Esper Gifts Ungiven: The Primer

By Austin Baker

Recently, I went back to my roots with my first modern deck: Esper Gifts. The addition of a few new cards made me want to revisit the archetype, and I think it’s a very powerful deck that gives you a lot of options. Lets dig into it.

So what made me want to revisit this particular deck? Two new cards from the past year or so really got me thinking about this archetype again, namely collective brutality and fatal push. When I played the deck previously, I was using discard outlets like Liliana of the Veil and Thirst for Knowledge. Both of these were good in their own right, but really struggled as they were three mana and the deck needed to live until that point. Modern was filled with burn and zoo at that time, so it wasn’t a very friendly environment for a deck looking to cast a four mana instant to win the game. I also had to play slightly sub-par removal in those days as 4 Path to Exiles were the main removal, supplemented with things like Go For the Throat or Victim of Night. Those were good but were awkward at times. 95% of the time, Go for the Throat was just a 2-mana kill anything, but then there’s that one time you play affinity and life becomes more than miserable. Victim is also terribly awkward in a deck that tries to cast 4 mana spells that cost double white or triple blue. Also this deck lacked a bolt. And missed it bad. Really bad. Turn one bird of paradise was often a nightmare that just couldn’t be managed appropriately. Path was also terrible with the Mana Leaks in the deck, so Fatal push is just the kill spell this deck ordered up.

Similarly, collective brutality covers up some of the gaping holes that this deck had previously. Burn was pretty unwinnable, but one well timed brutality is, well…brutal. It buys just the right amount of time to give you to put Iona on red or just get a Griselbrand into play (which I hear is pretty good, even if the “pay 7 life: draw 7 cards” clause doesn’t matter here, cause how the hell does burn beat a 7/7 lifelink flyer?). Brutality also does a unique job of allowing you to simultaneously discard a fatty, and strip their hand of a way to kill it in order to protect your giant idiot. This card fits really well here and gave this deck a shot in the arm that really helps it stay in the early game. Also, even if you don’t have a fatty to discard, there are several flashback spells that can be made good on, such as lingering souls or unburial rites itself.

So, what does this monstrosity look like when it all comes together? well, we are playing gifts, so there is some need for consideration when building the deck for gifts packages. Lets start with the “combo” of unburial rites and a fatty. Maindeck has traditionally always included Iona, Sheild of Emeria and Elesh Norn, the Grand Cenobite, but I’ve gone as far as to include a Grisel-father as well, just because “eh, its sweet”. Also if you get Grisel-papa in play in a control mirror of some sort, you’re just going to win immediately. Drawing seven cards is absurd, especially since your opponent can’t (theoretically) kill you quickly, making the life loss negligible. I’ve also seen Grave Titan in this spot and think that that is probably just as good, if not better. But you can kind of mess around with your reanimation targets, just make sure that they’re good. Iona and the Norn-Mother are traditional due to their game ending abilities, so I’d highly recommend those at least.

Next, we need removal. Path and push slot in nicely. I played 4 push and 3 path. They’re also decent in gifts piles that I’ll discuss later, but they’re just a nice way to clean up if nothing else. We also want some sort of sweepers most likely, so 3 wrath effects is reasonable. One each of Supreme Verdict, Wrath of God, and Damnation will most likely do the trick. They need to be different names due to the name clause on Gifts Ungiven, and these are the most powerful of the lot.

So far we have:

4 Gifts Ungiven

1 Iona, Shield of Emeria

1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

1 Griselbrand

4 Fatal Push

3 Path to Exile

1 Wrath of God

1 Damnation

1 Supreme Verdict

We also need some countermagic. 2 spell snares hits a lot of cards in the format, the card sort of speaks for itself. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad…well it’s bad but whatever. I also enjoy some number of mana leaks, 3 being my preferred number, but I could see an argument for 4. Cryptic Command is also a big, over the top answer to pretty much any spell or situation you could encounter. Overloading on Cryptic a la Burkhart grixis sounds appealing, but putting a ton of four drops in your deck has consequences. I’ll give a shout out to logic knot as well. While I think it’s less good in this deck as we’re trying to use and abuse the graveyard, but I’ve been impressed with it in other shells.

We also need some utility cards. Snapcaster mage is everything this deck wants. Flashes back kill spells, is a body, is cheap, goes well in gifts piles; he checks all the boxes. 3 of is my preferred number, as we’re using, but not abusing Snapcaster mage (that said, I did Unburial Rites a Snapcaster Mage once, so that’s something). Lingering Souls is also another card that is just generally good. They attac, they protec, they are huge with Elesh Norn. They play well with discard like brutality, and are great in a gifts pile. I like 3 of these as well.

All that leaves is some card selection and some lands. 4 serum visions and 22 lands is a reasonable option, as serum often is used to help you find lands or set up draw steps with removal or counters. the lands should look something similar to this, but this mana base is definitely tweak-able:

4 Flooded Strand

4 Polluted Delta

2 Hallowed Fountain

2 Watery Grave

1 Godless Shrine

2 Darkslick Shores

1 Mystic Gate

1 Sunken Ruins

3 Island

1 Plains

1 Swamp

So, the final iteration is something like this:

3 Snapcaster Mage

1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

1 Iona, Shield of Emeria

1 Griselbrand

4 Fatal Push

3 Path to Exile

4 Serum Visions

2 Spell Snare

3 Mana Leak

2 Collective Brutality

3 Lingering Souls

4 Gifts Ungiven

2 Cryptic Command

1 Wrath of God

1 Supreme Verdict

1 Damnation 

2 Unburial Rites

4 Flooded Strand

4 Polluted Delta

2 Hallowed Fountain

2 Watery Grave

1 Godless Shrine

2 Darkslick Shores

1 Mystic Gate

1 Sunken Ruins

3 Island

1 Plains

1 Swamp

Now, that is a list that I think can be pretty competitive, but the idea of trimming 1 serum and adding a land had caught my fancy. I liked being a little more certain of making land drops, and trimming on cards that are “air” always makes me happy. So, I think the idea of adding a Mystic Gate or Darkslick Shores is a pretty solid choice, though I would warn against anything more than 3 filter lands. They’re amazing when they work, but staring at two in your opening hand is just disastrous. They’re in the deck though as a concession to having to cast things that are double white, double black and triple blue. I won’t lie, fetch carefully with this deck.

So in my thought experiment, I though about what I could do to cut the 3 Serum Visions I mentioned previously, since 23 land ran just a bit smoother than 22. And late one night, in a drunken rage, it hit me. Shadow of Doubt. I’m kidding about the drunken rage bit, but Shadow of Doubt is no joke. This thing kills lands, Nahiris that are trying to ultimate, Chord of Callings, Surgicals trying to hit your Unburial Rites, Expedition Maps, Sanctum of Ugin triggers, the lot of it. Also hits opposing Gifts Ungivens (get out of here with that, Storm). At it’s worst, it cycles. And once you play it, your opponents will start doing crazy things with their fetches. It’s quite funny to behold actually. So, if you’re into the spice, and want to try something that is really brutal, go for the same list that I just posted, -4 Serum Visions, + 1 Mystic Gate and +3 Shadow of Doubt.

Now, to get into gameplay, of which this deck has a lot of lines. Particularly, the namesake card, Gifts Ungiven can be complicated. Surprisingly, the “combo” of only getting a fatty and Unburial Rites is not usually the first line, and sometimes just doesn’t happen. Common Gifts piles are:

3 Wrath effects + Snapcaster

Snapcaster, Push, Path, Cryptic

Snapcaster, Lingering Souls, Cryptic, Gifts (?)

Fatty, Unburial Rites (If I have to explain it, you can find only 2 cards from your library, failing to find the other 2, and your opponent has to put 2 cards in your graveyard, so they are forced to put your reanimation spell and fatty right into the yard where you want it)

To be honest, Gifts piles are very situational, so listing the “common ones” is difficult, but as a general rule, if you don’t immediately win the game by reanimating a fatty, maybe that isn’t the line to go for. As an aside, do not forget that your fatties have a CMC. You can just actually cast them. Elesh Norn in particular is obscene vs things like counters company if you can resolve her. Then just protec her and you win. E Z P Z.

In all seriousness, this deck has game against a bunch of the field. You get to slaughter all creatures and creature decks (affinity is admittedly a little hard), but Collected Company Decks just haven’t seemed to be much of an issue. Spell based combo decks a la storm and Ad Nauseam are just all about doing what you can to disrupt until you land an Iona. Every matchup is hard, there are no free wins, but the deck has all the tools to grind out a win in any environment. All in all, I highly recommend this deck if you’re looking to expand your horizon in modern and would even go as far as to say that it is a good meta call. The sideboard is tunable to your liking, but mine so far is

2 Dispel

1 Negate

2 Stony Silence

3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos

4 Leyline of the Void

1 Supreme Verdict

1 Inkwell Leviathan

1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind

Just keep in mind that your grave hate has to be pretty specific to not hit you (Grafdigger’s Cage and Rest in Peace can’t be considered due to their symmetrical nature) so that leaves us with Leyline and Nihil Spellbomb. Leyline does make the Shadow matchup pretty simple, as they can’t usually even cast their Tasigurs or Gurmag Anglers without some delve help. So as long as you can answer a couple shadows, things will be fine. I hope this was helpful, and feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions!

Austin Baker, Dead On Board Host

@dead_on_board

@Austin_P_Baker

or email DeadOnBoardMTG@gmail.com with your thoughts!

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One thought on “Esper Gifts Ungiven: The Primer

  1. One of the Islands should be snow-covered for the rare occasions where you want to gifts for lands.

    Also 23 Lands with no card-filtering sounds very greedy to me in a deck with some 9 4-drops, 2 (potential) 5-drops and 4 fatties to hard-cast.
    I´d just jam a couple Colonnades in there and go up to 25 lands. Not sure what exactly to cut, but I think you can cut one path, since between 7 removal spells and 3 sweepers, brutalities and Giftspiles there is a bit of overlap in the removal-suite and there would be less nombo of Path+Leak.
    For the other Land, I´m not that sure, but I think it’s either Lingering Souls or Shadow of Doubt. It can be a blowout, but it´s somewhat clunky and once your opponent knows about it it becomes worse, so I’d be fine with 2.

    Like

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