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Sullivan Library: The Other Modern Prison

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I have a true love for Prison decks. It might be because I find pleasure in control decks that don't run countermagic. It might be that I like the cleverness with which Prison decks can approach a format.

But whatever the detail of the deck, I have to admit I enjoy the look of dismay that Prison decks bring out in people.

Last week, I shared an old Prison deck of mine that demonstrates the principles of the macro-archetype: Prison decks work by reducing the effective card quality of your opponent's cards. Lantern Prison (my preferred name for Lantern Control), for example, literally tries to stop you from drawing cards that matter. My archaic deck below used Enlightened Tutor to find some card that would make some of the opponent's cards useless, and then just piled on more and more such cards until they couldn't win.


This "tutor for evil" approach is present in the most popular Lantern of Insight decks in Modern now, thanks to Whir of Invention, but these decks are much more about building up the walls with their extra Codex Shredders while also having access to a few so-called "silver bullets" - cards that knock out an opponent single-handedly - rather than fully embracing the plan.

The most recent highly placed finish of such a deck was this last weekend's MOCS event, piloted by F2104:


Aside from the surprise in the form of Treasure Map, this deck looks much like the Lantern decks we've come to expect in the last many months. The Whir of Invention in this deck can find the most valuable of silver bullets, Ensnaring Bridge, and hope to shut down entire classes of cards, but it also has copies of other such bullets - Grafdigger's Cage, Witchbane Orb, and Pithing Needle - in an attempt to negate other elements of many decks' strategies, with more in sideboards to further that plan.

A more pure approach comes in the form of the ur Whir Prison. This deck has been around for a little while, but is notoriously hard to pilot. This weekend, the deck's most notable champion and creator, susurrus_mtg, took 2nd at the Modern Challenge with the deck, and then followed it up quickly with a 5-0 in a Modern League.

Here is that 2nd place list:


The biggest reason this deck is such a challenge to play is that it requires a very intense mastery of the knowledge of the various decks in Modern. Very little space in the deck is dedicated to winning the game, and so you must be aware of just what cards matter in every matchup, and you generally need to be making these choices quickly. Modern is an incredibly powerful format, and it is very easy to lose games with this deck because of wasted mana when playing cards like Tolaria West and Whir of Invention.

All this deck hopes to do is to shut down avenues toward victory for the opponent. Chalice of the Void is a great way to take out whole slews of such cards, and Ensnaring Bridge is the other. After that, more pinpoint cards are found, and route to victory after route to victory is shut down. Knowing how an opponent wins and how they can escape being locked out are critical to succeeding with this deck, essentially necessitating knowledge of every deck you play against to hope to succeed.

For the deck itself, the paths to victory in the deck in Game 1 could be counted on one hand, and they all involve recursively using some combination of Jester's Cap and Ipnu Rivulet to deck the opponent, or Pyrite Spellbomb to win with damage. Concession will often be the likely end of a game, as an opponent is out of paths to victory, and just wants to end the misery of the game they're in.

Jester's Cap

That Jester's Cap could be a path to victory in a competitive Modern deck is somewhat shocking to me. The last time I recall this card seeing any use, it was in the 1996 World Championship, and that was in a format that required a minimum of five cards from every legal set in Type 2 (the ancient version of Standard). It becomes less shocking when you stop to think about how many games can quickly become a hunt for "outs"; often there will be so few of those cards that the 6 mana to cast and activate a Jester's Cap could close the door.

The card is incredibly narrow, and has often been in the discussion of possible cards to play in the past, even in tightly honed decks like Lantern; I recall one conversation with Sam Black where he brought up the card as "a possible solution" but in a tone of voice that made it clear that he viewed the concept as wildly unlikely to be correct. That being said, ur Prison is not Lantern, and susurrus_mtg's success with the card in several events is a good indication that the card is worth taking seriously; in the 5-0 that came several days later, the only change in the deck was moving a single Island into becoming a fifth Snow-Covered Island.

As an aside, one odd card that I'm saddened to see go that was briefly in older versions was the bizarre card Possessed Portal, but seeing as Jester's Cap is now in the mix, I guess I will survive.

The Red in the deck is quite minimal, only there to support a single Pyrite Spellbomb, a sideboard pair of Ghirapur Aether Grid, and the Sunburst on Engineered Explosives. Still, this element is important, as a Pyrite Spellbomb can create a cascade of events that leads to the shutting down of decks like Humans, as well as being a potential kill condition, and access to more colors makes the Engineered Explosives more powerful.

Sai, Master Thopterist

The new set brings a new tool for the deck in the form of Sai, Master Thopterist, a card which can play out as a fast victory condition as well as being an utter pain for any deck that struggles against 1/1 fliers - which ends up being a surprising amount of decks. While it can't take advantage of these fliers with Inspiring Statuary, they are still fuel for Whir of Invention, and there are a shocking amount of zero cost artifacts in the deck. Many Planeswalkers, like Liliana of the Veil, are deeply harried by a card like Sai, Master Thopterist, and the card also plays nicely with Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge, able to eat up a Chalice that has lost its usefulness, and able to attack through the Bridge while it is in play by saving cards in hand until after combat.

After seeing this deck re-emerge in the hands of susurrus_mtg, I've put it back into my regular rotation of Modern decks along with uw Spirits and Through the Breach Blue Moon. I have one or two minor tweaks that I'm going to experiment with (can you say Phyrexian Metamorph?), but I'll be completely unsurprised if I stay with the core of susurrus_mtg's deck, because at this point it looks like a well-oiled machine ready to shot silver bullets aplenty.

That's my kind of Prison deck.

- Adrian Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

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