I will preface this article by noting that I mostly played this deck for a single weekend prior to the Jace and Bloodbraid Elf unbannings, but I still think that this deck is criminally underrated and should see a lot more play than it does. I wouldn’t recommend playing it over the very best Modern decks (i.e., Humans, Hollow One, and Tron) if there’s anything on the line, but I legitimately think it’s in the same category as everything else.
I had gotten a little bored of playing Eldrazi Tron, and was looking for a second option I could afford with the 200 or so tickets I had won playing it. I scanned through the most recently published Modern deck lists and found a Martyr control list that mRichi had piloted to a 6-1 finish in a Modern challenge.
Martyr of Sands is a ridiculously powerful card, and I’ve always been interested in trying it in Modern. Just compare Martyr to Reno Jackson in Hearthstone, which was the single most powerful card in Hearthstone for much of its Standard legality. With five or six white spells in hand, Martyr gains about as much life as Reno does for a third as much mana, and in Magic you can go above your starting life total. And you can play 4 Martyr of Sands, not just 1. While life gain isn’t as powerful in Magic as it is in Hearthstone, that’s an absurd rate.
The synergies with Serra Ascendant and Ranger of Eos are enormous. Ranger of Eos can find both Serra Ascendant and Martyr of Sands, letting you gain 15 or more life and deploy a 6/6 flyer the next turn.
mRichi’s deck was more controlling than Martyr decks I had seen in the past, which made sense to me. If you’re building your deck around this really potent survival tool, you might as well play a bunch of powerful late-game cards. I cut the Ghostly Prisons in mRichi’s list for more planeswalkers and Mind Stones to ramp out Rangers and Wraths, focusing more on the control game plan.
I wound up on the following list, showcased here by my friend Jacob Nagro.
I played this deck for eight or nine Leagues that first weekend, making slight adjustments after each League, and went 5-0 in six of them and 4-1 in the rest. As I noted in the mulligans article, I hit my all-time peak Magic Online rating of 1976 that weekend.
If I were to register for a tournament tomorrow with this deck, I would play the following list:
The Thraben Inspector kept overperforming, especially in post-board games, so I upped the number to four. I shaved and diversified the Wraths because Wraths are unreliable against Hollow One and Humans, the new premier aggro decks. I added more Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to make the deck more proactive against Jace decks. Cavern of Souls can be annoying with Emeria, but it’s useful insurance against Chalice of the Void.
Gabriel Nassif has been playing a more midrange version of the deck with Oketra’s Monument and Legion Conquistador instead of the planeswalkers, which is interesting. I’ve really liked the planeswalkers since they give the deck a completely different dimension that a lot of opponents are unprepared for, but the Monuments and Conquistadors are more synergistic. I’d like to test a version with Monuments and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
The main thing to keep in mind when playing Martyr-Proc is that this is a control deck, first and foremost. Between Ranger of Eos, Emeria, Proclamation of Rebirth, and the planeswalkers, you have inevitability against almost everything. If a game goes to turn 20, you’ll likely win.
The reasons to play this deck rather than other control and midrange decks is that the mono-colored mana base comfortably supports four Field of Ruin and several Ghost Quarters, and you additionally have powerful nut draws featuring Martyr of Sands and Serra Ascendant. I’ve won plenty of games against horrible matchups just because I was on the play with both Martyr and Serra Ascendant in my opening hand and hit my opponent for 6 on turn 2.
You’re happiest to play against midrange and control decks. As powerful as Bloodbraid Elf and Jace are, Ranger of Eos for two 6/6 Serra Ascendants is usually better. In these matchups, Martyr of Sands is primarily to enable Serra Ascendant. Try to save them until you draw Squadron Hawk and can get comfortably above 30 life. You’ll get a lot of free wins from your opponents misunderstanding their role and trying to play a long game against you with sweepers and cheap removal. At the end of the day, you will outgrind them.
The worst matchups are combo decks that beat you through a high life total like Ad Nauseam and Tron, since they go so far over the top of what you do. Your life total can be a surprisingly powerful resource against even decks like TitanShift that can do a large amount of damage, though, or even Ad Nauseam.
For example, most Ad Nauseam decks play 20 lands. So if they have four lands in play, then they can deal you at most 35 damage with Lightning Storm. You can use Ghost Quarter or Field of Ruin proactively to thin their deck of lands and further reduce that number, or hold some lands in hand. If you get your life total out of Lightning Storm range, then you essentially Stone Rain them since they’ll be forced to win with Laboratory Maniac, which costs an additional mana. Since they also usually only have two basics, this is actually quite relevant—once both basics are out of their deck, your Field of Ruins and Ghost Quarters become Strip Mines.
Doing this kind of math against Scapeshift decks is harder, but you should be cognizant of how many Mountains they have left. (Most R/G lists play 13, and blue Scapeshift decks can deal you a maximum of 60 damage if they play to get two triggers from every Mountain in their deck.)
Tips and Tricks
Be aware that you sometimes want to save your Squadron Hawks in hand in case you draw Martyr. Still, don’t let that deter you from casting them if the bodies will be useful.
Don’t be afraid to play Martyr of Sands early and get some attacks in. Your opponent will sometimes even feel compelled to spend a removal spell on it.
Think about what cards you reveal to Martyr of Sands. The life is usually worth more than the information, but sometimes it’s useful to represent that the last card in your hand is a land instead of showing your opponent that it’s a Wrath of God.
You can also use this trick if you need to bluff a land so your opponent will play around Elspeth or Wrath, even when you don’t have it yet.
The combat rules with Serra Ascendant are a little non-intuitive. For example, if you’re at 29 and your opponent attacks you with a single creature, you can block it with Serra Ascendant and your Ascendant will live. This rarely comes up with just a single Ascendant, but sometimes a couple of Serra Ascendants can comprise a formidable defense even if none of them are active.
I’d like to conclude this article with a brief sideboarding guide against the nine most popular decks in Modern, according to MTGGoldfish. As with all sideboarding guides, take my advice with a grain of salt. Your sideboarding should change based on whether you’re on the play or the draw, and how your opponent approaches sideboarding. For example, a lot of players will try to play a control game against you even though they’re unlikely to come out on top, and you should naturally approach that plan differently than if your opponent tries to beat you down with Geist of Saint Trafts.
The Gideons are a little slow and clunky, so you replace them with removal. Keep in mind that you can cast Proclamation of Rebirth to bring back a bunch of creatures for a midgame tempo swing, and that Martyr of Sands + Archangel Avacyn lets you build a sweeper. (Note that I play two Day of Judgment and one Wrath of God in the 75 because I think Meddling Mage is more likely to name Wrath of God in this matchup. Feel free to swap those numbers if you think the opposite is true.)
Your life total is typically under too much pressure for Serra Ascendant in this matchup, especially on the draw, though you can consider leaving more copies in on the play. The real problems aren’t the big creatures, but the sticky threats. You want to buy time until you can set up a sweeper with a graveyard hate card in play.
This is one of your worst matchups, and you should try to set up big Serra Ascendants or an active planeswalker as quickly as possible while disrupting their mana when you can. One of the most problematic cards is Oblivion Stone, which is why I take out the Oblivion Ring effects. Consider mulliganing hands that don’t feature a fast Serra Ascendant or a Stony Silence. The dream is responding to their Oblivion Stone with Archangel Avacyn.
Elspeth and Gideon aren’t very effective because most of their creatures fly, and you shave Inspectors and the Mind Stone because they don’t interact well with Stony Silence. I cut Proclamation because a lot of my opponents board in Relic of Progenitus, but leave it in if you don’t think your opponents will. Consider boarding in Crucible of Worlds as well, as creaturelands are their most effective tools against sweepers.
Consider boarding in the Day of Judgment if your opponent shows you they’re on the Empty plan, though you can often just beat a moderately-sized Empty with Serra Ascendants and Thraben Inspectosr. This is a hard matchup, you just need to race.
This is an excellent matchup, for obvious reasons. You typically want to play Martyr early with an additional mana up, at which point they can never tap below two mana or you’ll activate Martyr and win. This hurts them a lot more than it hurts you because they have to leave up more mana and only play 20 lands. They also only play two basics, so at some point you start threatening their mana with your Field of Ruins and Ghost Quarters, get a second Martyr in play, and then they have to tap out and you win. Crucible is a weird card to board in, but it expedites this process. Gideon Jura is useful if you draw Gideon of the Trials and make an emblem.
Jund and Grixis Shadow
I’ve grouped these matchups together because your primary gameplans are pretty similar. They have difficulty killing you through Martyr of Sands, and eventually you play Elspeth and they can no longer win. They can approach sideboarding in a lot of different ways though, so be careful and adjust to what they’re doing.
You cut your removal for powerful threats, and you want to pressure them so they tap out for a sweeper and you can resolve a planeswalker (or play Archangel Avacyn in response). This matchup is trickier than black midrange because counterspells can be pretty powerful against you, but if you navigate the games well you should still be favored. Emeria and Proclamation are extremely powerful in this matchup.
I’ve enjoyed playing this deck a ton, and hopefully it serves you as well as it’s served me. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you liked this article, and may your Squadron Hawks fly high.