For Every Answer, New Questions: Testing Death and Taxes

Magic is not an exact science. Playstyle, both players’ shuffling techniques, deck composition, and mistakes are just a few variables that you’d need to control or eliminate to get a truly rigorous scientific analysis of deck performance and winning probability. Instead we tend to focus on results and how a deck will play over multiple games. This might not be the most “valid” method, but when you dig into results, there’s still a lot of valuable information that can be analyzed.

Thalia-Banner-Cropped

I’ve spent the previous week trying to explain the odd disparity between my results from Magic Online and paper Magic with Death and Taxes. To do this I’ve been playing the deck to the exclusion of all others and I have not changed my list since last week to prevent additional variables from distorting my data. I still don’t have that answer, but I have learned a lot about my DnT list and its place in the metagame. It’s not been what I expected, and it’s left me wondering what DnT’s actual role in the metagame could be. I think that the deck is worth investigating, but I don’t think it’s ready for prime time. That doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually be, though.

The Issue of Speed

There is no getting around it—the deck was surprisingly slow. There was never a time when actually aggroing out the opponent was correct, and frequently it was impossible. For reference, the deck that I was testing:

Death and Taxes, by David Ernenwein (Test Deck for States)

Creatures (30)
Thraben Inspector
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Leonin Arbiter
Serra Avenger
Flickerwisp
Kitchen Finks
Blade Splicer
Eldrazi Displacer
Vryn Wingmare
Restoration Angel

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Lands (22)
11 Plains
Eiganjo Castle
Ghost Quarter
Mutavault
Tectonic Edge
Sideboard (15)
Sunlance
Disenchant
Rest in Peace
Mirran Crusader
Kataki, War’s Wage
Kor Firewalker
Aven Mindcensor
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As a preface to the rest of the discussion, the sideboard was definitely wrong, but I never changed it to keep my testing consistent. As I said, I was trying to answer questions that earlier testing raised and at that time I thought the sideboard was correct and if I made changes it would have invalidated my data. The Disenchants were there for Ensnaring Bridge and Ghostly Prison, but I failed to account for how powerful Flickerwisp actually is and so Disenchant was unnecessary. They should have been another Kataki and Sunlance. Mirran Crusader was a little underwhelming as well for reasons I will explain later. It really wants equipment to excel and could have been more Mindcensors or possibly Tectonic Edge.

Blade SplicerThis deck has a bad curve. Out of 38 total spells 16 cost three or more. Of the remaining spells Serra Avenger effectively costs four due to its playability clause and Path to Exile is reactive, leaving 16 cards that we can play before turn three. Compared to a typical burn deck with only one- or two-mana spells, or Jund which typically runs 12 three-or-higher-drops and 27 two- or one-drops, DnT is alarmingly top-heavy.

The Clue from Thraben Inspector helped alleviate some of the pressure on your mana, but far too often your curve was a single one-drop and hand full of threes that took forever to deploy. Your one- and two-drops are a bit too anemic to really be considered aggressive. This isn’t a problem for GW Hatebears thanks to Noble Hierarch, but the best non-green decks can do is Aether Vial which doesn’t help the problem until turn four at the earliest. This made the deck feel incredibly clunky. It was prone to falling behind and losing to good curve-outs from nearly every other deck.

Weirdly Enough…

The speed issue was rarely a problem. Yeah, I fell behind a lot but once I hit three mana all my spells were effectively two spells that gradually made up for the tempo I lost the previous turns. It wasn’t a guaranteed thing, mind you, and it is very hard to fight a really excellent curve, but if you do or the opponent just has an average hand, you will claw your way back with the value creatures. My losses tended to come from my slow curve letting me get swamped or from the opponent going over my head. I rarely lost the grindy games.

This was especially surprising against Jund. In my initial testing online I was demolished when TarmogoyfJund kept answering my creatures cheaply and then deployed a threat that went unanswered. My disruption was too fragile to be meaningful and Jund simply powered through. In paper the games played out as grindfests and DnT would either end up with the last threat standing due to threat density or it would race Tarmogoyf with a combination of fliers and Kitchen Finks. Online, Crusader frequently saved me since only Lightning Bolt could answer it on the board and it ended the game very quickly, but in paper it ended up being just another threat and wasn’t necessary.

I’m at a loss to explain this disparity. The best I can do is speculate that variance works differently on MTGO thanks to the shuffling program than it does in paper (interesting idea for a statistical/programming study if anyone needs a paper topic). If the number of good-to-great hands were somehow lower in paper than online, that would necessitate more grindy games between average hands, and in that situation the deck with the most two-for-ones will prevail. Of course that would mean the shuffling algorithm was somehow “correcting” for bad hands. This seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible if the algorithm inadvertently selects for a mix of spells and lands.

This also made the deck very weak to Ancestral Vision. It’s bad for a deck that grinds based on value creatures to face counterspells in the first place but counterspells backed by cheap card advantage is a nightmare. Worse, most Vision decks focus on big impact spells like Supreme Verdict and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion which are nightmares for this style of deck.

What Does This Mean?

What these results suggest is that DnT needs to maximize the direct value creatures it plays Eldrazi Displacerand that synergies aren’t particularly important. This means that the Eldrazi Displacers are out of place and should have been additional Finks and Blade Splicers. A deck like Eldrazi Taxes can make greater use of his ability thanks to Eldrazi Temple but any other deck should stay away. It also means that four Restoration Angels are a must to maximize the grinding potential and add more fliers.

I suspect that future mono-white DnT builds will be midrange-slanted to maximize the power of white value creatures and outgrind GBx decks. Whether or not they will be successful is up in the air, and an answer needs to be found for Ancestral Vision. Eldrazi processors might be the answer, but Jim Davis didn’t have much success with that so we’ll have to wait and see.

The Issue of Disruption

Death and Taxes is a force in Legacy thanks to the power of its mana denial package. Legacy decks tend to be light on actual, mana-producing lands to maximize their fetchland count because of the synergy with Brainstorm. (This has long made me wonder if Leonin Arbiter has a place over Phyrexian Revoker.) The ridiculous power of Wasteland and Rishadan Port, coupled with the tendency of the cantrip-heavy decks to play 18 lands total, means DnT can easily soft-lock other decks.

BrainstormThis is impossible in Modern. Ghost Quarter (even when it impersonates Strip Mine) is much weaker, there’s no Port equivalent, and decks run more lands. The weird thing about land destruction is that while it really hurts land-light draws, it turns flood into an advantage and I lost a lot of games where my opponent answered each Strip Mine or Tec Edge with another land. We don’t have Ponder and Brainstorm so you can’t cheat on lands, and for a deck that wants to constrict its opponents’ mana this is very bad news. Thalia is at her best against decks that like to play a lot of non-creature spells every turn and those decks are far less common in Modern than Legacy. The value of your taxing effects is far lower and consequently Modern DnT is far less disruptive than Legacy DnT.

Weirdly Enough…

thaliaI might not have been taxing my opponent consistently or for more than a turn or so, but the numerous little hiccups DnT induces combined together to make my opponent’s play non-optimal enough for the midrange threats to catch me up and win the game. Thalia and Arbiter were frequently killed at sorcery speed so that I couldn’t take advantage of them on my turn, which severely crimped my opponents’ ability to develop their own gameplan. Aggro decks were often forced to use an entire turn’s worth of mana to get past Thalia just so they could attack, and Arbiter proved to be far more threatening to those decks than he was against midrange or combo.

Even the value creatures were disrupting since it took far more to answer them and it could only be done cleanly with Anger of the Gods (the Kor Firewalkers should have been Burrenton Forge-Tenders for that reason). Rather than directly attacking my opponents’ ability to play spells, my deck was constricting what spells could be played and that was enough. An early Thalia or Arbiter required an answer, Kitchen Finks needed two, Flickerwisp and Resto blanked a removal spell, and eventually the opponent had spent all their cards and mana trying to answer mine and something finally won me the game.

Elspeth, Sun's ChampionOf course this really didn’t work against decks that just drop big bombs that invalidate incremental advantage. Against them the direct disruption was necessary, and unfortunately when Ghost Quarter wasn’t good enough I was just dead. UW Control was a nightmare for this reason, though Jeskai was still good since it relies more heavily on incremental advantage and efficiency. Some decks can directly be answered with DnT creatures, like Aven Mindcensor blanking Scapeshift, but on the whole the lack of direct, universal interaction like Thoughtseize really hurts.

What Does This Mean?

Legacy Death and Taxes players need to accept that the Modern version is going to be weaker against combo and tempo, but in exchange you’ll be better against fair midrange decks. This suggests that a complete role reassessment is necessary, which might in turn dictate a large-scale rebuild. I don’t think that the other disruptive options will fix the problem I found, but I’ll discuss that in greater detail next. I think the long-standing criticism that DnT is bad Merfolk or Zoo is unfounded because it’s more directly fighting for space with Jund and Junk. What exactly this means for the deck’s future I don’t know at this time.

The Issue of Build

As I mentioned last week there are a lot of different possible builds of DnT out there and each has it strengths. BW decks are very disruptive and have much lower curves. The Eldrazi builds have more impressive threats that can be accelerated out. GW decks have general acceleration, impressive creatures, and Gavony Township. My build is fairly middle-of-the-road compared to the other versions. While it seems well suited for grinding it’s not that great against more extreme decks, and there is still room for it to improve on currently good matchups. Trying to find the optimal build appears to be a Herculean task.

Weirdly Enough…

I don’t think that matters. Seriously. Let me explain: All the versions currently agree on the same eight disruptive creatures, Thalia and Arbiter. Everything else is just a complement to Samurai of the Pale Curtainthose cards. White has the best non-Blood Moon hate in Modern—the question is simply which piece is good when. I’m not just talking about Rest in Peace and Stony Silence. I mean that you can maindeck more direct hate in white than in other colors (no, Thoughtseize doesn’t count).

For example, Torpor Orb is very good against a number of decks. There are many more times that the Orb is utterly dead, which is why it doesn’t see maindeck play. If you really need that kind of effect (Kiki-Chord is rampant in your local meta, say) you can get the same effect without it being completely dead by playing Hushwing Gryff. Sphinx’s Revelation getting you down? Spirit of the Labyrinth laughs at that card. If Abzan Company is running riot, Samurai of the Pale Curtain trades or defeats every non-Wall of Roots card in the deck and breaks up the combo. If you need to hate on a specific deck/card, white has an answer attached to a maindeckable creature.

What Does This Mean?

I think that DnT is a deck that can beat any deck individually, but can’t be built to beat everything simultaneously.

I’m seeing nods of understanding and confused, frightened stares in equal measure. Let me explain.Tidehollow Sculler I’m not certain that it is possible, or even preferable, for a stock version of Death and Taxes to exist in Modern. In Legacy the ubiquity of Brainstorm means that decks have enough in common for the same kinds of hate to be equally effective against a wide swath of the metagame. Modern is too diverse for that to be true, so instead you need to focus your deck to beat an expected metagame and then adjust week to week.

It’s a tuner’s deck, pure and simple. If you think that Jund is going to be highly played one week then Loxodon Smiter is where you want to be. Heavy Burn necessitates mono-white. Lots of combo calls for BW. You need to be on top of metagame shifts and adjust accordingly.

A Few Other Thoughts

  • Inspector Clouseau (Not my nickname for Thraben Inspector, but I like it) is very good. Unless the metagame gets less fair it is the best one-drop available. A 1/2 for one is better than you think on the defense and the Clue is very important when you have no two-drop or as you head to the lategame.
  • Fliers are surprisingly underrepresented in Modern. The more you can justify playing, the better.
  • Flickerwisp is surprisingly hard to play optimally. There have been several occasions where post-match analysis has shown that non-intuitive chains involving Flickerwisp and Restoration Angel would have won games against Affinity and Goblins that I lost. There are times when maximizing the number of your own creatures flickered has been correct and sometimes you just want to take the opponent’s lands. If you’re going to play this card, you have to learn to look at all the angles and really work to extract maximum value from the card.
  • If your own Leonin Arbiter gets Path to Exiled and there’s no other Arbiter on the field, you get to search without having to pay.
  • Avoid Strip-Mining early, except against Tron and Scapeshift. I know it’s the big appeal of the deck but it is much harder to mana screw your opponent in Modern than in Legacy, and even if it sets your opponent back it stunts your mana as well. In a deck so full of three-drops that can be fatal.

There is real potential to be found in Death and Taxes in Modern, and I am not abandoning the deck by any means, but I am putting it on the shelf for a while. When the format is still in considerable flux it’s not the time to play such a metagame-dependent deck. Once things get a little more settled and it is possible to really target your deck then it will be worthwhile to try again with specialized builds. If this proves successful it might be an interesting choice once the PPTQ season rolls around.

As always, if you have your own take on the deck or experiences different from mine, I’m eager to hear from you in the comments and our Contribute page is always open.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

20 thoughts on “For Every Answer, New Questions: Testing Death and Taxes

  1. Thought: Warping Wail sideboard for blue-based control? You have enough colorless sources in the manabase, aether vial lets you play creatures while keeping 1C open, and it is a hard counter on Ancestral Vision, Wrath of God, Anger of the Gods, any sorcery bombs. Just a thought, especially since you were down on your current sb.

    1. I never considered that card. Definitely worth a try. I probably should have picked up on it when it started seeing Legacy play. The only problem I see is that Wrath sees little play compared to Supreme Verdict.

      1. A fragmentary list about the different applications of Warping Wail:

        Counters: Sweepers, Scapeshift, Bring to Light,
        Kills: all of Infect’s creatures, Inkmoth, Blinkmoth, Signal Pest, Vault Skirge, Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierach, Wall of Roots, Wall of Omens, Viscera Seer, Spellskite, Izzet Staticaster, Snapcaster Mage, Flickerwisp

        I play two copys in the sideboard of my Mono white Eldrazi & Taxes list as an answer to Abzan Company, Infect, Kiki-Chord, Scapeshift, U/(R/B/W) Controll and the mirror.

    1. He’s a mainstay of my Legacy deck for that reason. I played him back during Treasure Cruise Modern and I’ve thought about him a lot but the problem is that he’s so bad against everything else that you really can’t play him in the maindeck and sideboard space is really tight. If Vision decks get more popular then he’s definitely playable but I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.

  2. Is Eerie Interlude an awnser to board wipe effects? It would also be very good in a version featuring multiple flicker wisp and restoration angels as you could chain them together.

    I also find it ironic that Death and Taxes is not good gainst combo and tempo? I thought that was what the deck would beat with all the hate, and it would die to fair beatdown decks. I am supriced this is not so.

    If you are up against Coco lists I would asume Gaddong Teeg would be good in the sideboard. He is also fine vs scapeshift, and UW control, is he not?

    If the deck needs to build more towards a midrange deck, perhaps it could join the Coco train and play Collected Companies? It would seem like a good response to almost anything your oponent does.

    1. I haven’t tried it, but it isn’t that different from Ghostway and that card has never seen any play so I doubt it. Maybe in a more dedicated Flickering deck, but those don’t usually work out.

      My particular build is bad against combo and tempo, but if you change the deck you can easily beat both. I just don’t think you can expect to beat all of them with one list.

      Teeg is very good and if I was playing Hatebears then he’d definitely make an appearance at least out of the board. The format would have to be really warped for me to maindeck him though.

      Well, current Hatebears lists don’t run it. Whether or not this is correct I’m not sure, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t work as a value card. I think the issue is the anti-synergy with Thalia and the utility lands.

      1. My death and taxes list runs 4 collected company and im having really good results with it. As you said, thalia sometimes is a problem, but, at least to me, this deck can support company. For reference (and id like your opinion), the list

        4 leonin arbiter
        4 thalia, guardian of thraben
        4 flickerwisp
        3 eternal witness (this card is AWESOME)
        2 blade splicer
        2 mirran crusader
        2 aven mindcensor
        2 serra avenger
        1 mangara of corondor
        2 stonecloacker

        4 path to exile
        4 collected company

        4 aether vial

        4 razorverge thicket
        6 plains
        1 forest
        2 mutavault
        4 ghost quarter
        3 tectonic edge
        1 horizon canopy
        1 eiganjo castle

        1. It’s a very interesting list! I like both Mangara and Stonecloaker, but am a little surprised at Witness, not that she’s bad but it doesn’t look like the mana can support her. My rule is that if I can only cast a card with Vial I don’t run it, but I’m curious how it’s working for you. It looks like a solid disruptive list, though I’m curious how well it works against fair decks.

          1. Eternal Witness is very good in a deck that already has Collect Company and Flickerwisp. Every turn you can spend 4 (or 5 if Thalias is around) mana to get a big ‘scry’ for silvder bullits, along with a huge tempo advantage as you can earn 2 or 1 mana of it. And with Witnes or flickerwisp you can do so again.

            In fact Colected Company into flickerwisp I would say is better then just casting the 4 mana flash angel.

          2. Thanks for the answer! Green sometimes is an issue, but i think that more green sources are a waste of slots, because the splash is minimum, and between vial, company, and (sometimes happens) ghost quartering my own land for basic forest, it runs really good, but this is my view, so you are free to test it and give some insight.

            I “designed” the list to fight against fair decks like jund, abzan, grixis, etc. This was my thoughts. Death and taxes has a problem on topdeck mode against this fair decks, because its a deck that uses synergy. If you cant close the game quickly, you cant trade resources with those strategies, because their topdecks are more powerful than yours. Collected company and eternal witness give a lot of gas (more if you live the dream of flickerwisp + witness from company). So you can trade their powerful topdecks with your recursion and the ability to deploy more than one “threat” per turn

  3. “Legacy Death and Taxes players need to accept that the Modern version is going to be weaker against combo and tempo, but in exchange you’ll be better against fair midrange decks.”

    In my somewhat extensive experience of playing D&T and Hatebear variants, I think this statement is very, very far from being true. While there’s definitely something to be said about the how the different variants of the deck fare against the metagame, as a whole, the more “unfair” the format is, the better Death & Taxes is. The deck has access to a wide array of very specific hate/hoser cards that, in addition to the built-in mana denial package, give it a very easy time against the unfairest decks in the format, particularly combo. The same is true for tempo decks, which are so reliant on mana-efficient plays and often have greedy mana bases.

    On the other hand, in my experience, midrange has always given the deck a much harder time. It struggles with bigger, bulkier creatures like Goyfs, Anglers, Titans, etc. G/B/x decks can take away important pieces (like Vial) with hand disruption before we can assemble our board, and it’s vulnerable to Anger of the Gods, Pyroclasm, Wrath, etc. A particularly good example is Scapeshift – D&T has a very easy time disrupting and shutting down their combo gameplan, but their midrange gameplan gives us a much harder time – just beating down with Obstinate Baloth, Primeval Titan, Inferno Titan, etc.

    My personal opinion is that G/W Hatebears is where you want to look, but for a multitude of reasons D&T tends to have more player appeal.

    1. I agree with your first paragraph, DnT is much better in degenerate formats and it does have the tools to beat any deck, though not every deck all the time. The problem I’ve noticed, and the logic behind the statement that you’ve taken issue with is that my list can safely grind with the actually fair decks if you plan to do so, but it cannot also race and disrupt combo decks. I think it’s a choice of what you’re willing to be vulnerable to. In your Scapeshift example, deciding to beat the combo makes you much weaker to the fair plan, while beating the fair plan will leave you more vulnerable to the combo (in Scapeshift’s case you can solve that to an extent with Aven Mindcensor, but if they resolve a Titan you’re still in huge trouble). Hatebears is and has always been the better deck for a fair format and is probably the better place to be right now, but shifts and positioning will make the other variants better depending on the tournament.

  4. I have been playing magic since dragons of tarkir, and made the switch to modern a while ago. I loved the grindy aspects of Jund and Abzan, the midrange decks of modern, and I decided to build something along the same lines. However, the brewer in me wanted something different, and the color combination I eventually chose would be Mardu. I love my deck, but it has never been a Tier 2 deck in modern, despite having efficient threats, black disruption, and two of the best removal spells in modern with Path and bolt. So why has Mardu failed while so many similar decks have succeeded?

    1. I’ve seen a lot of people try to make Mardu work, and while they’ve had some success it never seems to last more than a week. I think the answer to your question is opportunity cost. Mardu suffers from the fact that it doesn’t have the raw power that blue and green possess, and that means that it is always going to be weaker than GBx or RUx. Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage are incredibly powerful cards that you are denying yourself by choosing to play WRB and it’s had to deny that if you want to use any part of the Mardu deck it would be better paired with blue or green to take advantage of the power of those cards. The power cards of WR are best paired with U in Jeskai, BR can go with both U and G and will gain a lot of power, etc. The problem is that while white has excellent sideboard cards it doesn’t have the raw maindeck power compared to other colors. Junk exists mostly thanks to Siege Rhino and Jeskai is effectively splashing for Celestial Colonnade, Path, and Lightning Helix. Maybe if white were more powerful then Mardu would be good, but as is it’s just less powerful than the other options.

  5. Love the article thanks for posting. Death and Taxes is my homage to white. I’m not giving up on the mono white build yet although i understand the advantages to each color. Have you thought of adding more etb trigger creatures and using dust elemental for a finisher? I’ve had limited success. I think because my ratio to lock creatures and etb value creatures is wrong but when dust elemental hits and is unaswered i usually win. Typically it goes like this. my opponet attempts to anger/attack/ or spot kill one of my three creatures, dust elemental to save them, then aether vial them in at the end of his turn for extra value. I’m down to two main deck and think that is the right number. Now l’m looking to find the right creatures. Whats your argument for the inspector over wall of omens? Also have you thought about sun titan in either the main or side? I run one main and two side. Thank again for the article

    1. I never thought of Dust Elemental. In the right build I could see him being a house, but it seems a little awkward in the grindy matchups when you struggle to build a board state until late. Worth pursuing though.

      Inspector can attack. That’s the main thing. If you’re playing Wall you’re playing a slow deck that wins with big threats and that’s not where my version wants to be. In a midrange or agro deck you want every creature to be an attacking threat and Wall isn’t one. It’s effectively blank a lot of the time where the Inspector can at least deal a damage. Yes the Wall is a more efficient source of card advantage, but I think that’s less important than versatility.

      Titan is very slow and I struggled to consistently hit six mana. I feel like he’s better when you build your deck around him and can protect him and that tends to favor slower midrange or control lists. Not that it couldn’t work, but it feels suboptimal to me.

      You’re welcome and glad to be of assistance!

  6. On Modern Death and Taxes, the B/W Eldrazi versions have been making some noise. You get Loxodon Smiter bodies on Thought-Knot Seer (which is still an amazing card), the discard effects of TKS (again) and Todehollow Sculler, and even some anti-aggro tech with Wasteland Strangler. The worse thing of not having Green is losing Scavenging Ooze, but the deck manages without it.

    1. I’ve tested BW some and it is very good against control and combo but it struggles against the fair decks that GW is good against. I think the real distinction between builds comes down to metagaming and positioning rather than an absolute advantage.

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