Filling the Chalice-Shaped Void

Posted in GRAND PRIX OMAHA 2015 on January 11, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

Chalice of the Void was designed for eternal formats.  That was made clear in an article Randy Buehler wrote over a decade ago when Mirrodin was released.  But the designers of that set certainly didn’t know that Modern would exist, nor that we’d be in this specific, pre-Pro Tour metagame twelve years later.  Yet, here we are, and Chalice of the Void is integral right here, right now.  That is about as close to “eternal” as Magic has gotten.

The double-X artifact has been floating around the tables, ruining days, all weekend.  When I asked Marshall Sutcliffe, whose doing commentary on camera, if there were any interesting, important Chalice plays on camera yet, he said, very straight, “Yes.  It was Spell Pierced.”  I laughed, but he clarified, “That was everything that game.  It if resolved, the game was over on turn two.”  And there are decks here that try to cast it turn one.  “It’s just such a high-stakes card,” said Sutcliffe.

Decks like Affinity, Amulet Bloom, Black-Green, and some crazy-pants Red-Green Tron decks are succeeding here because of this powerful piece of cardboard.  But for a long time, Chalice was basically absent from the Modern metagame; why here, why now?

“The biggest thing that changed was Delver and Jeskai Ascendancy,” Amulet Bloom pilot Matthias Hunt said.  But that answer is only partially correct.  Adrian Sullivan, with his Black-Green Obliterator, went back further.  “I had a Black-Green deck done, finished—and then Treasure Cruise changed the whole world.”  He wasn’t being hyperbolic.

Treasure Cruise basically became a pillar of the format before it was even released.  Everything changed with that card.  Drawing three cards for one mana is really good, I’ve heard.  Though many people feared that the early Glittering Wish builds of Jeskai Ascendancy was the biggest winner of the card’s printing, a few months out now, it’s clear that the Delver of Secrets decks really shined.  Playing utility, cantripping one-mana cards and fetchlands filled up the graveyard so quickly, that you can cast a one-mana Treasure Cruise as early as turn two (thanks, Thought Scour)!

The hand-refill that Cruise brought, combined with the redundancy the other cards already provided meant that there was a fast, consistent deck that could counterspell when it needed to, and burn when it needed to—all while attacking with a one-mana 3/2 flyer.  Blue-Red Delver was on top the new world.

With Blue-Red Delver the “best deck,” it hated out a lot of the “unfair decks” in the format.  Delver kept them honest.  But there’s a secret about this best deck.  As Hunt said, “It’s very weak to Chalice of the Void on one, and it doesn’t have great answers.”  To list all the cards that Chalice with one counter blanks in the Delver deck would basically regurgitate the list itself, minus lands.  In some lists, it’s almost everything but Treasure Cruise itself.  So here’s a single colorless card, that can shank the best deck in the format—no wonder people are playing it. 

But it’s not without a cost.  Because Chalice is symmetrical, neither you nor your opponent can resolve one-mana spells.  So what kind of decks can afford to play with this complex card?

The biggest winner is Affinity.  It barely dents the deck’s strategy anyway.  It wants a critical mass of artifacts to activate the Metalcraft on cards like Mox Opal and Etched Champion, and it can be just another sacrifice to the Arcbound Ravager when a creature needs another +1/+1 boost.

Andrew Brown, Grand Prix Denver 2015 Champion, is playing multiple copies of the card in his main deck, and another in his sideboard.  He liked Affinity in particular because “people are too preoccupied with Blue-Red Delver and Ascendancy; so Affinity’s all the way in the back of their minds.”  If there’s one thing we know about Affinity, it’s at its best when people are underestimating it.  “You’ve gotta board for Blue-Red; you gotta board for Ascendancy,” Brown said.  And if his opponents are jamming their fifteen full of hate for those decks, they aren’t dedicating the necessary sideboard slots for Affinity.

He said that Chalice is a big boost to that choice, because of it’s strength against those two feared decks.  “Oh, and it’s super-sweet on the play in the mirror,” he added.  “Chalice for zero shuts down all the Mox Opals and all the Ornithopters”—all those crucial turn-one engine cards that lets Affinity functionally dump its hand onto the battlefield.

Another way to go in Chalice deck choice is the Adrian Sullivan route.  The evergreen Midwesterner is always rebuilding and revamping his decks, and after restructuring his Black-Green deck following the Great Cruise Upheaval of 2014, he realized something interesting:  “I looked at the deck, and there was nothing in the one[-drop slot].”  Immediately he saw the gravity of this.  I meant adding Chalice of the Void did stone nothing against his entire deck.

“Even without Chalice, the deck was destroying Delver,” he said.  And now it’s just silly.  But “silly” coming from of the guy who’s playing Phyrexian Obliterator and Setessan Tactics together, that word means something decidedly different than you might usually think.  (PS – If you’ve never cast those two cards when your opponent has a turn-three Wurmcoil Engine, I highly suggest you try it.)

The last deck I looked at that took strong advantage of Chalice of the Void was Amulet Bloom.  There are four players on the deck in the second day, most notably former Rookie of the Year Matthias Hunt.  That deck is looking to do absurd things with limited means, so the more time you can buy to do it, the better.  Countering everything Delver does falls well into “time-buying” camp.

Amulet Bloom and Affinity have something else in common other than just playing Chalice and both being fun to pilot—they can each cast Chalice of the Void on turn one.  With the help of Simian Spirit Guide or Mox Opal, respectively, on the play you can lock your opponent out of all their one-drops before they reach their first untap step.

“Funnily enough, Chalice is really good against my deck zero,” Matthias Hunt added after talking up the virtues of the card in various match-ups.  This is apparently another thing the two “A” decks have in common.  Chalice of the Void is also good against them both; so the card provides an added bonus in any mirror matches too.

There are certain downsides:  it restricts what cards you can play and when you can play them; it’s dead in some matchups (“It does nothing against Scapeshift,” Sullivan said.); and it can be a horrible top-deck.  But it’s clear that in the right metagame, Chalice of the Void is a very powerful ally.  I’d be surprised if it didn’t vault at least one player into the Top 8 this weekend.

Though Chalice of the Void is from the very first legal set in the Modern format, was printed before Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, and is not a format-defining card the way Birthing Pod or Treasure Cruise is, don’t ever count it out.  As Adrian Sullivan said, “I have about twelve decks I’m building at any given time, in each format, and Chalice of the Void is always on my radar.”  Designed with eternity in mind, indeed.