Control is about access.
When you’re on the offensive, you pretty much want to stick to your game plan and focus all your cards on cleaving to that path…with a side helping of cards tailored to deflecting your opponent’s attempts to derail you.
On the other hand, if that game plan involves the intrinsically non-offense-oriented approach of “gaining control,” then you need to somehow have steady, reliable access to the right card at the right time. We can achieve this goal simply by just drawing a bunch of cards, or with a little more nuance, by building in mechanisms that let us get that right card at the right time.
This week, I’m going to set my my favorite Gifts aside in favor of some little Trinkets that can add an extra helping of access to your Modern control decks.
The life and times of the Trinket Mage
As this week’s title not-so-subtly indicates, we’re going to be taking a look at Trinket Mage today. I’m going to round out today’s look with a Cawblade list that benefits from Trinket Mage, but I suspect most of the points we touch on will apply across archetypes.
Trinket Mage has a long history in control, popping up in control decks in Standard and the fairly miserable Mirrodin Block Constructed format, and then having a continuing life in Extended and other formats since then.
So, what does the little guy do? What can he do for us in Modern?
More than just a tutor, really
We might summarize Trinket Mage as “a tutor for small artifacts,” but that really sells its fundamental value short. After all, a constrained tutor for three mana seems like it might be much worse than a four-mana tutor that can get any card, or even a two-mana tutor that can yank useful cards from your sideboard.
But as it happens, Trinket Mage has a leg up on both options.
First, it is three mana instead of four, and that’s a surprisingly large difference. Although I don’t have a quantitative model for this, I agree with the assessment that the difficulty of deploying cards goes up in a nonlinear fashion even as mana costs increase linearly. In other words, it’s going to take you way longer (in terms of game turns) to successful cast a three-mana rather than a four-mana spell.
…and, at a very obvious level, “cheaper” also means that you get to cast the tutor spell and do some other stuff during your turn.
This is a big part of why Stoneforge Mystic was such a broken card.
Second, Trinket Mage generally wins over a tutor like Glittering Wish – cheap as that Wish may be – because it exists as a creature in the game. This is the same reason that Snapcaster Mage is much better than an imaginary two-mana blue Instant with the text “Target Instant or Sorcery card in a graveyard gains flashback until end of turn.”
As trivial as it can seem, getting a 2/1 or 2/2 creature on top of your tutor or other utility effect raises a card a whole level above that effect on its own. Now you have the card you needed and something to beat down or chump block with. In addition, as you’ll see in a bit, the fact that Trinket Mage is a creature adds all sorts of other elements of utility. If you bounce it, you get to tutor again. If it dies, you can recycle it back into your deck and use it all over again. It can even set up some long-term infinite loops.
Some classic uses of the Trinket Mage
As I mentioned just a bit ago, Trinket Mage has a long history in control decks – pretty much from day one. Although Block and Standard decks don’t map well onto Modern, it’s worth spending a few minutes checking out a couple of its appearances in prior Extended formats.
Classic Tog (as played by Paul Cheon at Pro Tour Valenica 2007)
Paul’s ‘Tog deck has three copies of Trinket Mage and a selection of metagame-tuned Trinket Mage targets. They include:
…covering pretty much the full range of “target uses” we’ll get to below.
In its main deck configuration, this list has twelve targets for its three Mages. If we think of the Mages as “virtual copies” of the cards they can search for, then that means the main deck effectively has:
Counterbalance-Top (as played by Eugen Libkin at GP Vienna 2008)
Here, Trinket Mage serves both the versatility role and the more “game plan critical” job of finding the Divining Top half of the Counterbalance-Top soft lock machinery. Although I don’t see this kind of role for Trinket Mage in Modern right now, it’s something to keep in mind as we check the card out – sort of like the “utility” versus “game ender” decision we have when we cast a Gifts Ungiven.
The four types of Trinkets
There are 122 Trinket Mage targets in Modern at the moment. Gatherer will tell you there are 130, but it’s fibbing, since eight of those are banned.
Naturally, way fewer than that full set of 122 possible Trinket Mage targets are actually worth searching up. We can break the top contenders out into four different groups based on what they’re going to do for our game.
Both of our example Extended lists feature three copies of Chrome Mox, and Cheon’s list backs that up with four artifact lands – all cards that let Trinket Mage play the role of Civic Wayfinder in finding and fixing your mana.
Inconveniently for our little buddy, Chrome Mox and all those handy color-producing artifact lands are banned in Modern. That leaves us with:
Of these cards, Darksteel Citadel is the only one that conveniently fills the “land” role. Although we lose the (significant) ability to rely on Trinket Mage to conveniently fix our mana, there’s still a lot of value in having access to a Tinker-able land, especially when you’ve got nothing better to do with your Trinket Mages.
Expedition Map gains us some color fixing options at the expense of the “cheap and easy” factors that make the Citadel attractive. I actually don’t think you want to try to rely on a Trinket-tutored Expedition Map for color fixing, however – that option is clunky and way too slow. Instead, the Map is a tool for bringing up a card that you want to use to drive an engine – maybe an Academy Ruins, for example.
Mox Opal also fails to make our Cawblade cut below, but if you’re going to reliably hit metalcraft, it’s a fine and very powerful option.
This is by far the broadest category of powerful Trinket Mage targets. It breaks out approximately into graveyard hate, life gain, and general disruption.
On the general disruption side, we have Pithing Needle, the ultimate generic solution and the Trinket target that probably ought to be in the main deck of most decks that run the Mage. It’s also one of the few Trinket targets that you’ll want to pack a backup copy of, since you’re often going to be jam a wrench in your opponent’s game plan and they’re going to want to remove that wrench.
Chalice is another powerful, if more specific, option. Its main role is against decks that plan on casting a bunch of cheap spells all at once. Right now, this mostly means Storm decks, since we don’t have Elves running rampant in Modern.
There’s a cornucopia of graveyard hate options in the Trinket Mage collection – so many that even some of the ones I didn’t list above would be decent, if not the best possible choice. There are reasons to choose one or another of the remaining cards. Tormod’s Crypt gives you an immediate option, even if you’re just casting Trinket Mage on three mana. Relic lets you grind a graveyard-dependent opponent out – something that can be useful against a deck like Teachings. Nihil Spellbomb is handy because it misses your own graveyard and you can cycle it to just draw a card if you don’t need it for anything else. The Cage is good, of course, because it stays in play and keeps the graveyard clamped down the entire time. That’s its weakness as well, naturally, since it is as much of a target as Pithing Needle.
Elixir of Immortality has obsoleted most other Trinketable life gain options. It also lets you run some great tricks with Trinket Mage itself – recycling your dead Mages to tutor up more Elixirs – as well as with that standby of Cawblade, Squadron Hawk. Elixir lets you recycle all those Hawks you burned during early game attrition, letting you draw them all over again when you cast the one Hawk you kept in hand for just that purpose.
It’s a neat trick.
I’m not personally sold on Lifestaff reprising its Cawblade role in Modern, but it is an option for those attrition-based fights where it can be handy to have each Hawk you burn gain you another three life.
The second broadest category of decent Trinket targets, removal is naturally a welcome option in a control deck.
Engineered Explosives is the clear winner in this category. It kills nearly everything – that “nonland permanent” text is wonderfully open ended, covering even card types that weren’t invented when Fifth Dawn was on sale. As a consumable, Engineered Explosives is an obvious choice for running multiple copies…and also provides some incentive to shoehorn Academy Ruins into your deck if you can manage it, although I opted not to do so in today’s list.
The other options on this list don’t bear much additional discussion. They’re clearly specialized in their uses, and in most cases you’re not going to want to spend card slots on them…but sometimes they’ll have their uses.
We have nothing like Sensei’s Divining Top to set up in Modern right now, but some threat options stil exist.
Pretty sad, right?
If – and it’s a big if – control decks start taking down a dramatic slice of the metagame, it might be time to start rolling in those Aether Vials. Otherwise, I think most of the “threat” list is essentially missable in Modern, at least for now.
In closing, a list
I’m going to end today’s promotion of the power of the Trinket Mage with a list I’ve been testing with an eye toward potential PTQ play. It’s solid and quite effective, combining almost all of the positives of typical Cawblade with the power and versatility offered by Trinket Mage.
It’s a great choice if you’re going to be facing down aggro and combo – that is, roughly half of the decks that are succeeding at PTQs. Given that it’s a little less “end of turn” oriented than normal Cawblade it can suffer a bit in that head-to-head matchup, as well as against Faeries and other, similar control builds. Likewise, Delver can be a bit of a pain.
But if you need to kill Affinity and give Storm the smackdown, it’s a whole lotta fun.
Trinket Blade (a deck for Modern)
We don’t have space to spend a lot of time discussing this list today, but it’s pretty straightforward – Cawblade with a side helping of Trinketing. As always with any list like this, we have to tailor our tutoring targets for our specific metagame…so you may or may not need those specific cards in their given numbers, but hopefully you get the idea.
So that’s it – Birds, Blades, and Mages. One more option for your Modern PTQ season.
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