Down By the River – A Review of Magic Online Vanguard

If you play Magic Online, you are probably aware that the Vanguard release events are starting this week. But which avatars are the best and what decks do they belong in? Star Wars Kid’s got your back on this one, as he reviews the best of the avatars today as well as covering some of the major bugs you should be aware of before you participate in this new format.

Needing an excuse to write another article, I noticed that there was another week of “fun” formats being played on MODO. Namely, any preexisting boring format combined with the new Vanguard cards – how exciting. The Vanguard cards, from what I’ve seen so far, do not make any previously bad, yet fun decks into good, but unfun decks. How unfortunate.

The addition of Vanguard, sadly, piqued my interest enough to throw down my digital Block Constructed cards (and here I was talking about fun formats) in favor of some avatar fun. After a few days of playing with the avatars, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the various formats that, while possibly completely wrong, could be helpful to a few people out there planning to throw their hat into the virtual ring.

Due to the short time they’ve been out I’ve only been able to play briefly in each format, with most of my experience coming from Standard. Naturally that won’t stop me from making broad and outrageous claims about Extended as well.

In Type Two, the abilities for the avatars have done little to the related non-Vanguard format, other than, oh yeah, seeming to kill MUC. This is all thanks to what is probably the best and most-in-need-of-some-changes avatar, Elvish Champion. How could a card so bad have such an amazing avatar? It’s simply redonculous. If you thought Type Two was already too full of Green-based decks, sorry to inform you, Vanguard makes it even more so.

I’ve seen quite a few people in the chat rooms refer to it’s ability as giving you “just a Llanowar Elf”, which is akin to calling Mox Emerald “just a Forest”, and if you think that is a fair analogy I’ve got some FOIL Forests I’ll trade for the equal, but non-foilee Mox. Any takers?

How good is it? I got hit with a second turn Plow Under recently. I didn’t win that game. Fortunately, only a third turn Plow Under is the norm. That’s why MUC isn’t fairing so well – they are always at least a full turn behind, unless they of course decide to run the Champion as well, in which case they have a colorless Mox instead. Don’t forget the Champion also gives you an extra card in your opening hand as well. No, I don’t know why.

I really wanted to play a fun deck in Vanguard, I really did. I had this cool Well of Lost Dreams control deck with the Serra Angel Avatar I planned to fool around with. It was neat. Healing Salve isn’t exactly Power Nine, is it? I’m now playing Tooth and Nail instead. Third turn Plow Unders are fun, as are third turn Tooth and Nails with entwine. At least they are fun if you are on the giving end.

Yes, there are other avatars out there. They all have neat abilities, but the extra card, extra mana, and I guess to some miniscule extent, the extra life just adds up. Here’s a run down of the current also-rans in the Vanguard arena. [Stats for all the avatars can be found here. – Knut]


Cute and cool ability, but risking the small life total for a Duress and costly reanimate effect is pretty scary in a world of Ponza and Green Beatdown.

Etched Oracle

This ability is really cool, and I’ve seen lots of interesting things when playing against it. If they get domain out, it’s very hard to combat. Turn 3 or 4 Myojins and other such fat is difficult to combat. However, they run the risk of simply losing to themselves if they draw all fat and not enough land search. Also Plow Under and various other land destruction is a Very Bad Thing™ for them to deal with. Oh, and it goes without saying that Sundering Titan is just about the worst thing ever for this bit of Invasion nostalgia.

Akroma, Angel of Wrath

Beefed up hand size, beefed up life total, beefed up creatures. This is another of the top Avatars seeing play, and everybody seems to love her. Giving creatures haste throws off a lot of math, and a Flying, Vigilance Troll Ascetic is no picnic either. Making Beacon of Creation tokens even more ridiculous is a nice bonus.

Ernham Djinn

Sure it can turn Fecundity into a Skullclamp for each of your critters, or make Echoing Courage potentially devastating, but I look at all the avatars who hinder your starting hand size with a great degree of skepticism. Starting any game off with an automatic mulligan is bad, but what happens when you need to take an additional mulligan? Does the ability make up for the initial loss of a card? I don’t think so. At least Ink-Eyes takes a card away from your opponent as well.

Serra Avatar

I can’t really think of an application for this thing in Type Two other than trying to abuse Well of Lost Dreams or maintaining a healthy life total while playing control. Neither are very appealing.

Prodigal Sorcerer

This is an all around solid avatar. Sweet starting hand size made all the better with his filtering ability make a pretty nice control avatar. He makes almost any hand keepable too, as you have the ability to dig for land if you need, but even a mulligan to seven cards isn’t so bad. This would be a great addition to any combo deck if only that pesky Elvish Champion didn’t exist. In combo the extra mana advantage should prove more potent than the filtering ability, especially because combo, by nature, usually needs to kill quickly, making the odds of Tim’s ability adding up less likely.

Raksha, Golden Cub

Nice life total… erm, great. Pumping your creatures on their back end is okay, especially if it takes them from two to three, but it’s not really that exciting. The first strike and +1/0 isn’t really that great either, as creature combat isn’t something you should really be planning for. It does make Bonesplitters and the like much more attractive in WW, especially when placed on something like Suntail Hawk or Lantern Kami. The extra card and added abilities on Akroma make this guy seem a little less good.


Nine cards, cool… and? Okay, yeah nine cards is a lot, and is very good. However when compared to Tim, he seems merely okay. Remember when judging how good an avatar is, you really have to put it up against all the other options available. Over the course of the game is the initial card going to be worth losing the filter ability? Maybe if 8.5 had a better ability I’d be more impressed, but the odds that you’ll be able to luck into getting the protection you need, or having that much disposable mana seems bad.

Higure, the Still Wind

A really interesting ability that is pretty cool in WW because of Lantern Kami and Suntail Hawk. If you can get him rolling, it can be rather hard to stop, it’s just the problem of his starting hand size and the other aggressive avatars available. Luckily this is less of an issue for the Ninja master, as he has the potential to quickly make up for any loss of card advantage, and has an ability that none of the others can provide an even comparable substitute.

Basically that’s my impression of what I’ve been seeing online in the practice rooms, I haven’t once seen Bosh, Karona, Goblin Warchief, Grinning Demon, Phage, Karona, Two-Headed Giant, Royal Assassin, Platinum Angel, Viridian Zealot, Flametongue Kavu, Arcbound Overseer, Seshiro, or Fallen Angel used in Type Two yet, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention.

Vanguard Standard right now seems to just be a battle of the Green titans, all trying their best to abuse Elvish Champion or Akroma. Find something to combat this, and you should have a relatively easy time cruising through the field. If your opponent starts Champion, expect to see plenty of land disruption as that is what mana acceleration lends itself to. Turn 2 Stone Rain with the potential of a turn 3 Plow Under, and be sure to subtract a turn from this if they happen to be going for the overkill with Chrome Mox. Throw down a Troll Ascetic and a Sword of Fire and Ice and they have an efficient clock to add to their disruption.

Don’t be surprised though if they go the alternate route, using their extra mana to provide even more acceleration, going for the quick Tooth with second turn Reap and Sows and Solemn Simulacrums.

I also think that a fast Red deck possibly utilzing one of the avatars I overlooked could wreak some havok. After all, what could be a better turn 1 play than Shocking the Elf token that they hinged so much of their deck on? Follow that up with a Zo-Zu and some of your own land destruction and you could have the Green mages down and out before they even had a chance. Turnabout is fair play after all.

Extended is a bit harder for me to get a read on, as the financial constraints on players is much more of a factor than in Standard. So when testing in the Casual rooms, you never know what portion of the metagame each deck represents. Not everyone can afford Pernicious Deeds and the other money cards that could potentially dominate the format.

The Avatars it seems you’ll most likely see are the same as in Standard with the possibility of Seshiro rearing his head. This is due to the interesting card interactions he creates, thanks chiefly to Onslaught block, which recently left the Standard format. Some of the cooler combos involve the chosen creature type being Elf, and Wirewood Symbiote comboing with any creature with a come into play ability, especially Eternal Witness, Mystic Snake, and Flametonuge Kavu. Add any other efficient creature to your Goblin deck and having the potential to tutor it up with Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader. My favorite has to be Rotlung Reanimator, calling Clerics. Blasting Station anyone? Yes, he allows you to go infinite with any other creature and an outlet to sacrifice the little holy men. I know I wanted to pull of some such shenanigans when he was legal in Standard with Artificial Evolution, and Seshiro just simplifies that whole process.

So like, play Goblins with the aggressive avatars. Play control with the control avatars, play disruption with Champion, etc. I saw a really cool (and expensive) U/W Isochron Scepter deck that used all the card drawing and counterspells to get up to a high enough life total to Beacon of Immortality themselves over 50 and drop a Test of Endurance for the win.

Obviously I’m using Vanguard as an excuse (like I really need one…) to play Desire again. I’ve been enjoying a healthy amount of turn 3 and 4 kills thanks to none other than Elvish Champion. Elves, they are not just for Timmy anymore. By making it substantially easier to power out a turn 2 Heartbeat of Spring and increasing hand size, it has made my Desire deck so much more consistent than I ever hoped it to be. To be fair, I originally played it with Prodigal Sorcerer, but that was mainly due to the fact that I didn’t own an Elvish Champion avatar, a problem I quickly remedied.

For any of you who for some reason might care about what scrubby decklist I’ve been using feel free to look below.

4 Heartbeat of Spring

4 Wild Growth

4 Fertile Ground

4 Cunning Wish

4 Mind’s Desire

4 Sleight of Hand

4 Nostalgic Dreams

3 Gifts Ungiven

3 Early Harvest

3 Deep Analysis

1 Tendrils of Agony

4 Polluted Delta

9 Island

9 Forest


1 Gifts Ungiven

1 Early Harvest

1 Opportunity

1 Reclaim

Now I could really stop there, since I’ve started playing this deck in Vanguard I haven’t wished for another card yet. This is due to the dramatically increased speed and consistency Champion gives to the deck. In fact I’ve only wished for the Reclaim and Opportunity once each in the many matches I’ve played.

3 Moment’s Peace

2 Future Sight

1 Chain of Vapor

1 Deep Analysis

1 Naturalize

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Mana Leak

1 Mana Short

I’ve had a blast playing the deck. Unfortunately, not all of my opponents have felt the same way. While I’ve had a plethora of people say how much they love playing against Desire as it is a lot of fun to watch go off, I’ve had quite a few express conflicting viewpoints. This is something that irritates me. These people take the viewpoint that they are playing a “correct” or “proper” deck against mine, which just isn’t true. From my point of view, losing to a Goblin player is far more dull and boring than losing to any kind of combo deck. Of course, I’d never complain to my opponent as they dropped their umpteenth Goblin into play how tired I was by their “dumb deck”. Just a pet peeve of mine.

This is the part where I’d venture into talking about CHK Block and the various strategies to go with the Avatars. However, I really haven’t played many matches with Avatars in this format. Why? Quite frankly because I’ve gotten pretty bored with Block. Every game seems to unfold the exact same way for me and I can usually tell by my opening hand exactly how the game is going to unfold.

I think it’s probably a safe bet that you’re going to run into White Weenie decks with Jitte trying to abuse an aggressive Avatar… oh let’s say Akroma (ooh, Pro Black you say?) and some non-White Weenie decks running Jitte trying to abuse more of the same aggressive avatars, or as I’ve come to think of them Aggrotars (:B). Then there are going to be those decks without Jitte, they’ll be running cards to try and stop the decks with Jitte. These decks will probably have Green or Black cards in them. Why, golly, some might run Green and Black cards in them. Who’d a thunk it, huh?

Oh, Elvish Champion is probably as broken in Block as Jitte is.

A note if you plan to play in the Vanguard release events: As I write this article there remain a few noteworthy kinks in the Vanguard formats. First, if you add Avatars to your sideboard, you can “board them in”. This doesn’t mean swapping one avatar for another, this means swapping one Card for one Avatar. Meaning you can go down to about 55 or so cards to add 5 additional Avatars to your starting line up. Yes, you get all their abiliites along with starting hand size and life stats. I do not know if this will be fixed by the time the tournaments come along or not, but it is something to look out for. Additionally for some reason my opponent was able to play four Skullclamps against me in Extended Vanguard. I don’t know if it’s like that for every Vanguard format or not, but this hopefully will also be fixed, as Skullclamp is better and more abusable than any of the Avatars or their abilities.

I probably should be using this space to insert a witty and appealing closing paragraph, as I’ve always been told I should. The problem is all this talk of Block and Jitte has worn down my mind so much I can barely think anymore. Hopefully Knut will cover me this time or something. Until next time, I’ll be losing to you on MODO, probably complaining about mana screw or something.

[According to our man on the streets Yawgatog (not man of the streets, at least not since we started employing him anyway), it seems that Serra Avatar, Morphling, and Sliver Queen are legal in Online Extended (with or without Vanguard). Expect a very buggy Vanguard set of release events. – Knut]

Star Wars Kid

Yes, I am StrWrsKid on MODO.

No, I am not THAT Star Wars Kid.

Yes, I am the other, less amusing, non-“lightsaber” twirling one.