Arcane Teachings – Unreasonable Deck Construction and Shadowmoor Standard

Read Tom LaPille every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, April 8th – In the realm of innovative deckbuilding, it seems that we can be held back by our preconceived notions of what should and should not be played. Today, Tom attempts to cure us of this creative malaise, offering a few choice tips to help us break free of such constrictions. If you’re looking to build the next metagame-warping deck, this is the article for you!

There are often reasons to not do things in Magic deck construction. Some of them even sound like pretty good reasons. For example, try on some of these: you can’t play an aggressive deck with heavy mana commitments in four colors because the mana won’t work; you can’t play a Dragonstorm deck without card selection because it’ll be too inconsistent. Of course, there were people out there who ignored those reasons and tried to do those things anyway, and they worked. Deliberately ignoring reasons why something might not work and separating what is possible from what is good will allow you to clearly see everything that is possible. This has always been true, but it will be especially true as we move into Shadowmoor thanks to an influx of hybrid cards and the impressive mana fixing that Standard has to offer.

The end of the Extended season that began with Pro Tour: Los Angeles in the fall of 2005 was marked by the first rise of dredge decks. This began when StarCityGames.com own John Rizzo wrote behemoth articles about a pet deck based around Ichorid, a pet card, and the dredge mechanic. One of them is here. Wizards employee Paul Sottosanti took that deck to Worlds and randomly played it for fun against Osyp Lebedowicz, who tuned the concept, played it in a Grand Prix Trial, and then had his attempts to hide the deck from the world thwarted by Brian David-Marshall. Then lists developed by the CMU-Togit amalgamation and Gerry Thompson demolished Grand Prix: Charlotte, the last event of that season.

The obvious question here is why of all people John Rizzo served as the genesis of such a tournament-dominating deck. I don’t mean to denigrate John here; instead, this is a question about everyone who ostensibly was invested in winning at Magic, working on Extended, and didn’t figure it out — that is, everyone other than Rizzo. Why did we not see it?

I can’t speak for the world, but I can speak for the mailing list that I worked with for Pro Tour: Los Angeles. New England Vintage master Richard Shay was the first person on our list to recognize the potential of the dredge mechanic, and he immediately built a deck with Life From the Loam, Wild Mongrel, Zombie Infestation, and Psychatog that we started working on. Various factions on the list had differing opinions about what to do with the idea. Some people thought it had potential and encouraged Rich to keep going; others, including me, got scared that it was just some kind of trick deck that would be inconsistent. I didn’t really fight against the deck’s development, but I tacitly assumed that it wouldn’t work and it eventually died. And to be honest, it did look weird and it was just a goofy trick deck, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have been celebrating its weirdness and trickiness by asking how we could play even more out of our graveyard. Our mistake was to collapse what was possible and what was good. I assumed that moving further in the direction of a graveyard deck wasn’t good, and that meant that getting more extreme wasn’t possible.

What I think is really fascinating about the whole Ichorid process is how Rizzo started out very unreasonable, but then got reasonable and the deck stopped moving. He was unreasonable enough to build a deck that dredged Ichorids, but once he got past that he started to be reasonable. Perhaps my favorite moment in the behemoth article I linked to previously was the e-mail conversation between Max McCall to Rizzo, which is a fascinating interaction with the benefit of hindsight. Rizzo’s list of the deck has only two Putrid Imps and a single Cephalid Coliseum. Max calls attention to the single Cephalid Coliseum, but Rizzo says that that adding more would give him too many painlands. Max also suggests moving to four Cabal Therapies… because you want to draw them a lot. Rizzo counters that perhaps he should play four because he wants to essentially play out of his graveyard. Max suggests Wonder, Brawn, or Filth to make sure Psychatog gets in for lethal, but Rizzo states that mostly it’s Ichorids and Zombies that do the dirty work.

The first thing to note here is that Max and John did some really wonderful work on this deck here, and it’s incredibly unfair to fault them for not seeing the big picture. The English may have been the first on the dredge train at the Pro Tour in Los Angeles, but after that the deck kind of died off and Rizzo may have been literally the only competitive Magic player even moving in this direction, and it’s heroic that he got as far he did. Putting Ichorids, Zombie Infestations, and Putrid Imps in a dredge deck was an enormous leap; the problem is that he started getting reasonable after that. It’s true that the deck wanted to dredge as quickly as possible, but Putrid Imp kind of sucks in a vacuum so he only played two. John’s one Cephalid Coliseum was awesome when he found it with Life From the Loam and dredging, but more than that would have been too much pain. Wonder would have been nice to get Psychatogs through, but Ichorids and Zombie Infestation tokens were enough to win alone a lot of the time, so there was no need for Wonder.

The trap that ensnared our intrepid dredge pioneers here was to start judging ideas before they knew the extent of what was possible. In this case, the floodgates of awesomeness started opening for the Ichorid deck when players realized that the deck wants to dredge as fast as possible and play out of the graveyard as much as possible. Knowing that you want to dredge as fast as possible leads to maxing out on Tolarian Winds, Putrid Imps, Chrome Moxes, and Cephalid Coliseums. Knowing that you want to play out of the graveyard leads to playing Wonder. Rizzo got incredibly far due to his willingness to be original, but it took someone else to step in to rescue the deck from being too reasonable. By the time the season’s last Grand Prix rolled around, the combined efforts of Rizzo, Osyp and the other CMU players, and Gerry Thompson created this monster that Mike Krumb and I were fortunate enough to hitch our wagons to.

4 Putrid Imp
4 Psychatog
4 Ichorid
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
2 Wonder
4 Zombie Infestation
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Deep Analysis
4 Tolarian Winds
4 Polluted Delta
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Cephalid Coliseum
4 Watery Grave
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Swamp
4 Chrome Mox
4 Firemane Angel
4 Moment’s Peace
4 Coffin Purge
2 Ray of Revelation
1 Krosan Reclamation

This deck knows what it wants, and it wants to flip itself over and then kill you. The cards in it may look ugly, but they are all maximized to either flip the deck over or kill you after doing this. Gerry went so far with this that every card in the sideboard works out of the graveyard. Whether or not this is correct, there is a certain elegance to that and it’s a great example of how attacking the edge of what is possible without an eye for judgment can lead to the discovery of some truly awesome things.

I should pause here to say a few words relating this to my last article. My goal in that article was to emphasize that playing “good cards” that have synergy is a lot more exciting than playing “bad cards” that have similar synergy. Bitterblossom and Sower of Temptation synergize just as well with Scion of Oona as Cloud Sprite and Nightshade Stinger, but the previous two cards will do better work for you when they show up without a Scion than the latter two will. Sometimes you can’t upgrade while maintaining synergy, though, and that’s fine. I’m completely aware that Putrid Imp looks embarrassing on its own, but it’s not like there’s a better card out there that lets someone discard cards repeatedly starting on turn 1 so you’re still going to play it. If there were a better card, you wouldn’t. I get frustrated when I see people playing Tideshaper Mystics in a merfolk deck in the current world because there are better merfolk cards out there that still maintain the deck’s synergy. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have said anything.

Shadowmoor will give us many new possibilities in Standard, and therefore it will offer us its own version of the reason trap. The set is designed to be a hybrid block, and according to Orb of Insight its hybrid cards are all in allied color combinations. Mark Rosewater and Devin Low have both written on the official site that hybrid encourages players to play two colors, and that is perhaps true. Someone who was casually building a deck to just have fun with and was using a bunch of Shadowmoor cards would be likely to just rock two colors because that is the path that is there. It’s obvious, easy, and will give a player good mana without too much thought.

The trap is that nowhere in Shadowmoor or in the hybrid mana mechanic does it say that you have to play two colors. Some hybrid cards will actually force this by having tons of hybrid mana symbols in the casting cost or by having color-keyed activated abilities like Ravnica’s guildmages, but that won’t include all of them. Occasionally in the past hybrid mana costs have allowed cards to show up in very strange places. I would guess that when most players saw Giant Solifuge for the first time the last place they expected to have it show up would be in the sideboard of a Blue control deck, but that (admittedly much-discussed innovation) helped take Osyp Lebedowicz to the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Honolulu. Savvy tournament deckbuilders will have opportunities to get edges by putting strange-looking cards into their decks thanks to the hybrid mechanic.

Here’s the really exciting part. The entire Ravnica block had thirty hybrid cards total. Shadowmoor has a staggering one hundred and thirty multicolor hybrid cards. Many of Ravnica’s hybrid rares were things like Dovescape, Biomantic Mastery, and Master Warcraft that were designed to be quirky, fun, and splashy, but not necessarily powerful, with actual gold cards getting most of the power in Ravnica block. Shadowmoor won’t be able to use this as an excuse to keep power away from hybrid cards, so there will be plenty of fun and powerful hybrid cards out there to leverage and no one out here knows what is possible.

You might argue that this time will be less interesting in terms of the hybrid possibilities because of how strong Ravnica’s mana fixers were, and you would almost have a point. Ravnica’s dual lands are probably stronger in the abstract than many of the options we have today. However, that cycle actually did encourage two-color play through its uniformity. In the early Ravnica era, a three-color deck only had access to dual lands, painlands, and bouncelands for mana fixing. These are all fine lands, but they also impose some serious restrictions. Speaking generally, playing more than six or so Ravnica dual lands meant that you were taking two damage a lot of the time, playing more than two or three bouncelands meant that you would be slowed down by your mana an unacceptable amount, and more than four or so painlands started to cost you a lot of life. You might argue the numbers here up and down a little bit and that’s fine, but the nature of the constraint doesn’t change. Too many members of one of these cycles costs you life or speed, so you couldn’t really go that crazy with your colors.

The nonbasic lands that we have access to now are much more diverse in drawback. The painlands are still around with a similar life constraint, but that’s where the similarities end. The tribal dual lands help out decks that are prepared to commit to playing many cards of one tribe, which may or may not help you. Then we have the rare lands from Future Sight. These lands are just great because they serve as a nonbasic land cycle without imposing on each others’ space in deckbuilding. You may not want to play four Sulfurous Springs alongside four Underground Rivers, but you’ll be fine with full sets of both River of Tears and Graven Cairns in one deck because they don’t impose conflicting deckbuilding limitations on you. There are even good options for rainbow lands in the form of Vivid lands and Gemstone Mine. Shadowmoor will further complicate things by filling out the cycle of Graven Cairns-like lands, and Reflecting Pool is also rumored to be a part of Shadowmoor.

Once again, you could use all of these lands to be reasonable. Just imagine how amazing your Faerie manabase could be now. Between Mutavault, Faerie Conclave, Underground River, Sunken Ruins, River of Tears, and Secluded Glen, you could even get away without playing a single basic land and still have a great manabase. This manabase may keep you from playing Ancestral Vision, which is a sacrifice I wouldn’t want to make, but that’s still an impressive array of lands in two colors. Similarly awesome manabases now exist for any deck you want to build using a pair of allied colors, and that’s exciting. We can finally get Gaddock Teeg into a kithkin deck thanks to having twelve good Green-White duals, and Tarmogoyf will likely return to little Red attack decks after the Green-Red version of Graven Cairns teams up with Karplusan Forest.

The real opportunities, however, are in the realm of the unreasonable. Check out the manabase from Chapin’s deck from yesterday, excluding Dakmor Salvage which will hopefully never serve as an actual land:

3 Gemstone Mine
2 Brushland
1 Fire Canopy
1 Mistmeadow Fields
4 Vivid Meadow
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Reflecting Pool

This mana is wild at first glance. There’s not a single basic land here, and seventeen of the lands have straight drawbacks. We can get away with this, however, because the drawbacks hardly overlap. Horizon Canopy and Brushland are straight painlands, but there are only six of those. Vivid Meadow comes into play tapped, but it’s the only one that does. Grove of the Burnwillows gains his opponent life, but that’s no big deal if there are only four lands that do and that hardly matters for an infinite combination deck. Gemstone Mine might die, but there are only three of them. Reflecting Pool is also unreal for Patrick, since with a Gemstone Mine or Vivid Grove out it will serve as a costless rainbow land. A deck that truly utilizes this manabase would never work if its lands all had the same drawback, but because of the diversity this will be just fine.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons that someone might have given up on building that deck. Cards that cost RRR and 2 U/W U/W in the same turn 4 or 5 combination deck? A three-piece combination deck where the available tutors each only search up one piece of the combination? These are pretty strange things, but stopping because of them would have kept Patrick from seeing what was possible.

Only a little under a third of Shadowmoor has been spoiled so far, so there are plenty more hybrid cards to discover. When — not if — you sense that there’s an opportunity for something cool to be built with a hybrid card in an unexpected context, take it all the way and see where it goes. The lands you need to cast almost any combination of cards are out there, so go nuts and maybe you’ll win a Pro Tour, or at least have something to do with the deck that does.

Of course, as always this won’t just be important in terms of mana costs. Flores talked about this deck on Friday:

This was originally played at French regionals, but Tim McKenna cut the Siege-Gang Commanders and the Urza’s Factory for four Bitterblossoms, which are obviously great with Nantuko Husk, Grave Pact, and Greater Gargadon. Can we go further? One thing you could do is imitate Antonino De Rosa from last year’s United States Nationals and get in some Threatens and Fatal Frenzies, which play great with Gargadon and Husk. It’s clear that the deck can build on its own synergies further. Whether or not it should is a different question, but separating what is possible and what is good will allow you to see both more clearly.

Tom LaPille