Dangerous Propositions: Dark Depths
The Modern ban list is a maximum security prison with (KCI update!) 34 inmates, some of which could potentially pose a serious threat to the meta. In this ongoing series, we're reviewing each of those offenders to see if they're eligible for parole. This time it's the turn of the evil queen of the tokens.
Dark Depths is another one of those cards that never even came close to legality in Modern. It was already firmly banned during the test event which was held online at the 2011 Community Cup, and when the format officially debuted the following August, the fact that Dark Depths was still confined to the ban list didn't even warrant a single word of comment. And the reason is simple to grasp: underneath what reads like a casual card that asks you for 30 mana to ultimately unleash a Timmy-level fatty hides a chillingly fast combo piece that requires very little in the way of deckbuilding restrictions. First printed in 2006 within that wonderful collection of oddities that is Coldsnap, it took a few years for it to grow beyond early awkward combo experiments like (ugh) Aether Snap to finally find its perfect companion in Zendikar's Vampire Hexmage. With the help of a conveniently timed Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, the little sacrificial Shaman would guarantee the immediate disappearance of all ice counters, leading to a turn-two 20/20 indestructible flier – and that kind of speed is a big no-no for Modern.
The scariest thing is, in order to materialize such a portentous single-attack clock, which only Modern decks running Path to Exile would be properly equipped to stop (good luck with your Fatal Push), you don't need to commit too many nonland slots to the combo – or none at all. In fact, further developments down the line freed the Hexmage from her sacrificial duties, since Gatecrash allowed you to summon the giant Lovecraftian horror using... another land.
Once you activate Thespian's Stage's ability, you end up with a copy of your Legendary Snow land; you elect to keep the copy and let go of the original, but then you have to immediately sacrifice the former because Thespian's Stage didn't enter the game as Dark Depths, so it has no counters (this is the reason Vesuva doesn't work, as Vesuva would get the counters instead); Marit Lage ensues. The whole process is a bit slower compared to the Vampirella route, preventing a turn-two 20/20 unless assisted by something like two moxen. On the plus side, it's counterspell proof: those are just lands being played, nothing is cast! Even more importantly, now the Depths package resides entirely outside the nonland portion of the deck. Granted, Dark Depths doesn't produce mana except when Urborg is around, but the whole thing is still one of the lowest-maintenance finishing moves in the game, as all the Eternal formats where it's allowed rapidly realized.
Mining the Depths
The first approach to Dark Depths is building around it as a centerpiece. Legacy does that; the result is not a tier-1 deck by any stretch of the imagination, but it's seen around frequently enough.
Golgari Depths, Competitive Legacy League, February 2019
|27Lands||16Other Permanents||17Instants and Sorceries|
|3Bayou||3Sylvan Safekeeper||4Crop Rotation|
|1Bojuka Bog||4Dark Confidant||3Abrupt Decay|
|4Dark Depths||4Vampire Hexmage||3Inquisition of Kozilek|
|1Misty Rainforest||1Sylvan Library||1Life from the Loam|
|1Sejiri Steppe||2Sylvan Scrying|
|4Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth|
|1Abrupt Decay||1Assassin's Trophy||1Marsh Casualties|
|1Rite of Consumption||2Choke||2Liliana, the Last Hope|
We can see how both systems are in use here, Urborg / Hexmage and the Stage, with a slight chance of a turn-two activation for the latter too, thanks to the presence of Mox Diamond. The deck goes all-in with the combo, with cards like Crop Rotation to search for it, and even Sylvan Safekeeper to protect our hard-earned Avatar from Swords to Plowshares.
This kind of dedicated build wouldn't be replicable in Modern, but we already noted how the basic Stage/Depths package is so low-impact that it could be easily brought along by virtually any deck. Take this other Legacy list, for example:
Maverick Depths, Competitive Legacy League, February 2019
|1Bojuka Bog||1Dryad Arbor||4Green Sun's Zenith|
|1Dark Depths||1Gaddock Teeg||2Dismember|
|2Forest||1Scavenging Ooze||4Chalice of the Void|
|1Ghost Quarter||3Stoneforge Mystic||4Mox Diamond|
|1Horizon Canopy||4Thalia, Guardian of Thraben||1Umezawa's Jitte|
|1Karakas||1Knight of Autumn||1Batterskull|
|1Maze of Ith||4Knight of the Reliquary||3Sylvan Library|
|3Misty Rainforest||1Ramunap Excavator|
|1Tormod's Crypt||1Crop Rotation||2Surgical Extraction|
|3Swords to Plowshares||1Containment Priest||1Damping Sphere|
|1Eladamri's Call||1Ethersworn Canonist||1Unexpectedly Absent|
|1Council's Judgment||1Sanctum Prelate||1Sword of Fire and Ice|
This is a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben-helmed creature deck with several different moving parts, including a Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull plan, a creature toolbox enabled by Green Sun's Zenith, and a land toolbox enabled by Knight of the Reliquary. And while you're there fetching lands with the Knight, why not giving her the opportunity to fetch a Stage/Depths endgame as well?
Now, this kind of fetching is perfectly Modern-compatible. More so, it's bound to remind us of another creature that searches for lands, and indeed uses them to fuel endgames; a certain big boy that goes by the name Primeval Titan.
And what do you know, in the Modern meta there's still a pretty popular deck (or three) that exploits the green Titan. It'd be awfully easy to add singleton copies of Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage to a build like the one below (whereas Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks kind of already have their specific endgame, but it's not a given they wouldn't still use a Depths-based plan B – it's just unobtrusive that way).
Amulet Titan, 1st place at SCG Lexington, February 2019
|1Cavern of Souls||1Engineered Explosives||1Tormod's Crypt|
|4Path to Exile||2Spell Pierce||1Negate|
|1Ramunap Excavator||1Reclamation Sage||1Obstinate Baloth|
|1Ruric Thar, the Unbowed||1Hornet Queen|
All the World's a Stage
There's another angle of attack for the Depths/Stage package. As we've seen, you can fetch it from the library, but you can also regrow it from the graveyard. Take this Vintage list, for instance:
Flayer Dredge, Competitive Vintage League, February 2019
|4Bazaar of Baghdad||4Bloodghast||4Mental Misstep|
|2Cabal Pit||4Narcomoeba||4Ancient Grudge|
|3Dakmor Salvage||4Prized Amalgam||4Force of Will|
|1Mana Confluence||4Golgari Grave-Troll||4Cabal Therapy|
|3Riftstone Portal||1Flayer of the Hatebound||3Dread Return|
|1Strip Mine||1Griselbrand||4Life from the Loam|
|3Dark Depths||3Mana Confluence||4Thespian's Stage|
This is just a dredge deck that's doing its thing, namely comboing a Dread Returned Flayer of the Hatebound with a set of Prized Amalgams. But since it's a dredge deck, it runs Life from the Loam. And while you're busy dredging and loaming, why not take your Depths and Stage back and experience some ginormous Avatar action? In case nothing else works, you know.
And that's the real issue with Dark Depths. It's just too easy to play. It would never be just another archetype – it would show up everywhere. With every passing year, more possible interactions emerge that would place it as a backup plan in an increasing number of lists, and sometimes that backup would prove more efficient to pursue than the original plan. Solemnity from Hour of Devastation is the most recent Depths tech, able to just release Marit Lage from her dark abyss again and again at each drop of her source land, so it's not even a one-time deal anymore. And the update to Rule 614.12 governing the clash of continuous effects and ETB triggers means Blood Moon has now also become a Dark Depths enabler somehow. It's an embarrassment of riches, a veritable influx of new ways to exploit the glacial monstrosity, all of them viable.
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