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Ode to Damping Sphere


If you were to take a poll of Modern players asking which deck they hate playing against the most, it's likely that Tron and Storm would be near the top of the list. Both decks are fairly resilient and consistent, but the most annoying aspect of both decks is that they have nut draws that allow them to win the game (or essentially win the game) on Turn 3. If Storm can play a Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer on Turn 2 and untap with it, odds are in favor of the deck comboing off on Turn 3, and there are plenty of games where Storm can slow-roll the Baral, Chief of Compliance until Turn 3, play it, and immediately combo off. Meanwhile, Tron is very good at having seven mana on Turn 3, which just happens to be enough to cast Karn Liberated, and a Turn 3 Karn Liberated is essentially the end of the game, even if actual game play continues for a few more turns. The good news is that Wizards has heard the prayers of Modern players everywhere, and Dominaria is bringing with it a card targeted at keeping both Tron and Storm in check. 

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Damping Sphere is the quintessential Modern sideboard card. It's cheap, it's colorless, and it does something in multiple matchups, which is exactly what Modern sideboards are looking for. One of the biggest challenges of building a sideboard in Modern is that there are are something like 30 legitimately playable decks and at least another 30 that are close enough to being playable that you'll run into them on a regular basis, both on Magic Online and in the paper world. As a result, each sideboard slot is extremely valuable, and it's difficult to play sideboard cards that are only good in one matchup. Damping Sphere solves this problem by being hate for two of the most played archetypes in the format while also having some amount of value in other matchups as well! 

Against Tron

Right now in Modern, we have not one but two different builds of Tron (Mono-Green and Eldrazi) that are among the 10 most played decks in the format. In fact, there's a pretty solid argument that Tron is the best deck in Modern, thanks to its combination of consistency and a solid free-win nut draw. Apart from actually blowing up lands (and then hopefully exiling them with Surgical Extraction), Damping Sphere is likely the best Tron hate we have in the Modern format. 

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The reason Tron is scary is that it can produce so much mana so quickly. Not only does it have all of the Tron lands but typically another 12 cards to tutor up the Tron lands. As such, it often feel like the opponent is getting lucky when they drop Tron on Turn 3, but in reality, with so many redundant Tron pieces and ways to find them, the odds are in favor of the deck assembling Tron by Turn 4 at the latest. While attacking the opponent's lands is probably still the best sideboard plan against Tron, against Tron specifically, Damping Sphere actually plays a lot like one of my favorite cards in all of Magic: Blood Moon

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From a meta perspective, once on the battlefield, Damping Sphere is almost exactly the same as Blood Moon against Tron. Rather than tapping for two or three mana, Tron lands tap for one mana. With a Blood Moon, the mana is red; with Damping Sphere, it's colorless. But the end result is similar: Tron loses its ability to jank out games on Turn 3 with Karn Liberated and other huge threats. 

Compared to Blood Moon, Damping Sphere has one huge upside against Tron: whether you are on the play or on the draw, you'll be able to play Damping Sphere before your opponent assembles Tron. With Blood Moon, if you are on the draw (and don't have a Simian Spirit Guide or some other form of fast mana), you can have the enchantment in your opening hand and find that your opponent already has a Karn Liberated on the battlefield by the time you can cast it. Sadly, Tron doesn't really care if their lands are all Mountains (or about much of anything else, for that matter) if they have a Karn. 

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While it is true that Tron has cards that can deal with Damping Sphere, they have cards that can deal with Blood Moon as well. In fact, against Mono-Green Tron (again, the most popular Tron deck at the moment), every card that can kill an artifact can also kill an enchantment, so there isn't much of a difference here. However, if the format shifts back toward old-school GR Tron and Ancient Grudge becomes popular, it's possible that Damping Sphere will be a bit less likely to stick around than Blood Moon

Regardless of anything else, Damping Sphere is the best Tron hate card in the format for one simple reason: it's colorless, so any deck can play it. While people tend to think of Blood Moon as game over against Tron, this actually isn't true. Blood Moon doesn't beat Tron on its own; eventually, Tron will blow up everything with Oblivion Stone or just make land drops until it naturally casts Karn Liberated, so what Blood Moon really does is buys you somewhere between three and five turns to kill your Tron opponent. This means that while Blood Moon by itself isn't a free win, Blood Moon plus a fast clock is a great way to beat Tron. Damping Sphere is essentially the same but with one big benefit. 

Being colorless, it's much easier to use Damping Sphere as a Blood Moon in a deck that already has a fast clock. Blood Moon has a huge cost when it comes to deck building, but Damping Sphere doesn't have much of a cost at all, apart from the opportunity cost of including it in your sideboard over another card. As such, any random aggro or midrange deck can play Damping Sphere, beat down with whatever creatures they happen to be playing, and theoretically turn their Tron matchup from medium to good. 

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One of the better examples of this is a deck like Jund, which has a notoriously bad matchup against Tron. While Jund doesn't have a super-fast clock, the combination of Tarmogoyf and Bloodbraid Elf means it can kill fairly quickly with the right draws. With Damping Sphere holding back Tron for a few turns, this might be enough to turn the matchup from bad to good, or at least from laughable to competitive. The same is true for a lot of other decks that are somewhat fast but not usually fast enough to beat Tron consistently. This alone makes Damping Sphere a good sideboard option. 

In the end, against Tron, Damping Sphere is basically a Blood Moon with the upside of always being fast enough to disrupt Turn 3 Tron. While it loses the "jank 'em out" power in other matchups, which means decks that can already run Blood Moon will probably stick with the enchantment (and perhaps play a copy or two of Damping Sphere in addition), only a small percentage of decks can actually function under a Blood Moon, while most can work just fine with a Damping Sphere on the table. As such, if you're looking for a way to beat Tron, as long as you have a reasonably fast clock, Damping Sphere is now one of the best sideboard options in the format, and if it starts catching on and being heavily played, Tron will look significantly worse in the Modern format. 

Against Storm

If you're somehow not familiar with Storm, which is currently among the five most played decks in Modern, its game plan is simple. It casts a Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer, which turns Manamorphose into a ritual that draws a card and bad Modern rituals like Pyretic Ritual and Desperate Ritual into good Legacy rituals like Dark Ritual, and then it wins the game by casting a bunch of different spells on the same turn (with the help of Gifts Ungiven for tutoring and Past in Flames to recast everything in the graveyard), before ending things with Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens. The value of Damping Sphere against Storm is that it makes it impossible for Storm to combo off while it is on the battlefield because each card the Storm player casts makes the next one increasingly more expensive. 

As far as current sideboard options against Storm, the two main ways that people fight against the deck are graveyard hate (to eliminate the Past in Flames kill) and cards like Rule of Law and Eidolon of Rhetoric (which obviously require white mana). The good news for Damping Sphere is that people don't really play graveyard hate specifically to target Storm; they play graveyard hate because a ton of top-tier decks use their graveyard as a resource or as part of a combo. Storm could completely disappear from the Modern format and playing graveyard hate would be just as important as it is today, so Damping Sphere isn't really competing with Relic of Progenitus, Rest in Peace, and friends. 

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Perhaps the best way to think about Damping Sphere against Storm is as a slightly worse Rule of Law that limits players to two spells each turn rather than just one (for example, with a Damping Sphere on the battlefield, Storm will likely still be able to cast two cantrips like Serum Visions or Sleight of Hand in the same turn but shouldn't be able to afford the third). The good news is that a limit of casting two spells a turn is still an effective way to stop Storm from comboing off, since it needs to cast 10 or 20 spells in a turn to actually win the game. 

This being said, the fact that Storm can still cast multiple cantrips in a turn is a downside compared to Rule of Law, since it increases the odds that the Storm deck will find a way to answer Damping Sphere, like Repeal, Echoing Truth, or Wipe Away. It's also worth mentioning that being an artifact rather than an enchantment is a bit of a downside as well, since it unlocks sideboard cards like Shattering Spree that don't do anything against Rule of Law. Still, as far as the combo specifically, Damping Sphere is roughly just as effective at locking down Storm as Rule of Law. Plus, Damping Sphere has some huge advantages over other Storm hate options. 

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First, much like the Blood Moon comparison against Tron, the biggest upside of Damping Sphere against Storm is that it's always fast enough to come down the turn before Storm can combo off. While it is theoretically possible for Storm to kill on Turn 2, it's much more likely that the deck spends the second turn setting things up with Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer before winning on Turn 3. Coming down on Turn 2, either on the play or the draw, means that the Storm deck can't simply kill you; instead, they have to spend their cantrips (and time) digging for an answer to Damping Sphere first. With Rule of Law, if you are on the draw, it is 100% possible you will be dead before the enchantment even hits the battlefield. 

More importantly, Damping Sphere isn't nearly as narrow as Rule of Law. We talked in the intro about how Modern—thanks to the huge number of playable decks in the format—forces players to make some hard sideboard choices and focus on cards that do at least a little something against multiple decks, rather than a ton against a single deck. Rule of Law and Eidolon of Rhetoric are cards that are great against Storm but don't do much of anything against the other decks in the format (apart from fringe decks like Eggs and Cheerios, which are built around the same concept as Storm—winning by casting a bunch of spells in the same turn), and Damping Sphere is just as relevant against these decks. As a result, Damping Sphere is a huge upgrade if you have been playing cards like Rule of Law in your sideboard. Sure, perhaps it is a 7.5 out of 10 against Storm while Rule of Law is a 9 out of 10, but the fact that Damping Sphere is a 7.5 out of 10 against Tron as well (while Rule of Law is a 2 out of 10; you'll essentially never sideboard it in) makes Damping Sphere a significantly better sideboard option for just about every deck. 

Other Matchups

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  • Eldrazi Tron: Damping Sphere is actually significantly worse than Blood Moon against Eldrazi Tron, because against Eldrazi Tron, the real power of Blood Moon is that it shuts down non-Wastes lands from making colorless mana. While making Eldrazi Temple tap for one instead of two is a nice upside, one of the secrets of Eldrazi Tron is that it doesn't actually care all that much about assembling Tron. Tron lands are just colorless lands that sometimes win you the game when you get a lucky draw. I can certainly imagine a lot of games where you play Damping Sphere on Turn 2 and your opponent simply casts their Matter Reshapers, Thought-Knot Seers, and Reality Smashers fairly and beats you down. Because of this, I'm actually on the fence as to whether or not I'd bring in Damping Sphere against Eldrazi Tron. While the answer is probably yes, especially if I had a reasonable number of cards to take out, I wouldn't be expecting Damping Sphere to win me the game (mostly) by itself like I would against traditional Tron. 
  • Cascade decks: While I'm not sure how relevant this will be, it's worth pointing out that Damping Sphere does tax cascade, which means opponents need to cast their Bloodbraid Elf for five mana if they want to play the card they cascade into, and decks like Living End and Restore Balance are slower by a turn. While I can't imagine bringing this in against Jund or other "fair" Bloodbraid Elf decks, Damping Sphere is at least worth considering if you have a ton of cards you need to take out against a deck like Restore Balance or Living End. Sometimes, that one extra turn will be just enough time to draw into a Relic of Progenitus or counterspell to steal the win. Basically, you shouldn't put Damping Sphere in your sideboard to fight against cascade decks, but if you have Damping Sphere in your sideboard for other matchups, there could be times when bringing it in against these random decks will be correct. 
  • Utopia Sprawl decks: Please don't bring in Damping Sphere to fight against Utopia Sprawl and Fertile Ground decks. While more recent versions of "enchant land" enchantments actually make the land itself tap for two mana (for example, Gift of Paradise), these older versions actually have a weird triggered ability where the land taps for one mana and the act of tapping the land for one mana triggers the enchantment to make a second mana. As such, Damping Sphere doesn't actually do anything against decks like Ponza and Mono-Green Devotion. 
  • Ad Nauseam: Damping Sphere is pretty reasonable against Ad Nauseam, especially if your opponent is on the Angel's Grace plan rather than the Phyrexian Unlife plan. Normally, your opponent needs six mana to win the game with Angel's Grace and Ad Nauseam. With a Damping Sphere on the battlefield, the number jumps to as least nine, since your opponent will need one for Angel's Grace, six for Ad Nauseam, and then at least two more (even counting the free Simian Spirit Guide mana) to cast their Lightning Storm or Laboratory Maniac). More importantly, the taxing effect of Damping Sphere means the opponent can't simply Ad Nauseam for an answer like Echoing Truth and cast it because the Echoing Truth will cost about a million mana as well. While not 100% game over, especially considering it is much less effective against the Phyrexian Unlife part of the combo, Damping Sphere is certainly worth bringing in against the deck.
  • Infect: Against Infect, Damping Sphere likely buys you a turn or maybe two turns, depending on your opponent's hand. While Infect can certainly kill you by casting one pump spell each turn, especially on the Inkmoth Nexus plan, casting multiple pump spells to get the surprise Turn 3 or 4 win will be difficult for Infect with a Damping Sphere on the battlefield. 
  • Eggs / Krark-Clan Ironworks Combo: Roughly the same as Storm; the opponent needs to answer the Damping Sphere before they are able to combo off. Unlike Storm, the Eggs deck doesn't typically have Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions, which means the odds that the opponent finds an answer are actually somewhat lower, making Damping Sphere slightly better.

Conclusion

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All in all, Damping Sphere looks like a sideboard staple in Modern. The fact that it is one of the best sideboard options against not one but two of the five most played decks in the format (Tron and Storm) is enough to push it into a lot of sideboard all by itself, while the fact that it does something in a handful of other matchups is icing on the cake. It wouldn't be a bit surprising to see Damping Sphere follow the trajectory of Grafdigger's Cage (another card that offers good but not great hate against multiple tier archetypes) and end up among the 50 most played cards in the format in the not-too-distant future. While my hatred of both Storm and Tron might be making me biased, I certainly plan to have a copy or two in the sideboard of most of my Modern decks moving forward. Plus, thanks to Wizards printing the artifact at uncommon, it should actually be cheap enough for budget decks as well! 

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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