A Darker Valkyrie: The Impact of Coldsnap on B/W and U/W

It’s cold in here! Either my thermostat’s broken or Coldsnap just became Standard legal. In other news, terrible jokes have been put on a moratorium for the rest of the article.

It’s cold in here! Either my thermostat’s broken or Coldsnap just became Standard legal. In other news, terrible jokes have been put on a moratorium for the rest of the article.

This week, Coldsnap launches into modern format history as the first expansion created outside of the block system to become legal in Standard play. This is both an opportunity as well as a challenge to Constructed players, and it poses a quandary we don’t usually have to face when a new set is released.

No, Coldsnap isn’t just like any other set, and the Constructed player is going to have to face that whether he recognizes that or not. The themes of Coldsnap are self-contained into 155 cards that will have no follow-up in the foreseeable future. The biggest impact I see this happening is that there (presumably) won’t be any more snow cards printed for some time; we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

This means that Coldsnap’s snow theme, as well, perhaps, as its allied-color theme, will have to muscle their way into Constructed decks, perhaps unnaturally. I’m not happy to say it, but I don’t see the themes of Coldsnap making much of an impact on Constructed play because of all the competing themes that Time Spiral will introduce shortly.

Nevertheless, I could certainly be wrong! Some of Coldsnap’s intentions are too bold to ignore, and I think it’s at least worth examining the role of Coldsnap in Constructed to see whether some other cards need to make room for these chilly cousins.

The best place to begin such an exploration is with what you know. Last week, I wrote about my semi-finals finish in the StarCityGames Amateur Championship with a deck I called Granddaddy Ghost Council. For review, the deck I played was:

I haven’t had much experience playing with Ghost Husk or B/W control, but I’ve played a significant number of games against a wide variety of decks with the B/W deck you see above. So it is here that I’ll begin my examination of Coldsnap’s place in Standard. I can’t comment on “the new B/W” but just on how Coldsnap might influence this deck, if at all.

There are about a dozen cards that qualify for consideration in Granddaddy Ghost Council, though certainly not all of them will make the cut. We’ll take a look at those cards and see where they lead us.

Adarkar Valkyrie

The first card that came to mind when considering Coldsnap was the new and improved Serra Angel. I can’t wait to cast this huge monster against an opponent, but I’m not sure if Granddaddy Ghost Council will be the debut deck for it. Nevertheless, it is a strong contender.

To fit in the Valkyrie, I feel I’d have to pull the Ghost Council or risk making the deck too top-heavy, so the question is whether the advantages of the Valkyrie outweigh the Council enough to justify those extra two mana. The Valkyrie doesn’t attack for any more damage, and though it has vigilance, the Ghost Council has its own sort of vigilance in its “phasing” ability. Plus, the Ghost Council ends up being able to deal more damage because of its comes-into-play abilities. In pairs, the Valkyrie is better than Ghost Council because they can both be cast and they protect each other, but that’s the only situation in which the Valkyrie is able to protect itself from Wrath, Mortify, and other removal. Also, being legendary makes the Ghost Council targetable by Shizo and Eiganjo Castle. However, flying is important and strong and certainly gives the Valkyrie an advantage.

As for cost, if you consider the Council as costing five (four for the mana cost and one to protect it), then the Valkyrie takes only one more turn to cast. Additionally, in a snow-flavored deck, the Valkyrie might have an advantage over the Ghost Council because of its synergy with Scrying Sheets (which I will discuss below). So, the question of Valkyrie versus Ghost Council is a tough one to answer… but my infatuation with the Ghost Council after seeing its stellar performance at the tournament leads me to believe that it deserves to stay in the deck. Still, I’m open to the possibility that the Granddaddy’s ready for retirement.

Field Marshal, Surging Sentinels

The reason that I noticed these cards at all was because Descendant of Kiyomaro is a soldier and thus would become bigger with Field Marshal in play. Surging Sentinels is the only other soldier in Coldsnap worth considering, but when put up against the otherwise unremarkable (yet still superior) Nightguard Patrol, it’s easy to decide that there’s no room for the ripplers in this deck. A look at the other soldiers in Standard is likewise disappointing, so Field Marshal’s inclusion would have to be solely for Descendant of Kiyomaro’s benefit. That tie is not nearly strong enough to pull out Shrieking Grotesque or Paladin En-Vec, so we can easily pass these creatures by.

White Shield Crusader, Stromgald Crusader

Too bad these fellows aren’t soldiers. Still, they’re worthy of consideration for the deck. As I feel comfortable with the number of creatures in the deck, including one or both of these Crusaders would require taking out some combination of:

4 Dark Confidant
4 Ravenous Rats
3 Shrieking Grotesque
3 Paladin en-Vec
3 Descendent of Kiyomaro

My inclination would be to consider removing Dark Confidant and/or Paladin En-Vec for Stromgald and/or White Shield Crusader. Obviously, both Crusaders have potentially better evasion than these two groundpounders. The original creatures have advantages that the Crusaders don’t, but does muscle win out over their special abilities? Late game, I might well prefer to have White Shield Crusader over Paladin and almost certainly Stromgald Crusader over Dark Confidant. However, the pro-Red side of Paladin is definitely significant, as the Paladin is effectively safe from approximately 2/5 of Magic cards. In the end, I’d say that the mana commitment required to make the Crusaders work just doesn’t cut it in this deck. I think the Crusaders are great, especially for mono-colored beatdown decks, but in terms of being early, effective beats, the deck already has what it needs – and the late game should be locked in by Ghost Council anyway. Extra “flyers” would be nice, but it just doesn’t seem worth it.

Surging Dementia

This spell, of course, deserves a look, and the natural spot to fit it in would be over Ravenous Rats or Castigate. However, the only reason to include Surging Dementia (as this deck has no problem with the BW cost of Castigate) would be if it were at all likely to score a ripple-casting. On turn 2, there’s a 21.74% chance of hitting another Surging Dementia – if you do, there’s a 16.13% chance of netting a third. (Thanks to Amanda McDermott, my probability consultant). The yield here doesn’t outweigh the Rats’ body or Castigate’s allowance for you to pick the card, but those percentages are higher than I expected, so there may just be something to Ripple in Constructed after all.

Mishra’s Bauble

Here’s another card that deserves a thought. This more-or-less lets you run 56 cards in the deck. But honestly, I’d rather have the extra business cards, especially as Mortify is the only instant I’d be able to nab off the slowtrip draw.

Sunscour and Soul Spike

Both these cards are solid, but I never have a problem casting Wrath of God, and Mortify is certainly better than Soul Spike. I suppose there’s an argument to be had that extra Ghost Councils and redundant discard can be dropped to Soul Spike for significant life swings (perhaps keeping Mortify and removing instead Descendant of Kiyomaro for the Spike), but I’m not buying it. So long as Stasis isn’t in Standard, these cards are staying out of my Ghost Council deck.

Phyrexian Etchings

This card is a natural consideration for replacing Phyrexian Arena and is worth devoting some time to. Whereas Arena is like Chinese water torture, dripping steadily every turn, the Etchings is more of a wind-up-and-swing kind of card, building momentum and riding it to victory. At least, you’d better achieve victory because when Etchings is working hard for you, you don’t want it to hit the graveyard. The Arena is steady and dependable, but the Etchings can net you a lot more cards if you’re willing to invest the mana (which, on turns 6 and beyond, you honestly have a decent chance to spare).

When I compared these cards, I had to think of them on a turn-by-turn basis, so let’s do that here as well. Assuming for simplicity that I’d never draw a clutch Mortify off an Etchings (which isn’t necessarily true but is good enough for now), we can say that the cards drawn from Etchings come a turn “later” than those from Arena since they don’t enter my hand until the end of the turn. So from Phyrexian Etchings, you’ll net a total of:

Turn 1 (after casting): 0 cards
Turn 2: 1 card
Turn 3: 3 cards
Turn 4: 6 cards
Turn 5: 10 cards
Turn 6: 15 cards
Turn 7: 21 cards

This compares to Arena’s Turn 1 = 1 card, Turn 2 = 2 cards, etc. Now, in terms of life-loss, if Phyrexian Etchings is destroyed at any time before the end step of the fifth turn after casting, you’ll have lost more life per card than you would have for Phyrexian Arena. That’s four turns for your opponent’s Kami of Ancient Law to hit you for a lot more than two. However, you’ll have drawn more during those intermediate turns (turns 3 and 4) than you would have with the Arena. After turn 5, the life-to-cards ratio is in your favor, though when you start thinking about losing 12, 14, 16… life at once, you start also getting very nervous. The key is to use that huge amount of card advantage to seal the game before the Etchings is destroyed (or you can no longer pay the upkeep).

So, to answer the question of whether we should include the Etchings, we have to determine if we can use the card advantage to win the game. The obvious catch with the Etchings is that you have to invest more and more mana into it, virtually halting your mana progression. So, if I play my Etchings on turn 6, I’m stuck with six mana for all the cards I’m drawing for the rest of the game, and that’s assuming that I’m laying a land every turn. In this deck, with the highest converted casting cost being four, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s possible to utilize many of the extra cards with only six lands available, but this means that we have to wait until at least turn 6 before casting our Etchings (which won’t start making a difference until turn 8). With those six lands, then, we can hopefully go all the way for the win.

However, perhaps instead of simply hoping to win before the Etchings is destroyed, we can consider something akin to a “critical turn.” That is, maybe the best play is to let the card build up to six or seven age counters, take the significant burn while (and if) you can still survive it, and hope that the 10 or 15 cards you drew will win you the game. My guess is that Phyrexian Etchings is not worth including, but if one single card deserves testing in this deck, I think that the Etchings is it.

Snow-Covered Plains, Snow-Covered Swamp, Scrying Sheets

Earlier, I mentioned the possibility of giving the deck a “snow flavor” in order to take advantage of Scrying Sheets. In order to do this, I feel that Eiganjo Castle and Shizo, Death’s Storehouse would have to make way for the Sheets, and the Basilicas would probably have to go. With lowered colored mana availability, Ghost Council of Orzhova might become more difficult to cast, so perhaps the switch to Adarkar Valkyrie would be better (especially with Scrying Sheets). If we’re slowing down for Scrying Sheets and Valkyrie and adding more card draw as a result, perhaps it’s worth losing Dark Confidant for White Shield Crusader. With the new emphasis on White, I don’t think Phyrexian Etchings will quite work out, but I still think it’s worth a try in a non-snow version. So, without any testing at all, I present the snow-version of the deck I brought to the Amateur Challenge:

This deck will play a bit differently than Granddaddy Ghost Council. For one thing, Ravenous Rats can no longer serve double-duty as Ghost Council food, so you can chump block with them much more freely. Of course, chumping with the Rats while the Valkyrie is on the table is certainly not a bad bargain. The same goes for Shrieking Grotesque. Even if you can’t save the Grotesque with the Valkyrie, White Shield Crusader ought to be able to clean things up from the air in the late game. There are nineteen snow cards, almost 1/3 of the deck, so you have about as much a chance of drawing a card off Scrying Sheets as you would have had of hitting a land with Dark Confidant.

This deck might have a chance, but my gut tells me that the original version of the deck is better; it’s tighter, it has a better ability to play its spells, and it’s much more synergistic.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we give up on snow; at least, not yet. As far as I’m concerned the main problem with this deck is right here:

4 Caves of Koilos
4 Godless Shrine

Coldsnap has a theme of allied-color cooperation, and Black and White usually don’t play nice together. As such, there’s no comes-into-play tapped snow land for B/W. There’s not room for Coldsteel Heart in this deck to pick up the slack, so we’re left with our regular suspects for getting B/W mana. Thus, B/W doesn’t seem to be the home for snow.

However, Adarkar Valkyrie is still an amazing card, and I very much want to use it. At heart, I am and always have been a U/W Control player. I was fairly disappointed with the Azorius Guild, as the guild of control was based on little creatures running around, making it difficult for you to play Wrath of God. I’m so enamored with Adarkar Valkyrie and Scrying Sheets that I’m dying to try U/W Control in the new environment. What can we come up with?

We begin by asking ourselves “What makes U/W Control work?” On a basic level, U/W Control seeks to keep all of the opponent’s threats in check until your win condition is ready to come down and take the game quickly. This is often done with counters, mass removal like Wrath of God, and big finishers (ideally some kind of angel). Card draw is also very helpful, as it’s important to keep as many answers in hand as my opponent has threats. We’ve left the glory days of Counterspell and Dismiss long behind, but that doesn’t mean that counterspells are a thing of the past. On the contrary, this counter-heavy deck might have enough steam to hold off even heavy hitters like Zoo:

This sideboard is very preliminary and includes Flashfreeze, which, depending on the environments of the future, could prove to be a U/x Control sideboard staple.

Aside from the unimpressive ‘board, though, some card choices remain to be discussed. First is Rune Snag, which I like quite a lot. I played Miscalculation back in its day… and I played it as a “real” counterspell instead of as a card-drawer that also might be able to counter. Rune Snag is obviously comparable to Mana Leak, which would normally land this spot, but I think that the Snag might be superior. Ideally, the Snag or the Leak serves as an early-game hard counter and then tries to catch the opponent off guard in later portions of the game. The second through fourth copies of Rune Snag, though, are better by default than Mana Leak (unless your opponent is also packing them). As the game progresses and you cast more Rune Snags, each copy you draw becomes more effective. I’ve played games where I’ve had to hold two Mana Leaks as a “single” counter – but that can be accomplished by one late-game Rune Snag. In a deck where the game is going to last a long time, the Snag definitely gets my vote.

Thoughtbind is another interesting choice that I’m hoping to try out, as pretty much everything except X-spells and dragons gets caught by it. I’ve not had the opportunity to play with it yet, but I imagine that the most satisfying target for Thoughtbind is Loxodon Hierarch. Elephants really aren’t as smart as they think they are.

Commandeer is included as a clutch “counter” that also gets Demonfire. It may not prove to be as strong as I hope, but I’d like to give the new and much unimproved Force of Will a chance.

What’s missing? Tidings, Compulsive Research, or other simple card-drawing spells. The hope is that, with half the deck being snow, the Scrying Sheets will be effective card-drawers, as of course will be the Repeals and Remands. Also, I didn’t find room for Spell Snare, though this is an excellent card that makes being on the draw a much less difficult position to be in.

This deck could have problems with a deck like Snakes that has lots of creatures with some permission backup. Though Adarkar Valkyrie will hopefully rule the board when she hits play, the lack of life-gain in the deck makes it hard to recover from early beats. So, if the Azorius were to have their way, we might rather look at something like this:

This much more beatdown-focused deck uses utility creatures like Squall Drifter to stall the game, while Azorius Herald and Frost Raptor sneak in for quick damage with Mama Valkyrie watching out for all her kids and patrolling the skies herself. Again, Scrying Sheets is intended to net extra cards with a whopping 38 snow cards in the deck.

I admit that I haven’t played any games with any of these decks, but I offer them as examples of the impact I see snow having on Standard. As I mentioned earlier, Coldsnap will have to hold its own amidst the themes of its fellow sets, so decks that utilize its special abilities, especially snow, have to be almost entirely devoted to them. Perhaps Coldsnap isn’t an Urza’s Destiny of powerhouses, but at the very least, it’s a flavorful, fun set that will help build some very cool decks. In time we’ll be able to determine Coldsnap’s lasting effect on the environment, but only tinkering like the ideas presented above can eventually yield the elusive “optimal build” that many players are looking for.

Meantime, I’m hoping that U/W Control will emerge from the depths of history and storm the tournament scene again. If anyone can help, it’s Adarkar Valkyrie. After all, She doesn’t escort the dead to the afterlife, but instead raises them to fight and die again.

Daniel Crane
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