Back in junior high, I knew a group of guys who played poker at lunch. They had this ridiculous tendency to declare anywhere from one to five cards “wild,” which makes for a risible surplus of good hands.
Wild cards make for stupid poker, but powerful Magic.
As we head into the current Extended PTQ season, I’ll be keeping an eye on the various archetypes in the format and thinking about what I’d want to play in terms of aggro and combo, but the truth is that my heart belongs to Gifts Ungiven. Although this is partially an aesthetic choice, Gifts is also a tremendously powerful card, and a deck built around Gifts offers a “wild card” aspect that other decks in the format simply don’t have.
Gifts Ungiven is a powerful utility card on its own, of course. It currently sees play – typically as a two-of – in Thopter Foundry decks, it shows up as a restricted one-of favorite in many Vintage decks, and you can use it in other contexts as well. So most of the aspects of the card that I’m going to touch on below are likely to also apply to utility uses of the cards in decks that aren’t focused on Gifts.
The default uses for Gifts boil down to “get me my win” and “get me out of trouble.” The fact that you get both uses out of the same card slot in your deck is what makes the card powerful. If you’re reacting to an aggro deck, you’re likely going to be in “out of trouble” mode, tutoring up sweepers or spot removal. If you’re in most other pairings, you’re going to tutor up your win condition – from a conveniently wide range of win conditions.
Getting out of trouble
Let’s take a look at a recent Gifts deck that did reasonably well, piloted by Shota Yasooka at Pro Tour Austin:
Yosei Gifts, by Shota Yasooka
Yasooka’s approach to the “out of trouble” package here matches my own philosophy. Some Gifts variants run two sweepers and then the usual set of cards designed to get your stuff back from the graveyard – often Eternal Witness and Reclaim, Recollect, Grim Discovery, or Makeshift Mannequin. My preference is, like Yasooka, to run at least three different sweepers, so that you can always present a Gifts package that will immediately get you out of trouble – because in some Extended matchups, you will lose if you take that extra turn to recur your sweeper.
Compare Yasooka’s build with a recent Gifts deck from an MTGO Extended Daily event:
Yosei Gifts by mikeman29
This Gifts variation loses the option of getting a sweeper immediately, although it does raise the possibility of a Gifts package of Wrath of God, Engineered Explosives, Primal Command, and Eternal Witness. Primal Command is an excellent part of a Gifts package – and I’ve used it myself – but I don’t like the option of not having immediate, very-next-turn access to mass removal.
Getting your win
Assuming you’re not rifling through your deck for some mass removal, you have a host of options when it comes to win conditions. Yasooka’s deck, mirrored in various Magic daily events, uses a fascinating soft lock involving Yosei, Miren, and Emeria. This is a pretty slow endgame, inasmuch as it relies on having Miren, Emeria, Yosei, and the requisite seven Plains in play, but it does have the advantage of denying the opponent an untap step for the rest of the game while gaining 5 life for the low, low price of just 3 mana per turn.
You have a host of potential win conditions that are amenable to being Gifts search targets – certainly more than I’ll be rattling off here. My best advice in putting together your own sets of Gifts-oriented win conditions is to search Gatherer for cards in the Extended format that refer to the graveyard. You’ll plug into at least part of your potential win condition that way.
Last Extended season, I played a Sunburst Gifts deck that was able to Gifts for Life from the Loam, Academy Ruins, Etched Oracle, and Eternal Witness. This is a fun package that gives you a perpetually recursive 4/4 creature that draws you three cards when it goes away.
Here are some others:
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps you from building more than one of these packages into the same deck. You’re probably going to want Academy Ruins and Life from the Loam in any given Gifts deck, so you’re all set to have Dark Depths and potentially a recursive artifact like Etched Oracle.
But what about that last option, with Glittering Wish?
When Living Wish was still in Extended, Gifts Rock builds frequently ran a silver bullet wishboard comprising a set of useful lands and creatures to solve in-game situations. Glittering Wish once more gives us this wishboard option, allowing us access to a little shy of 700 multicolored cards that we can shove into our sideboard.
Naturally, not all 678 cards are useful.
Here’s one current Glittering Gifts build:
WUBG Glittering Gifts
Given the importance of the wish targets in this design, I’ll take the deck in reverse order.
The biggest temptation in building a deck that runs a wishboard – that is, a sideboard featuring targets for Glittering Wish – is in overloading the sideboard with wish targets. My first draft of this deck featured twelve multicolored cards, including some degree of redundancy (e.g. Harmonic Sliver and Maelstrom Pulse at the same time). The second draft cut that down to eleven, and the third to ten. Clearly, I was still overly attached to the wishboard concept. The current build listed above features a mere eight cards, and I still want to test it more to see whether all of them are strictly necessary.
The wishboard portion of the sideboard focuses mainly on solutions, although it also contains one win condition. Let’s do the rundown:
Meddling Mage — Wish for the Mage when you need to stall a combo deck. Meddling Mage is my first target of choice against Scapeshift and Hypergenesis decks. Although Meddling Mage has clear limitations, the ability to wish for a disruptive card provides extra power to the other disruption-oriented sideboard cards in the deck.
Wheel of Sun and Moon — This is chiefly meant for Dredge decks, although it doesn’t obviate the need for additional Dredge hate, since it’s coming down on turn three at the soonest (assuming you draw into a second turn Wish). The Wheel is meant to be a nail in the coffin against recursion rather than a first line of defense.
Loxodon Hierarch — This comes in against Zoo or Burn when you don’t immediately need mass removal.
Fracturing Gust — The Gust is obviously a beating against Affinity, but it’s also surprisingly awesome against Thopter Foundry decks, where it sweeps the Thopters, the Foundry, and that annoyingly recursive Sword of the Meek.
Worm Harvest — Although Loxodon Hierarch is an incidental win condition, this is a true recursive, Knight-fueling, hard-to-stop win condition.
Crime // Punishment — Mass removal.
Having the option of wishing for silver bullets doesn’t mean you can ignore important matchups that depend on an overload of hate. This is why the non-Glittering half of the sideboard features a second Crypt, a Relic of Progenitus, a Pithing Needle, and a mix of discard spells. An alternative approach eschews the discard spells in favor of countermagic such as Spell Pierce. I have not yet decided which version I like better.
The main deck
I’m a big fan of decks that feature intersecting lines of action. If you look at this main deck, there are multiple Gifts packages and a pair of Trinket Mages, giving me access to a range of win conditions, problem solutions, and early access to some key hate cards. Let’s take a look at some of the highlight cards:
Trinket Mage — A pair of Trinket Mages effectively gives me three chances to draw the main deck Tormod’s Crypt, Chalice of the Void, or Engineered Explosives. Although in other circumstances I think Trinket Mage can be a trap that induces you to start swapping in unnecessary artifacts, I think in an environment where you may run afoul of Dredge or Hypergenesis, you want to try and have a reasonable chance of actually winning game one before you bulk up on the hate for game two (and, ideally, no game three). At the moment, I’m debating the final disposition of all of these handy Trinket targets. If Hypergenesis is on the downswing, Chalice can move to the sideboard to be replaced by Needle or a second Crypt.
Academy Ruins — With Life from the Loam in the deck as well, you can always get access to your [card]Academy Ruins[/card]. This in turn gives you access to recursive Crypt and Explosives, both of can become an impenetrable wall of hate. You also have access to the [card]Etched Oracle[/card] win package, which will generate one of those “What does that do?” moments for your opponent.
Knight of the Reliquary — Notice how the deck doesn’t have any Goyfs? I’m not a huge fan of the Goyf, although it is a perfectly serviceable finisher. Knight has some advantages over Goyf, in that it often hits the board as a 4/4 or higher, is immune to the negative consequences of Crypting your opponent’s graveyard, and can tutor for Ghost Quarter to nail your opponent’s Dark Depths.
Reclaim — In addition to the obvious choice of Eternal Witness, I prefer Reclaim over other options like Recollect and Makeshift Mannequin. If you’re at five mana, Reclaim gives you immediate access to your card of interest, assuming you’ve left one green mana open. In a pinch, remember that you can also Reclaim during your Upkeep to grab that card and draw it, even if you didn’t have any green mana open when you played that Gifts (and you did play that Gifts at the end of the opponent’s prior turn, right?).
Those sweepers — This deck runs four different sweepers, with Day of Judgment, Wrath of God, Engineered Explosives, and Punishment. I like having all four due to the non-overlapping removal abilities. While they’re all good at killing creatures, I appreciate the ability to Gifts for something like Engineered Explosives, Crime // Punishment, Eternal Witness, and Glittering Wish, with the option of wishing for something like Maelstrom Pulse. This type of package lets me remove Thopter Foundry combo elements, Jittes, and other problematic non-creature cards.
The lands — This is common knowledge for long-term Gifts Ungiven users, but if you can safely differentiate your lands, you should. That’s why this mana base runs a couple Snow-Covered lands to pair up to its normal basics so you can, in a pinch, Gifts for multiple copies of the same land.
The wish bluff
The ideal Gifts package gives your opponent an impossibly hard decision – for example, four sweepers against a Zoo deck. Adding Glittering Wish to one of those splits opens up an additional aspect of bluffing in that your opponent has to wonder if the card you’re going to pull out of your sideboard is significantly worse for them than the other three cards in the Gifts quartet.
Consider a quote from the Tournament Rules:
Before each game begins, players must present their sideboard (if any) face down and, if requested, allow their opponents to count the number of cards in their sideboard. Players are not required to reveal how many cards they have swapped from their main deck to their sideboard. Players may look at their own sideboard during a game as long as the sideboard remains clearly distinguishable from other cards. The sideboard must be clearly identified and separated from all other cards in the play area.
First, have you ever actually presented your sideboard face down to your opponent? I don’t know that I have.
Second, consider that unless they’ve managed to scout you fairly extensively, your opponent doesn’t have a specific idea what you’re going for from the sideboard. They then have to make a decision about whether to go you something from behind Door Number Four, or whether to just bag it and give you two of the three remaining cards that have known identities.
Don’t overvalue this effect, but keep it in mind, as you will see people shy away from giving you access to the Glittering Wish even when the remaining cards are patently good against them.
As I said, there are nearly 700 multicolored cards in Extended, and if you go with the Glittering Wish option, you’ll want to look through them yourself. Here’s how to generate a comprehensive list of Glittering Wish targets in Extended using the Advanced Search at Gatherer. Search for:
Or just click on this link.
My preference is to run four-color Gifts sans red, but adding red brings up a handful of very useful wishboard options. Specifically, Firespout, Jund Charm, and Thought Hemorrhage all deserve notice if you’re going to play some red, either by rotating one of the other colors out or by being brave enough to run five-color control. Red is also required, of course, for the maindeck Punishing Fire option.
I want to say one word to you: Plastics.
Gifts decks are intrinsically tricky. You don’t want to just pick one up the day – or, really, the week – before you go to a PTQ. Ideally, whenever you cast Gifts Ungiven you should know what you’re going to grab before you even crack your deck open to assemble the package. In addition to the obvious risk of slow play issues, if you don’t have an intuitive understanding of which parts you have available and how you want to use them, you may find that you’ve cast Gifts when you can’t generate an appropriately difficult package, or that you’re simply telegraphing more about your current hand and board state than you’d like.
My one hard-and-fast rule for a genuine Gifts deck is to play four copies of the card. If you go with anything less, even three, then you’d better be on some other plan such as Martyr or Thopter Foundry, because you can’t rely on the true wild card power of Gifts to make your deck work. This may sound like a silly point, but I’ve actually done the testing, and the power you lose by dropping from four to three copies of Gifts is enough that you really aren’t playing the deck you think you are.
I adore Gifts Ungiven as the core of a deck because of the versatility it offers, both in play and design. On the design side, I will be testing the Glittering Gifts style of deck that I’ve outlined in this article as well other possible Gifts approaches in the next week or two leading up to our first area PTQ. On the play side, I’m looking forward to yet another chance to hit up some major tournaments with my favorite card of all time.
I’ll let you know how it goes.