Modern Opt-ions

My first experience with Opt came shortly after I started playing Magic, in 2005-2006. Legacy (Type 1.5, as they called it) was the preferred format for many of the more invested (and therefore better) players in my local store, and one of them absolutely loved an old deck called Solidarity. Before Time Spiral was unbanned, this was the way to win with High Tide. There was no Thoughtseize, no Counterbalance, no Tarmogoyf, no Delver of Secrets, no Deathrite Shaman, and no Griselbrand. This is a format nearly lost to memory, but I do remember watching Darryn play Solidarity against many a Goblins player, chuckling as he won the game with lethal damage on the stack. (Back in the day, damage went on the stack, and you got extra rub-in points for winning with your own death imminent.)

The deck, when it worked, was a thing of beauty. You could win as early as turn three, but more often set up for the turn-four or turn-five win if you were not under immense pressure. After all, the more land drops you made, and the more cards you saw, the higher your odds of actually winning the game when you started the combo turn. Of course, due to the existence of the card Reset, there were more than a few very odd restrictions on how the deck could operate. Sorcery speed spells were forbidden. Without Time Spiral in the mix, there was no reason to play any powerful sorceries, and the resulting all-instant deck was the Bluest of Blue strategies. Combine that with the relative lack of cantrips, and a certain instant from Invasion managed to make its way into many lists.

Here’s the most lasting example of Solidarity circa 2006, when David Gearhart won a Duel for Duals event with the deck.

High Tide
Remember, there was no Ponder, no Preordain, and no Gitaxian Probe. In contemporary Legacy, High Tide decks go off at sorcery speed and make great use of these powerful cantrips (and the super-busted all-in-one engine, Time Spiral). In 2006, the pickings got real slim once you got past four copies of Brainstorm. Opt (and occasionally Peek) were your best bets, and as such many of my formative Legacy experiences began with “Island, go. End step, Opt” and ended with a Brain Freeze for my deck. This was the Magic equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool with no floaties, where scary unfair decks made Standard seem like child’s play. It started a shift in my Magic perspective, where I realized that Savannah Lions was fighting an uphill battle against these more powerful and more flexible Blue decks. The years have come and gone, and despite the huge power boost WotC has given creatures, there is still room for an old hand to come back and play the same role it did over ten years ago.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s good to see Opt back in a big way with the reprinting in Ixalan. Modern has been poorer for lack of diverse one-mana cantrips, as Sleight of Hand and Serum Visions promote less interactive gameplay than an instant-speed counterpart, and Thought Scour offers graveyard synergies but no real selection. Ponder and Preordain are higher-power, and would completely obsolete these other options, but Opt is close in power level to the primary Modern cantrips, leading to more options without giving the format an oppressive card selection engine.

Now, to be sure, Opt can and will play a role in Standard. Not since the Delver days have we seen a playable one-mana cantrip in Standard, and even though Opt is no Ponder, it has a place in the nascent Pirates aggro-control archetype. In fact, if you squint your eyes really hard, you might see shades of 2012’s Delver vs. {R}{G} Valakut matchup in 2017’s Pirates vs. Dinosaurs. Opt will doubtless find a home in the format, but there is less interesting debate about its role in Standard compared to Modern. Modern, unlike Standard, has several powerful cantrip-heavy decks, and the power of Snapcaster Mage means that one-mana instants are almost all worth a close look. Caught between Thought Scour and Sleight of Hand, Opt has a definite place in Modern, but the question is way more interesting here than it is in Standard.

There are three major Opt-ready archetypes in Modern, along with countless minor players that could include the card. The three spots where Opt will potentially see some real action exemplify Modern’s three major axes. They are:

Looking at the most obvious home for Opt, Modern Storm, the best place to start is Kazu Negri’s recent SCG Open-winning list, which has plenty of room for a few copies of the cantrip.

His original list is as follows:

There is no doubt that an Apostle’s Blessing, a Flooded Strand, a Grapeshot and a Peer Through Depths could all disappear from the list in favor of four Opts, although there are diminishing returns to so many cantrips. Most likely there will end up being ten or eleven cantrips in future Storm lists, with Sleight of Hand the new weakest link. It all depends on the value of that third Grapeshot, as the biggest draw to the extra copy is the value in randomly drawing it and double-Grapeshotting out a Death’s Shadow opponent from nine life. (Don’t laugh, three spells followed by two Grapeshots is an extremely common way to beat Shadow!)

Additional cantrips also increase the efficacy of sideboard two- and three-ofs, making the Empty the Warrens or Blood Moon plans that much more consistent in post-board games. You’re slightly more likely to find those much-needed Shattering Sprees against Affinity, and those Dispels against control. Instant speed allows a player to hold up Remand while still digging for relevant pieces if the opponent fails to play a spell, which is significant for {U}{R} Storm, but even more important for decks like the semi-rogue {U}{R} Breach-Emrakul.

Snapcaster Mage
There’s a decent bit of low-power crap in a deck like this, and plenty reason to replace a land, an Izzet Charm, an Electrolyze, and a Cryptic Command with a few Opts. Sleight of Hand is too low-power to justify additional sorcery-speed spells, but Opt works beautifully with Snapcaster Mage (allowing an instant-speed Silvergill Adept and Remand (again, holding up the counterspell while still having use for the mana if the opponent doesn’t cast a relevant spell).

Talking about the synergy between card selection and powerful sideboard options, this deck’s got them in spades. Blood Moon, Ancient Grudge, Anger of the Gods, Keranos, God of Storms, Threads of Disloyalty, they’re all huge in their specific matchups, and they all benefit immensely from eight one-mana dig spells. Of course, there’s the elephant in the room. A two-card five-mana combo that wins the game about 95% of the time, but does nothing if you don’t have one of each piece. What cards fix polarized draws in combo decks? Cheap cantrips. Short of the second coming of Brainstorm, Opt might be the perfect card for a deck like this one, and it just might bring the deck from the fringe of playability squarely into Modern’s top tier.

If that ends up happening, though, it’ll have to contend with a juiced-up version of the actual best deck in the format, Grixis Death’s Shadow. Let’s look at an updated version of Kerry Foerst’s list:

Street Wraith
Kerry and Dylan Donegan have been preaching the reduction of Street Wraith in Death’s Shadow for some time, and they are spot-on. Wraith allows for some broken draws, but it’s a horrendous card to draw in a large numbers, and a terrible late-game topdeck. Two or three are fine for that card, and the split between Wraith and Opt will become a flashpoint for the deck in the coming months. Sleight of Hand in Grixis Shadow, though, is done for. Opt is 90% of the same effect with the benefit of instant speed attached. Snapcaster Mage loves one-mana cantrips, and being able to hold up Stubborn Denial is a big game. Like Sleight of Hand, Opt will allow Grixis Shadow the same high-impact sideboard bonus that we’ve seen with the previous decks.

The real question with this Grixis Death’s Shadow list isn’t even the Opt/Wraith split, but the Disdainful Stroke/Ceremonious Rejection question. Stroke beats up on Valakut decks and has applications against control, but Rejection is better against Tron and Affinity. Neither is a clear favorite, but there are a limited number of slots for additional counterspells above and beyond Stubborn Denial, and savvy metagamers will make the right call from week to week.

Playable only during the weeks where Grixis Death’s Shadow hedges hard against creature decks and Tron by playing Liliana, the Last Hope and Ceremonious Rejection instead of Stroke and Liliana of the Veil, there’s one last deck that gains more than all the others from Opt’s printing. Jeskai Control and my personal pet deck, Jeskai Saheeli are the biggest beneficiaries from a good instant-speed one-mana cantrip. They’ve been playing Serum Visions forever, but there are tons of turns where you can’t cast a Serum Visions due to the need to hold up Cryptic Command, and Opt is the answer to your prayers.

Let’s take a look at updated Jeskai Saheeli, the best two-card combo deck in the format and the biggest Twinner from Opt’s printing.

Sporting a decent matchup against Tron, Burn, Affinity, and Titan Shift, and a passable (though certainly not favorable) matchup against Death’s Shadow, Jeskai Saheeli is the fun unexpected deck that would grow to dominate Modern if not for the fun police of Death’s Shadow. As a two-card combo deck with control elements, this is the perfect Opt deck. If Opt were legal when Splinter Twin were still with us, it would have seen play there. With the printing of Opt, this pseudo-Twin deck grows that much more consistent, and if Shadow ever gets hit with the banhammer, get ready for Saheeli to come rocking and rolling right back to the forefront of the format.

Really, we’ve been missing this effect for too long. Combo-control and aggro-control gain from the reintroduction of a very old and underrated cantrip, and it stands to push around the balance of power in Magic’s most wide-open format. Everyone should be looking for new ways to structure their Blue decks in the wake of this printing. After all, it’s always exciting to get more Opt-ions for winning decks in Modern!

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