Gifts Ungiven in Modern, or, “Wait, Entomb is legal in this format?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve played test matches in the 2-Man Queues, or — God forbid — the Tournament Practice Wasteland during which my opponent responded to my Gifts Ungiven card selections by quizzically typing some variation of “???” in the chat box. Now, I’ve found that if casting Gifts causes my opponent mild confusion, it’s usually because said instant (the coolest instant of all time regardless of its design flaws — I’d etch the rules text of Gifts Ungiven on my tombstone or even tattoo it on my lower back) asks target opponent to do all of the following actions during its resolution:

  • think long and hard about what cards your opponent may want in his hand and in his graveyard, and also what cards he may already have in his hand
  • choose (read: click on) two cards from the caster’s selections, not separate them into two piles as with Fact or Fiction
  • put the chosen cards into the caster’s graveyard
  • put the unchosen cards into the caster’s hand
  • be sad because your opponent just resolved a Gifts Ungiven, and you’re probably going to lose even if you didn’t misclick at any of the many opportunities and, so to speak, accidentally open someone else’s presents and throw yours into the garbage bin due to the awkwardness of the online interface and the wording of the card

Sleepy moon bunny still can’t count past four.

If you’re somewhat new to playing Magic Online, or if you’re a long-time player but are just becoming familiar with cards like Gifts Ungiven that haven’t seen a lot of play in popular formats lately, screwing up Gifts makes a lot of sense. A player’s instinct, I think, is to click immediately on the cards he wants the Gifts caster to have — Oh, you tutored up two lands and two relevant spells? Heh, take THIS (*clicks land) and THIS (*clicks other land, pauses for a moment, types “???” into the chat box) — so a player may be naturally and forgivably confused after mistakenly letting you double-Demonic Tutor during his end step.

But mis-clicks and user errors aren’t the only reason why playing Gifts on Magic Online is so awesome! The card is a wonderful, tightly packed box of decision-making for its caster and his opponent. It has all the marks of the best Johnny-Spike cards, despite its somewhat awkward design. Why is Gifts great? (1) It demands skill on behalf of caster and (target) opponent, (2) it provides plenty of options with respect to both deckbuilding and line of play for its caster, (3) it, as a tutor, explodes sideboard possibilities, (4) its casting cost and effect make the card quite powerful yet fair in a format like Modern given the necessary deckbuilding constraints for the Gifts player, and (5) it encourages running powerful one-of spells and lands that make drawing a card at the beginning of each turn much more exciting for the Gifts pilot.

For players new to Gifts, it is worth making explicit that the spell’s caster generally wants to make sure that he gets value out of the four cards he searches out of his library. Simply searching for four good cards usually leaves the Gifts player in a bad situation; his opponent would likely choose to place the best two in his graveyard (eliminating them as possible draws for the the Gifts player) and to give the caster the worse pair of the four cards. The tempo loss from making this play is almost as bad as if casting Gifts Given. For this reason, the Gifts caster wants to upset the natural restriction of the card as much as possible by doing one of several things, including

But there’s another way to tilt Gifts in its caster’s favor that may be less obvious. Well-connected serious players are likely to have heard about this option or thought about it on their own if they’ve been brewing for Modern, so it’s not exactly a hidden piece of the True Cross. And if you’ve been playing since Kamigawa Block, you may have even performed this maneuver yourself. With that being said, however, Gifts Ungiven has a powerful ‘secret mode,’ a function of the card, given Magic‘s ruleset, that lets it double as double Entomb.

   

Alt. Entomb flavor text: Mr. Clean left the Halloween party to hide his Magic Eraser stash.

What do I mean by this? How is this the case? Gifts Ungiven, since it places a restriction on which cards its caster may tutor out of his library (see rule 701.15 from the comprehensive rulebook), allows its controller to fail to find any of the four cards. For a card like Demonic Tutor that does NOT restrict what I can find in my library, whenever I cast it, I will have to put one card from my library into my hand, assuming I have at least one card in my library (Leveler) and can search my library (Stranglehold). This is because Demonic Tutor doesn’t restrict what sorts of cards may be found, or ‘tutored’ with it. Worldly Tutor, on the other hand, does. (In this particular respect, Worldly Tutor is similar to Gifts Ungiven.) Imagine playing Worldly Tutor in a creatureless deck. Doing so may be silly, but it’s perfectly legal in several formats. Any time you search your library as part of the resolution of Worldly Tutor, you will fail to find any cards that meet Worldly Tutor’s criterion. The rules need to account for this possibility, so failing to find a card must be possible during the resolution of a search effect when that effect demands specific criteria for the card(s) that may be found.

Okay, sure. But, you may ask, why do the rules allow me to fail to find a creature card with Worldly Tutor if I am, in fact, running a plentitude of creature cards in my deck and still have them in my library upon the resolution of the spell? Why is this rule in place? The answer is subtle, but it makes sense: If I am playing Magic in a tournament, or in a casual environment in which each player has an interest in not revealing his entire deck to his opponent, I should obviously not be permitted to scrutinize my opponent’s deck every time he searches his library for one or more cards (this is why the library is a hidden zone and why we don’t play Magic with our decks face up). This seems reasonable for a game like Magic where the particular features of your deck may, if unknown by your opponent, give you an advantage, and in which surprising your opponent is a large part of the fun (at least for Johnny-types like me). Now, if the rules were to demand that a player always find a creature card, whenever possible, while resolving, for example, Worldly Tutor, then every time a player would search his deck for a card the particular qualities of which Worldly Tutor specified but which was no longer (or had never been, as of the start of the game) in his library, his opponent would have to take it on faith that there were no such card in his library at the time of Worldly Tutor’s resolution. In other words, tutors with specific criteria for the cards they can tutor would, in this (counterfactual) scenario, allow their casters to cheat if they wanted, i.e., to find no card from their libraries when such cards are actually present and must be found, since searching one’s library is to search a hidden zone. If Worldly Tutor would force me to find a creature card from my library as long as a creature card were in it, I could search my library and fail to find a creature card, falsely telling my opponent that my library contained no more creature cards; now my opponent, who, no doubt innocent as a dove, thinks me an honest player, cannot see my library, and thus believes me, may alter his play style — I’ll pitch this Wrath of God to my Thirst for Knowledge since all my opponent’s creatures are in his graveyard — giving me an unfair advantage when I cast two more creatures I claim had been in my hand instead of my library. In other words, since Magic wants to preserve the secrecy of each player’s deck from his opponents, it lacks a mechanism to demand finding a card in a player’s library as a result of a search effect specifying particular qualities of the findable card; for that reason, its rules make clear that a player is NOT required to find such a card, and may fail to find such cards even when they are in his library.

Gifts Ungiven tells me to find four cards with different names. Because there is a single criterion for the cards to be found (‘found card’ must not have the same name as any other ‘found card’), I may fail to find any number of the cards (in other words, I can find 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 cards with Gifts Ungiven and then reveal them to my opponent).

So how does this make Gifts Ungiven an Entomb effect? The answer lies in the way that Gifts demands its target (i.e., target opponent) to interact with it. As I noted at the top of this piece, Gifts asks its target to ‘choose’ two of the four; these two cards go into caster’s graveyard. And if I only find one or two cards with my Gifts Ungiven search, my opponent has to choose those one or two cards, meaning they go to my graveyard. Hence, Gifts Ungiven can produce an effect like Entomb, though, of course, at a cost of U3 instead of B, but tacked on to a host of other useful options. Now it should really make sense why my online opponents get confused:

I search. “Where are the other two? Is this card bugged?” “I failed to find them.” “???”

The fact that to play the game precisely according to each rule and each card interaction (as must happen on Magic Online) requires an opponent to choose the cards I tutored for (and click on them individually online) is actually quite humorous from an existential perspective. The choice my opponent makes as part of the resolution of a Gifts Ungiven that finds only two cards is so blatantly illusory as to be almost an ironic gesture in the face of the ideal of the freedom of the will, like having to choose between Democrat and Republican in a United States election (unlike politics, you can’t vote for a third-party candidate during a Gifts Ungiven resolution; sure, you can rage-disconnect from MTGO, and in so doing, you may be freely asserting your disapproval at the course of events, but, like in politics, the clock is still going to tick down without you, and now you’re definitely going to lose).

But a good question remains: Why would I want to Entomb two cards with my Gifts instead of doing something more awesome?

Back during Kamigawa Block Constructed season, I performed with reasonable success at a PTQ (2nd), piloting a tuned (2x Shizo, Deaths Storehouse!) version of Gifts. (I’ve included the list below for reference for players unfamiliar with Kamigawa Block who may be curious about how Gifts was played, though it’s not all that germane to the present discussion.)

At a point during one of the three mirror matches I played in the Swiss portion, I had at least six mana open, a Gifts Ungiven and the singleton Goryos Vengeance in hand with no other relevant stuff in play or in my graveyard. My opponent, at less than 5 life from some Sakura-tribe Elder and random legendary beats, had just Wrathed my board with one of his Kagemaros but had landed a boarded-in Kodama of the North Tree to follow it up. Before declaring blockers, I cast Gifts, choosing to find one Kokusho, the Evening Star, one basic land, and nothing else. My opponent stared at me, as if to say “???” and I put the cards in my yard, cast Vengeance targeting Kokusho, and blocked his giant accordion spirit with the dragon. Since I needed Kokusho in my yard there, I couldn’t search for any more than two cards, or he might have put it into my hand instead of the yard. I may have won anyway, but ‘Entombing’ let me win the game on the spot.

This line of play, though, is unlikely to be seen at the top tables of a major Modern event. But post-Innistrad, we no longer need to recall fantastic instances of Goryo’s Vengeance recurring Drain Life for 5 (though the Vengeance might have a place in the Modern format, too, with Snapcaster Mage). Why? Because we’ve got this sweet little piece of ammunition:

If anyone needs a chiropractor, it’s this gentleman.

So which cool giant dude do you want to resurrect right out of your library? How about choosing between some of these fatties?: Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, Empyrial Archangel, Wrexial, the Risen Deep, Inkwell Leviathan, Godo, Bandit Warlord, Iona, Shield of Emeria, Sundering Titan, Sun Titan, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, Sheoldred, Whispering One, Gaea’s Revenge, Stormtide Leviathan, Wurmcoil Engine, Terastodon, Nullstone Gargoyle, Rune-Scarred Demon, Sharuum, the Hegemon, and Sphinx of the Steel Wind. At the end of your turn, I cast Gifts Ungiven, finding Unburial Rites and some giant bozo. During my main phase, I’ll put the giant bozo onto the field and ruin your day. Next game?

Of course, it’s not always that simple, especially in Modern where you never know what to expect (given the dearth of DEs fired!). Figuring out a way to build the list is quite difficult, and playing such a deck is even harder. After using the first place deck of this tournament as a partial template, ChrisKool and I put together the following list:

 

We made sure to include several questionable (maybe-awesome, probably-suckage) cards just to test them out and see how they would perform in the unknown environment. We didn’t expect DEs to fire, so 2-Man Queues were going to be the best option. Three of our matches are below (I get flustered and screw up quite a bit in a game of Round 2, but I think, regardless, that the videos demonstrate the way that the deck, in suboptimal condition, performs, and what sorts of plays have to be made.). The first video features us describing some of our inclusions as well as other cards we chose to omit.

Modern WUGbr Gifts Ungiven Decklist

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2-Man Match 1

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2-Man Match 2

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2-Man Match 3

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As stated in the videos repeatedly, Ajani Vengeant just sucks, but there are some other questionable cards, too. Eternal Witness is sometimes excellent, but only in rare situations where you’re jockeying for control against a non-aggressive deck, or if you have a ton of mana available and want to guarantee getting a Gifts selection. Snapcaster Mage is unimpressive without tons of instants, even if it is possible to tutor for Noxious Revival, Snapcaster, X, and Y to guarantee you get both X and Y. In a newer build, we have been trying out Knight of the Reliquary, which is a ‘redundant’ Tarmogoyf, along with Sun Titan to recur it and other important permanents. Knight can also find Academy Ruins to lock out your opponent with Engineered Explosives or Shackles, or return a Batterskull from your yard. But perhaps it’s just too dumb of a beater for the metagame when we don’t have more than one utility land; we just don’t know.

Let’s put card choices aside for a moment, though. This deck does everything I love to do in a game of Magic and is a ton of fun to play. It has a game plan (no matter how tedious) for almost every situation and can feasibly ‘get there’ even when on the backpedal. However, there are some potential weaknesses that shouldn’t be denied. For instance, it’s actually quite subject to collateral damage from hate in an open field. Graveyard hate makes your Gifts-Unburial combo pretty lame even if there’s no dedicated Dredge boogeyman around yet. Leyline of Sanctity is also a Meddling Mage against Gifts Ungiven since you have to target your opponent with the spell. (I’m not sure that Leyline is better than discard, Aven Mindcensor, or hate bears like the Meddling Mage, though.) Moreover, the decklist is extremely difficult to pin down without a coherent metagame; should Iona be in the main as we decided (guessed), or is Empyrial Archangel better?

Finally, it is noteworthy that there are plenty of routes the deckbuilder can go to abuse Gifts-Unburial Rites. For instance, you could play a straight-up control deck without heavy green or red (Esper colors, perhaps) and run a larger reanimation package: three Unburial Rites and more targets, maybe? You could also run a more combo-centric list like Gavin Verhey’s recent Solar Flare list or his Liliana Reanimator list but with Gifts Ungiven included, of course. (Note that if you want to run Goryo’s Vengeance like Verhey suggests, you can target your Jin-Gitaxias during your opponent’s end step to reduce their hand size by seven for the cleanup and keep it around long enough to draw seven yourself, and you can target your Emrakul, the Aeons Torn at the moment his put-into-the-graveyard ability triggers to bash your opponent for 15 and -6 perms.)

So let Chris and me know what you think about this list. How would you build it? Is there too much hate in this untapped format? Is Gifts too slow even after the last round of Modern bannings? Or will we see a list like the above one at Worlds this weekend? Comment below. Thanks for reading and for watching.

 
  1. Hey everyone!

    I have discussed Gifts off and on with AJ since he undertook building the basis for the Modern list above probably about a month ago, so most of my thoughts are incorporated in the article (and in the videos). I am anxious to see what the Worlds Modern meta brings us and hope to see some action in MTGO-land afterward. The format seems wide open, and I hope that interest picks up with the PTQ season on the horizon.

    Cheers!

  2. Hey guys.
    I love Modern format. I am glad they made another non rotating format and I loved old extended (although I would argue that this is a redux).

    Have you guys considered running Tribal Flames? I know it is Sorcery speed, but it is 5 damage for 2 mana in your deck.

    I have been testing a list similar to the RUG deck you played against. I don’t like the manadorks or Garruk in that list though. I run a more tempo-oriented list with full sets of Delver of Secrets, Tarmo, Snapcaster Mage, and 2 V. Clique as threats and Mana Leaks, Spell Snares, Grove + Punishing Fire, etc, etc…

    Anyway, I think people don’t play DEs yet because there are a couple of perceptual misconceptions about the format, and I understand why. Basically, no one wants to play Tarmogoyf mirror matches all day long. With all the banning being biased against control and combo decks, aggro decks, namely Zoo (all flavors of Bant, Naya, and Jund), are clear winners. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but that is the perception of most of the forums that I contribute to.

    I hope that Worlds changes this perception.

    Good work. Look for me on MTGO. username:apaulogy

  3. @apaulogy: We forgot that Tribal Flames exists, I think. :-o It is an interesting consideration! I think Tarmogoyf will see a lot of play in the format, but there will definitely be decks without the 100$ 2-drop that will succeed. (Wonderful insight, right?!) I actually think that Lotus Cobra has a place in Modern (and would like to try it in gifts with its 8 fetches). I am also surprised that new Extended wasn’t entirely replaced by Modern.

    @matt (and Matt!): In the future, I will try to enforce a strict mechanical announcement for all cards and activated abilities. We would hate for anyone watching our content in public to mistake it for anything but greasy gaming vids. :)

  4. @ Chris Kool

    I agree with your assessment and remain hopeful that some pros will show all these “netdeckers” their way. Until then, I will continue testing and looking for broken interactions.

    thanks for validating my suggestion (somewhat). I don’t think that Tribal Flames is necessarily the point of your deck, and I don’t think it belongs in any Gifts packages I can think of. Still, it seems like it gives you something to do when you durdle sometimes. This deck does durdle too!!!

    cheers, fellas.

    apaulogy

  5. BTW- i have been seeing people wrecking with Dredgevine builds sans Goyf.

    Plus Storm is still real. Burn is real. The Egg deck is real. etc

  6. I personally like the the RUG deck that posted 15 points…

    Look for me later Chris. It has been good getting to chat with you.

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