Pay Your Dues: UW Death and Taxes in Modern
In preparation for Grand Prix Vancouver earlier this year, I’d been tuning and playing a version of mono-white Death and Taxes for several months, trying to learn every matchup and interaction that I’d run into at the event. The build maintained the notoriously hateful shell that slows down the greedier decks in the format, but had a bigger focus on abusing ETB triggers with Eldrazi Displacer and Restoration Angel, blinking a single creature such as Blade Splicer three or four times for a big swing. The beneficial side effect to this was an increased protection against eggs-in-one-basket decks such as Infect or the old Death’s Shadow and the capacity to be able to grind out incremental advantage with Thalia, Leonin Arbiter, or Thraben Inspector.
Following a Day 2 finish at the GP, I found that while the mono-white version had game at stalling combo and pressuring control into a corner, it was missing an element to combat both the faster aggressive matchups and the slower, GBx-attrition matchups that are notoriously bad for the merry men of mono-white.
Post-tournament, I began brewing a version that had better game against a wider portion of the field, trading in higher percentage wins against the easier matchups to do so – this build would become the blue/white Taxes list that I recently won the FaceToFaceGames.com Red Deer Open with. Integrating blue allows for two incredibly important cards that pull an momentous amount of weight compared to mono-white and white/black Taxes staples; Spell Queller and Reflector Mage. The build allows for a more tempo-oriented playstyle, keeping your opponent off a significant board state until you can throw enough weenies at them to seal the game.
I’m a strong believer in playing powerful cards with circumstantial upsides; those of which that aren’t directly printed on the card, but are still relevant when certain conditions are met. A perfect example of this in Modernis Scavenging Ooze. Ooze’s strength in the format on paper is that it simply recycles the things that you’re killing into fuel for some extra life and a bigger body.
However, in the context of Modern, everyone knows that its real power stems from its ability to hate out graveyard interaction altogether, while also being just a really efficient creature. Abzan? I’ll eat your Lingering Souls before more flying shenanigans ensues. Control? Now with 100% more Ambush Viper. Dredge? Yum.
Leonin Arbiter is a more relevant example. While holding the effect to turn Ghost Quarters into Strip Mines and Path to Exile into, well, a really good card, it has the undisclosed ability to punish a lot of decks in the format, as fetchlands and search effects are synonymous with Modern. Another more specific example is Mausoleum Wanderer and its interaction with your Spirits, allowing you to play a shell full of effective fliers that not only work wonders in protecting your board on their own, but also happen to have a relevant creature type to tax instant and sorceries more heavily. The deck building philosophy of having multiple latent synergies is one that I tried to incorporate heavily whenever building a pile o’ bears, weaving a web of interactions and possible plays to go for.
The New Crew
“What do you actually get with blue? Oh, that (insert mediocre Standard card)? Is it even good?” While I’m sure most of you know the strengths behind the normal motley crew of weenies, I wanted to explain more in depth on the card choices that make the UW Taxes variant tick, with the intention of selling you on its power in the format.
Here’s one of those cards with a circumstantial upside. On its own, it’s a Judge’s Familiar but restricted to mono-blue, which is still good enough to earn itself a spot as the premier 4-of 1 drop on the list, as it synergizes well with Thalia to stall, say, an Anger of the Gods to being a turn 5 play. The real strength of this little guy is the amount of pressure it brings, maintaining its spot as the premier 1 drop creatures you can play in UW Taxes. In addition to just being a 2/2 flier for 1 following a turn 2 Selfless Spirit, an Aether Vial on 1-3 charge counters allows you to prevent a player from wanting to cast that All Is Dust or Scapeshift in fear of a blowout.
This card keeps me up at night. It’s able to get around both uncounterable (See: Supreme Verdict) and flashback (See: Lingering Souls or Past in Flames) for 3 mana, which most would argue is the magic Vial number, all while being a flying beater that isn’t an X/1, and it’s a Spirit? This card oozes so much value in this deck it’s hard to believe it isn’t played more in Modern. Would never go below four, as it checks a box that most traditional cards in Taxes fail to hit: range. Thalia and Arbiter are great cards, don’t get me wrong, but the strength of these cards come from hitting Modern as a format and its bad habits (searching libraries to mana fix/casting cheap, efficient spells), so the decks that stray from the normal deckbuilding formula such as Merfolk or Affinity make these cards dead. Spell Queller offers a catch-most that makes it a relevant card in almost every single matchup.
With the popularity of Death’s Shadow and prevalence of other creature based decks such as Eldrazi Tron and the newly annoying Counters Company, Reflector Mage acts as a tempo swing, allowing us the ability to flip from a defensive situation to an offensive one. Imagine that you’re staring down an Endbringer. Your opponent is slowly pinging off your creatures, resulting in atabilization. Now, say you got to play a blinkable Unsummon that cleared said Endbringer and they never got to make it to an untap step with an Endbringer again. Yeah.
Celestial Colonnade/Moorland Haunt:
The 1-of lands in my mana base serve important roles as backup plans, rather than tagging along with Thalia & Co. to tempo the opposition out of the game. Colonnade helps win top-deck wars late game against attrition strategies, while Moorland Haunt refills our board once we’ve run out of steam against the same decks. Helps out against our poorer matchups, such as GBx.
Just a few notes before we get into the nitty-gritty,
– When playing Taxes, it’s important to remember that playing multiple creatures that perform different tasks is often better than two or three of the same one. Having a Thalia, an Arbiter and a Selfless Spirit on the board means your opponent has to rethink how they’ll play spells, crack fetches, and remove your little guys. Three Arbiters, while still strong, doesn’t offer as much variety to hate out the average Modern deck. That’s why it’s correct to shave your creatures and Paths when playing against the average Modern deck rather than take out whole playsets of one bullet, as the synergy within your deck will suffer for it. The exception to this rule is Aether Vial, which is either in as a 4-of or out as a 4-of post board.
– Suppression Field, while a tech choice I made to specifically combat a certain deck (no spoilers), I don’t actually believe it’s strong enough to be played against the field. Its inclusion was only in anticipation of a prevalent new archetype (okay it’s the Vizier Company deck, you got me), and the anti-synergy you get with running Aether Vial and Eldrazi Displacer sometimes makes it more of a hassle than it’s worth. It’s alright against Tron and Affinity, as Aether Vial comes out against those matchups anyways, but it’s by no means as strong as another certain 2-mana artifact hate enchantment.
Affinity (Pre-Board Heavily Unfavored, Post-Board Slightly Favored)
Game 1, this matchup is very much unfavored, ranging at about a 25% win-rate. I mentioned earlier the topic of circumstantial upsides, and Affinity is very much one of the most spotlight matchups to prove my point. The sheer number of fliers (18, including Mindcensor) in the list prevent getting turn 3 or 4’d quite as easy, as well as getting around the pseudo-unblockability of Signal Pest, slowing down an aggressive clock and keeping Ornithopers at bay. Using Selfless Spirit optimally becomes critical when combat damage is concerned, as it allows you to block a Vault Skirge equipped with a Cranial Plating with a card you care about keeping on the board (say, a Spell Queller exiling a Ravager or second Plating). Eldrazi Displacer also has its work cut out for it in this matchup, as stabilizing on board essentially turns off Plating, any huge Ravager or Inkmoth Nexus with three open mana. Not to mention its Devoid status, which is incredibly relevant when an Etched Champion flashes its shiny, previously untouchable butt. The issue with your game 1 is your lack of relevant hate pieces, as Arbiter is mostly bad, Mausoleum Wanderer doesn’t do much other than fly, and Thalia is too slow to properly tax the artifacts you want taxed.
Post-board, the matchup does an incredible 180 and becomes much more favorable for you. Phyrexian Revoker, Suppression Field and Leonin Relic-Warder slows down the onslaught, and should you open with a turn 2 Stony Silence, you’re sitting high and mighty. Though Affinity still has tools to win against you (See: Ghirapur Aether Grid), some of these pieces just win the game if you have a decent follow up.
Gx Tron (Favored)
Tron and I have a back-and-forth relationship. In the past it always punished Jund players at tournaments, keeping the monster at bay percentage-wise, but no matter how fast or tempo-oriented your deck is, Tron will just sometimes play a Karn on the third turn and win. It’s like the schoolyard bully getting his comeuppance by the older brother of a victim, only for the brother to then turn around and punch said victim in the face. Thalia and Leonin Arbiter are built for this matchup, with Thalia making Karns cost 8, Ugins cost 9, and Maps cost 2, and Leonin single handedly pushing a mana denial plan. These cards are priority in this matchup and without them or beaters + Ghost Quarter, it is hard to win game one. With them, easy. Interestingly enough, we side mostly as we would against Affinity, with most of the cards holding the same purpose. Revoker names Karn or Ugin always, except in the case in which they’re setting up to naturally be able to O-Stone your board to bits.
IN on the play:
OUT on the play:
Eldrazi Tron (Slightly Favored)
While the matchup is similar to Gx Tron, there are some notable differences. Namely, the abundance of bigger creatures grants the deck an ability to switch its axis to a more defensive midrange deck on a more consistent basis than Gx. Paths are much more important, as are Reflector Mages for tempo. Thalia is less key, while still good, and Leonin Arbiter is still the nut. Revoker naming Endbringer or Walking Ballista is very strong, as both can set you up for a bad time. X/1’s die super easy if they stabilize, so sandbagging into your beefier fliers can often be the key to the matchup.
A common question I ask myself when piloting the matchup is, “Ghost Quarter the Eldrazi Temple or the Urza Land?”. The trick to this is reading into your opponent’s plays as they sequence land drops, and I believe this should become a mainstay practice for all players in order to read information into what the opposition is doing. If they were to go T1 Temple into Map, T2 Urza land, crack map for another Urza land, the answer may be not so simple. We’d need to identify what they may be able to play and what you’re more readily able to handle. Temple and two Urza lands can go into a turn three Thought-Knot Seer, which would be prevented should we GQ the Temple, but they may also have Tron assembled in hand and a TKS might be better than getting All is Dust’d or Karn’d on turn four. Look at what you have available to answer either of these scenarios and react accordingly.
U/R Storm (Heavily Favored)
So, I’ve had a player go to turn three with Storm, cast a face-value Grapeshot, pinging my Legendary 2/1 for 1 dmg, and scoop to my casting of a second Legendary 2/1 on the following turn. That should speak enough for the matchup. Losing game 1 is possible, provided they stack Goblin Electromancer-type effects and you lack answers, resulting in an unsatisfying steamroll. Even a relatively small Empty the Warrens can be scary as well, so look out for that. However, without Thalia in hand, holding up a Vial on 3 can basically secure you the game, as you’re able to play an uncounterable Spell Queller to cut them off Gifts or Past in Flames, ending the turn right then and there most of the time. Note: Blinking your Queller with Past in Flames exiled on your turn is hilarity, and a Displacer with a Queller on the board soft locks any Storm player out of the game.
Living End (Heavily Favored)
With the resurgence of this old archetype thanks to all of the new fruit Amonkhet bore, Living End has already popped up in recent tournaments, and with good reason. An unprepared list can easily lose to a fast start from the deck. However, our deck isn’t one of those. With Thalia imposing a tax of 1 mana for their Cascade spells and an additional 1 for Living End, our little soldier does quite a lot. Mausoleum Wanderer also puts up more of a mana tax, and Spell Queller can just stop Living End from being cast altogether. It’s worth noting that Grafdigger’s Cage does nothing to stop Living End, but Rest in Peace does, and Suppression Field actually does tax them 2 additional mana to cycle their creatures.
Actual Jund (Heavily Unfavored)
Dodge this matchup. As a deck that plays little, easy to kill guys, and a distinct 1-mana artifact that dies to a whole slew of maindeck hate in Jund, there’s little you can accomplish without a set plan and efficient turns. Tuning Taxes over the last year has led to 4-of Selfless Spirit becoming mainstay in every build, specifically for attrition-based matchups such as this, and I strongly believe a flying beater that can protect your hate pieces makes it worth the slots. Kolaghan’s Command can be a huge blowout game 1 if you have Vial out, and Queller should be held to combat such an event. I’ve found that of the colors you care about stripping them off of, red is almost always the correct choice. Between K-Command, Lightning Bolt, Terminate and Anger of the Gods post-board, the scariest always lurks behind open red mana. If that doesn’t become an option, GQ-ing your opponent off double black to fight the menace that is Liliana of the Veil is very strong (not to mention the not-so-old sideboard option Night of Souls Betrayal, which we actually just can’t beat). Try to avoid a mulligan on a hand unless it’s unplayable, as mulligans significantly hurt your win-rate against attrition-based matchups such as Jund, Abzan, or control.
Burn (Slightly Favored)
Similar to Storm, if you get any of your pertinent hate pieces, it’s easy to snowball Burn out of the game. A start such as T1 Mausoleum Wanderer into T2 Thalia is good enough to just beat burn then and there, provided the rest of your hand isn’t lands. Thalia is especially powerful; even without its remarkable tax ability, a 2/1 first strike creature shuts down a lot of what Burn wants to hit you with, such as Goblin Guide, Eidolon of the Great Revel, or even a 1/2 Monastery Swiftspear if they’re tapped out. Ghost Quarter is also powerful here, as Burn can’t afford to play basic plains or forests, and with Leonin Arbiter out, color denial becomes a very strong strategy to leave Lightning Helixes and Boros Charms stranded.
Collected Company Decks (Vizier Counters Company, Melira Abzan Company, Elves) (Unfavored)
Any Taxes player can tell you that our hardest matchups come from those that play creature into creature into creature. Matchups like Merfolk, Elves, and CoCo decks can all present serious problems if our play isn’t tight and our draws don’t line up to be able to combat the onslaught. This is the case because our creatures are slightly underwhelming stat-wise, so they’re strength derives from punishing linear strategies. The issue with decks like Elves or the Vizier Counters Company deck is that they have so many win conditions that it’s difficult to properly hate out a cheesy win.
Talking specifically on the Vizier deck, they beat you by gaining infinite life, creating a massive Walking Ballista, pumping a Devoted Druid to a 1000/1000 with Rhonas the Indomitable, or even just playing a fair game. Turns out, there are very few hate cards that can prey on a deck like this to the magnitude in which Stony Silence can turn off Affinity, or that Rest in Peace can make Dredge play an unbelievably bad fair game.
I eventually came to the decision to run Suppression Field, what I once believed to be an near unplayable card in Modern, as it turns off all of the decks combos, including the Devoted Druid/Vizier of Remedies combo. This works because Devoted Druid’s untap ability isn’t a mana ability, and therefore to pull off a loop they’re generating -1 mana for each instance. Another note about the matchup – as long as both are singletons on the board, always prioritize killing Vizier of Remedies before Devoted Druid, as the Vizier is the enabler to a lot of different shenanigans regarding -1/-1 counters, such as with Kitchen Finks. Phyrexian Revoker takes a little reading to properly play out, and I like to wait to look for whatever combo they’re more likely to go for before naming instead of blind naming a win condition. For clarification, the name targets in this matchup are Viscera Seer and Devoted Druid against Counters Company, and Ezuri Renegade Leader or any dork that they have multiples of against Elves.
IN (against Counters Company and Melira Abzan Company)
IN (against Elves):
OUT (against Counters Company and Melira Abzan Company):
OUT (against Elves):
Dredge (Pre-Board Heavily Unfavored, Post-board Slightly Favored)
Dredge shares a lot of similarities to Affinity as far as how we approach the matchup. Both are blisteringly fast aggro decks that can go under us and close out games. While our weenies can potentially get there G1, it’s less than likely, and our path to victory comes after sideboarding, when we’re able to bring in our hosers. Our creatures are surprisingly good at blocking theirs efficiently, given our critical mass of fliers and Thalia’s first strike status. Opening hands with Rest in Peace/Grafdigger’s Cage and the required lands to play them should almost always be kept. Be careful with keeping one-land hands with Aether Vial post-board, as an Ancient Grudge or Nature’s Claim would be disastrous.
Jund/Grixis Death’s Shadow (Even)
The relatively new Death’s Shadow lists have consistently been putting up good results, and with good reason. The deck is consistent enough to pretty much always reliably have a beater down, and when it doesn’t, it either just tutors for it (Jund) or just controls the board until it does (Grixis). Our advantage in this matchup is our tutor hate and ability to have multiple fliers out, potentially forcing our opponent to hold self-damage such as Street Wraith to avoid a big, terrifying swing in the air. They also have less diverse threats than traditional Jund/Grixis decks, trading off for some really big nerds. Displacer still holds some slots in the deck mainly for this matchup as well, as it’s very good if the game goes long and you need to keep a huge Death’s Shadow/Tarmogoyf/Tasigur at bay. Their advantage in the matchup comes from mashing the old Death’s Shadow package with an attrition shell, giving them the ability to grind us out of resources. Against both variants, it’s often correct to play a faster tempo game than how you would with regular Jund/Grixis, with the intention of removing their threats from the board before they’re able to stabilize with multiple bodies. When they do play creatures, Reflector Mage looping is incredibly powerful, as is Spell Quelling their threats before they land.
IN (vs. Grixis):
IN (vs. Jund):
OUT (vs. Grixis):
OUT (vs. Jund):
Best of luck!