You can be at 41 on turn two!
To a player that didn’t really understand the relative value of life gain versus damage, the idea that you could more than double your life total using just one card plus a Plains was crazy to me. Of course, the life gain off of Brightflame was also quite the temptress. Even moving as far forward as Shadowmoor, I was still imagining a wealth of life from Oracle of Nectars. So life gain cards come and go, independent of my excitement for them, but this one was different. This one was a 1/1.
Small creatures are perhaps the most abusable cards in Magic. There are tons of reanimation and cheat spells that are restricted specifically to small things (Unearth, Reveillark, Birthing Pod, Imperial Recruiter, Aluren, Green Sun’s Zenith, etc). Small and cheap creatures are expected to be safer than the more expensive stuff. These things have mana costs for a reason and more often than not, we would like you to pay seven mana for that 7-drop, but the rules for 1-drops are looser.
It turns out that our somewhat irrational love for life gain slowly fades over time when we realize there are other ways to “gain life” without those words actually being printed on the card. A Doom Blade probably gains you more life than a Nourish, for example. But sometimes the hype is real, and in the case of Martyr of Sands, oh boy was it.
Over the years we have seen Martyr played in everything from the slowest of control decks to aggressive strategies looking to utilize its huge burst in life. It has Top 8’d Pro Tours and seen play in virtually every format at some point or another. Today, Modern is the place where Martyr looks best positioned. Many of the top decks in the format have a real problem beating large amounts of life gain.
For example, just take a look at Steffen Van De Veen’s Top 8 list from Grand Prix Madrid just a few months back. Most decks that classify themselves as “Martyr Proc” will look something like this—creature-based, but also anti-creature with a heavy emphasis on the Martyr engine itself.
This is the Martyr of Sands deck most people are familiar with—a midrange deck that masquerades as a control deck due to the long, drawn out games and the inevitability it has against fair decks. Run your Affinity, Delver, or Burn deck up against this and you probably just cannot win. Meanwhile, your Storm and Splinter Twin decks are going to have a relatively easy time taking you down as your life total is not an issue and your ways of interacting are slim.
Many of the cards in this deck are individually underpowered. Squadron Hawk and Weathered Wayfarer both stick out for this reason. Even a card like Wrath of God, which is perfectly justified, can be completely dead in certain matchups.
I really want something that has a broader range and can battle against the noncreature decks that a traditional Martyr list struggles against. There is more than one way to Martyr, though…
If you are looking to be more aggressive with your Martyr usage, the next place to look would be Soul Sisters. Instead of waiting for a Proclamation loop to take over the game, Soul Sisters is much more on the “get a big guy and kill you” plan. While it gains a ton of life to keep it out of burn range and enough to annoy the hell out of Delver, it really seeks to turn that life gain into a 6/6 flying lifelink or a 10/10 Pridemate to put pressure on the opponent.
My biggest issue with Soul Sisters is the number of cards that don’t actually do anything. Soul Warden is a great synergy piece, but drawing it late is a terrible feeling. Squadron Hawk is similar in that without Honor of the Pure it will be underwhelming. These lower power cards were fine in Standard, but when everyone is doing powerful and over-the-top things, I worry that a deck that can’t consistently keep pace is a bad choice.
The good draws with a Soul Sisters deck feel like you are playing combo. On turn two when you are attacking with you 6/6 flying lifelink threat, no creature-based deck is going to have a good time. But then those draws where your Ascendant gets Pathed and you are left with 2 Soul Wardens and a Spectral Procession, you are really playing fair Magic in an unfair format. The deck I took to Grand Prix Omaha looked to trim these dead cards while maintaining the nut draws of Martyr.
*As a bonus, if you are interested in Soul Sisters for Modern, there is an alternative build floating around that uses Norin the Wary and a ton of synergies that work with it. The deck does not have Martyr of Sands in it, but has many of the other life gain synergies, along with cards like Champion of the Parish, Genesis Chamber, and Purphoros. The deck is a bit cute, but it also packs a real punch. I actually lost to this deck in round 7 of Grand Prix Omaha to knock me out of Day Two, so it was at least strong enough to go 5-2 at a premier event.
I won’t talk very much about this list because I did so quite a bit already in my other column. I think there is definite promise here, but I want to keep working on the list before I have confidence in it. The premise was simply to combine the disruption and mana denial of Death and Taxes with the life gain and explosive opening of Martyr decks.
With a very small Martyr package, my games didn’t hinge on whether or not I drew Martyr. Some matchups obviously put a premium on the card and you absolutely would love to have one, but the deck is a functioning whole even without it.
Unfortunately, this list was too skewed around a predicted metagame. I expected to beat Burn, Delver, Pod, Storm, and then the various midrange decks like RUG, but battling against UW Control and RW Norin the Wary caught me unprepared.
If aggressive creatures are not the best use of our proactive half, what is? I think that hate bears and a clock can very well be the best version of Martyr in a well defined metagame and with the right tuning, but I wanted to explore some other directions with a life gain engine.
Six months ago or so, I wrote about a few prison ideas that I had worked on for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. I think that the environment then, along with a lack of a consistent early game, made them too volatile. Martyr of Sands not only gives those decks an early play, but it also gives you a bunch of time that allows you to set up your clunkier midgame cards.
Enduring Ideal is a card that fans of Modern might not be familiar with, but it is one of the most powerful cards that no one plays. In Extended, Enduring Ideal made for one of the most consistent and resilient combo decks around, even when turn-2 Dredge kills were commonplace. Overtime, new and better things have seen print to abuse with fast mana—the backbone of any Ideal list.
The goal was simple: get to 7 mana and cast Enduring Ideal. The faster you got to 7 mana, the better. Enduring Ideal would immediately fetch something that would protect you over the next few turns while it spent those turns piecing together a lock and/or win condition. The opponent sat by, helpless, with only a few cards in their deck that could interact once Ideal had been cast.
Even with a big ban on fast mana in the format, Enduring Ideal still just wins the game. If we took the concept from racing to 7 mana and instead approach it as a long-game finish, maybe we have something worth looking at. Borrowing from my Zur the Enchanter plus Enduring Ideal list, here is where I ended up.
- Forecasting something does not count as playing a spell. You can forecast while under epic lock.
- Suppression Field does negatively interact with Martyr, so do not play them if they are not relevant (plus they contribute to total life gained). Extremely early and in the late game your Martyrs should be able to do as they please, but just sequence them correctly for maximum gain.
- Phyrexian Unlife, Martyr of Sands, and Proclamation of Rebirth can create a Fog lock against creature decks. If my opponent attacks with 20 power worth of creatures and I am at 1 life, I will go to -19 and gain 0 poison counters, thanks to all of that damage coming through at once. Martyr of Sands with seven white cards in hand will gain 21 life and make your life total positive again. Generally the opponent will not have 20 power of attacking creatures, and you will only need 3-4 white cards in hand to undo his or her turn.
- Nykthos produces turn 4 or 5 Enduring Ideals which is surprisingly quick, especially as you tax your opponent’s resources.
- Debtors’ Knell is a tutorable way to win and to establish Martyr lock.
- Zur’s Weirding plus Martyr makes for a combination that quickly deprives your opponent of cards while your opponent runs low on life and has to start giving you yours.
Enduring Ideal is a nice win condition due to its flexibility. If you are about to lose, it can stop that from happening and then go on to win later on. The general chain of events is going to look like this, but keep in mind all of the options available to you during each copy of the spell.
Step 1 – Protect yourself
Step 2 – Protect your combo
Once you are certain you won’t die, begin protecting your win condition. Grabbing Dovescape will stop all incoming spells and Greater Auramancy can do some work here. You have plenty of ways to clean up Doves, from Detention Sphere to your attack taxes, so don’t worry much about them.
Step 3 – Win the game
Old lists used to use a Form of the Dragon to kill, but I was looking for white win conditions for Martyr and something that wouldn’t reset our life to 5. Debtors’ Knell can act as a win condition if the opponent has a decent graveyard. Usually, if your opponent has not scooped, Chromanticore will be your win condition. If a Detention Sphere comes down and cleans up the Doves, it can attack for 4 a turn and if your opponent ever kills it, Debtors’ Knell will bring it right back. In a worst-case scenario, you can always deck your opponent via Mistveil Plains.
But perhaps there are ways to abuse large amounts of life other than just time. If only there were a way to use a ton of life to do something like say, draw a ton of cards…
In theory, if we could cash our Martyr of Sands in for 15 to 18 life per activation, that would allow us to fire off an Ad Nauseam without having our full combo assembled. If our average casting cost was somewhere around 2 or less, we could draw a good 5 to 7 cards off of Ad Nauseam without blinking an eye. And of course, if we found another Martyr or way to bring it back in that pile of cards, we could very well gain all of that life back plus some with our now 10-14 card hand!
I think the prison direction is still the strongest here, but we are going to have to be a little less focused due to having so many more combo pieces in our deck. Really, we just want to stay alive while we build up our mana and set up our combo. Cards like Ghostly Prison and Leyline of Sanctity do this well, but something like Suppression Field might not be needed, especially if we want to use Lightning Storm as our win condition (it has an activated ability while on the stack).
- Because the main deck only has 2 copies of Simian Spirit Guide, the combo is a 7-mana play in this deck (5 for Ad Naus, 1 for Angel’s Grace, 1 plus two Guides for Lightning Storm). The third copy of Guide is in the sideboard to reduce the combo by a full mana for any matchup where speed is essential.
- Alternatively, you can render Angel’s Grace unnecessary by having Phyrexian Unlife in play, making the combo six mana, or five after board.
- With Leyline of Sanctity or an appropriately named Runed Halo, your opponent cannot even redirect a Lightning Storm back at you. If they have a creature in play, they may attempt to redirect to it to survive. If it’s easy to do so, kill all creatures before combo’ing to make sure your opponent has no chance to have sandbagged enough lands to pull something fishy. (It is very rare for an opponent to have the chance to even do this, to be fair).
- With enough life from Martyr, you can combo without Angel’s Grace or Phyrexian Unlife. Your entire deck has a total casting cost of 94, so subtract costs of cards you’ve drawn from that number and that is your safety point.
- The average casting cost of cards in your deck is 1.57. This gives you a good measurement tool for knowing how deep you can go with your fair copies of Ad Nauseam.
- Martyr makes for a great cushion before Angel’s Grace or Unlife, but you can also use it to recover from there. Hit 1 life and then build back up to 40 over just a few turns!
All right, that’s it! That’s all the Martyr I have in me for one day! I am on a bit of a kick, if you couldn’t tell, so I am sure one of these will evolve into my project for the foreseeable future, although I am not quite sure which just yet, as they all have merit and some flaws.
Modern is actually more open right now than Treasure Cruise would leave you to believe, and there is always room to brew! Until next week, thanks for reading!
[Editor’s Note: This article originally inaccurately described the conditions of the Phyrexian Unlife + Martyr lock. It has since been corrected. Credit: John Q. Pham.]