Gifts Ungiven: it’s a powerhouse of a card. It got a reprint in Modern Masters, which helped the price along a little (although no promises for the future). And the relatively low price is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that the rest of a Gift Control deck costs slightly more than the GDP of some nations. Maybe it’s because it uses cards like Griselbrand, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, Iona, Shield of Emeria, Cryptic Command, Damnation, and why not, how about Snapcaster Mage. Or maybe it’s just because lands get expensive when you run eight or nine colors.
Yes, I know there are only five colors in Magic. Gift Control invents several colors, just for the cost of it.
But what makes the deck work? Only two cards:
The combo isn’t apparent at first glance. Gifts Ungiven lets you search for cards, two of which will wind up in your graveyard. The synergy with Unburial Rites is obvious… drop it and a huge creature into the graveyard, and use the flashback on Unburial Rites to put the creature onto the battlefield. Since Gifts Ungiven is an instant, you can even wait until your opponent is tapped out, search at the end of their turn, and flash back Unburial Rites on your main phase.
But Gifts Ungiven searches for four cards, right? And they get divided by your opponent, so obviously they’re never going to let you pull that combo off. But y’know, wording is a tricky thing. And the wording on Gifts Ungiven says you search for, “up to four cards.” So if you only search for two cards, then your opponent has to choose two of them to put in your graveyard. And that’s not giving them much of a choice at all.
Now as I mentioned above, the usual reanimation targets for Unburial Rites tend to run on the pricey side. And by pricey side, I mean the side that has all those Rolexes and Maseratis you’re not allowed to look at for too long, or the owner’s bodyguard beats the hell out of you on general principle.
Thankfully, it turns out that over the course of twenty years, Magic has produced some other creatures that you might want to get on the board for less than their casting cost. In fact, we can stick to just the last five years.
Chancellor of the Annex
Sometimes a card makes me scratch my head and stare at it for a few minutes before asking it, “why aren’t you a thing?” It doesn’t answer, because it’s an inanimate object, but I have my fun.
This is one of those cards. It’s about as solid a reanimation target as you can get, with an ability that hurts your opponent’s ability to respond, which sits on five power with an evasive body. On top of that, the card is a rare treat to have in your opening hand; it knocks your opponent back a full turn, which is exactly what a control deck wants to do. Draw it early or tutor it mid-game; either way it’s a solid choice.
The problem with control decks is that they move a little bit slower than other decks. While your opponent is following a Wild Nacatl with a Tarmogoyf, and following a Tarmogoyf with a Knight of the Reliquary, and following a Knight of the Reliquary with the satisfaction of watching you say, “ow, my pride,” you’re playing an Island and saying, “pass the turn.”
Now in an ideal situation, the deck makes up for the lack of speed by creating a counterspell wall that stops your opponent from putting anything on the board. But we’re not going to have access to the full toolbox of spells that control decks hold so dear. No Remand. No Cryptic Command. No Snapcaster Mage. And while Mana Leak is a great card at a budget-friendly price, it’s entirely possible that your opponent will sneak a permanent or two past the goalie.
That’s where our friend Ashen Rider comes in. If your opponent has already got a Liliana of the Veil out, threatening to eat whatever you reanimate the second they reach their main phase, you don’t want to mess around with raising the cost of their future spells by one mana. You want to get the hell rid of that planeswalker right the hell now. And then you want to hit them with five damage in the air. And then you want the satisfaction of watching them say, “ow, my pride.”
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
Tricks are fun, but sometimes the creature you reanimate should just be ready to beat some face.
Now I mention above that we don’t have access to everything that makes a control deck work. We’re not only going to need to slow things down; we’re going to need to do it for cheap. So what do we have access to?
It’s a great card on turn two. And after you cast one of them, it’s an outstanding card for the rest of the game; a card that only gets better as the game goes on. And now that our friend Deathrite Shaman is shopping around a wacky buddy comedy with Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor (Ban Buddies, this fall on CBS), it’s an even more viable option. You’re still going to have to watch out for Scavenging Ooze, but even in a worst-case scenario, it’s another four mini-Mana Leaks in your deck. And frankly, the Gift Control deck that doesn’t already have to watch out for Scavenging Ooze doesn’t exist.
Does your deck use black and white? Yeah, you should probably go ahead and use Lingering Souls. Four flying chump blockers, and a counterspell or a Thoughtseize is only going to take that number down to two. Not much to say about this card; it’s just one of those solid spells that rolls up its sleeves and does good work, doing exactly what it says it’ll do.
It’s sometimes difficult for a casual player to understand why Remand is such a big deal in competitive matches. It just puts the card back in their hand! They can still cast it! Why not use Mana Leak, which removes the problem all together?
The thing is, Magic decks tend to build a lot of redundancy into their strategies. Let’s say you’re playing against RG Tron. Well, their first few turns will be spent playing Ancient Stirrings. Or Expedition Map. Or Chromatic Star. Or Sylvan Scrying. Or whatever, they have a lot of options. And chances are very good that they’ve got two or three of them in their opening hand.
So let’s say they cast Sylvan Scrying. You Mana Leak it. Okay. They shrug. They wait until next turn. They cast and crack Expedition Map. They’ve accomplished the exact same thing they were originally trying to do; all you really managed to do was set them back a turn. That’s the only thing any counterspell does in Modern: set your opponent back a turn. Remand, however, has the extra bonus of drawing you a card.
So if all we’re trying to do is delay our opponent, why would we want to play OH I get it.
Your opponent doesn’t want a Sylvan Scrying on turn five. They want it on turn two. Don’t let them have it.
So, let’s throw in some lands, a few extra pieces of utility, and what have we got:
The Thought That Counts
As we discussed in the section above, we lost a lot of power in the control aspect of our deck; your opponent is likelier to get a spell or two going before you set up your combo. In addition, don’t forget that there’s a reason the existing reanimator beaters are considered staples: they have an immediate effect on the board. Griselbrand, even if he gets hit by a Path to Exile, will draw seven cards. Iona will start protecting herself the second she’s reanimated. Elesh Norn will probably wipe out most of your opponent’s creatures right on the spot, and leave the rest hobbled. Some our creatures have immediate effects, but not on that scale.
Combine those two facts, and you have a deck that needs to be played a little more carefully. Choose your moment to combo off; be able to protect your creature until the next combat phase. If you can get even a couple swings in with these guys, you’ll do fine.