Aggression In Avacyn Restored

While he usually pilots control, 2011 Magic Online champion Reid Duke is excited about some aggressive cards in Avacyn Restored! Also, if you’re going to Birmingham this weekend, you might want to check out his updated Grixis Control for Standard.

I’m never excited about control during spoiler season.

This time four months ago, Tragic Slip was spoiled, and I remember my unenthusiastic thoughts about it. “Alright, this is a solid card, but it won’t end up changing the shell of my U/B deck in any noticeable way.”

Today, the same is probably true of Tamiyo, the Moon Sage, Restoration Angel, and Desolate Lighthouse; they’re likely to be nice additions to control in small numbers, but they won’t dramatically change the overall strategies of these decks.

By now, new Wrath of God variants don’t knock us out of our chairs, and almost nobody is calling their mom to tell her that Shimmering Grotto got reprinted.

I’ll tell you what I do get excited about, though: balls to the wall aggression! For me, it’s not so much Vexing Devil and Thunderbolt. Of course, to each their own, but we’ve seen cards like those before. I’m a fan of fresh, unique ways to kill my opponents; setting up boards they haven’t even dreamed of preparing for; making their traditional defenses look pathetic. I don’t want to squeak by the twenty damage mark. I want to bury them!

Silverblade Paladin

This card strikes me as incredible. Three mana for a 2/2 double striker is already excellent, regardless of the fact that we’ve been spoiled by Mirran Crusader. However, aside from formats where you specifically need the protection abilities, Silverblade Paladin is even better than Mirran Crusader! Not only does it pump up one of your other creatures in a powerful way, but it does so the very first turn it comes into play, making it feel in many ways like a haste creature. If White Weenie decks have a flaw, it’s how straightforward and predictable they are; mixing in a few creatures that don’t give a turn of notice before impacting the game has the potential to take the strategy to a new level.

One could argue that the soulbond mechanic in general is risky and swingy, but I don’t see it that way. Your opponent could block Silverblade Paladin with a 2/3 and Doom Blade the creature it’s soulbonded to and blow you out, but that strikes me as an unnatural fear. Before anyone starts down extreme lines of thinking, three-drop creatures do live often. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t play with them; they certainly wouldn’t make excellent use of Fiend Hunter and Leonin Relic-Warder. Those creatures need to survive indefinitely for their controllers to get full value out of them, and Silverblade Paladin only needs to survive through the combat step of the turn you cast it to punish your opponent in a big way.

Of all the combat tricks out there, Vapor Snag is the most threatening one, and it’s hardly worrisome. For starters, Vapor Snag decks do not play with 2/3 creatures, so the dreaded “Vapor Snag blowout” would typically only result in a trade, putting the blue player down a card and perhaps up a little bit on tempo. As with any other creature, Vapor Snag will often do nothing but buy a turn against a Silverblade Paladin, except that they have a narrower window in which to cast the Snag.

In my mind, the ability to bond with a second creature after the first one dies far outweighs the risk of losing soulbond in combat.

Silverblade Paladin in Standard

Unfortunately, I don’t know that Silverblade Paladin would perform to his full potential in any of the decks currently popular in Standard. The emphasis right now seems to be on weenie creatures, with Lingering Souls, Gather the Townsfolk, and Moorland Haunt being major players in the top creature strategies. He’s most at home in a deck full of creatures to pair with, so I don’t see him easily fitting with Delver of Secrets. He’s not even that exciting with Geist of Saint Traft, as they compete for a spot on the mana curve and would give no bonus to the recurring Angel token if they decided to soulbond.

As I mentioned, it’s the “haste” element of Silverblade Paladin that makes him most appealing and offers the most exciting nut-draws. Therefore, it’s good to think about the creatures that can come down before him and make good use of soulbond. Where Mirran Crusader is a great turn 2 play off of Birds of Paradise or Avacyn’s Pilgrim, Silverblade Paladin is not particularly interested in soulbonding with a mana dork (though double strike has such strong synergy with exalted that I’d consider making an exception for Noble Hierarch). Examples of more impressive one-drops to play alongside him would be Stromkirk Noble—though I don’t see the mana working out in current Standard—and Champion of the Parish.

Champion of the Parish is a natural partner for Silverblade Paladin for obvious reasons. The Paladin himself is a Human, both fit well in a deck full of white creatures and Honor of the Pure, and the Champion is likely to have grown fat and healthy by the time the Paladin is ready to bless him with double strike.

Silverblade Paladin also has a useful talent for making X/1 creatures playable. With so many 1/1 tokens flying around, Elite Vanguard will often do little more than trade with an opposing weenie. However, not only can double strike make him hit harder than a one-drop should be allowed to, it also makes him impossible to trade with. Vanguard is any easy choice to go in such a deck, but my hope is that the Paladin might also have what it takes to revive another powerful X/1 that may still have its day in the sun.

Accorder Paladin, if not for the problem of trading with Spirit tokens, is a remarkably powerful card. He can make for incredible draws with Silverblade Paladin; granting him double strike makes him hard to block and even harder to take hits from. What’s more, battle cry gets out of control fast when it begins to pump up multiple double strikers.

Consider this draw: turn 1 Champion of the Parish, turn 2 Accorder Paladin (a Human) and attack for two. Your opponent taps out for his Rampant Growth or similarly pathetic play. Turn 3 you play Silverblade Paladin (another Human), soulbond with the Champion, and attack for eleven. On turn 4, even with no follow-up, your attack is worth seventeen more damage as the battle cry pumps up both of your double strike creatures.

If Hero of Bladehold and Angel of Jubilation are comparable in power level, the Angel is the better fit for this deck. The anthem effect is very welcome, making your X/1s more difficult to trade with and immediately granting extra power to all of your double strikers. For anyone still worried about risky combat phases, the Angel takes away the opponent’s ability to cast Dismember.

Aside from those additions, I’ve offered a relatively straightforward Humans decklist. Mirran Crusader, while not an especially great combo with the Paladin, is similar enough that he’ll be excellent in any deck built to support him. Sword of War and Peace is incredible on a double strike creature, and it’s important to note that soulbond does not target so you can bond with your equipped creature on the turn you decide to drop your Paladin.

Adding one more powerful three-drop lessens the appeal of Geist of Saint Traft, but Gavony Township, like Honor of the Pure, Angel of Jubilation, and battle cry, is perfect for pumping up a board of multiple double strikers.

Silverblade Paladin in Modern

There are countless powerful creatures to soulbond with if you extend the search beyond the realm of Standard. Steppe Lynx is a natural fit and makes possible some obscene draws.

Zektar Shrine Expedition may seem flashy, but I think it’s too good with Silverblade Paladin to pass up. Trample goes well with double strike, and seven power happens to go well with double strike as well. One way or another the elemental token will die, so if by chance the game continues for another turn, you’re free to bond the Paladin to another creature afterwards.

I didn’t play much Modern towards the end of the PTQ season, but I have a burning desire to come out of retirement with a deck like this. The Tron strategy is simply too clunky and awkward to ever compete with a brutal, streamlined aggro deck like Boros, and that’s not even to mention Blood Moon off the sideboard.

Slayers’ Stronghold

Slayers’ Stronghold is also among the best cards spoiled so far in Avacyn Restored. Lands tend to turn out even better than they initially seem because you get their value completely free! As excited as I am about Silverblade Paladin, if he’d never been printed, you could replace him with Mirran Crusader or Geist of Saint Traft and they’d win you many of the same games that the Paladin would. However, Slayers’ Stronghold can replace a basic Mountain and give you an unbelievably powerful tool in a midgame situation.

The Stronghold is similar to equipment in the sense that it makes every creature you play a must-answer threat. The difference is that the haste aspect means your opponent must answer every creature you draw off the top immediately and at instant speed. Your turn 7 top-decked Silverchase Fox is no longer a lowly 2/2; now it’s a 4/2 that shoots your opponent for four the turn he enters the battlefield. Is anyone thinking what I’m thinking about double strike creatures?

Even in the early turns, where you might expect a land with an activated ability to be slow and cumbersome for an aggressive deck, Slayers’ Stronghold could surprise you. Sometimes it’s just the threat of a pump effect that does the real damage. Leave up the Stronghold with two mana and you’ll put your opponent to a tough decision; they may be unable to block (or unable to take the hit) simply because you have the option to pump up your creature. After you force them to make a suboptimal move, you’re still free to play your creature post-combat.

Yes, I’m very excited about Slayers’ Stronghold; I just wish enemy color mana was better in Standard as I’m a big fan of W/R beatdown. While we’re on the topic of Modern, though, I’m also a big fan of giving my Knight of the Reliquary vigilance. You can declare her as an attacker and then search up a Sejiri Steppe to make her unblockable, protect her in combat, or save her from a removal spell. Even if that doesn’t come up, you still get to have your cake and eat it too, getting both an attack and a search for value. Naturally, Knight can search for Slayers’ Stronghold, so you need not devote more than one slot to it unless you want to.

Zealous Conscripts

Finally, we get to my absolute favorite card from Avacyn Restored so far. Threaten effects are becoming an increasingly important part of red beatdown decks, as Wizards seems to be pushing the envelope in terms of both the Threatens themselves and the anti-red fatties like Wurmcoil Engine, Batterskull, and Inferno Titan. Zealous Conscripts may be the first truly maindeckable one.

Even when you’re not taking something insane, Conscripts is a very nice curve topper. Let’s say you simply take a Spirit token; you get four damage off the bat, a relevant body, and you take away the chump blocker that your opponent was counting on. Then of course, there are the times you get to take something insane…

In a deck that also contains Hero of Oxid Ridge, how can your opponent ever feel safe?

I already loved this card the first time I saw it, but it was only after going back to reread it that I realized it can take any permanent! A sword of War and Peace in a lategame situation? How about an opposing planeswalker? Stealing a Koth, Elspeth, Gideon, or any of a dozen other planeswalkers is likely to end the game immediately. You can steal a Garruk Relentless and suicide it against a 4/4 or trade it with one of their other creatures. What about an opponent who patiently ticks their walker up to ultimate, only to get blown out beyond blown out?

“My Liliana of the Veil is up to six, Reid, that one card you’ve been saving had better be pretty good…”

I’ve been trying to think up reasonable ways to sacrifice my own permanents to go with Zealous Conscripts. Alongside a sacrifice outlet, Zealous Conscripts is a 3/3 haste Nekrataal that deals extra damage from the Threaten effect and gives you value from your sacrifice outlet of choice! Fling and Mortarpod are most likely too expensive for everyday situations, but Birthing Pod would certainly work. Conveniently from a deck construction standpoint, the Pod allows you to search for the Conscripts, so you would have the option to just play one copy as a value creature.

Bonus Section: Grixis Decklist

At long last, I feel satisfied that I’ve found a good list of Pristine Talisman Control for the final days of Pre-Avacyn Standard.

I played this list (one land different) to a 6-3 finish in last Sunday’s online PTQ. I felt like on any given day I could’ve picked up the extra win or two I needed to make the Top 8 with this decklist.

Record by archetype:

Delver: 1-0
G/R Aggro/Aggro Birthing Pod: 2-1
Mono Red: 1-0
W/R/B Metalcraft: 1-0
Esper Control: 1-2

I really like the G/R Aggro matchup, as cheap sweepers, Ancient Grudge, and life gain takes away most of their aggressive potential. When all else fails, a quick Titan or Consecrated Sphinx is also likely to trump whatever they have going. The two matches I won were easy, and the match I lost was very close

Esper Control is not favorable, but its close and skill intensive, so again, on a good day a careful Grixis pilot could do a lot better than 1-2. I also would not expect to play the matchup three times on an average day. The hot new control list is Sun Titan Esper with very little permission, so I’ve found the second Karn in the sideboard to be the best trump card for the pseudo mirror. I restarted the game with Karn three times over the course of the PTQ, and there were several other games where my opponent simply conceded before I was able to.

A quick note about the mana base is that my particular sideboard preferences have put a significant strain on the blue mana. If you elect to cut Volition Reins from the sideboard, I would recommend swapping one Sulfur Falls for one Dragonskull Summit.

As eager as I am for Avacyn Restored’s release, I’m looking forward to playing this Grixis list in as many online PTQs as I can before the rotation!