Some decks in Modern try and win by being hyper aggressive, while others aim to control the board and survive long enough to deploy whatever random win condition they choose to end the game with.
There is a deck in Modern, however, that aims to win in a very unique fashion, by literally playing more Magic than the opponent gets to. Taking Turns is a deck that aims to break the usual symmetry in turn distribution by taking many turns in a row and ending the game without passing back to the opponent after the time machine gets turned on.
The deck has existed for a few years on Magic Online, but was recently put into the spotlight due to a U/B variant that was played to a top 8 finish at Grand Prix Las Vegas by Daniel Wong. Due to his recent success we will be focusing on that version of the deck.
U/B Taking Turns, by Daniel Wong
Our aim is to stop the opponent from killing us with the small amount of interaction we have, like Gigadrowse, Fatal Push, and Cryptic Command. Whenever we find an opening to deploy a Dictate or Howling Mine, we do so. Once we have one of those in play and five mana we cast Time Warp, and with a bit of a mind flip we’re into the time slip.
Once we fire up the engine and step inside the time machine there is only one undesirable destination, and that is our opponent’s turn. The consensus minimum amount of extra turn effects is 10. Some players will go as high as 12 or 13 extra turn cards, but almost no one ever goes below 10.
Time Warp stands above all other extra turn cards due to costing five mana unconditionally. All other extra turn effects in Modern cost six or more mana or have conditions that render them unplayable, like Savor the Moment, Stitch in Time, or Temporal Extortion.
Temporal Mastery provides an exceptionally powerful effect when cast for its miracle cost. The first few extra turn effects you play in your chain will use most if not all of your mana, preventing you from developing more extra card effects. A miracled Temporal Mastery provides you with a turn in which you can utilize all your mana in casting more Dictates and Howling Mines, or casting a second extra turn card, which essentially banks your “full mana” turn for later in the extra turn chain. An early game miracle can also be game changing. Aside from multiple miracles in a row, we can’t start chaining extra turns until turn 5 at the earliest, as Time Warp is our cheapest extra turn card. Temporal Mastery acting as a “blue Explore” will give us an extra land drop and an extra draw step.
While a miracled Temporal Masteries will speed you up and get you out of situations that no other card can, it does cost seven mana in our hand, and as such is not a sacred four-of like Time Warp. While most lists play the full playset, it’s perfectly acceptable to shave a Mastery to limit the amount of games you are stuck with expensive spells in your hand in the early game.
Part the Waterveil is our win condition of choice and a perfect one at that, as it is an extra turn effect itself. Winning the game only requires us to cast Part the Waterveil with awaken once, so the first or second Part the Waterveil can be cast without awaken if we are without any other extra turn effects in hand.
Dictate of Kruphix is the best of the available extra card effects, as Flash allows us to take advantage of the extra card per turn before our opponent does. Flash also gives us freedom to leave up mana to interact with our opponent and only deploy Dictate when it’s advantageous to do so. This, like Time Warp, is always a four-of; there are no good reasons to play fewer.
While Dictate is generally agreed to be the best extra card effect for Taking Turns, the power and consistency of this deck comes from its redundancy. Enter Howling Mine, the OG extra card per turn effect. We are playing three to come to the desired amount of extra card effects. I’ve personally tried running as few as five extra card effects, but have come to find seven extra card effects to feel much better.
Exhaustion, while not quite an extra turn effect, usually plays like one and is crucial to our early game plan. We can’t cast Time Warp if we are dead before we have five mana, so we need to interact with our opponent just enough to allow us to set up a card drawing effect and start taking extra turns. Exhaustion severely hinders our opponent’s ability to develop their board state. Decks that tend to always tap out and be aggressive can be the harder matchups and Exhaustion is the best tool against them.
Gigadrowse is the Swiss Army knife of the deck. It can act as a fog against aggressive strategies by tapping as many attackers as we have blue mana or can be a pseudo time walk by tapping the lands of our opponent, usually in their upkeep. Replicate makes Gigadrowse resistant to counter magic, as we can target the same permanent with more than one copy of Gigadrowse. Like Storm, countering the original Gigadrowse does not stop the Replicate copies. Gigadrowse compliments Exhaustion quite nicely, as Exhaustion is best when the opponent is completely tapped out, and Gigadrowse will tend to do that. Any Exhaustion cast immediately after a Gigadrowse will act as the equivalent to a three-mana Time Warp under normal conditions.
Cryptic Command, like Gigadrowse, provides several functions for this deck. Every mode is heavily used and critical to our success. Sometimes our opponent will play something that we cannot win through such as Ensnaring Bridge. Or, they are playing a card that will end the game such as Scapeshift or Primeval Titan. Cryptic Command allows us to be able to deal with a problem permanent or a game-winning spell while also acting as a fog with its tap all creatures mode when needed.
Serum Visions is the last of the untouchables, which shouldn’t be too surprising as it’s included in almost every blue deck in the format. Consistency is key in any combo deck and due to the banned status of Ponder and Preordain, Serum Visions is the best cantrip that Modern has to offer. While doing its normal job of smoothing out your draws, it can pull double duty by allowing you to set up a miraculous Temporal Mastery.
Snapcaster Mage, while not a universal inclusion in the deck, will show up a good amount of the time in Taking Turns. This is a spell based combo deck and Snapcaster Mage lets us have extra uses of our spells. Snapcaster would most likely be in the “untouchables” category if two of our three extra turn effects didn’t exile themselves. As it stands, only Time Warp can be Snapcasted for an extra turn.
When playing the black splash, Fatal Push helps greatly with the aggressive decks, which tend to be the harder matchups. Being able to permanently deal with an early aggressive creature can be the difference between winning and losing a game.
Snapback and Commandeer both serve similar functions. They allow you to interact with your opponent while being able to use your mana for other things, be it an extra card effect or a second piece of interaction. There are better bounce spells than Snapback and better counterspells than Commandeer, but the free aspect allows them to do something other, better options can’t do.
Commandeer also does more than act as an expensive Force of Will, which adds to its value as a one-of. Giving you control of the spell means if you target a permanent spell with Commandeer, it will come into play under your control. Since Commandeer cannot target creature spells, this comes up most often with planeswalkers. Tron players are usually happy when their turn 3 Karn resolves. They sing a different turn when it resolves under your control. Cryptic Command insulates us from big mana pay off cards on turn 4 and later, but let’s be real: Tron players seem to always have Tron online turn 3.
Some possible main deck inclusions that are seen from time to time are Spreading Seas and Boomerang. These two cards can be very powerful against slower control decks or against traditional Tron decks. When the format is full of Gx Tron and decks that aren’t attacking you out of the gate, then the mana denial strategy can be effective, but when you have one mana 8/8’s running around everywhere you are better off playing the removal spells like Fatal Push or more bounce spells rather than Spreading Seas.
2 Scalding Tarn
2 Sunken Hollow
1 Drowned Catacomb
1 Fetid Pools
1 Flooded Strand
1 Gemstone Caverns
1 Inkmoth Nexus
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Polluted Delta
1 River of Tears
1 Snow-Covered Island
1 Watery Grave
First, lets look at the utility lands that you can expect to see in Taking Turns.
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Inkmoth Nexus
1 Gemstone Caverns
Playing a Mikokoro allows us to squeeze in another extra card effect without having to take up a “real” card slot. We don’t want to ever run into the problem of not being able to get to Time Warp mana due to having two of the same legendary land, so Mikokoro is restricted to a 1-of.
Inkmoth Nexus allows us to beat infinite life strategies, mostly seen out of Melira– or Collected Company-based combo decks. While we can’t traditionally beat infinite life with Part the Waterveil, awakening onto Inkmoth Nexus will allow us to kill in two turns with our 7/7 infecting flyer.
Gemstone Caverns is an interesting inclusion to our mana base. As a combo deck based around expensive sorceries being on the play is much better for us. Gemstone Caverns gives us the chance to get lucky and steal the play away from our opponent. Because our deck is full of expensive spells, pitching a card is not a large cost as exiling something like a Temporal Mastery from our opening hand will not hinder us.
2 Scalding Tarn
1 Flooded Strand
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Polluted Delta
We need some fetchlands to facilitate any splash. The reason for the mixture of fetchlands is because of the existence of Pithing Needle. Due to the fact that we only play islands and zero basic swamps, all blue fetch lands are identical. It costs nothing to play around Pithing Needle, so we do.
2 Sunken Hollow
1 Watery Grave
These are our fetchable dual lands. Normally you would expect multiple Watery Graves and no copies of Sunken Hollow due to shocklands being objectively better lands than battlelands. Because of our high basic land count, Sunken Hollow becomes more appealing due to how often it will come into play untapped when we need a black source or when we peel a land of the top to be able to cast Time Warp. Watery Grave can come into play untapped whenever we need it to, but the life cost is very real in this deck when the aggressive decks are the harder matchups.
1 Drowned Catacomb
Probably the best dual land we can play but does not have land types and cannot be fetched for. Because we can’t fetch this, the lands that can be fetched for get the nod over additional copies of Drowned Catacomb.
1 River of Tears
1 Fetid Pools
River of Tears is included as a land that allows us to cast our sideboard discard spells on turn 1. Fetid Pools is meant to reduce the times we get mana flooded and can’t continue comboing out. Both of these inclusions were regarded as mistakes by Daniel Wong after the fact, so I suggest playing additional copies of Drowned Catacomb instead of these.
1 Snow Covered Island
Aside from corner cases like Commandeering a Gifts Ungiven and needing to get lands, Snow Covered Island is just a cute basic Island. It doesn’t serve any purpose except for being cool, so as long as you won’t forget to register it on your decklist, play it if you want to.
There’s snow chance that I would register anything but normal basic island. Seriously, this card is OP.
As with many combo decks, over sideboarding can severely hurt our deck by diluting it too much. I generally do not side out any copies of our extra turns or extra card effects. We can’t win the game if we can’t chain turns together.
The main reason to splash black is due to the ability to play Collective Brutality and Thoughtseize in the sideboard. Like the other modal spell in our deck, the flexibility of Collective Brutality makes it a valuable card, as it can be useful against problematic spells with the Duress mode or help us survive against aggressive creatures with the other two modes. Thoughtseize is great against any other combo deck or control deck.
Chalice of the Void serves two specific purposes: lock out Grixis Death’s Shadow and give us a fleeting chance vs. Burn. Grixis and Burn both are largely composed of one-mana cards. If they can’t cast these cards we will usually have enough time to get the Time Warp party started.
Thing in the Ice is a valuable sideboard card when our opponents side out all their removal due to the creatureless or nearly creatureless nature of our maindeck. Thing in the Ice provides a decent sized wall for blocking purposes and a quick clock if we get to release the kraken. The printing of Fatal Push has somewhat reduced the value of Thing in the Ice against black decks. It’s possible that your opponents will not side out all of their copies of Fatal Push due to its ability to kill any land that we awaken with Part the Waterveil.
Control Decks: Gigadrowse on its own makes our deck favorable against any deck that doesn’t have an active clock and wants to sit back and control the game.
Tron: Again, Gigadrowse plays a large role in making this a positive matchup for us with Exhaustion playing a supporting role this time. Tapping the opponent’s land in their upkeep on the turn you expect them to complete Tron and deploy a threat will usually set them back more than one turn as you can follow up with Exhaustion to keep them off their mana longer. Once you get to four mana, Cryptic also acts as a Time Warp as Tron will usually be using all their mana at this stage of the game trying to deploy their next big thing.
Eldrazi Tron is a slightly different monster than traditional Tron, but still a solid matchup. Due to them having Eldrazi Temples it’s harder to keep them off their mana for any given turn, but the only interactive card they have is Thought-Knot Seer. Chalice of the Void is not a real card against us until they start casting it for x=5 or x=6, which at that point our mana denial strategy becomes effective again.
Midrange decks: Midrange decks like Abzan and traditional Jund can be tricky as they normally have a good amount of hand disruption and can destroy our Mine effects with Abrupt Decay in game 1. Our extra turn cards are all protected from Inquisition due to them costing approximately infinite mana and unless they draw Abrupt Decay we will have a steady stream of cards coming if we can land a Mine.
No amount of disruption matters unless they present a reasonable clock with their disruption. An early Tarmogoyf will go a long way for them being able to take the game but without one the games are ours to win. Being able to kill a Tarmogoyf with a Fatal Push is another reason that makes the black splash so attractive.
Living End: Our deck has many fog impersonators in the main deck and their strategy does not interact with ours. Horror of the Broken Lands has given them the ability to present lethal very quickly with a few creatures, which can put us in the “fog or die” zone quicker than we would like. As long as we draw a few Gigadrowse or Cryptics with some follow up Exhaustions we will have the time we need to win. After board we get Chalice of the Void on zero to counter Living End, which requires them to use their Beast Withins and sideboarded Ingot Chewers on Chalice instead of Howling Mine.
Burn: This is the deck’s truly bad matchup. Their clock is much faster than ours and our main ways of surviving until combo are not effective against them. Due to the amount of instant speed burn spells and one mana spells, our Gigadrowses and Exhaustions are not going to do much to stop them from killing us.
Thing in the Ice looks to be big enough to let you chill out and relax behind it against their early creatures, but in reality it melts under the heat of a block plus burn spell. However, Awoken Horror is our quickest route to victory, so it’s still a viable card in the matchup. Chalice of the Void helps pull the matchup from “the worst” to just “really bad.” Destructive Revelry is coming in to kill your Dictates and Howling Mines and does a good job of Shattering your Chalices. Collective Brutality is a sideboard all-star, as all three modes are desperately wanted in this matchup.
Affinity: Game 1 is not good for us, as they present a fast clock and can present more attackers than we can Gigadrowse on a given turn. This becomes problematic with cards like Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating when they can make double black mana for an instant speed equip. Most of their lands can attack us, adding to the overwhelming amount of attackers. Exhaustion only prevents creatures and lands from untapping, so their Mox Opals will still allow them to deploy more threats even if their lands didn’t untap. Sideboard games are can get better for us though depending how many Hurkyl’s Recall we have.
Collected Company: They have the ability to infinite combo very quickly, before we have a chance to interact. The Gigadrowse all your lands plan doesn’t work well against Birds of Paradise decks. We can’t reliably cut them off of mana so we can’t stop them from assembling their combo.
Grixis Death’s Shadow: Basically the same as the midrange matchups, but they have more disruption and a faster clock. The scary games involve a quick Death’s Shadow as it presents the fastest clock of all their threats. It happens to also be the only fatty that we can Fatal Push, so there is a silver lining. They are susceptible to Gigadrowse and that can give us the time we need to win the game. After sideboard we gain Chalice of the Void, which is very effective against a deck that plays 20 or more one drops.
Ad Nauseam: Their combo is can be played at instant speed as long as they combo with Angel’s Grace and not Phyrexian Unlife, which makes an upkeep Gigadrowse not always an effective card at stopping them. Gigadrowse is best used as a set up to Exhaustion in order to keep them off mana to combo out on their next turn. The disruption package in the sideboard is very good here as they are a spell-based combo deck. Chalice of the Void is also effective to preventing them from comboing with Angel’s Grace, as split second does not stop Chalice of the Void from triggering and countering Angel’s Grace.
While our deck is not a two-card combo deck in the strictest sense, it is a two-column deck. Column A is “cards that allow us to draw an extra card each turn” and column B is “cards that allow us to take an extra turn.” It really does require a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B for us to win, as we can’t reliably chain extra turns without drawing multiple cards a turn and we can’t break the symmetry of our extra card providers if we don’t take more turns than our opponent. Every card in the deck that doesn’t fit into one of those two columns is there to help us not die in the meantime.
There are a few tips and tricks that can help provide an edge. The first is the interaction between Gigadrowse and Howling Mine. Due to Howling Mine being printed before the rules made any sense, it is one of the artifacts that for whatever reason does not function while tapped. Howling Mine also has a triggered ability at the beginning of each player’s draw step, meaning you have the chance to tap it with your own Gigadrowse in their upkeep in order to deny them their extra card for the turn.
Dictate of Kruphix also triggers in the beginning of each player’s draw step and has flash. This means that if you didn’t have the mana the previous turn but desperately need the extra card, or are mid combo, you can flash in Dictate on your own upkeep and draw an extra card from it on the same turn.
It’s okay to pass the turn mid-combo against a tapped out opponent if you have Exhausted them and they cannot interact with you in a meaningful way with their single land for the turn. While we would prefer to never pass back once we start going off, it’s sometimes best to Gigadrowse and Exhaustion rather than firing off our only Part the Waterveil in hand without awaken and without other extra turn effects.
You don’t need to start going off as fast as you can against an opponent that isn’t significantly pressuring you. If you are not under threat of death it is often correct to hold off on attempting to combo. Every extra turn effect in hand at the beginning of the combo is another layer of redundancy mid-combo. If your opponent is taking their sweet time to execute their game plan, let your hand naturally fill up via draw steps before trying to end the game.
Anyone who knows me will know that I have no interest in playing a real game of Magic in Modern. While I played Infect for a solid four years and have recently been known to partake in some artifact-based strategies revolving around either Krark-Clan Ironworks or Lantern of Insight, Taking Turns has a special place in my heart. It brings me great pleasure to bring misery to my opponents in Modern. The face your opponents make when the game ends and you took 15 turns to their four is truly something else.
While schadenfreude is all well and good, I don’t generally stick with a deck unless I feel it is competitive in the format. I believe this deck fits that bill and can succeed in a Modern tournament as long as your opponents don’t all start with “mountain, Goblin Guide, attack you.” If you truly want to be a master of the temporal plane, you need only remember: Time is a marvelous plaything.
Peter Tragos is a former SCG Open grinder with five top 8’s to his credit. He also loves ketchup and Lady Gaga more than anyone else. Follow him @SphinxofTragosi