Esper Goryo Gifts in Modern

Enjoying a format in Magic largely depends on if you have a deck that you enjoy playing. For a long time I have been known as the “Kiki Chord Guy” to Modern players. Recently though, Modern has become far more aggressive and linear than it was in years past. Unfortunately, Kiki Chord is both slow and not terribly interactive meaning it is poorly positioned and not a good choice for someone who is looking to be successful at a larger event. Unable to play my favorite deck, I started searching for a new one that I both enjoyed playing and was powerful.

When looking for something new in formats that have been around for while like Modern, it is often helpful to look back at things we have done in the past. This sent me searching through my archive of strategies I had tried that had never quite been good enough to pull me away from Kiki Chord. I stumbled across this in one of my older video sets:

This deck has a few different things going on at its core so let’s break them down really quick. First off we have the traditional “Gifts Combo” in the deck:

Because Gifts Ungiven allows us to search our deck for up to four cards, if we choose only two cards our opponent has no choice but to put the two cards we have found into our graveyard. This means that for eight mana spread out over two turns we can get our choice of Elesh Norn or Iona into play from our deck.

The other powerful thing this deck has going on is the interaction between Goryo’s Vengeance and specific legendary creatures:

The key to doing powerful things in Magic often revolves around taking something that has a drawback and making that drawback mean as little as possible. In this case we take the “exile this creature at end of turn” drawback that Vengeance comes with and make it irrelevant in two different ways.

With Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, if we bring him back while there are four or more cards in our graveyard, we can then transform Jace into a planeswalker before our end step. Under the rules of Magic when a card changes zones it counts as a new instance of that card. This means the Jace exiling and coming back as a planeswalker makes it a new card for all purposes of the rules of the game meaning we can keep it around after we Goryo it back into play.

We can also Goryo’s Vengeance back Obzedat, Ghost Council and have it stick around. This is because at the end of turn Obzedat has its own ability that can exile itself. This allows us to stack the trigger for Goryo’s under the trigger from Obzedat. Then Obzedat exiles itself and when the Goryo’s trigger resolves Obzedat is already gone. Obzedat can then return to play next turn to come and go as he pleases.

While this deck had two different powerful proactive game plans, they both are a touch slow in the context of Modern as a format. This means we need to surround our game-winning cards with ones that help use survive to make it there. The major thing this deck was lacking when I worked on it at the end of 2015 was a way to smooth out its often clunky draws. While Serum Visions helped some, our deck full of four- and five-mana cards often could just die before it really got going in a format as aggressive as Modern. Thankfully in the last year we have gotten two fantastic tools for helping smooth things out a bit:

While we previously had Path to Exile as one-mana removal, Fatal Push is not only easier to cast in this deck since it is base black, it also doesn’t give our aggressive opponents additional mana in the early game.

Collective Brutality is really everything this deck was missing though. Not only is it an additional way to get Obzedat into our graveyard to reanimate with Goryos, but it gives us a reasonable way to smooth out our clunkier draws by letting us discard expensive cards we would often die with in hand to generate multiple cards’ worth of value on the second and third turns of the game. Brutality is also excellent against Burn which was previously a very difficult matchup for this archetype.

This brings me to my current iteration of the Esper Goryo Gifts deck:

In addition to the cards discussed above, we have a few important tools in this main deck:

The discard in a deck like this is very potent. Against faster combo decks, targeted discard lets us disrupt their plan so we have time to execute our own. Against slower, more interactive decks, we can use this same discard to strip away the removal they are counting on to disrupt our game plan.

Path to Exile is not ideal against aggressive decks, but playing some copies to give us a method of dealing with larger threats like Reality Smasher and Wurmcoil Engine is important. We can also Path our own creatures in a pitch to accelerate our mana or find basics in response to a Blood Moon.

Lingering Souls is a card that is good at playing both offense and defense. Against aggressive decks, four bodies buy us a lot of time while we get our powerful end game setup. Against controlling decks, creating four bodies across two cards allows us to create pressure and stress the answers our opponent needs to come up with in order to not die.

The sideboard of decks in formats like Modern should often be adjusted based on which decks you are expecting to play against, or more specifically, which decks you are prepared to lose to. For instance, the sideboard in the sample list above features a smattering of different one-ofs and three copies of each of these:

Stony Silence is fantastic against obvious decks like Robots and Lantern Control while also providing some splash hate for decks that lean on supporting artifacts like Tron. Stony Silence also has the upside of hosing some graveyard hate such as Relic of Progenitus. Against decks like Hate Bears, bringing in some amount of Stony Silence is reasonable to turn off Relics, Aether Vial, and even their clues.

Supreme Verdict is one of the best cards we can play for punishing “go wide” strategies. It is also an ace against Death’s Shadow. Knowing that our clean up card is going to resolve against the deck full of Stubborn Denials is very valuable and gets us out of otherwise unwinnable situations. One consideration with our sweepers is splitting the Verdicts with Damnation and Wrath of God so we can Gifts Ungiven for three sweepers. The downside of two of these being counterable makes them too much of a liability against Shadow, but if you do not expect much Shadow then a split is fine.

The remaining one-ofs in our sideboard are two sets of cards that offer similar effects, but have different names so we can Gifts Ungiven for four of them at a time. First up we have a suite of different counterspells:

These are cards that are all largely fine to draw on their own, but in a pinch we can cast our Gifts Ungiven and get two guaranteed pieces of disruption. If one or more of these counterspells is awkward for a given situation we can also mix and match in some discard spells.

Ojutai’s Command is a bit clunky on the surface, but in many matches it does a good Cryptic Command impersonation while being easier to cast. Gaining four life is also not irrelevant against aggressive decks, and returning our Jace to play also comes in hand if we do not have a copy of Goryo’s at the ready.

These cards all answers different permanents and in general casting Gifts for all four of them will solve any given problem. Also keep in mind that we have a copy of Snapcaster Mage in the main deck that we can include in Gifts piles as well.

Sometimes when you are talking about a given deck it is as important to talk about some of the cards we have left out as it is to talk about the cards we are playing. The following are the cards I have gotten the most “why not” questions about with regards to this Esper Goryo Gifts shell.

There have been a few iterations of this deck played by other people that forego the Gifts Ungiven package, trim a few lands, and play Pieces of the Puzzle and Thought Scour to get to a fast Obzedat as often as possible. While this is certainly powerful, there are a number of decks in Modern that frankly just do not care about a 5/5 that drains them for two. Decks such as Elves, Counters Company, and Ad Nauseum can untap and kill us after we put Obzedat into play on turn three.

Playing Gifts Ungiven on the other hand gives us a manner of locking most of these decks out of the game. When we spend our first few turns interacting with our opponent we can then spend our turn four and five locking our opponent out of the game. Modern is a format where getting “free” wins on the back of powerful cards like Elesh and Iona is important when you are playing in a long event.

This is the third fatty that often gets mentioned with Gifts Ungiven. While there are situations where Griselbrand is good that Elesh and Iona are not, I feel like those are rare enough to not be worth including another card that costs over six mana. Our deck is clunky enough as is and I feel we will lose more games to drawing an uncastable 8 drop than we will win by having access to a Griselbrand in our Gifts toolbox.

This is a card that I have played off and on, but currently am not a fan of. The problem stems from the fact that we often do not have cards we want to be discarding when we +1 her. While we do have some pitchable cards like Lingering Souls, our deck in general is full of expensive spells. This means that our opponents will often have their hands empty before we do which means we are one-for-zeroing ourselves when we want to +1 Liliana in the mid-late game.

Match Ups and Playing the Deck

In general, Modern is a fairly diverse format. Even when you are playing at a large event you cannot expect to play against all of the “best decks” for all or even most of your rounds. That being said, you still generally want to be practiced against the better decks because they are the best metric for if a given rogue deck can be competitive. As of my writing this I would estimate the five best decks in Modern are:

  • Grixis Shadow
  • Robots
  • Dredge
  • Eldrazi Tron
  • Burn

The current iteration of Esper Goryo Gifts lines up well against Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron, has a close matchup against Robots and Burn, and performs fairly poorly against Dredge.

Against Grixis Shadow we play a one-for-one game fairly efficiently. Our primary goal is to keep the table clear of their threats so we can have enough time to set up a threat that can end the game. They do enough damage to themselves that Obzedat generally ends the game in two or fewer attacks. Iona on black also locks the Grixis variations out of the game if they do not already have a board presence.

When I board against Grixis Shadow, I typically do the following:

Out: Elesh, 3 Collective, 1 Thoughtseize

In: 3 Supreme Verdict, 1 Detention Sphere, 1 Runed Halo

We want as many of our cards as possible to be able to impact the board. Drawing too many discard spells when they have threats already in play feels really bad. When playing the matchup we want to prioritize killing their threats as opposed to protecting our own. If we expect our opponent to bring in graveyard hate, I prefer to sidestep it as opposed to trying to fight through it. Boarding out our Goryo’s Vengeance and bringing in cards like Dispel and Anguished Unmaking is not unreasonable.

When I board against Eldrazi Tron I typically do the following:

Out: 3 Collective, 3 Inquisition, 1 Thoughtseize, 1 Iona, 2 Fatal Push

In: 1 Detention Sphere, 1 Unmaking, 3 Stony Silence, 1 Runed Halo, 1 Disenchant, 3 Supreme Verdict

Boarding out a majority of our one-drops in this matchup makes us much stronger against Chalice of the Void. Our discard is fairly poor against a deck that top decks as well as Eldrazi Tron, not to mention Collective Brutality kills very little. Stony Silence not only shuts down their maps and Mind Stones, but also disables the full set of Relic of Progenitus they are boarding into most of the time.

When I board against Robots I typically do the following:

Out: 3 Inquisition, 1 Thoughtseize, 1 Iona, 1 Goryo, 1 Obzedat, 1 Collective

In: 1 Detention Sphere, 1 Disenchant, 3 Stony Silence, 3 Supreme Verdict

Again we want to trim things that interact with their hand in favor of more cards that play to the board. Collective Brutality is a bit better in this matchup than it is against Eldrazi Tron because it can kill things like Signal Pest and Steel Overseer.

When I board against Burn I typically do the following:

Out: 1 Elesh, 1 Thoughtseize, 1 Iona, 1 Unburial, 1 Gifts

In: Countersquall, Negate, Dispel, Ojutai’s Command, Runed Halo

It may seem odd to cut the Iona / Unburial Rites package against Burn, but post board I expect them to have access to Path to Exile making this no longer a hard lock. Past this, keeping these in our deck leaves a lot of clunk around, so I would much prefer to just try to race this matchup with a fast Obzedat. Runed Halo may seem like an odd one to board in, but it is good against Eidolon of the Great Revel and it prevents Searing Blaze from targeting us and our creatures.

When I board against Dredge I typically do the following:


No seriously – with our current board play we really do not have a great chance of beating Dredge. The number of dedicated board cards we would need to have to beat dredge would hamper our ability to have enough cards for more popular match ups, so I think simply hoping to dodge the Dredge matchup is ideal. That being said I would shuffle around the cards we do have as follows:

Out: Iona, 3 Collective Brutality, Thoughtseize, 2 Inquisition

In: Runed Halo, 3 Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, Negate, Countersquall

The game plan is not great for us, but it involves getting an Elesh Norn into play as fast as possible and protecting it with our counter spells.

Wrapping Up

The Esper Goryo Gifts deck checks all of the boxes I want to be checking when looking for a Modern deck. It has powerful interactive elements to give me a fighting chance against most things in the format. It has a proactive game plan of simply try to run people over when our interaction is poor. It has the ability to generate “free” wins on the back of Gifts Ungiven and Unburial Rites. And finally it has a sweet toolbox that lets it attack the game from an angle people are not used to being attacked on.

If you are looking for something sweet and powerful to be doing in Modern I would highly recommend giving Esper Goryo Gifts a try. Have a question about the deck I did not cover above? Let me know in a comment below.


~Jeff Hoogland

Jeff Hoogland

Jeff Hoogland

I largely play constructed magic formats. Modern is my favorite format followed closely by Standard. I travel to as many large events as possible in the Midwest United States. My current Magic resume includes:
* One SCG Invitational Top 8
* Two SCG Invitational Top 16
* 14 SCG Open series Top 8s
* One GP top 16
Jeff Hoogland

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Published:July 7, 2017


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