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March 15, 2016

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Birds of Death: Modern Ascendancy Gifts

Three mana is a lot to ask of a Modern card; especially a Modern card that does nothing by itself and has no immediate impact on the game state. Yet Jeskai Ascendancy packs so much value in each trigger that it almost defies this common test of Modern playability. Untapping all of your creatures is worth a mana and a card if Vitalize is to be believed, a one turn anthem is good for a card and two mana if we look at something like Profit / Loss, and Modern players have been willing to pay as much as four mana for a “free” loot via Desolate Lighthouse. Doing all three repeatedly must easily be worth three mana and a card.

Of course, Magic isn’t that simple. For such a card to provide value a lot of things need to go right, and a deck needs to be able to leverage all three effects. In Modern, this has mostly meant pairing cheap cantrips like Serum Visions and Gitaxian Probe with mana-generating creatures like Fatestitcher or Birds of Paradise. When the deck fires on all cylinders each cantrip produces free mana and damage, while the looting helps ensure you find additional cantrips to chain together until lethal attack power is achieved.

   

During the Treasure Cruise era this was actually a fairly competitive strategy, since the looting on Jeskai Ascendancy helped fuel your four copies of Ancestral Recall which in turn helped keep you stocked with cantrips to ensure your mana creature grew to lethal power. With the loss of Treasure Cruise the deck has mostly evolved to use Glittering Wish to make up for the lost consistency. Four maindeck Glittering Wishes act as additional copies of Jeskai Ascendancy (one copy of Ascendancy goes in the sideboard) as well as access to catch-all answers like Abrupt Decay, silver bullets like Slaughter Games, and even a win condition with Flesh / Blood targeting a giant Sylvan Caryatid.

While “Wish Ascendancy” is probably the most popular variant still seeing play, the version that caught my eye personally was the “Ascendancy Gifts” deck piloted by Scott Kirkwood to an 8-0 start and 11-4 finish at SCG Cincinnati a few months ago. Ascendancy Gifts turns to Gifts Ungiven rather than Glittering Wish to increase the deck’s consistency. In the Gifts variant the mana dorks play double duty as both Ascendancy enablers and Gifts accelerators – allowing you to power out a turn four Iona, Shield of Emeria or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite with Unburial Rites. The synergy comes full circle as Gifts can also seek out an immediately lethal package if you have an Ascendancy and mana dork in play. Simply tutor up this Gifts pile for your opponent:

With an Ascendancy and a dork in play this pile effectively reads: “For every 3 cards you mill into your graveyard: deal 2 damage to target creature or player, creatures you control get +3+3 until end of turn, and tap or untap two target permanents”.  Your opponent will usually give you Fatestitcher and Life From The Loam, making this the usual sequence to go off:

  1. Cast a one mana spell (usually Flame Jab) with your mana dork, looting Fatestitcher to the graveyard and untapping the dork with your Ascendancy trigger.
  2. Use the mana dork to Unearth Fatestitcher, use Fatestitcher to untap a land, then cast another one mana spell with that land untapping both creatures.
  3. Use both of your mana creatures to cast Life from the Loam and return three lands to your hand, untapping both dorks.
  4. Discard land #1 to retrace Flame Jab, tap/untap something with Fatestitcher.
  5. Discard land #2 to retrace Flame Jab, untap a land with Fatestitcher, use the loot on Ascendancy to Dredge Life From The Loam to your hand, discarding land #3.
  6. Repeat steps three through five until the mix of Flame Jab pokes and +1+1 triggers equal lethal. Use Fatestitcher to tap down your opponent’s lands and creatures along the way to ensure you don’t get surprised (Slaughter Pact notwithstanding).

It’s worth noting that a turn three kill is possible here if you curve Birds of Paradise into Jeskai Ascendancy into Gifts Ungiven, as the Gifts will trigger Ascendancy and untap your Bird giving you the one mana to start the above sequence. Just be sure you have access to a pair of one mana spells to establish your engine, and beware having your dork(s) hit with removal as you try to establish the sequence. Sometimes its better to wait an extra turn and put an additional Ascendancy or creature into play, or to simply have access to more mana for something like Izzet Charm to improve the likelihood you can complete the kill through disruption.

Once the engine is established you’ll generally want to decline the non-essential loot triggers on your Ascendancy, as Dredging Loam will put everything in your graveyard eventually should you need to Unburial Rites for some reason. Leaving more cards in your library will also allow more casts of Flame Jab to reduce the opponent’s life total should your attack fail for some reason.

Without further ado, here is my current list – just a few cards off from Scott Kirkwood’s original:

Ascendancy Gifts

Creatures (13)
Birds of Paradise
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Fatestitcher
Iona, Shield of Emeria
Snapcaster Mage
Sylvan Caryatid

Spells (26)
Faithless Looting
Flame Jab
Gifts Ungiven
Gitaxian Probe
Izzet Charm
Jeskai Ascendancy
Lightning Bolt
Life from the Loam
Path to Exile
Serum Visions
Unburial Rites

Lands (21)
Breeding Pool
Copperline Gorge
Flooded Strand
Forest
Ghost Quarter
Hallowed Fountain
Island
Izzet Boilerworks
Misty Rainforest
Plains
Sacred Foundry
Steam Vents
Stomping Ground
Temple Garden
Windswept Heath

Sideboard (15)
Ancient Grudge
Celestial Purge
Dispel
Leyline of Sanctity
Nature’s Claim
Negate
Obstinate Baloth
Sigarda, Host of Herons
Terastodon
Wear

The sideboard is still something of a mess, but I’m finding the more I build decks the more this is just always the case. The cards you want are entirely dependent on what you need to beat, so any sideboard should be taken as a sketch and you should tinker at will. If it is not obvious, Terastodon is there for Tron decks where blowing up three of their lands as early as turn four is hopefully enough to seal the game.

The main drawback to this list is its vulnerability to graveyard hate – especially Rest in Peace – as both Loam-Jab and Rites require the graveyard to work. I did win one memorable game where my opponent Thoughtseized and Surgical Extractioned my Gifts on turn three and then slammed a Rest in Peace a few turns later – although this win was largely due to them dealing 8 damage to themselves and getting stuck on lands. In general I don’t think Ascendancy Gifts wins through a Rest in Peace, and if graveyard hate is popular at a given time its probably better to play the Glittering Wish version. Ascendancy Gifts is also not great against control, although a few changes can really shore up the matchup. I’d recommend either adding Raven’s Crime and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth for a mass discard Gifts package (add Loam and a land and stir) or by simply adding a few copies of Dispel to the sideboard to force your combo through.

Another drawback for the deck is the time it can take to go through the Loam-Jab loops without missing any important triggers – it may look and feel like a Storm deck building up to a lethal Grapeshot, but Ascendancy has far more things to track: Ascendancy triggers, temporary pump effects, and various colours of floating mana. I strongly recommend getting a lot of reps in with this part of the deck before registering for an event. When done cleanly the loop is not too painful for the opponent, but if you have to stumble through what colours to float and how to stack your triggers you’re going to make them miserable (and possibly get called for slow play).

Ultimately the reason to play this deck is its consistency and versatility. There is a tonne of card selection through both Serum Visions and the various looting effects so that you can generally find the missing piece of your plan. The versatility is in having a go-to Ascendancy combo backed up by the Rites targets that just outright win some matches on the spot. For example in game one vs burn, Iona on red will usually win the game (they may add Path to Exile post-board); versus Affinity or Infect, an early Elesh Norn will usually end the game on the spot (Arcbound Ravager shenanigans notwithstanding). It might look like a painfully un-interactive grind, but when well-piloted its a fairly interactive deck with multiple tough-to-answer paths to victory. Of course the real selling point should be the potential to kill someone with a 15/16 Birds of Paradise.

Until next time, may you always remember to dredge the loam on the second flame jab!