I got an email last week that wasn’t particularly striking in any way, but nevertheless finally pushed me fully into a resolution: I should respond more often to reader email, in a public way.
I get emails all the time asking me about this card and that, this deck and that, and so on… but I’ve never felt that comfortable relaying the answer in front of everyone else. Beyond any privacy issues, it has always felt to me like it would be a bit presumptuous. Dispensing advice quietly to someone who asks for it is one thing; broadcasting that advice to everyone else because you think they are equally interested in, and/or in need of, the information is another.
But the more I think about it, the more I feel like some of these emails would make for interesting columns that my readers may find enjoyable. Let me know what you think. And if you have email you’d like answered, send it to [email protected], as always. I make no guarantees that I will answer through a column; but I do guarantee that I will answer it at least privately.
Here’s that email, edited to remove all of the insults and cleverly disguise the origin of the sender:
I’ve been looking at this particular Odyssey rare called Decaying Soil…
Although this card doesn’t appear to be very powerful, I believe it is; but I can’t seem to figure out how to build a deck around it. I keep telling myself”there MUST be a way to break this thing!” and yet I can’t seem to figure out…
I was wondering if you could look at this card and see what deck(s) you can whip up with it…
I read this email and began to chortle. Foolish mortal, I thought to myself in my best jaded Magic veteran inner voice, which to my surprise sounded an awful lot like Shirley Temple. Of course I can build a deck with Decaying Soil. I could build THREE decks with Decaying Soil! Why, I was building decks with Decaying Soil before Magic even came out. I eat Alpha cards for breakfast, and tear up Garfield’s ultra-rares in Iron Man formats, and paper my bathroom walls with dual lands!!!
Now, I don’t really do any of those nasty things at the end there, of course… But I now have a nagging suspicion that Shirley Temple would. I mean, if she could. But she probably still wouldn’t touch Decaying Soil.
Here’s the card, for the sake of reference:
At the beginning of your upkeep, remove a card in your graveyard from the game. Threshold: Whenever a nontoken creature is put into your graveyard from play, you may pay 1. If you do, return that card to your hand.
I’ll bet at least half of you, including a few pros, needed that reminder. This is one of those Odyssey rares that suffers from terminal mediocrity. It is a sad fate for a card, and if I can help prevent that fate through – oh, say, a Break this Card contest – well, maybe that would be worth something. I would likely feel better if I was using a card I felt had redeeming merit… But of course, if it did, I wouldn’t need to do this, I guess, right? Hmm. Yeah, that’s right.
So Break this Card it is.
Now I’ll admit, I have a head start on anyone else in this contest, partly because it’s my own contest, so I’m in good with the judge. Also, I think I may benefit slightly from the fact that I’m not letting anyone else enter this time around. Those minor regulatory quirks aside, I still felt I should try to even the scales a bit. You know, give myself a handicap, or something.
So I immediately decided not to use either one of two obvious cards: Grave Pact, which would use the Soil to help you gain an amazing creature advantage; and Last Laugh, coming out in Torment, which would do much the same thing.
After I made that decision, I immediately told myself I was an idiot. Even with those cards, a deck would be suspect. But to remove the possibility of combo for creature removal? Insanity. Lunacy. Madness. Kicker. Fading. (Whoops, started a new list there.)
But as fate would have it, I did come up with three suitable entries for my contest, and so I expose them to scrutiny below, as well as some of the thought process I had in developing them. And yes, I violated my own 250-word explanation rule a couple of times. I’ll have you know, buster, that I am a professional writer and can thereby claim exemption from such nonsense. So stick that in your word processor.
In addition to the actual decks themselves, I was able to entertain, and reject, a few variants on these decks. Below, I label the key cards in those imagined decks as”unopened doors”, and I explain how the variant might work…and why I didn’t choose it.
And so here we are: A road map to Break this Card deck design.
Prelude: Initial Approach
My mind is a torturous tangle of misused neurons and false connections. As my wife will gladly tell you, I cannot find a TV Guide that is under my own ass on the couch. How, then, could I possibly find the cards I need for a decent Decaying Soil deck?
Everyone has their favorite deck research tool: The Ultimate Spoiler Generator on mtgnews.com is mine. (And mine, too – The Ferrett, who finds it infintely handy when trying to spell Nebuchanezza – Nebukka – that big dragon guy) When I want to play with a card, I do countless searches: Black creatures costing less than two, with at least two power; artifacts or enchantments that mention the word”library” and/or”hand”; instants of any color that generate creature tokens; and on and on. I can usually think of most of the cards that would work over the last four to five expansions – but after that, my memory serves up enormous gaps, and a database is the only way to fill them.
A card that comes up from one of these searches might lead me down a completely different path for a deck. (The evolution of the second deck, described below, would be one example of this.) At that point, I usually step back from the computer for about half an hour and rethink the deck. Searching on a screen for too long can sometimes narrow your thoughts a bit too much. After coming up with two or three cards on my own that serve as”must-haves,” I can then resume combing the database.
Many people put out as many cards as humanly possible on the list, without ranking or evaluation. This is fine, and it’s a good brainstorming method; but I find myself evaluating as I go, anyway. I’ll put the ideas I consider non-negotiable up higher, with the”4x” already next to them. For this article, since I knew I was going to do two or three decks, I was harsher in my evaluations, since a card that didn’t make the cut in one place just got shifted down for later consideration.
From the lists I generate, I then pick the most important ideas for a particular deck, arrange the cards in order of cost, and make sure the mana isn’t completely insane. (I spent less time with this on the third deck. Telling yourself over and over that”heck, I have Show and Tell” is sometimes a bad thing.) After that, it’s a matter of adjusting down to about 36 non-land cards. For an article, I’m inclined to use”2x” and”1x” more than I do in real life, since I like Casual Fridays to be more of an idea exchange than an exact blueprint of efficient deckbuilding.
Mana is an important part of the deck; but I’m afraid I don’t give it much thought if I’m not actually building the deck to play. Occasionally, I’ll catch a subtle move (e.g., cycling lands to help get closer to threshold); but often, I’m just trying to reach a rough color balance. I pay far more attention when I’m actually building the deck, since I can more easily imagine how the deck would play as I bring the cards together physically.
That’s the process that led to the following decks:
Deck One: The Adjusted Net Deck
I wanted to start the same way many contest entrants start: use a card or deck type that is famous, and bend it to my will so that it fits the card to be”broken.” Here, I chose Oath of Druids.
Every time I have a Break this Card contest, someone submits a deck using Oath of Druids. I’m not joking here; it’s like clockwork. I even got at least one Oath deck for Graceful Antelope! (Oath for an Antelope?!?) Everyone wants to be a mini-Maher, and I’m no different. One of the easiest ways to get to threshold, the Oath is going to be what laughs in the face of Decaying Soil.
Many Oath decks use very few creatures, e.g., Morphling or Crater Hellion, so that they can be sure of a quality creature. Then they use the cards dumped into the graveyard creatively. I followed that path so that I could do two things: First, I wanted whatever single creature card I used four copies of to be”eternal” – reliably found, reliably hard to remove, reliably rescued, reliably recast. Second, I wanted to find another way to have creatures besides creature cards. Odyssey’s flashback creatures fit the ticket beautifully, providing me efficient creatures from my hand or graveyard and never interfering with the Oath.
The fact that these creatures are tokens – and therefore don’t work with Decaying Soil – may seem counterintuitive to you. But I actually felt like it made them more attractive, for this deck: The focus is not on the beast or elephant token, but on that Spiritmonger that you will never, ever kill. And it’s wonderfully perverse to use token creatures to help break a card that saves non-token creatures, don’t you think?
4x Decaying Soil
4x Oath of Druids
4x Vampiric Tutor
4x Call of the Herd
4x Beast Attack
4x Roar of the Wurm
4x Consume Strength
2x Howling Gale
2x Creeping Mold
1x Treetop Village
1x Spawning Pool
This is, if anyone cares, Standard-legal if you replace the nonbasic lands with basics (and the Vampiric Tutors with something else). But for heaven’s sake, don’t take it to a tournament expecting to win.
In a multiplayer game, you should be able to find one of your eight (with Tutors) Decaying Soils and get it into your hand, and ideally in play, before playing the Oath. The Oath will find a Spiritmonger, and that Spiritmonger is going to be what sees you through the game. It will, from time to time, find a companion on the road to victory, such as a wurm token here and there.
UNOPENED DOOR: IRIDESCENT ANGEL
4/4 Creature (Angel)
Flying, Protection from all colors.
My first nominee for the”eternal creature” slot was not Spiritmonger, but the ultimate in invulnerability: Iridescent Angel. In addition to giving the deck an automatic answer for flyers, the Angel may actually get through for damage more frequently than a Spiritmonger.
But the new color requirements worried me. While the first Oath will bring one out easily, the Decaying Soil returns a dying Angel to your hand, and so you would need a way of either playing the Angel from your hand, or putting it back into your library. The mana adjustments for playing Angels were too overbearing, and I explore the”return to library” mechanic in another deck. So, no Angel…. But in all honesty, the Angel would look rather sweet here. Perhaps with Lotus Vales (which also help you get to threshold)? I’ll let you decide.
If white is dominant in your group, and you are worried about Swords to Plowshares, Marauding Knight (or an upcoming Torment card, which happens to have killer artwork) may be a suitable substitute for Spiritmongers, as well.
Deck Two: The Degenerate Combo
Another regular style of deck I get in Break this Card is”the degenerate combo,” usually using something like Replenish or Timetwister. While I don’t completely ignore these decks in evaluating contest entries, I try to hold them at arm’s length.
If the combo involves unusual creatures, I pay a bit more attention. And so for Decaying Soil, I felt like I should mix in one or two unusual creatures if I was going to do something degenerate.
The primary goal will be to sustain an atrociously fat creature on the board, by making sure any cost of sacrificing a small creature is quickly repaid by Decaying Soil. How, then, to get those small creatures back on the board? Anyone familiar with Tempest and a certain green enchantment already knows the answer:
4x Decaying Soil
1x Elvish Lyrist
1x Uktabi Orangutan
4x Blood Pet
4x Abyssal Gatekeeper
4x Wall of Blossoms
2x Hunting Moa
4x Skittering Skirge
4x Bone Shredder
2x Devouring Strossus
2x Lotus Vale
2x Peat Bog
2x Hickory Woodlot
2x Polluted Mire
2x Slippery Karst
You will win this game either through a Strossus, which stays on the board as long as you have a single additional creature and single mana to spare, or through a Delraich, now a three-mana creature with Decaying Soil on the board. Of course, both situations require you to have Aluren on the board.
From there, I chose one or two”conventional” Aluren creatures (Bone Shredder, Uktabi Orangutan, Wall of Blossoms), but also a couple of interesting ones, such as Blood Pet and Skittering Skirge. The major hurdle for this deck will be attaining (and maintaining) threshold. Early sackable black creatures will help you get what you need. I’ve also put in a higher proporation of”sack lands” – the Masques commons, Lotus Vales, etc. – to help you get there.
UNOPENED DOOR: FOSTER
Whenever a creature you control is put into a graveyard, you may pay 1. If you do, reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a creature card. Put that card into your hand and the rest into your graveyard.
The deck actually started with this enchantment instead of Aluren. Once both this and Decaying Soil are out, for a mere tap of a Sol Ring, you can both return a dying creature and find a new creature out of your graveyard, and replenish your threshold requirement as a bonus.
But Aluren and Strossus are a better central”Decay trick” for this deck, and Foster just adds another enchantment to a deck that already fears a simple Tranquility. So Foster would be an interesting option, but not here.
Deck Three: The Overly Creative Option
So at this point, I’m sick of green and black and want to do something different. I also want to be better at manipulating my hand and/or library, and there’s one color that can do that well: Blue.
Here, our objective will be to get the creature from Decaying Soil out of the graveyard, into our hand, and then show off a little by using some bad cards to”rub in” the resurrection. My choices are Assembly Hall (take your time looking that up; I’ll wait right here), Polymorph, and Show and Tell.
The path to victory will be similar to the first deck, in that we want to have an”eternal” creature that we can count on to bring home the bacon. I suggest Tolarian Serpent, which comes with the lovely bonus of giving you nearly-instant threshold.
4x Decaying Soil
2x Assembly Hall
4x Show and Tell
4x Tolarian Serpent
4x Raven Familiar
2x Avatar of Woe
1x Gaea’s Blessing
4x Underground Sea
4x Salt Marsh
4x Spawning Pool
4x Faerie Conclave
Ravens and man-lands will be your early defense, and good luck with that. You may be able to hard-cast a Tolarian Serpent; or you may have to Polymorph your own Raven and play the percentages. (Who will complain if they end up with an Avatar of Woe or Morphling instead?) You can increase the odds of a good creature, especially one stuck in your hand, with Brainstorm.
Ideally, you will use Show and Tell to get out that Serpent, and from then on in it’s a matter of using Decaying Soil to keep the magic happening. The Serpent’s supporting cast is impressive, and can easily win you a game if you experience moderate luck.
Assembly Hall is a bit of a joke; and is the rather poor reason behind having at least two of every creature in this deck. Since the Soil returns the creature card to your hand, the Hall is an extremely stupid but satisfying way to say,”nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah!”, and then go get another copy. Put in two Ertai (the original sort) if you’d rather have reliable countermagic.
The Gaea’s Blessing is interesting in this deck. You can never hard-cast it, but you can make it slip right into your graveyard through the Tolarian Serpent… And in fact, that’s the idea. You need the Blessing to avoid Serpent-driven library exhaustion. This will deactivate your Soil for at least turn; but the Serpent will quickly set things right again.
UNOPENED DOOR THAT SHOULD PROBABLY STAY CLOSED: PSYCHIC VORTEX
Cumulative upkeep: Draw a card.
At the end of each of your turns, sacrifice a land and discard your hand.
This card is a true mind-screw, perhaps the best ever printed. I have no idea if the darn thing would work in my deck, and I don’t intend to try to figure it out. It would get me to threshold beautifully. If anyone wants to unleash this bad boy in a Decaying Soil deck, I’ll be happy to cheer you on from the sidelines.
So which deck would I enter? Or more to the point (since multiple entries are allowed), which deck would I pick to win? Well, all would probably get mentioned, if for no other reason than I like to see my name in print; but the last one is probably too fruity and fragile for the winner’s circle.
The second one is, if I may say so myself, rather darn clever, with those little slave creatures whipping in and out around the Strossus. Makes for a great mental image, too! But even without Survival of the Fittest, it feels like Survival of the Fittest is in there, and that makes me feel dirty. I’d give it runner-up.
The eternal Spiritmonger is probably the winner, though perhaps I might prefer a version with Iridescent Angel. Congratulations to me for winning; I will mail myself a scribbled copy of the card in question. I will inflict the same delays upon myself as I do upon other past winners, and then thank myself for my patience.
If anyone else would like me to answer their mail in public, fire away! Reach me at [email protected]. I will entertain both serious and silly notions. Of course, I maintain the right to edit your intelligent queries from around the world so that it looks like Jeff Donais wrote and asked me the same stupid question over and over.