Deconstructing Arcane

With Dampen Thought-based Limited decks getting talked up a lot these days, the splice mechanic is getting the spotlight thrown on it in a big way. When drafting, as long as you know which cards are useful, the deck practically builds itself. Take the best card for you and pass; when it comes time to build your deck, you have all the pieces in front of you. In Block Constructed, the decisions aren’t quite as easy. With access to whichever cards you want, deciding which to run (and in what quantities) can be just as difficult to figure out as getting the draft version of the deck to come together.

With Dampen Thought-based Limited decks getting talked up a lot these days, the splice mechanic is getting the spotlight thrown on it in a big way. When drafting, as long as you know which cards are useful, the deck practically builds itself. Take the best card for you and pass; when it comes time to build your deck, you have all the pieces in front of you. In Block Constructed, the decisions aren’t quite as easy. With access to whichever cards you want, deciding which to run (and in what quantities) can be just as difficult to figure out as getting the draft version of the deck to come together.

For starters, you can take the deck in two directions regarding color – if you like how the White works, it’s a fine option, but alternatives are available. I’ve gone with one of those and I’m here to tell you which components worked out. Call it a case study: an examination of which cards make the cut in this deck and why. I’m going to take this thing apart and examine its parts, hopefully giving you a look at what makes it tick.

Of course, before I get into individual cards, this is the decklist I currently use:

4 Glacial Ray

4 Reach Through Mists

4 Peer Through Depths

3 Sift Through Sands

4 Psychic Puppetry

1 Consuming Vortex

2 Eerie Procession

4 Hisoka’s Defiance

2 Hinder

2 Honden of Seeing Winds

2 Honden of Infinite Rage

2 Teller of Tales

1 The Unspeakable

15 Island

1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge

8 Mountain

1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep

I’ve obviously chosen a U/R path using Glacial Rays instead of a more Limited-inspired U/W Dampen Thought-based build. I chose Red and Rays as the win condition because it lets you win through damage and thus other damage-dealing cards can be used to supplement your primary win condition; Dampen Thought decks rely solely on their namesake to get the job done. Rays are also useful as removal while you work to defend yourself from your opponent’s creatures, which Dampen Thought can’t claim. It is worth noting, however, that Dampen Thought is a Blue card and therefore not as subject to color problems, which can be an issue when the set offers no really playable cross-colored dual lands for a Red-leaning deck. U/W decks also gain several useful White spells that play defense, and I’ll do my best to mention them where appropriate, but I’ll admit up front that I don’t have as much experience with that style; most of this will relate more to Red builds.

Reach Through Mists and Peer Through Depths need no justification, being two of the best (read: cheap and self-replacing) hull spells available. Sift Through Sands is slightly more questionable; on the surface, it really does look like a bad Catalog. Still, it’s generally a fine choice as it is still instant speed and does replace itself while accepting splices. There aren’t actually that many really good hulls (my term of choice for the spell other cards are spliced onto), so even more expensive ones get play time. For splice-centered decks, Sift Though Sands is perfectly acceptable; I may even yet add a fourth.

Of course, talking about those three spells requires that I mention His Ugliness, The Unspeakable. As you can see, I have chosen to run one copy of the giant monster. I have put him into play on occasion, and he’s very good once he’s out there. However, if you do opt to include him, I must recommend this: Play as if he weren’t there. Don’t think about him, don’t worry about if you can get him into play, and do not make playing him a higher priority than your normal, splice-related game plan. Don’t be afraid to Sift him away if he comes up early, especially if you have splice materials already in hand. Never, Never, NEVER run the Reach-Peer-Sift combo instead of defending yourself by splicing Puppetries and Rays onto those spells. No, really. Even if it’s turn 6 and you have all three already in hand, just don’t do it, especially if you have a splice spell in the grip as well. To paraphrase [author name="Stephen Menendian"]Stephen Menendian[/author], “If you try to combo out The Unspeakable, you will draw him on the Sift – not because of statistics, but because you made the wrong play.” Just sit on it. You will eventually have the opportunity to run the combo while splicing, or even just hard-cast the guy (which I’ve done more often than you might think). Of course, if you’re under no pressure and have no splice spells in hand… well, it’s a game, right?

Consuming Vortex, it turns out, is not nearly as good as you might recall from your Limited decks. You aren’t playing forty percent creatures in these decks, so a bounce spell isn’t going to give you a free attack and the spell is simply not as swingy when used defensively. The four-mana splice cost is more expensive than most creatures you will have the chance to use it on in Constructed, especially since it comes on top of the mana you have to pay for the hull spell. You can hardcast it of course, but the creature is generally just replayed immediately. I originally built the deck with four Vortexes and one Psychic Puppetry, but the need for mana efficiency eventually inverted those counts, as tapping is usually just as effective in keeping hands from around your neck as bouncing and comes online earlier.

This, of course, brings us to Psychic Puppetry. The one-mana splice cost on this guy is absolutely beautiful for decks not sporting white protection spells, shutting down creatures large and small with a quickness. U/W builds may forgo Puppetry for Candle’s Glow and/or Ghostly Prisons, but it is invaluable in U/R. It can also act as an emergency hull if you need to fire off some extra Glacial Rays, which Vortex can’t always claim.

Bonus note: Psychic Puppetry can also act as a failsafe for making sure your splice spells aren’t short-circuited by a crafty opponent. Say you’re defending yourself with a Peer Through Depths with a Glacial Ray spliced on and you point it at a Sakura-Tribe Elder or Hana Kami or, hell, even Scuttling Death – anything that can kill itself at will – in this case, if your opponent sacrifices the creature (or protects it with a Blessed Breath, which could happen with any target), you’ve got a problem. Your spell, because of that Ray, is targeted and if its targets are removed or illegal, it will be countered on resolution and you won’t get to Peer. If, however, you pay one more to splice a Puppetry on there as well and target a land with it, you’re virtually guaranteed to have at least one legal target on resolution, so you’ll still get to search for more spells. Will this scenario come up often? Probably not. Could it cost you the game if you play it wrong? Absolutely. Keep your eyes sharp.

The Eerie Processions up there are, in theory, Glacial Rays five and six. As your primary removal spell and win condition, Ray is obviously very important, so some redundancy on that count is very nice. In practice, you will occasionally find yourself Processioning for a Puppetry (if your red mana is a little tight) or even just a Peer Through Depths or Sift Through Sands to jumpstart yourself. The reason it claims only two deck slots is the fact that it is a sorcery. This build especially really wants to be casting its spells on the opponent’s turn, so tapping three mana (or more if you splice a Ray) on your own turn isn’t appreciated. It’s a useful effect, but in this deck you certainly don’t want them clogging your hand. A U/W build that sports Ghostly Prison and Honden of Cleansing Fire for additional defense may be able to afford tapping down on its own turn more often.

Hisoka’s Defiance was not originally in the deck, but just like the Oxidizes or Annuls of Mirrodin block, the environment is such that a counter that only hits half the spells out there is worth playing. What gets it from “worth playing” to “being played” is the cheap mana cost, especially in a deck that usually only starts defending itself on turn 3 (either with a Reach splicing Ray or a Peer splicing Puppetry). Granted, one of the most popular archetypes, W/R Samurai, runs extremely few spirits or arcane spells, but most builds still sport at least Kami of Ancient Law or Blessed Breath or Glacial Ray. Even more importantly, though, is that some of the most damaging spells out there fall into Defiance’s territory; a Cranial Extraction for Glacial Ray or Dampen Thought makes it extremely difficult to win (if it’s still possible at all) and Kodama of the North Tree is an absolute house against U/R builds that don’t have access to damage prevention spells like Ethereal Haze or Candle’s Glow. Let me put it this way: I’ve beaten a North Tree that has successfully resolved only once, and that was only because I already had a Teller of Tales in play and two Glacial Rays in hand.

Hinder also claims a couple slots to bring the total countermagic count to six. An extra hard counter is useful as an all-purpose answer to scary things, but as you’ll probably spend a decent bit of mana during your opponent’s attack step, it tends not to really come online until later turns (provided your opponent is mustering pressure). The third mana really hurts and is hard to keep available, which is why Hinder only places two copies as opposed to a full roster of Defiances. The other two Hinders should be, of course, available off the bench for slower or controlling decks.

This brings us to the Shrines. Honden of Seeing Winds sports a lot of raw power – personal Howling Mines are nothing to sneeze at. Even for five mana at sorcery speed, being able to access so many more cards during the game is worth taking a hit. Now, with one Shrine already on the list, the other is a natural accompaniment, so Honden of Infinite Rage also claims a few slots. Having both enchantments in play at once is predictably brutal, of course, but I should also note that the red Shrine holds its own when flying solo as well. One point per turn to your opponent isn’t great, but it is able to pick off smaller critters such as Sensei Golden-Tail or Hana Kami while also providing an assist to Glacial Rays when targeting beefier odd-toughness creatures like Nagao, Bound by Honor. Hondens do figure to be fairly popular, so you might run up against some enchantment hate, but remember that most enchantment removal spells available are either Spirits or Arcane (Kami of Ancient Law, Cleanfall, Wear Away) and thus are vulnerable to Hisoka’s Defiance.

Last up are the two Tellers of Tales. Like the Shrines and Processions, creatures do require tapping down mana on your own turn, which as I’ve said, is not this deck’s favorite thing to do. In fact, this is an expendable card choice – you can actually cut all the creatures, which could render some cards in your opponents’ deck useless – but when this guy sticks he swings the game massively. This deck controls the other side of the board by keeping other creatures locked down and Teller makes doing it incredibly easy. He conserves mana by letting you splice one less Puppetry on each spell and hits for three damage each turn in the air, letting you direct Glacial Rays at opposing creatures without worrying about your opponent’s nugget or just quickening the clock by several turns. Even under a Cage of Hands (which some decks are sporting for Dragon control), Teller still helps keep other men pinned down.

Oh yeah, there’s also land in the deck. Specifically, there are twenty-five mana sources, 16 Blue and 9 Red. As I mentioned above, the mana isn’t the best as there aren’t any good duals to play, but this works well for me. Blue mana is obviously more important as it can help you draw into Red, but you generally need at least two Red sources to start emphatically winning the game. Don’t feel obligated to use the Legendary Lands; they occasionally come in handy to make The Unspeakable even more threatening and Minamo can (rarely) be used to milk another Red mana out of Shinka, but they are by no means vital.

There are various other cards I’ve played or considered; Sire of the Storm seemed like a fine choice, but didn’t pan out. It’s more expensive than Teller of Tales and doesn’t actually affect the board in any way other than its 3/3 body. Getting extra cards is good, but if you are playing any significant number of Arcane spells, a Teller should be helping you win just as much. I also ran Counsel of the Soratami at first and it really wasn’t bad, but, again, you really don’t want to be tapping mana on your own turn for just a couple extra cards.

Long-Forgotten Gohei looks like it should be great, but it runs into the same problem – it requires you to tap down on your own turn – and it doesn’t even yield cards in return. Instead, you get a discount on your spells, but quantity of mana is rarely the restricting factor for this deck; color is the issue far more often. Yamabushi’s Flame, however, is certainly a valid option, one that should at least appear in the sideboard even if you can’t make room in the main deck. Against Samurai at the very least, where Hisoka’s Defiance is less than stellar, the extra removal is welcome.

I actually feel a little silly talking about sideboard options as there’s really not much in the way of a metagame yet. Still, I intended this to be as comprehensive as I can make it, so you’re stuck with it. Besides extra Hinders and Yamabushi’s Flames, I recommend at least a few Yamabushi’s Storms to deal with anyone who tries to make Rats or Snakes (two “tribes” full of X/1s) work and possibly even some anti-splice deck cards. Just like in Limited, there are certain foil cards that can break a mirror match open. Shell of the Last Kappa will pretty much stop any such deck that doesn’t have an alternate win condition and Reito Lantern is actually a great foil to a Dampen Thought-reliant build. (Lantern Instructions: Do not attempt to race the Dampens. You won’t succeed. Just put one card on the bottom of your empty library during your upkeep. If they mill it, repeat. At that point, you should have enough mana to match them.) Again, this is all malleable based on what decks actually show themselves to be effective.

Because of that uncertainty, I’m not going to offer you matchup analyzation. I know that no deck exists in a vacuum, but even if I could tell you that this build wins 65% or what-have-you against Samurai, what does that mean when everyone’s builds (both of Samurai decks and this deck) are still so erratic? I’m also not going to nail down specific strategies you should follow against any particular deck – I can’t give you anything definite and, in any case, you should learn that from your own experience once a decent gauntlet can be put together. I also can’t tell you exactly how good this deck is because there is no field, but I can tell you that the deck’s biggest weakness at the moment is its mana. Drawing enough and of the right colors usually isn’t a problem, but when you’re pinched one way or the other, you really feel it.

In general, you should start the game by playing some lands while your opponent does the same. If they put pressure on you, splice some spells to keep yourself healthy by either tapping down or killing off creatures. Don’t worry about taking some damage if you need to take time to fix your hand up. Maybe at some point you will play a permanent; maybe not. Eventually, you start hitting your opponent with Glacial Rays or creatures and they eventually die. It’s a very simple game plan and is flexible enough to accommodate a lot of different opponents, but there is no substitute for practicing it. The only specific note I’ll give you is that you shouldn’t counter Kodoma’s Reach. Honestly, it’s not worth it. There are no game-breaking spells like Time Stretch or Tooth and Nail that they’re ramping up to that you can’t just counter later, and most major threats are easily dealt with by tapping. Unless something brutal is spliced onto it, let the Reach slide.

One more note: If you intend to play a deck like this in a Magic Online tournament, practice a lot. As [author name="Chad Ellis"]Chad Ellis[/author] noted, splicing all those spells sucks up a lot of clock, and you don’t want to time out of a round that you had completely sewn up. On the plus side, this deck is incredibly inexpensive to build. I run three rares and they’re all expendable. Unless Betrayers of Kamigawa includes this block’s Arcbound Ravager, this is a very budget choice.

Speaking of Betrayers, the second set of the block will be out before too long, so it’s worth looking forward to what a splice deck is hoping to get from the influx of new cards. The best present a deck like this could get is a playable multiland for Blue and Red, but failing that, I would accept an Arcane instant for one Blue mana that does anything. Seriously, just about any effect would be worth playing to get the redundancy of Reach Through Mists five through eight. Last, another spell with a good effect that can be spliced for one or two mana would also be good; if it has a defensive ability (like Psychic Puppetry), then the deck would stay in mostly the same style as it already is, while if it has an offensive effect (like Glacial Ray) it could spawn a more aggressive variant. Better mana, better hulls, better splice cards – an improvement in any of those three areas would be more than welcome.

Of course, whether this deck, or any other for that matter, will still look the same after Betrayers comes in is up in the air. The new set may completely change the look of an archetype (as Ravager did for Affinity), it may pull a deck together (as Reap and Sow and Darksteel Colossus did for Tooth and Nail), or it may create an entire archetype from whole cloth (as Torment did with Madness). Hell, it could do all three, rendering pretty much everything that everyone has done in experimenting with Block Constructed moot. Hopefully, though, this primer has at least helped you get a decent footing for understanding one corner of what’s possible. If nothing else, awareness of what’s out there now can help you in estimating what will succeed against it later.

And if not even that, well, at least I helped you kill fifteen minutes. It might not be much, but I’ll take what I can get.

Happy Holidays,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu