Friday, April 29, 2016

Update

Hey all, sorry for the sudden silence, again. Just got hit with a double whammy of work suddenly picking up and getting very busy, AND a resurgence in my depression and anxiety issues. And, to make matters worse, some of the last few decks I wrote about, like Feldon and the MW dragons deck, all collectively decided to have TERRIBLE runs of luck and I was losing SO badly that I had to seriously question whether those decks were actually any good at all, and my initially-good experiences were just "first time playing the deck" luck. Combined with my generally depressed state, it pretty much soured my enthusiasm for building and writing about my decks. Once again I felt like I had lost my touch as a deckbuilder and was churning out garbage.

Well, turns out I was just having a run of shitty luck, running out the wrong decks at the wrong time so my matchups were always awful, and I was keeping very iffy hands most of the time. I tend to try to "stress test" decks by being very conservative with my mulligans so that I can gauge how greedy/risky I can afford to be with each deck. So, I learned that the Feldon deck is acutally a pretty good deck, but it is definitely as draw-dependent as I feared. Fortunately it's relatively easy to get an acceptable keep with our group's "mull to 7 until you get something decent" rule, but I'd be very worried about playing that deck in an environment with "real" mulligans.

My Geth deck, which I have yet to post, really had a terrible run for several weeks, but since then I played two games with it - one I absolutely dominated, and the other it did perfectly well, but ultimately lost a VERY close race. I can certainly handle losing close games. I love close games. But games where I don't get to play Magic at all due to being completely shut out are miserable. I had a couple weekends of the latter CONSISTENTLY happening and it just killed my momentum. I stopped brewing and building, stopped caring about the decks I'd already brewed, etc.

But the bad luck streak appears to be mostly over. I have one new deck I just sleeved up - The Gitrog Monster. I'm sure I'll talk about that one eventually, but honestly, if you've seen a Gitrog deck already, mine's probably not going to be that unique or interesting. I'm sure I'll eventually go back to Meren or Savra - they're both more my style, but Gitrog is a very fun, very cool detour for now.

Shadows of Innistrad has also gotten me itching to rebuild my old Aurelia deck. I like Kalemne a good deal more than I thought I would, but she's just a tad too linear and commander-focused. I kind of hate it when I have a grip full of 6 of 7 good, playable cards, but just casting my commander just trumps those cards 99% of the time. Aurelia is very similar on paper, but the way the deck plays, the cards in your hand just matter way more.

But, again, I have just felt despondent and unmotivated. Hopefully, I can just tweak those decks that have been underperforming and get them back up to where I'm excited to play them and to share them with you. Until then I might be a little quiet here on the ol' blog, and sorry for that, but I just can't put up a list and say "look at this awesome deck, you should build it, even though it can't beat decks made entirely of leftover draft commons".

(I've also gotten re-obsessed with Minecraft. SUCH a time sink, that game!)


Friday, March 11, 2016

Temur Dragons

Alrighty, folks, I’ve got another list for you today. This one is sort of a Dragon Tribal list, in the Temur colors, led by my dear friend, Maelstrom Wanderer. Before I get into talking about this deck, let’s just go straight to the list.

CREATURES

Maelstrom Wanderer

Clever Impersonator
Mulldrifter
Icefall Regent
Keiga, the Tide Star
Quicksilver Dragon
Dragonmaster Outcast
Dragon Whisperer
Flametongue Kavu
Shaman of the Great Hunt
Thunderbreak Regent
Stormbreath Dragon
Thundermaw Hellkite
Scourge of Valkas
Spitebellows
Scourge of the Throne
Tyrant’s Familiar
Balefire Dragon
Utvara Hellkite
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Bloom Tender
Reclamation Sage
Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Eternal Witness
Temur Sabertooth
Destructor Dragon
Foe-Razer Regent
Coiling Oracle
Surrak Dragonclaw
Savage Ventmaw
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Progenitor Mimic
Dragon Broodmother
Intet, the Dreamer
Atarka, World Render
Dragonlord Atarka

SPELLS

Dragon Tempest
Descent of the Dragons
Epic Confrontation
Savage Punch
Kodama’s Reach
Cultivate
Frontier Siege
Skyshroud Claim
Greater Good
Verdant Confluence
Mana Reflection
See the Unwritten
Garruk, Caller of Beasts
Zendikar Resurgent
Tooth and Nail
Temur Ascendency
Unexpected Results
Sarkhan Vol
Sarkhan Unbroken
Sol Ring
Izzet Signet
Gruul Signet
Simic Signet
Coalition Relic
Hedron Archive
Crystal Shard

LANDS

Volcanic Island
Taiga
Tropical Island
Steam Vents
Stomping Ground
Breeding Pool
Sulfur Falls
Rootbound Crag
Hinterland Harbor
Cascade Bluffs
Fire-Lit Thicket
Flooded Grove
Temple of Epiphany
Temple of Abandon
Temple of Mystery
Izzet Boilerworks
Gruul Turf
Simic Growth Chamber
Reflecting Pool
Frontier Bivouac
Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Desolate Lighthouse
Alchemist’s Refuge
Temple of the False God
High Market

And, I’m still not ready to delve into this list quite yet. First I want to talk about a topic that I have only barely touched upon before: Theme. That is, how I approach and view thematically-built decks. The term “theme deck” means different things to different players, and the above list represents what I consider to be a theme deck. But to many, this would barely qualify, if at all.

Let me back up a bit. I have, for a very, VERY long time been a devotee of the Bauhaus school of art, specifically their chief philosophical approach to art: form follows function. *Note: this phrase was actually coined by an American architect, Louis Sullivan, and often incorrectly attributed to the Bauhaus school, but though they did not coin the term, the works of the Bauhaus sure as hell exemplify that ideal in every way possible.

The Bauhaus combined craft with art. They were involved in fine art – that is, art for art’s sake, or decorative art. You know, paintings, pictures, that sort of thing. But they are more known for their functional art – everything from architecture to furniture to typography and font design. To explain what form “follows function means” in practice, let’s use the example of a chair. Now, in some circles it was thought that aesthetics were the ultimate ideal and if you were setting out to make a chair, your primary goal above all else was to make it beautiful. If the chair turned out to be uncomfortable, impractical or unable to support the weight of a full-grown human, then no big deal. As long as it was pretty to look at, you could sit it in a corner and call it “art”.

The Bauhaus took the opposite approach. First you had to make sure the chair fulfilled its functional purpose as a chair. It had to support the weight of someone sitting in it and had to be comfortable (but this was 1920’s Germany, so “comfortable” was defined quite differently than you or I might define it) to sit in. In short, a chair had to be useful as a chair first, and “pretty” second. A font that was eye-catching and flashy but not easy to read was absolutely worthless as a font. Now, I’m not actually a tremendous fan of the minimalist, modernist aesthetic this line of thinking produced, overall. A typical Bauhaus chair tends to be pretty ugly, in my opinion. But I absolutely admire and often live by the sentiment, nonetheless. For me, form must always follow function. My wife loves interior design and is constantly re-decorating our house. But I am constantly veto-ing some ideas she has on the grounds that they aren’t practical -
sure that thing would LOOK good over there in that corner, but I USE that thing and it’s going to be very impractical if it’s way over there!”

The frequency of use should directly correlate to its ease of use – if it’s something that is used every single day or multiple times a day, then it’s “place” should be out in the open and within reach. Take a TV Remote or a toothbrush for example – two items that, in the average household are very likely to be used on an extremely frequent basis. Declaring that the remote control should go into a basket, which in turn is shut away in one of the entertainment center’s cabinets is fine and dandy, but who the hell is actually going to put it there? And if my toothbrush is not someplace where I can reach for it while standing at the bathroom sink, but rather I have to open a cabinet or drawer or, heaven forbid, bend down to find it, then I’m likely to just stop brushing my teeth entirely. It’s not that I’m lazy… well, I am, but this particular point would still be true even if I weren’t… but I just think, at a functional level it is just insane to put something you use constantly in a place that is not extremely easy to access. However, if you rarely use something, or if it is strictly decorative and serves no other function, then where you put hardly matters.

Basically it comes down to the question “If I put this item in this place, will accessing this item from this place be of sufficient effort or annoyance that it will actively dissuade me from using this item?” If I feel that the answer is “Yes, if I put this item here, then I am pretty sure I will begin to use this item less frequently than I currently do.” If that item is something important – like, again, a toothbrush or remote control, or maybe a piece of exercise equipment then a “yes” answer to that question is simply unacceptable and putting that object in the proposed place is equally unacceptable. Example: I bought a stair-stepper so that I could get some exercise without having to go outside and get all hot and sweaty or subject myself to airborne allergens. I could just put it in front of the TV and let my mind atrophy instead of my muscles, for a change. But there was no good place to store the thing when I wasn’t using it. My wife kept putting it in increasingly more obscure and hard to reach spots, because it was, to be honest, and ugly-ass piece of plastic and rubber and was a bit of an eyesore. But the problem was, this was something I was already hard-pressed to find motivation to use, because I hate exercise. But as it grew progressively harder and harder for me to access the tool, the less and less diligent I was in using it. On the flip side, I often use this trick when I am using something too much. For example, if I buy a bag of candy and I find I’m eating it too quickly I will put the candy in a dish with a lid and then put that dish in a cabinet. Now, to get candy I have to open both the cabinet containing the dish and the dish itself. This increases the level of effort to get the candy enough that I will probably just forget the candy even exists for the rest of eternity, and, problem solved!

But what on earth does this have to do with Magic?

Well, when it comes to theme decks, there are basically two schools of thought – theme follows function and vice versa. Theme is basically aesthetical deckbuilding. The more you devote your attention toward theme, the less functional the deck becomes. We’ve all seen those really crazy theme decks like “nothing but old people in the art”, or a Marvel Comics deck where every creature represents a specific superhero or comic book character, and all the spells represent specific powers they use. And then there are those tribal decks where every last creature HAS to be that one creature type. Decks like this are, to me, a lot like a chair that is ridiculously ornate and beautiful but terribly uncomfortable and thus largely useless as chair. I have to ask, if all you wanted was a pretty-to-look at chair, why didn’t you just paint a picture of a pretty chair? Why did you have to make an actual chair that cannot be used, practically, as a chair? But, getting back to Magic… what is a deck’s purpose? A deck of Magic cards has exactly one purpose: to play and (try to) win a game of Magic. Everything else is secondary to that purpose.

But those theme decks that are such slaves to their theme that the abandon all pretense of function are like a chair that can’t be sat in, or, you know at your grandma’s house how she has all these towels hanging up in the bathroom, but some of them are for actually drying your hands but others are never, ever to be used as towels?  Yeah, those. Towels that cannot be used to dry things, candles that are never lit but just gather dust for years, and couches with plastic covers over the cushions just piss me off. You are robing that thing of it’s very purpose! And theme decks that are unwilling to make concessions to playability are basically the same thing.

Now, that all said, taking my view to the extreme will often lead to the kind of staple-laden Good Stuff builds that I used to be prone to building. I have definitely allowed my creative pendulum to swing more toward the thematic side of the spectrum of late, and I definitely get tired of 50% of my slots in every list going towards “auto-includes”. Point is, taking either view too far to one side or the other is just bad Magic. You end up will a “cool in concept” deck that is terrible, or a really good deck that wins a lot but is boring as shit to look at, talk about or play.

There is, as with all things, a happy medium and I’m trying to find that sweet spot where my decks have some individuality and offer a variety of card choices, but still manage to actually hold their own as decks one would actually want to play and possibly win a few games with.

All of this is just to explain why, when I call this a “dragon tribal” list and you see a Mulldrifter and an Eternal Witness and your first impulse is to take me to task for those “boring old good-stuff cards” or scorn some my choices for being “off theme”…. well, frankly, I don’t want to hear it. I want this deck to actually win games, sir and/or ma’am. I want this deck to be fun to play, and having at least a plausible chance at winning is a firm requirement for a deck to be fun, to me.

Anyway, right now my approach to thematic building could best be described thusly: I tend to start out at like 99% pure theme, then slowly add in “good” cards until the deck feels like it works. That’s a bit oversimplified, but it suffices. For this deck, actually, it’s actually pretty close to how I actually built it. I started with about 2x as many dragon and dragon-related cards, but every deck needs certain things – ramp, draw, removal. There aren’t a lot of dragons that draw cards, basically only one that ramps, and a few expensive ones that double as removal. So, for the deck to actually work as a Magic deck, it needs stuff like Wood Elves, Mulldrifter and Spitebellows, to do the things that Dragons just don’t do well, or at all.

If you really, really wanted to go fully tribal – no creatures except those with Dragon on their type line – you could cheat and run all your utility stuff as spells. But ultimately, that is a distinction without a difference. If I literally just replaced Wood Elves with Rampant Growth, Mulldrifter with Deep Analysis and so on, until all my utility spells were non-creatures, and all my creatures were Dragons, how is that actually better, even thematically? If I’m not replacing Wood Elves with a DRAGON, then is Wood Elves actually diluting the theme in any way? And how does Wood Elves ruin the theme, but Cultivate doesn’t?

Ultimately these questions and arguments are interesting to ponder, but mean little to me – I’m going to run whatever I think will make my deck work, period, end of story.

So, moving on, how does this deck work? Excellent question! I’m glad I asked me that.

Skipping ahead to the end, I’d say beating down with dragons is probably very obviously this deck’s main objective. And, to me, that is all that is required of a “theme”. It doesn’t matter how many cards you run “on theme” or what creature types you include. The theme is nothing more than what the deck wants to DO and how well it supports DOING that thing. So rather than focus an trivialities like how many dragons do you need to run before you can call it a dragon deck, let’s just ask a more practical question – does the deck produce lots of dragons and does its main path to victory involve swinging with lots of dragons? Yes it does, Other Barry, yes it does!

Now, superficially, this deck looks a lot like my old Maelstrom Wanderer deck. But it’s really quite different. My old MW list, if it could be said to have a theme at all (a stretch even I wouldn’t make), it would be a “Maelstrom Wanderer” theme. That list’s main goal was to cast MW as fast and as often as possible. Everything in the deck was in service to this goal, to some degree. Utlimately the deck just wanted to 1) ramp into MW, 2) cascade into good stuff 3) repeat until opponents are mush.  There was a very tiny subtheme of top-deck manipulation so I could set up my cascades instead of cascading blindly. Mostly, though, it was ramp and generically-good bombs.

With this list, though, MW is really a secondary plan. He’s there to provide card advantage if we fall behind, or put the final nail in the coffin when we’re ahead. But he supports the dragons. In fact, the very first game I played with this list, I won without ever casting MW at all. My old list basically had NO plan other than to cast MW so this would have been virtually impossible. Here, MW is still insanely powerful, but he isn’t the central focus of the deck and he isn’t always basically the single best thing you can be doing at any given moment. In other respects, though, this does still do a lot of typical MW things. Largely, it revolves around ramping into bombs, powering out massive threats and gaining overwhelming card advantage and sometimes bombarding your opponents with “free” Tooth and Nails, etc. It’s still Battlecruiser Magic at its finest, but most of our battlecruisers happen to be dragons, and as such, there’s actually a fair amount of synergy  here.

While most of our dragons are just dragons – big flyers with some abilities, some have tribal synergies. Utvara Hellkite is probably the pinnacle of dragon synergy. The more dragons you have, the more dragons it makes. Simple, but effective. Then there’s Scourge of Valkas and Dragon Tempest, for some synergistic face-murdering. Atarka gives the whole team Double Strike, which is insane, by the way, and we get to run a couple of versions of Sarkhan, the ultimate dragon fan-boy.

I especially like Scourge of Valkas and Dragon Tempest because they require a critical mass of dragons to be effective. This, in turn, encourages us to play more… questionable… dragons, like Quicksliver Dragon, Dragon Broodmother, etc. over more generic-but-way-better cards. Basically they keep us from drifting too far into the good-stuff realm. Now, in the past, I’m the type of player that would immediately question the “wisdom” of stacking your deck with janky dragons just to make Scourge/Tempest playable, being fairly questionable themselves, especially. But, again, I’m trying to lean more toward theme these days, and so far Scourge of Valkas, at least, has proven powerful enough that he more than makes up for a few weaksauce dragons.

Oh, and one more note about running non-Dragon utility guys… if we didn’t have a bunch of little dorks in the deck, we’d have no reason to run Descent of the Dragons, which is an awesome card. I think this card alone justifies the “cheat” in running off-tribe creatures, because those creatures can become dragons later.

I’m also trying to avoid running almost all mono-red Dragons. So I could easily cut, say, Quicksilver Dragon for almost any red dragon and it’d probably be at least a slight upgrade. But there are so few blue or green dragons, and I really wanted this to be a TEMUR dragon deck, not a virtual mono-red deck splashing green for some ramp and blue for Keiga. So, again, I am certainly making some power-level concessions to theme, but at the same time, I am careful to make those concessions intelligently and within reason. I don’t love playing Destructor Dragon over Indrik Stomphowler, but at least I’m not completely forgoing my ability to kill a Mirari’s Wake or Nevinyrral’s Disk. And, again, cutting the weaker Dragon cards for better non-Dragons weakens not only my theme, but also my synergy.

Which is not a new concept – cards that are weak in a vacuum can become strong enough to be playable when they have particular synergies with other cards in your deck. I’ve been playing EDH for about 10 years, almost, now, and I don’t think I have EVER included Soul Warden in and EDH deck until I built Karlov a few weeks ago. Now, suddenly, almost any hand with a Soul Warden in it, I snap keep. So I’m still light years away from building that deck where every card has to have someone slouching in a chair in the artwork. I’m not building drawf tribal, and I’m not building a “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” theme deck. My themes still have at least some synergistic, strategic or mechanical through-line guiding them.

As for the list above, I’m pretty happy with it so far, but as always I try to talk about flaws or weaknesses, as I see them. First of all, I think you’re about 5% to beat any Karrthus deck. Your only real hope is to sandbag a clone effect, wait until they jam Karrthus, pray to God you survive that first onslaught, and then try to get them with that clone. Protip: when the legend rule happens, sac the clone, so you keep their original Karrthus.

Second, I am very unsure how this deck would perform outside of groups that use the Gis Mulligan. For those that don’t know, that means you basically just mulligan to 7 until you get something playable. DO NOT ABUSE THIS. My playgroup also happens to be my closest circle of friends, so we have ample reason to trust each other, and ample reason not to abuse said trust. It’s pretty easy to get a hand of three lands, three 6-drops and an 8-drop or something absurdly terrible along those lines. I really haven’t had to lean too heavily on our generous mulligan policies, but it could be an issue in groups with “real” mulligan rules. And, for the record, I think it would be very scummy to use the Gis Mulligan as a crutch, so don’t think I built this deck to take advantage – it just worked out that way. Even though I can get away with it, I am still trying to tune the deck a bit better so that if I were forced to use “real” mulligans, I wouldn’t be completely screwed.

Third, everyone HATES Maelstrom Wanderer. Well, not me, I friggin’ love him, but everyone not playing Maelstrom Wanderer hates him. He’s absurdly overpowered. That’s a big reason I built this deck the way I did. It’s theme-y, not too good-stuff-y. Dragons are awesome! Everyone loves dragons! It plays janky cards, but makes up for weak card choices with overall strong synergy. And it isn’t built in such a way that all you ever do is cast MW over and over. It actually has a real game plan. That all said, MW is so stupid good that people will probably try to kill you before you hit 8 mana just in case. This version definitely hasn’t drawn the same level of hate my old MW list did, but I’ve still been playing it very sparingly, very cautiously. If it continues to do as well as it has so far, it’ll probably start to get hated on again. My old list had no trouble being the archenemy and could easily handle a 3-on-1 game, but I’m not so sure this version is as resilient. It’s possible that this deck is in that terrible place that all decks hate to be: good enough to draw hate, but not quite good enough to handle it!

As for specific card choices, there’s certainly a lot of room for customization. I only have one clear dud in Garruk, Caller of Beasts. He was a holdover from my previous Temur build, a Surrak deck, but so far I haven’t liked him much. I actually don’t want to draw 3 or 4 giant, expensive dragons every turn, as it turns out. And most of them don’t have green in their CI and cannot be cheated into play with his -3. Finally, the one and only time I have ever gotten his emblem was in this deck and I still managed to lose that game.

Another dud (sort of) is Foe-Razer Regent. The only reason this guy hasn’t been performing, though is because he doesn’t have his BFF, Gruul Ragebeast. I cut Ragebeast because I was trying to minimize the off-theme stuff, but without him, the Regent is not stellar. I did include a few fight-based spells but that has not been enough to really kick Regent into gear.

So, I’ve been considering cutting Garruk for Ragebeast, which makes sense and is a fair swap. However, I really think what I want in Garruk’s place is… Elvish Piper. Okay, Elvish Piper is one of those “noob” cards – you know, the kind new players gravitate toward and insist on playing constantly even when you explain to them, rationally, why it’s not good, but eventually you realize they are just going to have to find out the hard way. We all played Elvish Piper decks at one point, and we all eventually realized the error of our ways and abandoned those decks.

But, while playing this deck, I have had numerous situations come up where I thought “I really with this Garruk was an Elvish Piper right now”. Okay, I say numerous, really it was like two or three times, but the fact that Elvish Piper popped into my head at all, let alone THREE separate times, is not something I can just ignore. It’s probably as janky now as it has ever been, but at the same time, I think this might be its moment to shine, finally! Basically of the times I have had Garruk in play his -3 was the most relevant, or would have been if it didn’t specify “green” creatures. Elvish Piper does exactly what I want Garruk to do, but without that green-only restriction. Plus, MW gives him haste, so he’s likely to get at least one activation before biting it.

Yeah, so I think I have convinced myself. Gonna cut Garruk in favor of Elvish Piper (God, I still can’t believe I just typed that!), and try to find something else for Gruul Ragebeast, but I’d rather not cut a dragon for it, obviously.

Other questionable things:

Dragon Broodmother. A fine card in the right deck, but this deck just doesn’t make use of her abilities particularly well; not a lot of fodder for Devour, no token or counter synergies to speak of. Could easily be replaced with another, better dragon.

Same is true of Quicksilver Dragon, though, honestly, this guy isn’t all that bad. It just sucks that he’s the only Morph so it won’t take long before your opponents will always know exactly what your face-down guy is. Good news, though, is they likely won’t be all that afraid of it. I am just partial to him because he’s a semi-playable Dragon in mono-blue.

Verdant Confluence. Exceptional when you cascade into it, but less so when you have to cast it. My expectation was having lots of dead dragons and this thing getting them all back for me, or maybe a Temur Ascendency or Dragon Tempest. It’s also perfectly fine if you have nothing better to do than triple-Rampant-Growth, as this deck is very, very capable of using mana. You basically can’t have too much mana. Actually that brings me to a point in favor of keeping Confluence – Mana Reflection and Zendikar Resurgent are huge, HUGE targets for removal, but they’re also very worth getting back if you can. One might question having both of those enchantments, but they’re so damn good the redundancy is warranted. Plus, like I said, they’re huge removal bait, so the first one you cast is very likely to die. Hopefully the second one sticks.

I’m not 100% sold on Bloom Tender in this deck. She’s awesome, usually, but I tend to run her in decks with very cheap commanders like Darevi, Marath or Anafenza, so I can go, T2 Bloom Tender, T3 cast commander, and on turn 4 have 6 or 7 mana to do… whatever. This deck, there seems to be a higher chance of Bloom Tender just tapping for G until turn 5 or 6 or so. But, thus far, she hasn’t given me any clear reason to cut her, so these are just speculative concerns for now.

And finally, Nissa, Vastwood Seer is a card I just kinda threw in ‘cause I had one. I probably have another card that would be better here, and I probably have other decks that want Nissa more, but until I figure out where she’d be better served and what should replace her, she seems to be a perfectly fine inclusion. A bit on the good-stuff side, sure, and not particularly thematic, but acceptable. Perhaps I ought to try Dragonspeaker Shaman instead?

Obviously the specific dragons you run are highly customizable. The ones I consider absolute must-haves are: Keiga, Utvara Hellkite, Scourge of Valkas, both Atarkas, Thunderbreak Regent, Stormbreath Dragon, Scourge of the Throne, Thundermaw Hellkite, Tyrant’s Familiar, and Balefire Dragon. All of these have been extremely high performers, with Utvara and Valkas being the decks most reliable and effective win-conditions. The utility dragons, Destructor Dragon and Icefall Regent have actually been quite good, as well, but not complete bombs. All the other dragons in my list are just the result of my wanting to have a broad and diverse selection of colors and abilities. I didn’t want just a bunch of red dragons with damage and attacking abilities. I’ve yet to see Intet, Niv-Mizzet or Broodmother do anything spectacular, but the potential is there.

There are a lot of dragon-themed cards that aren’t dragons, too – stuff like Crucible of Fire, Day of Dragons, etc. but I didn’t include most of those because they just didn’t seem good. Crucible came the closest, but ultimately felt win-more. Day of Dragons just makes me nervous because it says “Sacrifice all dragons you control” which could backfire quite easily. Also turning my actual dragons into vanilla 5/5 dragons seems boring and lame.  Death By Dragons is just dumb unless you’re playing Karrthus, which we aren’t. I kinda just forgot about Sarkhan's Triumph which probably should be in the deck somewhere, but once I noticed I'd overlooked it, I then realized I didn't really need it much. There aren't many "silver bullet" dragons, but I guess being able to find the really good ones when I want them is okay.

Finally, to keep the focus on Dragons and not make the deck too Maelstrom-Wanderer-centric, I cut pretty much ALL of the library manipulation. So when you do cascade x2, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be doing it blind. There’s enough beef in here that that’s okay, but it does slightly disincentivize being on the MW plan all the time. Usually you’ll want to prioritize casting stuff from your hand, and only fall back on MW when you run out of better options. The downside is you sometimes get stuck with a bunch of big, hard-to-cast things in your hand, and that slows you down a bit. But it was still an important concession to theme, and the downside is not crippling, so far at least.

The one really big advantage going Jund instead of Temur has, aside from Karrthus himself (which is mighty), is access to something like Living Death or Twilight’s Call. The lack of a mass-reanimation spell really stings, especially when we end up forced to discard a bunch of dragons to Greater Good, or get hit with multiple Wrath effects in a game. But despite all that, my admittedly-limited experience with this deck has given me the distinct impression that this deck is actually noticeably better than the Karrthus verison (against most of the deck in my meta, at least, other than the fact that we probably auto-lose 9 out of 10 games to the Karrthus deck. That’s probably down to MW being a far stronger commander, and this version just having better card advantage options.

And that pretty well covers everything I can think of in regards to this list, so I guess I’ll end it here. Enjoy!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Sen Triplets

I should start by explaining that I’m not a speculator or anything like that, but I do tend to follow Magic finance trends, just so I know what’s going on and don’t screw myself over on a trade or buy something that’s overpriced and on the decline. And, occasionally, I even get the chance to get out in front of a spike. It’s very rare, because I’m honestly not clever enough to see them coming, usually, but this is one of those rare moments when I did see it. Roughly one hour after the EDH Rules Committee posted the most recent update, announcing the removal of Rule #4 entirely from the format, I was on tcgplayer.com buying myself a foil copy of Sen Triplets. I paid $30 for the foil and by that Friday they were sitting at $70 or more. Eventually they settled down a bit and are now about $65 but that’s still more than twice the price before the announcement. 

So, why did the removal of Rule #4 tip me off to this potential spike? Well, Rule #4 was the rule that said you could only produce colored mana if that color was in your commander’s color identity. Running City of Brass in “normal” Magic means you can make all five colors, but in EDH, you are limited to the colors of your own deck. So for instance, in a Sen Triplets deck, cards like Chromatic Lantern and City of Brass still are capable of only producing White, Blue or Black mana. Attempting to tap Chromatic Lantern for, say, Green would result in a colorless mana being added to your mana pool instead. This made Sen Triplets, in my opinion at least, a fairly unplayable commander. Obviously, it could be a metagame call – if Green and Red are by some measure the least represented colors in your playgroup’s meta, Triplets could work fine, but if you see any reasonable amount of Green/Red/X decks, you’re likely to have a bad time.

But the removal of Rule #4 changes that. Now, if you are playing against a Gruul deck and manage to snag a Forest from their hand, you can use that Forest to cast their Green spells. And Chromatic Lantern now makes casting any card of any color almost trivial. All of this means Sen Triplets are now much more functional and open-ended than before. You stand a reasonable chance of being able to hijack your opponents’ spells no matter what colors are being played. Now, lest I take credit not due to me, I should say that I was hardly alone in figuring this out – the RC’s announcement specifically called out Sen Triplets as one example of a card that would benefit from the removal of Rule #4, but the way in which they did so really seemed to underplay the effect. Actually, a lot of people online seemed to think this made Triplets “a little bit better” but I felt the difference would be more pronounced.

And, honestly, I had been meaning to acquire a Sen Triplets for a while. It’s just one of those cards I would have sworn I already owned a copy or two of, but one day I realized that somehow I actually owned zero copies, and had intended to rectify that. However the price tag was already a bit high for a card that I didn’t really have any high expectations for using. It was just a cool card with a cool, unique effect, so I wanted at least one just in case. Well, the “just in case” scenario dropped in my lap suddenly, but I hadn’t yet procured my just-in-case copy so it just seemed like a now-or-never sort of deal. I opted for now, and pulled the trigger as quickly as I could and I’m certainly glad I did. 

Anyway, I figured I’d give them a try and build a deck around them, and take some comfort in the expectation that, if the deck turned out to be a dud or I just didn’t like it much, I could probably flip the card for a small profit.

I haven’t played the deck all that much, yet, but so far I’m definitely digging it. Here’s the current list:

CREATURES

Sen Triplets

Ethersworn Canonist
Sanctum Guardian
Leonin Abunas
Chief Engineer
Etherium Sculptor
Trinket Mage
Master of Etherium
Temporal Adept
Muzzio, Visionary Adept
Faerie Mechanist
Phyrexian Metamorph
Master Transmuter
Arcum Dagsson
Vedalken Archmage
Sharding Sphinx
Consecrated Sphinx
Oblivion Sower
Baleful Strix
Glassdust Hulk
Sphinx Summoner
Sharuum the Hegemon
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
Spellskite
Metalworker
Junk Diver
Solemn Simulacrum
Lodestone Golem
Kuldotha Forgemaster
Duplicant
Soul of New Phyrexia
Wurmcoil Engine
Myr Battlesphere

SPELLS

Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares
Return to Dust
Wrath of God
Scourglass
Open the Vaults
Cyclonic Rift
Fabricate
Thirst for Knowledge
Foresee
Aetherize
Thopter Spy Network
Tezzeret the Seeker
Demonic Tutor
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Sol Ring
Thought Vessel
Azorius Signet
Dimir Signet
Orzhov Signet
Fellwar Stone
Lightning Greaves
Commander’s Sphere
Chromatic Lantern
Coalition Relic
Temple Bell
Oblivion Stone
Mycosynth Lattice
Darksteel Forge

LANDS

21x Dual Lands of various type
Command Tower
City of Brass
Forbidden Orchard
Reflecting Pool
Vesuva
Kor Haven
Temple of the False God
Reliquary Tower
3x Plains
3x Island
3x Swamp


As you can see, we are an Artifact deck, with a lot of the usual suspects, but initially that’s not what I set out to build. It just sort of grew organically from the needs of the deck, and my not wanting to build a generic Esper Control deck. Which is what this deck was starting to look like, before I changed tracks and went full-on Artifacts. But I still didn’t want this to feel like a Sharuum deck that’s just playing the wrong commander. I really wanted Triplets to be the centerpiece of the deck, so I didn’t initially want to go this route, but somehow I ended up here anyway.

Let me walk you through my thought processes. Sen Triplets tells us that we want to be casting our opponents spells, right? So obviously we need to make our mana base as flexible as possible so that we can cast those spells regardless of what colors our opponents happen to be running. First order of business, then, is getting those rainbow-lands and rainbow-rocks - Forbidden Orchard, Fellwar Stone and the almighty Chromatic Lantern. My #1 priority is being able to generate the right colors of mana to cast whatever I want from a hijacked hand.

My next thought is that my opponents may try to counteract my game plan a number of ways, and one such method is by casting their best stuff as quickly as they can. If they can empty their hand before I get Triplets online, I’m not likely to get much value out of my commander. So the mana rocks are not just about fixing my colors, they are also there to help me cast Triplets as quickly as possible, to shorten the window of opportunity my opponents have to dump their best stuff.

Next on my list of priorities is protecting my commander. Greaves, Leonin Abunas and Darksteel Forge all contribute to the goal of making Triplets harder to kill. All the mana rocks help me ramp up my mana production to keep recasting Triplets in the event  I can’t protect them well enough.  You’ll notice that I’ve now identified three completely different ways in which the mana rocks help us with our main game plan – help us cast Triplets faster so we can start jacking spells before our opponents dump their hands, help us re-cast Triplets in the event of their untimely demise, and help us cast our opponents spells when we do manage to stick our commander.

So at this point, I know I’m running a lot of mana rocks and a few things that protect or recur artifacts, but beyond that I’m not at all sure what I’m doing. After some thought, I realize that in addition to protecting Sen Triplets, I should also be looking to protect myself. Fortunately Esper colors offer us pretty much the pinnacle of all removal in the format, so I started pulling out things that would hopefully keep me alive. Removal, basically. But I quickly became bored just looking at the pile of cards I pulled out. It was the most generic-looking pile of Esper Control staples ever. I loved a  lot of the cards – Sphinx’s Revelation, Decree of Pain, Ghostly Prison? Classics! But together in one place, it just looked like a slog of super-obvious staples that would effectively guarantee games would last forever. Yawn.

I still had concerns about what to do about the things my opponents were able to cast, though. I spent some time thinking about a  “bounce” theme, where I could use bounce effects to return permanents on the battlefield to the hand of whomever my Triplets had hijacked, so that I could then cast that thing. That might be okay for a 1v1 deck but after some fiddling and theorizing I came to the conclusion this approach would be weak and slow in a 4-way game. I’d have to split my mana between paying for these bounce effects AND casting spells from hijacked hands. Even with all the rocks, that felt a bit janky to me. I kept Temporal Adept and of course Rift, but otherwise I moved away from this idea.

Finally, I remembered I’d been wanting to play Muzzio in something for a good, long while and decided he interacted pretty well with all the mana rocks and other incidental artifacts I was planning to run, and so I just embraced the artifacts plan after all. An additional benefit to this is that it provides us with a relatively strong game plan to fall back on in the event the Triplets plan goes belly up. If we find ourselves unable to rely on casting our opponents’ own spells to use against them we want our deck to have spells capable of winning, and Esper Artifacts are certainly capable of putting up a fight on their own.

There are of course a lot of other ideas I had at various points, but ultimately didn’t make it in. I considered a few cards like Annex and Vedalken Plotter to gank lands already in play. Similarly, I also considered running more Clones and Control Magics to copy or steal things that get cast. And I also gave some serious thought to running a small number of tax/prison effects, not really to completely lock my opponents out of the game, as that is not my style, but just enough to slow them down a bit, just to ensure that once I have Triplets online, they’ll still have things in their hand worth hijacking. I would at least love to find a slot for Grand Arbiter Agustin IV, and maybe Kismet/Frozen Aether, but I mainly avoided this tactic just because they aren’t particularly fun to play against and I’m already slightly worried about the kind of hate this deck could bring.

I think all of these ideas are very viable, maybe not as primary themes, but at least as small subthemes. But ultimately, I had very little room for cute, techy choices, as the artifacts theme is extremely deep and I had a very hard time just fitting THAT stuff in, let alone finding room for things that would dilute that theme and make stuff like Muzzio and Kuldotha Forgemaster less viable. Even with the list above, I still feel like there is just a bit too much tension between conflicting goals, but overall it seems to have played well enough that the tension is acceptable. Mostly I just wanted to make the rest of the deck as innocuous and palatable as possible, because my group has a bit of a thing against getting their own spells and creatures used against them. Understandable.

Anyway, I can definitely see myself going down that road, were social contract issues not such an obstacle. Such a build would likely include most of the following:

Aura of Silence
Kismet
Frozen Aether
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Bribery
Treachery
Knowledge Exploitation
Praetor’s Grasp
Clever Impersonator
Rite of Replication
Annex
Herald of Leshrac (I welcome any excuse to run this guy!)
Vedalken Plotter
Remand
Memory Lapse
Propaganda
Ghostly Prison
… and probably a handful or two of other, similar effects of this variety. The rest of the deck would basically be a mix of lands, mana rocks and removal.

And if I really, really wanted to be a dick, I could see this possibly working out as a “Stax” deck with stuff like Descent into Madness and the O.G., Smokestack. Just full-on lock people out of casting stuff, while I just freely take what I want from their hands. Clearly, I didn’t want to go this route, because I like my friends, but I think it could be done. In the end, I did get to include Lodestone Golem and Ethersworn Canonist because they synergize well with our Artifact theme while hopefully slowing down everyone else’s development without being completely oppressive.

Another idea I had was to include some symmetrical draw effects - Howling Mine and friends. Keep your opponents’ hands full, so you’ll always have goodies to pilfer with your Triplets. This also seemed like a plan that had a high potential to backfire, so I kept only Temple Bell as it only works when I want it to, making it the least risky. No one’s going to fall for the “group hug” fa├žade when you’re playing Sen Triplets!

In the end, I tried to make it so almost every card in the deck either serve the primary Sen Triplets plan, the secondary Artifacts plan, or where possible bridge the gap by serving both plans. And as I said earlier, I still feel like there is a lot of room for improvement, yet it seems to be “close enough” for the time being. So far, my limited experiences with the deck have been largely encouraging. I want to keep experimenting with the artifact angle and see if I can continue to blend the various themes more to improve the overall synergy within the deck further.

I can also see myself eventually abandoning most of the artifacts-matter theme in favor of exploring some of the other ideas I’ve talked about. It’s a strong theme, but one where it’s fairly difficult to walk that line between strong and oppressive, especially when using cards like Arcum Dagsson, Mycosynth Lattice, and other well-worn combo pieces. I’ve gone to some lengths to keep this deck from doing some of the dirtier things typical Sharuum and Arcum Dagsson decks are known for, but we have no control over what our opponents are putting into their decks, so if we happen to target an opponent who reveals a Nevinyrral’s Disk in their hand, suddenly we have the potential to assemble the old Lattice/Disk/Forge lock, which is undesired.

The artifact theme is one that allows us to run some great cards like Tezzeret, Master Transmuter and Thopter Spy Network, while simultaneously encouraging us to run more questionable things like Etherium Sculptor and Sanctum Gargoyle. I mean, I definitely feel those inclusions have merit, given the nature of the deck, but they aren’t great cards, in a vacuum. I’d love to start trimming things like Glassdust Hulk and Faerie Mechanist in favor of better, more impactful cards, but those are actually important pieces of the deck’s overall game plan. To put it another way, I like that this is a deck that has a strong Open the Vaults plan, but at the same time I dislike that part of that plan involves some rather unimpressive cards. It’s odd because I usually like it when synergies come together to make an ordinarily mediocre card into something actually playable, but in this case I’m not sure my synergies are quite strong enough to make stuff like Chief Engineer truly good, or if they’ll only prove to be good when things are already going well for the deck.  

I also worry slightly about things like Darksteel Forge overshadowing our commander in terms of importance to our game plans – like, do games where Forge never makes an appearance just go horribly for me? Do I need to include even more ways to ensure Forge hits play? Does winning or losing come down to weather Forge gets answered or not? There are a few cards like this – Kuldotha Forgemaster, Master Transmuter, Tezzeret Agent of Bolas… all of these seem potentially powerful enough that once they’re in play they could become far more important to me than Sen Triplets. It’s not that we need or want our commander to be essential to our plans, or to be the absolute best plan we have at all times. I just don’t want the deck to be so powerful on its own that the Triplets basically wind up being relegated to Plan B or Plan C and that we rarely cast them in most games.

And, finally, I am concerned about how viable this deck will continue to be once people have gotten used to playing against it. Will they grow to hate it more and start to put more and more pressure on me, to the point where I get hated out of every game, or will they simply learn how to play around it to the point where they don’t have to hate me out, but can shut me down without needing to gang up on me? Or, going the other direction, will I tweak the deck enough to reach the point where the deck is truly an obnoxious, oppressive nightmare to play against? So while the deck seems “fine” as it stands now, it feels to me like the kind of thing that can go sour quickly, either by being too good, too annoying or just not good enough at all.

I need to make it a point to play this deck a lot more in the near future so I can start to answer some of these questions. If any of you readers have any experience with trying to make Sen Triplets work in a social/casual atmosphere, I’d certainly welcome any feedback or advice. But more importantly, I think I just need a lot more play experience with this pile to get a true estimation of its capabilities and deficits. Some decks require a lot more fine-tuning and reconfiguring than others, and this feels like one of those decks; fortunately the deck is fun enough right out of the gates that I think I’m up to the challenge.

Before I sign off for the day, I just want to tease a few other decks I have (potentially) coming down the pipeline. I have been on a bit of a deck-building frenzy lately and I still have quite a few more decks to write up, though I will say that some of them are largely untested and may prove to be disappointments.

Maelstrom Wanderer – I didn’t want to just rebuild my old “Good Stuff” MW deck, so I tried to give this one more of a theme: Dragons! That’s right, it’s Temur Dragon Tribal. It’s probably literally impossible for me to beat a Karrthus deck, but otherwise I’m pretty sure this deck is great. Only played one game so far, and I won it without casting Maelstrom Wanderer even once.

Geth, Lord of the Vault – My third attempt at a “Big Mana Black” deck, very similar to the my take on the Commander 2014 Ob Nixilis deck, but after trying a few approaches I think Geth is the best option to command this deck. I previously tried this with Erebos, but I didn’t really like that one too much, so I never posted it here.

Yisan, the Wandering Bard – I had a couple of games where I got to enjoy having Yisan and Prophet of Kruphix in play at the same time, in a Surrak Dragonclaw deck I was experimenting with for a while. When Prophet got banned, I decided to make this deck, using Seedborn Muse and Yeva, Nature’s Herald to fill the Prophet role. I’m not yet sure if this deck is unplayable garbage or utterly broken and game-wrecking. Pretty sure it’s one or the other.

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant – So far the only deck from my experiment with standard-legal EDH experiment to make the jump, successfully, to unrestricted EDH. Zombie tokens, self-mill and lots of removal and card draw! What’s not to love?

Marath, Will of the Wild – This is actually a rebuild from an old variation, but I realized recently that I never actually wrote anything about my take on Marath after the C13 decks came out. Marath was actually one of the harder decks from that series to figure out, and took me quite a while to get the deck to perform the way I wanted it to, but once I finally did, it quickly became a favorite of mine.

Edric, Spymaster of Trest – Sorry to disappoint all you Ezuri fans out there but I just never could solve the issues that were plaguing the Ezuri deck, and honestly when it comes down to it, a commander that draws me lots of cards is almost always going to beat out a commander that doesn’t. I won’t likely be writing a new article for this deck as it’s basically just an overhaul and update of my old Edric list, which you can find in the sidebar. I’ll just update that list soonish.

Stonebrow, Krosan Hero – My Angry Omnath build was successful, but it got really old, really fast. Meanwhile Stoney B has had a ton of goodies printed for him since I last had this deck sleeved up.

And I have plans to, in the near future, rebuild and revamp Wrexial, Karador, Rafiq, Aurelia and Prossh. Those are all pretty well-tread paths, but after trying new things in those colors, I am ready to go back to the tried and true favorites.

By my count, that leaves the following color combinations left for me to figure out:

Mono-white
Azorius (WU)
Rakdos (BR)
Izzet (UR)
Mardu (WBR)
Jeskai (RWU)

Of those, the only one I’m possibly close to pinning down may be Jeskai. I’ve been continuing to try and refine my attempt at a standard-legal Narset into a “real” EDH deck that is powerful enough to be worth playing, but doesn’t do the degenerate things many Narset decks are known for. So far it’s proving a difficult line to walk, finding that gray area in between oppressive and unplayable, but I think there’s a chance I could get there.


Enjoy!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Feldon, Mono-Red Reanimator

I’ve long maintained a belief – justifiable, in my opinion – that mono-red was the second worst color or color combination you could play in EDH. The worst being mono-white, of course. Maybe that’s not entirely fair – maybe those colors are just the worst for my preferred playstyles, or worst for my particular metagame. I don’t know. The issue with both colors, of course, largely revolves around questions of card advantage and late-game reach.

You know me – I love the grind;  I love to bury my opponents in an inexorable flood of card advantage. I hate running out of cards, running out of things to do. I really hate being in top deck mode. My early experiences with mono-red and mono-white decks definitely tended more toward my being ground out, rather than me doing the grinding. Boo-urns.

While I have yet to find a mono-white deck that doesn’t flat-out require Skullclamp to function, red decks have, meanwhile, been given some nice tools to shore up those weaknesses. Red slowly got better and better, it just took me a while to notice. I tried to make Daretti work – a Planeswalker commander that casts  Faithless Looting and Trash for Treasure seems pretty sweet. Daretti set up his Trading Post and declared himself the new mayor of Value Town. Problem there was, he didn’t do much but durdle around with artifacts for value. Occasionally you got the T4 Myr Battlesphere and ride that to a slow, awkward victory, but usually you just produced a few threats, one at a time, and had them eat removal. Then you ran out of gas as Daretti got trampled into the mud.

So Daretti was good at getting value engines going and could do some fun things, but I had a lot of trouble finding ways to win games that were reliable and effective, yet not anti-fun. Blightsteel Colossus, Lattice + Vandalblast, etc. were effective and functional but royally piss off people, meanwhile stuff like Myr Battlesphere and Hoard-Smelter Dragon are sociable enough, but hardly reliable, in my experience.

I’ve seen Daretti decks get there, for sure. It’s not a terrible deck by any means, it’s just that the deck requires you to play a little too rough for my tastes to have any real shot at an acceptable win %. Plus, even for me, the value train has to lead somewhere, but I felt like with Daretti I was just grinding value, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Amusing for a while, but not fun enough to keep me interested for long.

Enter Feldon of the Third Path, mono-red necromancer, newly-elected Mayor of Value Town.

CREATURES

Feldon of the Third Path

Goblin Welder
Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer
Magus of the Wheel
Tuktuk the Explorer
Dualcaster Mage
Flametongue Kavu
Anger
Purphoros, God of the Forge
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Mindclaw Shaman
Zealous Conscripts
Siege-Gang Commander
Hoarding Dragon
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Spitebellows
Godo, Bandit Warlord
Dragon Mage
Tyrant’s Familiar
Molten Primordial
Chancellor of the Forge
Bogardan Hellkite

Junk Diver
Burnished Hart
Solemn Simulacrum
Wurmcoil Engine
Duplicant
Scuttling Doom Engine
Sandstone Oracle
Myr Battlesphere
Bosh, Iron Golem
It That Betrays


SPELLS

Faithless Looting
Gamble
Tormenting Voice
Wild Guess
Mizzium Mortars
Wheel of Fortune
Chaos Warp
Daretti, Scrap Savant
Sneak Attack
Wild Ricochet
Volcanic Offering
Reforge the Soul
Scrap Mastery
Blasphemous Act

Skullclamp
Lightning Greaves
Illusionist’s Bracers
Blade of Selves
Loxodon Warhammer
Sol Ring
Ruby Medallion
Thought Vessel
Anvil of Bogardan
Strionic Resonator
Commander’s Sphere
Rings of Brighthearth
Hedron Archive
Trading Post
Pryomancer’s Goggles
Alhammarret’s Archive
Caged Sun

LANDS

Valakut, Molten Pinnacle
Great Furnace
Darksteel Citadel
Smoldering Crater
Forgotten Cave
Temple of the False God
Myriad Landscape
Kher Keep
Phyrexia’s Core
High Market
Flamekin Village
26 Mountain

So, what have we got here? First and foremost, this deck wants to be a fairly traditional reanimator deck – you use stuff like Faithless Looting and the like to get some big, fun things into your graveyard, and then as early as possible, Feldon starts reanimating things. Of course this plain isn’t foolproof for a number of reasons, so there are of course alternative lines of play. You can always just use your mana rocks to ramp into hardcasting things, then using Feldon more as the backup plan for when things inevitably get blown up. And, finally, as a “Plan C” we’re a Scrap Mastery deck as well – if reanimating things one at a time doesn’t get the job done, reanimating a lot of things might do the trick.

Going for the reanimation win, there are multiple lines. It that Betrays is pretty much a winning line all by itself.  Purphoros plus token-producers, especially Chancellor, is our out to things like Aetherize or pillowfort decks that make swinging with creatures difficult. Molten Primordial, Bogardan Hellkite, Scuttling Doom Engine are all strong finishers when you can just repeatedly make token copies and swing with them every turn.

Valakut can help you punch through blockers and, if things get really desperate, just go straight to the dome.

Gaining card advantage is pretty easy with this deck. There’s outright draw in the form of Wheel of Fortune and it’s descendants. Getting a Magus of the Wheel into the ‘yard early for Feldon to recur can rapidly accelerate the Scrap Mastery plan. Hoarding Dragon, a card I have pretty much loathed up until the moment I built this deck and goldfished it, is actually an MVP, being able to tutor up multiple artifacts over the course of a game, thanks to Feldon. It’s best if you have a sac outlet handy, to prevent Exile-based removal from ruining your plans.

Alhammarret’s Archive makes your draw spells better, while Pyromancer’s Goggles or Dualcaster Mage can copy them. Dualcaster Mage and Wild Ricochet can lead to some late-game blowouts but during the early game they’re still fantastic when used to copy an opponent’s card draw or ramp spell.

Of course, Feldon himself is a form of card advantage, since his “reanimation” ability doesn’t actually put the real creature card into play, rather just makes a token facsimile of it. So you can use him to get basically unlimited rebuys on any ETBF trigger you might want, from Solemn Simulacrum to Spitebellows.  One of the problems of this deck, though, is having blockers. Since Feldon is best when used proactively/offensively, but the tokens he makes are short-lived, creatures that leave behind more lasting reminders of their brief existence are highly valuable – Wurmcoil Engine is the poster-wurm for this category – has considerable impact while it’s in play, and leaves behind some very useful tokens when it dies. If you need fodder to chump block flying threats, Pia and Kiran’s thopters can help.

I also want to talk a bit about this little trio of artifacts: Strionic Resonator, Rings of Brightheart and Illusionist’s Bracers. These guys have some amazing interactions that are a big part of what motivated me to build this deck. Obviously, Rings and Bracers let you double-up on Feldon’s activated ability, recurring two things a turn, instead of one. But the beauty is, they have triggered abilities themselves, so the Resonator can copy those triggers for even more fun. However, it’s usually best to use the Resonator instead to copy the ETBF or Dies triggers of whatever you’re brining back. Or, if you really want to get shit poppin’, try copying Blade of Selves’ myriad trigger!

So Strionic Resonator is an activated ability that copies triggered abilities, and Rings of Brighthearth has a triggered ability that copies activated abilities! This creates some interesting and slightly mind-bending feedback loops of copying copies that copy copies, but fortunately they both require mana to use and Resonator taps itself, so at least the way I have it built, they don’t go infinite. They probably can, but I have no idea how that’d work. For me it’s just about getting more and more value.

Bracers and Rings also work really well with a few other very important cards – Kiki-Jiki, Goblin Welder, and Bosh are all great targets for Bracers, while those guys plus Daretti, Trading Post and Sneak Attack are great at enabling Rings of Brighthearth. I can definitely see scenarios where you might even Rings a Myriad Landscape or Burnished Hart. As for Resonator… well this deck is just loaded with triggered abilities; too many to count.

Another thing I like about this deck is that I can run Gamble with very little fear. Typically, I foresee being perfectly happy if I wind up discarding the thing I tutored up. So far my most frequent targets for Gamble are either Faithless Looting or Hoarding Dragon. I’m sure there will come a day when I have to make a desperate Gamble for Scrap Mastery and then make a sad face when I immediately discard said Scrap Mastery, but overall, you’re likely to be in good shape regardless of what winds up getting pitched.

As for the deck’s weak points, we’ve already talked about how it doesn’t play the most robust defensive game. You can of course use Feldon’s ability in response to attacks and get emergency blockers, and you definitely should do that if you have no alternative. But this deck really wants to use its graveyard for offence, and rely more on spells in hand for defense. Obviously we’ve got a few gems in Blasphemous Act, Mizzium Mortars, Chaos Warp, and Volcanic Offering. FTK and Spitebellows also do good work here. So far, though, I feel like your best defense is a good offense – if someone starts getting a little bellicose, you can usually just pummel them relentlessly with your token copies, since they’re going to die anyway EOT. You don’t care so much about attacking profitably, you just want your opponents to have to make costly blocks. Eventually you’ll likely grind ‘em down and they won’t be able to put forth much aggression.

Failing that, there’s a touch of lifegain – Wurmcoil, again, is one of the all-stars of this deck, and Loxodon Warhammer is surprisingly good too.

An early Tuktuk is actually pretty good for fending off a few turns worth of attacks. And if you draw decently, you can always just hardcast something beefy and intimidating. Typically, if I hit six mana, I will almost always just cast Wurmcoil or Scuttling Doom Engine, given the option to do so.

The big bogeyman, though, for any graveyard-based deck, is always the Tormod’s Crypt effect. Crypt, Bojuka Bog, Nihil Spellbomb. Anafenza. REST IN PEACE. Oh, god, do we dread seeing Rest in Peace! That said, I’ve been up against a few Bojuka Bogs already and so far my opinion is that GY hate is definitely, absolutely something you should respect, but if you respect it, you don’t need to fear it. RIP is really about the only thing that truly just hoses us, because we basically only have Chaos Warp to answer it. I mean, we could get lucky and Wild Ricochet an opponent’s Disenchant or something, but realisitically, Rest in Peace means we are 100% on the “hardcast everything” plan, which honestly isn’t  a great spot for us.

That’s not to say it’s unwinnable, but it definitely puts us at a disadvantage, barring some lucky draws. But the most common forms of GY hate that I see are the one-shot effects like Bog and Crypt. Those hurt, but again, you just need to play around them and keep them in mind. I’ve successfully played through them more than once, so they’re not the end of the world.

Beyond that, I’m not yet sure what else this deck might fear. I don’t have to worry about the combo boogeyman in my meta, so maybe that’s a big one, I don’t know. I’d be pretty nervous going up against a really fast aggro deck like Rafiq, probably. I really just need more experience to know for sure.

As for potential changes or notable exclusions, I only have a few other cards that I really want to include. Warstorm Surge is one such card. While some people might consider it win-more, I heartily disagree. That said, I haven’t been able to find room for it, so I guess it’s not essential, but I feel removal-light and Surge can definitely double as both removal engine and win-condition. I’m also very close to cutting Ruby Medallion in favor of Mind Stone. Medallion doesn’t help much with casting Artifacts and I also like self-sacrificing artifacts for Scrap Mastery purposes. Going back to that removal thing, I actually had Incite Rebellion in the deck at one point, and reluctantly cut it for something, don’t remember what, but it was something critical.

I considered Sword of Light and Shadow as a way to rebuy dead guys if we get priced out of Feldon or something, but so far that seems too niche and unlikely to pay dividends. Meanwhile, I am missing a much bigger piece of tech in Sundial of the Infinite. Reason being, I just don’t own one, and haven’t felt the need to go find one. However it is a cute piece of tech and does help with that “no blockers” problem. If I just happen to stumble across one at an LGS or in trade binder, I’ll happily snatch it up, but again, I just don’t feel like I’m crippling the deck by not having it.

I tested Knollspine Dragon, but too often I found that I had no way to deal damage prior to reanimating him, so I was unable to get value of his draw ability reliably. So I swapped him out for Dragon Mage and have been happier with that. Finally, I looked at Kurkesh, Onnake Ancient for a good long while, but ultimately I just felt he was sorta “meh” since a lot of our key activated abilities are on non-artifact permanents.


Well, that’s about all I have for today. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Karlov, Ghostface Killa

Hello, everyone! Back with a new decklist. Things took a bit of an unexpected turn, since I was pretty sure I was on the Ayli plan for W/B but I just happened to come across a list posted by Nick Wolf on the PucaTrade website - LINK! – and for whatever reason Nick’s article just got me hyped about building a Karlov deck. Plus I have just run into a bit of a financial snag and while a foil Ayli is not particularly expensive, I just haven’t been able to swing it (and I refuse to settle for a non-foil, when the foil is actually quite reasonable. I’m being picky, I know).

Anyway, I looked at the list and read Nick’s write-up and just got inspired. I figured I’d give Uncle Ghosty a trial run until I could get my hands on an Ayli. Turns out Karlov is a lot more legit than I gave him credit for. Now, to be fair, I always did think he was very playable, I just didn’t find him INTERESTING – however, what I didn’t realize was that, built properly, this deck is a synergy machine. One of my biggest complaints about my own previous attempts at building Orzhov decks has been that they tend toward rando goodstuff and lack greatly in synergy and clear thematic lines of play.

This deck solves that problem SO HARD. Almost everything in the deck is a piece of a larger puzzle. There are still a handful of good stuff cards that just need to be there, but the key cards almost all work together. Everything either gains life, triggers off of gaining life, or lets us use our life total as a resource. Before we go any further, let’s just get that list up:

CREATURES

Karlov of the Ghost Council

Soul Warden
Soul's Attendant
Mother of Runes
Serra Ascendant
Suture Priest
Nyx-Fleece Ram
Auriok Champion
Wall of Reverence
Rhox Faithmender
Sunscorch Regent
Archangel of Thune
Sun Titan
Blood Artist
Vampire Nighthawk
Crypt Ghast
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Pontiff of Blight
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Tithe Drinker
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Divinity of Pride
Solemn Simulacrum
Wurmcoil Engine

SPELLS

Enlightened Tutor
Swords to Plowshares
Path to Exile
Steelshaper's Gift
Land Tax
Blind Obedience
Recumbent Bliss
Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Faith's Fetters
Cradle of Vitality
Return to Dust
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Demonic Tutor
Vampiric Rites
Phyrexian Arena
Necropotence
Whip of Erebos
Damnation
Exquisite Blood
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Gift of Orzhova
Mortify
Vindicate
Utter End
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
Merciless Eviction
Sol Ring
Skullclamp
Orzhov Signet
Scroll Rack
Pristine Talisman
Chalice of Life
Lightning Greaves
Umezawa's Jitte
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sword of War and Peace
Sword of Light and Shadow
Loxodon Warhammer
Well of Lost Dreams

LANDS

High Market
Vault of the Archangel
Shizo, Death's Storehouse
Godless Shrine
Blighted Steppe
Tainted Field
Marsh Flats
Kabira Crossroads
Scoured Barrens
Caves of Koilos
Opal Palace
Seraph Sanctuary
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Cabal Coffers
Radiant Fountain
Fetid Heath
Isolated Chapel
Command Tower
Homeward Path
Orzhov Basilica
Ghost Quarter
7 Plains
8 Swamp


It’s kinda tough to compare Ayli and Karlov, despite multiple similarities. Each has different strengths and lend toward different deckbuilding approaches.

Karlov’s advantages are:

• He hits harder and grows to ridiculous sizes quickly and effortlessly
• Doesn’t require sac fodder to use his removal ability
• Doesn’t require a minimum life total to use his removal ability

So, unlike Ayli he can still exile things even if you are at one life, and have no other creatures in play. However, Ayli has some of her own advantages:

• Deathtouch makes her a good rattlesnake despite small stats
• Can exile anything (except lands) making her removal more versatile
• Less stringent mana requirements to activate
• Is a sac outlet

It’s still hard to objectively call one better than the other, because they lend themselves toward differing archetypes. Both play in the same domain, but Karlov is a much more aggressive strategy, where your primary plan is to beat face quickly and relentlessly, using the lifegain and removal angles simply as a means to keep the path clear for your assault. Meanwhile, Ayli wants to play a longer, grindier control game. With Karlov, you don’t really care much about making tokens, or having lots of creatures, except insofar as you want to be triggering those Soul Wardens often, but with Ayli going wide is a MUST, because she’s usesless without plenty of sacrificial fodder to exploit.

But beyond these fairly obvious insights, I don’t have enough real experience with Ayli to go much more in-depth on her. So I’ll just stick to the actual deck we’re discussing – Karlov. One thing I like about this deck is that, while it is very much a “life gain” deck, it’s not the durdly kind where you just gain a huge amount of life and make everyone work extra hard to kill you. No, the life gain aspect is a critical component, but it’s a means to an end, not and end in itself. The end is, you get Karlov huge, murder everything that stands in his way, and relentlessly pummel your opponents. At least that’s what you hope will happen…

And so far it seems to be pretty effective at auctioning its stated goals. It can’t beat Titania in a head to head match up, and it can’t beat Ayli with a Sword of Light and Shadow plus Eight and a Half Tails backing her up. Against heavy control decks, it’s a toss-up. If they have a lot of cheap, fast removal, you’re probably in some real trouble, but if they have little early interaction and are hoping for a few turns to “set up” you stand a reasonable chance of racing them.

One thing I dislike about this deck is that, despite my efforts to bolster the card draw, it goes hellbent really, really easy due to the aggressive, low curve. This means it’s very easy to overextend into a Wrath and then be left with nothing. But, there are a couple of mitigating factors that make this less of a blowout than usual. First, Karlov is super-duper cheap and takes a few deaths before recasting him becomes problematic. Second, this deck does tend to have better topdecks, on average, due to the crazy high amount of synergy. Many decks would consider drawing a Soul’s Attendant past turn eight a dead draw, but that’s not necessarily the case here.

And while we can’t be assured of drawing into it every game, this is a great Necropotence vehicle, and having that in play pretty much means you never have to worry about draw again, so long as you have life to spend (which should basically never be an issue). But mostly we just have to rely on the heavy synergy of the deck to ensure that most of our topdecks are live draws. They might not be what you need – for instance when you’re staring down something holding a Sword of Light and Shadow, anything that isn’t an answer to that problem is probably not what you want – but it’s unlikely to be a total blank, either.

As for the list itself, I stayed very true to the formula of Nick’s list, but changed a few things up based on personal preference, and/or fixing a few of his (seeming) oversights.

Here are a few cuts:

Erebos, God of the Dead – since I’m not shying away from playing Necropotence, this felt like an inferior choice. But more importanty, I’m very skeptical that running a card that hoses lifegain in a lifegain deck. If Erebos were to be copied or stolen, it basically shuts off our entire deck. Seemed wise NOT to give our opponents an easy out to our own strategy.

Debt to the Deathless and Sanguine Bond – I dislike winning with X-spells, just because they tend to feel like they invalidate almost everything that happened up to that point – you can be having a nice, back-and-forth match that is quite fun, then suddenly, oops, I just top-decked Exsanguinate and now we have to stop playing because I win. I’m not trying to judge those who do play them, it’s just that in my experience winning off a big X-spell is really no more fun than losing to a big X-spell. Similarly, I don’t like the combo win of just casting two five-mana enchantments. Sure it’s a “fair” combo, and can be interacted with, but still boring to me.

Felidar Sovereign – I once put Win Cat in my Rafiq deck. The very first game I played with it in my deck, I won on Turn 5. Took it out after a few more games, and haven’t missed it once. More like Boring Cat.

Zuran Orb – Might be fine in strictly 1v1 play, but a terribly-risky all-in strategy for multiplayer. And if you just wanted to slow-roll it, sac’ing a land only every once in a while, why wouldn’t you just play something like Ajani’s Mantra? At any rate, just seems to be begging for the blow-out.

Batterskull – Too expensive. Never been a fan.

Whispersilk Cloak and Darksteel Plate – Both of these have their uses, but here they just kinda feel like noob cards. They don’t really directly serve our strategy, just help keep Karlov alive, is all. I think Greaves and Swords of Protection and Value do much, much better jobs.

Black Market – With no X-spell wins, what are we spending all that black mana on? Nothing much. Even with a single Debt to the Deathless in Nick’s list, I really don’t see what this card is supposed to do? Our curve is very, very low. The only other mana dump I see is if you have Pontiff of Blight and a bunch of creatures out.

Drana’s Emissary – Was really just a toss-up between this an Tithe Drinker. I went with the Drinker because I like the art slightly better, it’s one mana cheaper and can potentially provide more than one trigger per turn. Ultimately I’d happily run both, but couldn’t fit both.

Sorin, Solemn Visitor – I kept the Lord of Innistrad version because it’s generally better, but I can definitely see why you might run both. I’ve already considered swapping LOI out for this one, just to see which one is better more often.

Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath – Again, I kinda just picked the version that was more generically good, but I get why this version made sense. Like with Sorins, I could definitely see the argument for running both, or running this one over the Reignited incarnation.

Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim – The whole reason I built Karlov was because I don’t have an Ayli yet, so obviously this was a cut.

Coalition Relic and Orzhov Keyrune – This doesn’t strike me as a deck that really needs relic, and the Keyrune is just too expensive despite its synergy. Sol Ring and Orzhov Signet are both just better, IMO.

So, what did I add to replace these cuts? I already mentioned Necropotence, which is easily one of the best cards in the deck. I also already told you about Tithe Drinker, Orzhov Signet and Sol Ring.

Beyond that, I supplemented the mana and draw packages with some old favorites. I put in the lovely Scroll Rack + Land Tax engine. Both cards are pretty good on their own, but fantastic together. Threw in a Solemn Simulacrum too, because, well, he’s pretty good.

Added and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, because her +1 is great with Karlov and any soul warden variant, while her -3 is a great conditional sweeper. A lot of the times it’ll be far more devastating to your oppoents than to you.

Any white deck with 2 or 3 important echantments should have an Academy Rector, so she’s in.

Running Swords, but not Path makes no sense to me, so it’s in.

Recumbent Bliss is, possibly, a too-cute bit of tech, but I like it enough to give it a try. We’ll see. But it’s basically an Ajani’s Mantra attached to a Pacifism.

Threw in  Vampiric Rites, reasoning that it is a lifegain card and draws cards, and both are things we want to be doing. Similarly, Well of Lost Dreams is a “gimme” for any lifegain deck that seeks to improve its card-drawing capabilities.

Was very surprised not to see Auriok Champion and Rhox Faithmender in the original list, so I clearly had to add them in, but so far I’m not actually sure I need Faithmender. Having lifelink has only be a tiny bit relevant, and Karlov doesn’t actually care about how much life you gain, but rather how often you can gain it. So I’m pretty iffy on this guy, despite thinking he was a must-run. Auriok Champion, though, is definitely essential – almost any variant on Soul Warden can do some real work here.

The most egregious of all was the exclusion of Cradle of Vitality. It’s often been an underperformer in other lifegain-focused decks, but when our commander very specifically wants lots of counters placed on him, this just makes too much sense. Every time you gain life, Karlov puts counters on himself, but if you have some mana to spare he just gets even more counters. Combine with Serra Ascendant for maximum efficacy.

I think that’s about it for the changes. I might have overlooked one or two minor ones, as I am going partially off memory, but I definitely covered anything significant.

There are a few additional cards I’d really love to squeeze in somehow. Retreat to Hagra was actually supposed to remain from Nick’s list, but I couldn’t find my one copy and I wasn’t so in love with the card to begin with that I wanted to spend a lot of time digging for it. But it’s not terrible – I think the deathtouch trigger is likely to be nearly as relevant as the life gain option, but I don’t think this card is a critical component – just a “nice to have” if you have the room for it.

More important is Toxic Deluge. This is definitely a card I am positive I want, but all my copies are in decks. I’m pretty sure I have at least one deck that is running it “just because” and can live without it. As soon as I have time to examine my other decks and find out which one(s) have a superfluous Deluge, I’m yanking it out for Karlov. It can easily pay the life cost, and it should be fairly easy to time it so I can kill what needs killin’ but at the very least keep Karlov alive.

Some lists play more “Spirit Link” cards, such as Spirit Loop, etc. I can see the value in that – giving Karlov himself lifelink is sweet, but I prefer to rely mostly on Sword of Light and Shadow, Jitte and Gift of Orzhova for this. However I can support the idea of adding in a few more ways to lifelink him up. But black and white enchantments tend not to play well with Sword of Light and Shadow, so that’s something to be aware of.

Sadly, I haven’t played the deck quite enough to have any further insights. If I uncover anything drastic in the future, I’ll be sure to share it, but the deck seems extremely solid already, so I expect the future will more likely hold minor, incremental tweaks to shore up weak spots or address specific metagame concerns.