Chickenscratch – What You Should Know About Phyrexian Etchings

Phyrexian Etchings: it’s good. Really good. Quite frighteningly good. In fact, let’s make this interesting:

Phyrexian Etchings is — situationally – more broken than Necropotence.

Have I got your attention now? Good.

It’s good.

Really good.

Quite frighteningly good.

In fact, let’s make this interesting:

Phyrexian Etchings is – situationally – more broken than Necropotence.

Have I got your attention now? Good.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rivien Swanson, more commonly known in the Magic community as Flawed Paradigm, and I’m a rogue deckbuilder. I’m twenty-six and have been playing Magic since Beta, although I quit during Antiquities, picked it back up during Ice Age (the last time I played competitively), quit again during Urza’s Block (cast of thousands there), quitting paper Magic almost for good at this point, and came back in during Odyssey, although I wish I had done so during Invasion – I played mostly on IRC/Apprentice at that time. I continued to play for awhile, but gave Legions and Scourge a miss. I managed to join the ranks of Magic: the Digital just prior to the release of Champions of Kamigawa, and have played there exclusively ever since, minus the odd pre-release.

Deck designing has always been my favourite part of the game – I’ve designed over two thousand different decks (not including just under a thousand Limited decks), including having a hand in the popularity and design of at least a few strong tournament decks that no one online ever believes. I love finding odd interactions, strong synergies, and interesting cards. You may have seen an introduction like this on another large Magic fansite in the past, but it’s different this time.

This time, I’m going to name one of the decks no one ever believes I had a hand in – Necropotence. This is relevant, trust me. The other two decks aren’t relevant to this discussion.

I can’t say I warmed to Necropotence immediately. That "skip your draw phase" clause worried me. And then there was the paying life for cards bit – don’t I normally draw those anyhow? It took about five minutes of staring at the card to realise I could draw multiple cards this way (hey, tech wasn’t what it is now, okay?) and my heart leaped. Hey, this was really quite ace! And then I frowned again – I don’t get the cards until the end of my turn – what if I need them now?

So I put the card away, for weeks. Tossed it in a box with other cards I never thought I’d use, to be forgotten in the annals of history and lost in a sewer in Denmark. But it nagged me occasionally, when I’d build a deck. Then one day, it dawned on me when I was playing a mono-Black deck with Nightmares and Drain Life – hey, couldn’t I use Drain Life to basically make my opponent pay for my card draws? Anyhow, long story short, several months later I’d built a more cohesive deck utilising Necropotence (and Red) and eventually versions of the deck started showing up in tourneys in my area – Chicagoland, at the time. Necropotence was the first card I ever made a conscious effort to break.

Over a decade later, Wizards has printed Phyrexian Etchings, and I’m here to tell you it’s at least as much fun as Necropotence. Now we’re on topic for the rest of the article, no worries.

Of course, I fell in love with Necropotence after our stint together, after we had spent so much time and effort with one another. Good Hell, don’t let my fiancée read this or she’ll get jealous. It’s only natural, then, that I would have an infatuation with Phyrexian Etchings.

I’d been working with other things in Coldsnap; mostly decks for Tribal Bible, but it was Talen Lee who nudged me and reminded me about Etchings with this list, constructed from our mutual memories because Talen lost the original list I specifically asked him to keep.

Dark Etchings

24 Swamp

4 Genju of the Fens
4 Phyrexian Etchings
4 Riot Spikes
3 Cloudstone Curio
4 Shadow of Doubt
4 Kiku’s Shadow
1 Debtors’ Knell
4 Seal of Doom
4 Consume Spirit
4 Distress

I immediately didn’t like the Distress (picturing it as more of a sideboard card, since I’m more likely to see aggro than control in the casual room) and swapped them to Last Gasps before taking it for a spin.

The deck was mediocre, because it had certain prohibitions built into it; it had limited lifegain, in case an Etchings upkeep was necessary or desirable to skip payment on, Curio basically had to be played before Etchings because it would take up to four mana in one turn to play a newly drawn Curio and use a Riot Spikes or Genju to bounce Etchings to avoid its graveyard trigger. Plus, Riot Spikes could find itself without a target when you really needed to reset Etchings, and thus sit around being a blank card. Not good.

I reported back to Talen that the findings were depressing; Seal of Doom was dead a lot, Genju was useless to activate, and Curio just wasn’t reliable enough for returning Etchings to your hand. Not to mention the occasional trouble finding Etchings to begin with. Plus, this deck has troubles in the worst way with Trygon Predator.

So we started looking for more bounce options that didn’t include double Blue, and our search there was pretty depressing too. For a long time, Repeal looked like the "best" candidate, but suffered the same stigma as the Curio with Genju or Riot Spikes draw – four mana to apply in one turn.

But then we hit upon the silliest thing. We laughed about what a terrible option it was, but I decided… what the Hell, why not? I am, of course, speaking about that powerhouse common Drake Familiar, scourge of all Constructed Magic, winner of tournies, burner of villages, pillager of gold, conqueror of empires.

I made some other changes, too. I don’t have an exact copy of the list anymore, but I do have the current version, and remember what wasn’t there. This was where Dark Etchings became Drake Etchings, affectionately known as "Chickenscratch". What else do you call Drake etchings?

I know Feast of Flesh and Sickening Shoal weren’t in my original version of Chickenscratch, and they were Talen’s suggestions at a later point. Soul Spike seems obvious with Etchings, but in Talen’s defence, he had thought Spike could only go to the dome and was a sorcery. After watching me play it a few times, and seeing what he’d missed, he called it the best Black card in Coldsnap. But he hadn’t yet seen the power of Etchings. As I said, I wasn’t quite playing the version above. I was doing the testing simply because Talen lacked the cards (and at the time of this writing, he still lacks even Snow-Covered Basics – feel free to donate to him!)

Drake Familiar was superior in many ways to the original Curio plan; it was cheaper, it could actually swing, and perhaps most importantly, you could rely on finding it after playing out Etchings, because it’s virtually impossible to fall below two available mana in a turn after paying Etching’s upkeep.

And this is what you really need to know about Phyrexian Etchings – unless an opponent specifically aims removal at it, the majority of the time it has no drawbacks at all. It is extremely unlikely that Etchings will ever go to the graveyard except by your own will, or opposing removal. Here’s why – in order to play Etchings, you need three Black mana. This means that, barring land destruction, you’re guaranteed to be able to pay its upkeep at least three turns, during which time you will have drawn three additional cards, and have three more on the way at end of turn. Given the mana structure of this deck, that means you’re pretty likely to be doing fine on land. Although I should note that the optimal time to play Etchings is almost never when you have exactly three mana – in this deck, it seems to be five. This way, as long as you keep making land drops, you’re guaranteed three open mana a turn – enough to use Scrying Sheets. Even if you miss a land drop, you still have enough to play Coldsteel Heart, which can make up for a lost land drop. As such, mathematically speaking, in most cases the effect of the card itself will pay for its own cumulative upkeep. This is why I say it’s situationally better than Necropotence – it can end up costing no mana, no life, and no loss of draw phase, instead just being a pure gas station.

You might then be led to wonder why Consume Spirit is in the deck if you’re expected to perpetually have no more than two to four (due to Coldsteel Heart) mana open on any given turn. That’s where the Drake comes in. Once you’ve crafted a hand you feel you can win the game with, play the Drake and return Etchings – or if you think your life total can handle it, simply fail to pay the upkeep. After that, you can either replay Etchings immediately as a safety catch, or just try to win with the hand you have. Note; Soul Spike is utterly incredible in the deck, allowing you to ditch cards that aren’t helping for pinpoint removal, keep your life total high, or simply finish off your opponent. And, of course, it’s wonderful to use it if you’ve drawn so many cards you’d have to discard anyway.

A note on Coldsteel Heart – if you don’t yet have a Blue source, choose Blue. After that, unless you have reason to believe your Heart will be destroyed, set all extra ones to Black. You only ever need one Blue mana in a given turn, with the exception of Remand on a Drake – any other Blue mana you have is just something which is useless come Consume time.

Feast of Flesh generally starts off killing a Bird or Elf, and obviously becomes progressively more useful as more are drawn. Further, the effect can be so minor late game that it’s an easy card to pitch to a Spike. Kiku’s Shadow is effective removal even late game, answering all sorts of threats. Debtors’ Knell has always stayed in the deck because sometimes it can just win the game on its own, and Sickening Shoal gives you another mana-free instant speed removal option.

I have one more offering for you today, a second version of Etchings that’s entirely my own creation and reminds me so much of the deck I used of yore. I give you:

Okay, so it’s not the most complicated deck in the world. In fact, a chimp could probably play it. Just a few quick pointers on this one:

All your creatures except the Rusalka have some kind of evasion, be it Flying, Fear, or the Marauder’s sacrifice requirement. In general, this means if you have creatures on the board, there should be some way to force damage through.

Gasp, Rusalka, and Soul Spike can all remove blockers, although Spike is generally better if you play it as though it were Fireblast – as a finisher.

Why no Snow mana this time? You’re less likely to have extra mana to fiddle with Scrying Sheets here.

The ideal mana to have on the turn you play Etchings in this deck is four instead of five, since everything you intend to hardcast costs three or less mana.

Generally, you play this as a straight aggro deck. It certainly can win that way, with a lot of highly efficient evasion critters. What it is, though, is an aggro deck with a late game plan and potential combo-ish win in case the gang of dudes doesn’t show up in enough force to carry the game. Or, in the terms of more well-known people than myself, it’s aggro with a backup midrange plan.

So why twenty-four land in a mostly aggro deck? Hitting your land drops is more important here due to Etchings, of course, and it also gives you a chance to hardcast Soul Spike if you’re having trouble keeping an Etchings out or somesuch.

Where does that leave us? There’s no sideboards here. So where are these decks any good? Well, for one, the casual room. I’ve piloted both decks to a very high winning percentage there. Are they good elsewhere? I don’t play competitively, so I’m not sure. What this is, aside from giving you some neat decks to play, is my version of what John F. Rizzo did with Ichorid – I’m saying; please break this card. For all the fun Necropotence gave me, I owe its little cousin a chance to shine too, and this is the best way I know how. As one of the first people to recognise the potential of Necropotence, I think this card has merit.

Signing off,
Rivien Swanson
flawedparadigm at gmaSPAMSUCKSil dot com
Flawed Paradigm on MTGO
GodOfAtheism just about everywhere else.