Ancestral Vision and You
If you’re anything like me then you’ve spent the last couple weeks damaging your already bad eyes, squinting and scouring all over the internet, trying to find the breakout Ancestral Vision decks that we all expected after its unbanning. At first the card seemed like it could improve almost any blue strategy: Jeskai control, RUG midrange, Grixis, Scapeshift, Thopters. The possibilities were endless. Yet, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be a single definitive deck showcasing Ancestral Vision. Remember, Reid Duke went so far as to say it, along with Snapcaster Mage, was likely one of the best cards in Modern. A quick glance at the top 32 from SCG Milwaukee reveals a mere 7 copies of this “powerful” draw spell, most of these copies being registered in a taking turns deck. If we can assume that more players are playing AV than are winning with it, then it seems that all is not well in the state of Blue Modern. What gives?
Everything I’ve heard on the topic so far suggests one of two things. Either people have yet to fully realize the power of AV in the correct shell, or Modern is simply too fast for it to be good. Obviously drawing three cards for little initial investment is powerful, but for some reason it isn’t being used to great effect. There are some very sad blue mages out there who are drawing a lot of cards and not winning with them, and I think that’s a travesty. Something must be done!
Unfortunately the odds are once again stacked against us poor, poor, poor, neglected blue mages. Everything in this format is taking its turn being the durdle police. Infect, Burn, Affinity, Zoo, all of these strategies were already good in the format, and the haters couldn’t give a Fblthp less about the extra cards we hold so dear.
But before we pass final judgment, we should ask ourselves a few important questions. After all, the whole format isn’t Lightning Bolts, Ravagers and Blighted Agents. The 2nd place deck at Milwaukee was Tron for Thassa’s sake, and Ugin ain’t exactly a Ferrari. Just how fast is Modern anyways?
The Fundamental Turn
A quick turn to classic Magic theory might help us figure out what’s up. The most important article on the fundamental turn comes from Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz’s “Clear the Land and the Fundamental Turn.” Moshowitz details how the playability of any given deck is dependent on an inflexible constraint: the average turn on which a deck, undisrupted, will win the game in a given format. He reasons that any deck that is incapable of interacting by a format’s fundamental turn, or incapable of racing that turn, is doomed to lose over and over again. This is why you can’t play durdle.dec in Modern, (I’m looking at you Tezzeret). Your synergies and late-game just fold to 60% of the format because they are faster than you, plain and simple.
The fundamental turn is a simple enough idea, but it has had very real consequences for how we think about Modern. For instance, you can’t swing a dead cat in a Modern forum without hitting someone preaching the virtues of Modern because of the incredible diversity of decks. “There are so many viable strategies!”, they say. “You can play combo, or midrange, or aggro, whatever you want!”, they say. “Stop playing Savage Knuckleblade, it’s unplayable garbage”, they say. You know what? They’re right. You can play all sorts of decks. But what all of those decks have in common is their respect for Modern’s fundamental turn. Every successful deck in Modern either races or disrupts by the 2nd or 3rd turn of the game, or else they lose in spectacular fashion.
So the fundamental turn, in its first and most basic sense, refers to the speed of a format: the average turn in which a deck converts most of its resources (be they cards, life points or tempo) into a game win. If AV is slower than Modern’s FT we definitely have a problem.
So how slow is Ancestral? Well in the best-case scenario Visions will resolve on T5 and that only happens the 40 odd percent of the time when we draw it in our opening hand with an untapped land. That only happens if we play 4. This means that the “real” average cast time for AV is actually much slower than T5, and goes down the fewer copies that we play. If Burn/Affinity/Infect/Zoo can have us dead, or dead to several topdecks, by T3, then it doesn’t take an Augury Owl to predict that AV is indeed too slow for that portion of the format. I would put the FT of Modern at around T 3.5: the turn after most decks either win, or effectively win, if undisrupted. Strike one against AV.
So what about the disruption that AV decks bring to the table? After all, it’s not like we are goldfishing a combo to beat burn. AV decks, almost by definition, are not interested in racing the FT of Modern, but are rather interested in disrupting it. Herein lies another problem for AV: there are a diverse number of ways to race the format’s fundamental turn, but few consistent ways of disrupting it. There are so many different decks that try to race the FT that any disruption has to be exceedingly flexible. Historically, this has meant playing a card like Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek over something narrow like Lightning Helix or even Path to Exile. Your disruption needs to be both cheap and versatile; a tall order considering the relative weakness of the Modern card pool when it comes to spells. Path is dead against Ad Nauseum. Helix is poor in control mirrors. Even Inquisition of Kozilek, one of the hallmarks of Modern disruption, doesn’t always interact well with AV. If your deck actively wants your opponent to be hellbent when you’re turning the corner, then drawing Inquisiton of Kozilek, land, and Ancestral Vision is a pretty poor payoff for all your hard work.
So in terms of disruption, black decks without AV are still the gold standard. They, more than any other deck, can combine the potent combination of offense and disruption. In terms of interaction we can still play blue decks, but we are starting from a disadvantage. Strike two.
If we can’t race, or disrupt effectively, it would seem that AV decks are dead in the water. But just because we can’t match the speed of the format doesn’t mean we can’t get the speed of the format to match us. What if we could slow the format down instead of trying to race it? What if we could engineer a situation in which Ancestral Visions wasn’t too slow, or too fast, but always just right?
People have, of course, already tried this. Jeskai players lean towards cards like Lightning Helix and Mana Leak to slow down the game. Grixis players go full board on Inquisition of Kozileks and Bolts, but still struggle to make that sweet, card drawing juice, of AV worth the squeeze. So either the cards players use to delay the game are insufficient in slowing opponents down or the cost of putting early interaction in our decks is proving to be not worth the sacrifice of late game power. (Drawing Mana Leak off a T9 Vision is pretty bad).
But don’t despair blue mages! There is another way to approach AV, even if the format is too fast. As Moshowitz notices, the Fundamental Turn doesn’t just apply to the macro level of the average format as whole: it also applies on the micro level of individual cards, opening hands, and match ups between particular decks. While the format as a whole gives us a good standard to measure against, it is only a theoretical average, and by no means dictates how every game will play out. This is precisely why a deck like Tron can exist in the format at all: even despite being too slow, Tron is so decisively good against the slower parts of the format that it can pick up wins against decks trying to play the “control” against those same fast decks that it loses to.
If the FT is decided by the average speed between two decks, and even between two opening hands (and the possibilities of the cards added to them), then we actually have a great deal of control over what that turn is. This is why we sometimes mulligan perfectly good hands depending on the MU. Against a deck like burn, if our hand measures up unfavorably against the average turn in which the game will be decided, we should throw it back for something better. It also explains why it’s usually a good idea to keep 7 against Jund: because the FT is so late in this MU, we need as many cards as possible to be in a favourable position when Jund tries to take over the game.
Yet the point at which we have the most control over the fundamental turn, and the point at which people haven’t yet experimented with AV, is actually during sideboarding. Decks like Affinity have already figured this out: by slowing down post-board Affinity realigns the speed of the MU to be more favourable by making its threats slower, and more durable, and by eliminating cards that lose value against hate (see ya later memthing, hello Shiny Grey Ogre [Etched Champion]). These decks try to match an expected decrease in the speed of the game when going to post-board games.
My theory is that if games already tend to slow down post-board, and if we have a great deal more control over the pace of the game after we bring in specific cards for specific MUs, then isn’t Ancestral Visions going to perform best post-board?
If we can sideboard effectively in variety of MUs and push back the FT, then why would we start a 60 card deck that is, on average, worse against the field by virtue of containing Ancestral Vision? If Modern in general is hostile against it, why not start experimenting with Vision as a sideboard card and as part of a coherent post-board strategy?
Ask Not What your Vision Can Do for You: Ask What You can do for Your Vision
I am confident that rethinking Ancestral Vision in this way can improve the decks that want to play it. However, I am not sure of how best to execute this plan, or if this is enough to make Ancestral Vision part of a viable, tier 1 strategy. What I want to do next is outline some scenarios in which Ancestral Vision is good, bad or somewhere in-between. This should give us some idea of the broad applications of the card so that we can start to optimize its inclusion pre and post-board. It is too easy to think of AV as a hammer: a super powerful draw engine that puts you miles ahead of the opponent. I am beginning to think it is more like a Swiss army knife that has variable uses and applications depending on context.
Ancestral Vision seems good under the following circumstances:
- When cards are more important than tempo. Against decks like Jund, or control mirrors, we know we will have the time and space to resolve it and that those cards will help us win the game. These are also MUs in which additional copies of AV will be live draws.
- When we are on the play. This is a big deal in many match-ups because it increases the odds of us being able to use the cards we draw before dying by a full turn.
- When we mulligan. If I go down to six or five I am just praying to draw a Ancestral Vision in my opener. Of course this means we will have one fewer interactive cards, but the odds of recovery after resolving a Vision probably make up for this in any situation where you would leave them in.
Ancestral Vision seems bad when these things happen:
- When it is too slow. If it is set to resolve after we are dead then it will do us no good even if it is in our opening hand (especially on the draw).
- When tempo is more important than cards and we have to race rather than control. Against Affinity and Burn this will often be the case, as well as with decks like Goryo’s Vengeance where a small amount of disruption is often enough to win.
- When it is drawn late in the game. Sometimes you can’t afford more than the necessary amount of dead draws (lands, conditional counterspells). Some people have tried to mitigate this by adding cards like Jace, Vryns’s Prodigy, Desolate Lighthouse, or Izzet Charm. Playing these cards in a control shell may be worthwhile, but also comes at a cost.
There are also many situations where AV can be a strange combination of good and bad:
- Match ups that are generally slow, but end decisively; think of Scapeshift or Tron. Having extra cards in these MUs are fine, but Vision can be bad if it isn’t played on 1.
- Against a random opponent. If we don’t know the MU AV is the definition of swingy.
- When we are unsure of who’s the beatdown. Against a deck like Jeskai Ascendancy with a Mentor package, we can’t be sure if we are racing or controlling. AV will vary in power level depending on how the opponent chooses to play.
Well then. You probably want a decklist. Here’s where I would start:
Some choices here are meta dependent. Brimaz and the Angers are my response to the apparent rise in CoCo and Zoo strategies. The one AV in the main is there because the first copy has a very low opportunity cost considering you won’t draw redundant copies after it resolves. The Eidolons in the board are also an experiment, but seem applicable in a variety of MUs (combo in particular could be a problem for this configuration, though it also provides some splash damage against Burn, Infect and Living End). Also: Logic Knot is very good. Play it!
This is just one example of a possible configuration. With some knowledge of when AV is good and when it is bad, we can start to think about optimizing its inclusion in our deck. My theory is that if AV is better on the play, and better after sideboard, then we want a main deck that is as consistent as possible against an open field to allow us to win game ones. If we can win pre-board games at a rate at or above 60% against the field (dubious, I know), then we can maximize the opportunities to be on the play in one of the post boarded games. With 4 Visions in the deck, on the play, after configuring our control deck for a given MU, I believe we could be at a distinct advantage against all but the fastest draws in the format.
I’m not yet sure what the ideal starting 60 and I don’t know if I should be playing Planeswalkers or creatures. I’m not sure what the correct removal/countermagic suite should be. But what I do know is that this deck is built on principles that will help us test and optimize when Vision is good and when it is not. By starting Vision in the board we get to control and measure its effectiveness in various situations. This makes all sorts of experimentation worthwhile.
Ultimately this list is just one step towards figuring out how to make AV work, and there are many other lists that might do the same. Grixis seems as viable to me as Jeskai. Both have challenges to overcome, especially considering how fluid the Modern metagame can be week to week. It is possible that these challenges cannot be met given the Modern card pool, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
Go blue mages! Test! Draw all the cards!
Thanks for reading.