeries, you will get a lot more utility out of the “tap all creatures” mode than some other decks will. When you switch to the beatdown role and it becomes a race, this mode will win you the game more than any other.
- Bitterblossom. Copies: 4. Nearly always used as a full playset, because like AEther Vial the card is usually best in your opening hand or not at all. Unlike AEther Vial, it’s only rarely good in multiples, as the life loss is difficult to manage. A game with Turn 2 Bitterblossom will play out much differently than a game without it. You can choose to commit far less to the board, and instead protect your enchantment like you would a planeswalker, riding it to victory.
- Thoughtseize / Inquisition of Kozilek. Copies: 4-6. A set of Thoughtseize was the norm during Faeries’ run in Standard. In Extended, a split with IoK was sometimes utilized. IoK has obvious benefits in a deck that has to monitor its life total carefully. There are relevant spells in Modern that it doesn’t hit, but you may feel that you can deal with those by Turn 4, whether through countermagic or a timely Vendilion Clique. I chose to play four Thoughtseize today, but I can see good arguments on either side.
- Rune Snag / Mana Leak. Copies: 4. Although Rune Snag was used during Faeries’ time in Standard, I think Mana Leak wins this contest pretty easily. People might be keeping 2 mana open with the plan of countering your counterspell anyhow, and Rune Snag walks right into that. I’m not really interested in the later copies being better, I need to counter the spell now. Deathrite Shaman being booted from the format might let a few Rune Snags sit in the graveyard longer than they would have, but that’s a pretty thin branch to hang an argument upon. Remand would also be an option here — I think I’d like it a lot during games where I had Bitterblossom, but in other games I have to commit something to the board at some point and may not want to deal with the same gamebreaking spell again next turn.
From here, the spell selection begins to branch out wider. Some number of creature removal spells has generally been used. Agony Warp and Smother were popular options, and both are well-positioned today. Disfigure also saw play, but I couldn’t recommend it in a world of Wild Nacatls and Kird Apes. Affinity is enjoying a resurgence in the Daily Events right now, so I would also stay away from Go for the Throat. Dismember is a versatile option, but I’m not sure what you really want to kill with it that the other spells can’t handle and that would justify more incidental life loss — it’s not as if Baneslayer Angels were running roughshod all over the format.
Original Faeries ran Jace Beleren in the sideboard against control decks, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor saw play in Extended Faeries. Big Jace is still banned in Modern, and I don’t really like Beleren enough in a field without “true” control decks. Liliana of the Veil is another option, but there aren’t any particular synergies this deck can exploit. If you had a Bitterblossom hand, you might be okay with putting the game into topdeck mode, but your other hands want no part of that. That being said, the edict effect alone may end up being enough to justify her play. Right now, I think a sorcery-speed edict effect that costs double-black is a poor fit for the Faeries playstyle, but I’d be open to trying it.
One place that Faeries is sorely lacking compared to older incarnations is in cantrips and card-drawing spells. During TSP/LOR Standard, Faeries had Ancestral Vision, but that card remains on the Modern banned list — for now. Extended Faeries had access to both Preordain and Ponder, cards that are also on the banned list — probably for good. Do you want to devote slots in Modern Faeries to such mediocre cantrips as Serum Visions or Sleight of Hand? I doubt it. Although I’m generally on board with the recent move towards playing Gitaxian Probe in aggro-control decks, I don’t really love it here. I do like the idea of adding Snapcaster Mage, as this gives the deck relevant card advantage in a way that fits its play style. It won’t help you find the first piece of countermagic or spot-removal, but it will let you reuse the one you need, and that’s something.
Moving on, the mana base is a major point of discussion — and price speculation, for those market-watchers among you. The usual number can fluctuate, but probably should be between 23 or 24 on the low end and 26 at the high end if you run numerous manlands. Here is a rundown of the mana options for Faeries:
Fetches/Shocks: If the deck ends up in 3 colors, this is the most obvious way to accomplish that. Fetches and Shocks give you the perfect and greedy mana bases that Modern’s midrange decks are known for, at the price of a ton of life loss. Faeries is a deck that needs to manage its life total on account of Bitterblossom, and has a proven historical weakness to hyper-aggro decks. One of the reasons I don’t believe the deck will go to three colors successfully is the likelihood of needing fetches and shocks to do it reliably, with the deck being steamrolled by Domain Zoo and Burn as a result — but, as you’ll see in the videos, there’s already a huge weakness there, and access to either Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile could wind up saving life in those matchups. For today, I’m sticking with two colors.
So what about just Watery Grave in the two-color version? Is losing 2 life managable when losing 3 wasn’t? Maybe. There’s a pretty big difference between losing a couple life to one Watery Grave you draw and losing 6 life from the two you fetched. Let’s keep them on the table for now.
River of Tears: This land looks complicated, but for the most part it gives you blue on your opponent’s turn and black on yours. You are nearly always casting your blue spells on the opponent’s turn and your black spells on your own, so this seems like a perfect fit. There are a couple cases where it can be awkward. If you chose to play black removal spells, and you probably did, you will often want to cast those on the opponent’s turn. As I said earlier, you can have perfect mana at the price of tons of life, but if you need to manage your life total there are a few concessions you’ll have to make.
Darkslick Shores: This land doesn’t penalize you with any life loss, but has the drawback of coming into play tapped if it is your fourth land drop or beyond. If you need to topdeck the fourth land, it’s admittedly a problem. If it’s in your opening hand, you just play it out early, easily done on Turn 1 if you have no discard spell. So while Faeries definitely does want to hit a fourth land untapped, Darkslick Shores is still a good fit.
Underground River: The old Ice Age painlands were reprinted in Core Sets early in the Modern Era, along with their enemy-colored brethren from Apocalypse, but only the blue-red land has seen much play. Underground River was an option during Lorwyn Standard, but not always a popular one, being viewed as a necessary evil. I think it’s workable, but I’m not sure we’d want both this one AND Watery Grave, so we’ll have to make a choice.
Secluded Glen: Of all the tribal-lands, Secluded Glen is the one with the worst drawback. What’s that? They all have the same drawback? Not quite. Revealing a Goblin from your hand to play an untapped Auntie’s Hovel is typically followed immediately by casting the Goblin you just revealed. Revealing a Faerie from your hand is often followed by your passing the turn, leaving your opponent with information that may be useful to him. I’ve played this in Faeries before, and always hated it. It’s just dandy if you reveal it to cast Turn 2 Bitterblossom. It’s very annoying if you need to reveal a Scion of Oona or Spellstutter Sprite, because the element of surprise has some value with those two. For example, an opponent who knows you have Spellstutter could sequence his spells differently to work around it. Mistbind Clique isn’t that bad of a reveal, because your opponent can’t do too much to play around it if you’re casting it during his next upkeep.
I understand that Secluded Glen has been widely used in Faeries in the past, and that many professional-level players will be using it again in their UB Faeries lists if the archetype pans out. But in my judgment, based on personal experience with the card, it is not a good choice, and I will opt not to use it. I’ve kept a set in my digital binder just in case I find that I have to trot them out at some point, but I hope I won’t need to do so.
Sunken Ruins: This is an intriguing option for decks heavy with double-colored mana requirements in two colors. If your deck is all Islands and dual lands, then any combination of a basic and a dual will produce either UB or UU, but not BB. An Island and a Sunken Ruins will produce BB if you need it. If you are running any double-black spells, such as Liliana or some other removal spell, strongly consider this land. What about decks without BB spells? The most obvious drawback is that Sunken Ruins can’t cast a Turn 1 Thoughtseize. That alone would be a workable drawback, but unfortunately Sunken Ruins just gets more awkward the more colorless lands you play. A two land hand with Mutavault and Sunken Ruins can’t cast anything at all. Nor can a hand with two copies of Sunken Ruins. Being poor in multiples and bad with your colorless lands, I suggest playing no more than a couple of these unless you have a powerful need for double-black mana.
Creeping Tar Pit: Modern’s equivalent of True-Name Nemesis has been harassing planeswalkers in both formats for a few years now. As a tap-land, you don’t want too many, but you are safe with one or two.
Drowned Catacomb: This requires a basic land type in play to enter untapped. You don’t have enough of those to make this land work, so in my view it’s out. That being said, PV actually liked the card when it was released in M10, and his lists at the time were running 9-10 basics including Swamps, so if you have a basic-heavy manabase you should consider it.
Mutavault: You want some number. If you are the 26-land variant, you want 4. If you are running fewer lands, you may have problems with the full set. It helps with a lot of the “tricks” of Faeries, such as upping the Faerie count for Spellstutter or championing it to a Mistbind Clique when your opponent fires removal at your only other Faerie. It also benefits from Scion of Oona, as it can activate itself to gain shroud and protection from a land destruction spell. Tricks aside, sometimes it’s just good to have a manland.
Tectonic Edge: I think this is pushing it to include in a deck with spells that cost 1UUU. It was used in 2011 Extended Faeries on occasion, to attack opposing manlands. If that becomes important, the option is there. You don’t want or need this to attack other specialty lands. For example, it doesn’t stop Tron from casting a Turn 3 Karn — which is OK, because your countermagic and discard does that. Draw blue sources, cast blue spells, win the game. I’ll be leaving Tec-Edge on the bench for now.
For the match footage today, I tested the following list. This was an experimental list to get a feel for UB Faeries place in the Modern metagame with a fairly stock list. After the list, I have some videos, and I’ll discuss my early feelings about Faeries’ position in Modern today.
UB Faeries Test Deck, by RexDart
Chalice of the Void is the oddest looking inclusion in the sideboard. It’s great against Living End, and I wanted to see how it performed “fairly” against 1-drop heavy aggro decks, since I was boarding out Thoughtseize against them anyhow. I do not typically advocate using it that way, and I think that’s pretty loose in most cases. But, in the name of science, I did try that plan out and you’ll see it in one of the match videos against Zoo.
In the first video, the opponent is Living End. Faeries should have a good matchup against combo decks. Bitterblossom hands are easier, but any hand with a reasonable amount of disruption and something to present a clock will a do, even a poor little Snapcaster Mage can whittle on an opposing life total.
The next videos are against Zoo. No single Zoo list has emerged as the best quite yet, so there is a huge diversity of them online right now. The first deck is a Domain Zoo variant. The other is more of a “Cat-fish” style aggro-control list that plays similarly to RUG Delver. Both variants were popular to some degree before Nacatl was banned, and players are picking up where they left off. I did not see any of the hyper-aggro “RG Beats” variants, or even a traditional Naya Zoo.
The bad news for Faeries is that aggro decks have always been the enemy, and one of the best aggro creatures in the history of the game is in the spotlight right now. The time for Faeries is when non-blue midrange, combo, and ramp are popular. To survive in the current environment, some serious adjustment would likely need to be made. I’m not sure if splashing a color is necessary, but at a minimum there needs to be much more removal in the sideboard to handle the aggro matchup without losing the critical advantage the deck has against combo decks. And it may turn out, at the end of the day, that “Cat-fish” style aggro-control is just a better version of the deck that Faeries wants to be. Faeries has an advantage against combo decks in being able to cast all its spells on the opponent’s turn, and in having the ability to just plop down a Bitterblossom and ride it out. But if other decks can just toss down a Wild Nacatl, Delver of Secrets, or Tarmogoyf and do the same thing, those cards will end the game faster.
With the Pro Tour coming up, I’m looking forward to seeing what the top players come up with. From what I can see, I expect a lot of kitties in our future, with Faeries being a rogue option until things settle out.