Eternal Europe – Impressions From The City

Take a look at the interesting Legacy decks German Magic player Carsten Kotter has been working on with cards from Return to Ravnica!

Ah, spoiler season. Gotta love that rush you feel every day when you finally get to see a few more cards from Magic’s future materialize out of thin air. And this time, checking the spoiler is a pleasure not only because I get to see sweet new cards, but because the overall design of the set looks incredible. I’m truly excited, not only by the cards themselves, but about the way Wizards is developing the game with Return to Ravnica.

This set is shaping up to be what I’d consider the most well designed one in years. There are a ton of cards that are just truly beautiful. There is hate that is impactful enough to slow combo decks down but low key enough to avoid the whole "Can you answer my hate card? No? Ok, game’s over." subgame that makes playing with cards like Leyline of the Void so frustrating. Instead of Leylines, Gaddock Teeg, and Grafdigger’s Cage, we are mainly getting cheap, efficient bodies with enough utility to make them maindeck playable.

(The one disappointment here thus far is Rest in Peace. I can hardly imagine a more dominant Dredge hoser given that it eliminates all the progress the Dredge player made so far as well as makes reestablishing impossible. Classic "deal with this or you’re dead" hate, with all the resulting baggage as far as bad game play is concerned. It really isn’t like we didn’t have the tools to deal with Dredge before. But I can forgive the one outlier among all the other beautifully crafted cards in the set.) 

Dryad Militant forces Dredge to play a fair(er) game (no more Cabal Therapy and Dread Return), yet Dredge still gets to grind you out with a ton of Zombies courtesy of Ichorid and Bridge from Below.

Storm and Show and Tell can easily win through a <s>Cursecatcher</s> Judge’s Familiar, but it’ll usually be able to slow them down for that one important turn until you drop a hate bear (may I suggest Thalia?) or start attacking their mana base to keep them contained a while longer. It being castable off of one white mana is a godsend for non-blue decks.

Deathrite Shaman is a perfectly serviceable Birds of Paradise in a format full of fetchlands, yet once it’s online you get to hose anything from Nimble Mongoose and Snapcaster Mage to Reanimate and Life from the Loam whenever that seems more appropriate than accelerating your own spells—only once a turn, though. And again, the single mana cost makes it fast enough for this comparatively minor disruptive ability to actually matter.

The set’s traditional splashy, over-the-top fatty is also picture-perfect. I mean, a 15/15 trampler that leaves behind another fifteen power when it dies is definitely impressive enough to make the Timmy players happy. At the same time, it isn’t overwhelming like Emrakul and Griselbrand; getting Worldspine Wurm into play doesn’t just end the game. This card is perfect with high impact, jaw-dropping size and an actual balanced nature for Eternal formats.

As for the rest of the set, there doesn’t seem to be any Delver of Secrets or Geist of Saint Traft: no dumb, undercosted threats that shorten games to the point of frustration. Instead, we get a host of efficiently costed, flexible answers that are balanced by the fact that they commit you to playing two colors (and paying at least two mana).

Speaking of answers, the one mechanic I’m a little hesitant about is the uncounterable cycle, which I dislike for the same reason I dislike hexproof—it reduces opportunities to interact. There’s a big difference here though. All of these cards are answers, not threats (or are easy to deal with outside of countermagic, with the exception of Loxodon Smiter), meaning that their uncounterability will likely actually promote interaction by being able to break up a player’s plans even through their countermagic umbrella—leading to more interaction through less interactivity, strangely enough. If you want to make a mechanic that stops people from interacting, this feels like the way to do it.

Following Orders

All in all, Return to Ravnica looks like it will be the best thing since sliced bread. A set full of efficient, flexible utility cards and role-players for any number of strategies, most of which encourage actual interactive game play instead of pure racing or dropping dumb trumps.

The only thing that seems underrepresented—though maybe it’s just me missing stuff—are cards that truly encourage brewing pushed to a power level that makes them matter. The Birthing Pod, Squandered Resource, Scapeshift, Pyromancer Ascension, Tendrils of Agony, or Survival of the Fittest—almost nothing in this set that makes you really want to build your deck around it feels up to snuff (for Legacy, at least). Other than this little goodie, that is:

This card feels reminiscent of Legacy’s other playable Order: Natural Order. A four-mana single card engine that plays out as a one-card combo if you set up your deck correctly. How do you set up your deck correctly? I’m happy you asked. Here is what my research has turned up so far:

This one is pretty straightforward: put a Loyal Retainers in your hand and your big broken legend of choice in your graveyard (I suggest Iona, Shield of Emeria, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, or Griselbrand as the likely best options). Then, if you have seven mana in play, drop your Retainers and sacrifice it to get your fatty boom boom into play on the spot. If you don’t have seven mana yet, sorry, you’ll have to wait til next turn to do that—which still seems quite reasonable.

(Yes, I’m aware Loyal Retainers is horribly expensive and could really do with a premium product reprint along with some other Portal/Starter product goodies like Grim Tutor. Let’s hope Wizards reads this and agrees. For the record, I do own a playset of Grim Tutors.)

There are three other engines that invite comparison here: Natural Order (for Progenitus or the latest green mammoth threat, Worldspine Worm) and Gifts Ungiven and Intuition (both for fatty plus Unburial Rites, in case of Intuition joined by a Gigapede to make sure you get both necessary cards into the yard).

Compared to Natural Order, you gain more resilience to having all your creatures killed and much more flexibility because you can choose from a larger range of fatties and because there are other things Orders can do when just a fatty isn’t appropriate. The big reason to run this over Gifts and Intuition is that your combo plan isn’t as one-shot as something involving a flashbacked Unburial Rites (if that gets countered, the combo plan is all over), once again because of the backup piles that should probably be in your deck.

Why does Orders give your combo a backup plan? Because I think most Orders decks should contain this little Judgment beauty:

Now this one goes in a totally different direction from the Loyal Retainers setup. Instead of trying to get one fatty down that is hopefully enough to win the game, you prepare to go for the long haul. Genesis allows you to set up different recursion engines that can totally take over the game. Get a Shriekmaw into your hand to evoke, then do that every turn while still drawing your natural card. Fleshbag Marauder sets up a similar loop but gets around protection, shroud, and hexproof. Qasali Pridemage means no artifacts or enchantments are going to stick around for long. I’m still looking for a cheap enough creature that will matter against control if recurred indefinitely, though just being able to Genesis loop threats might well do the trick there.

Somewhat more convoluted—as you probably have access to Pernicious Deed since you’re in B/G—you can also set up constant board sweeping by recurring Eternal Witness (just make sure you blow Deed for at least three every time).

Genesis also provides the backup plan to punch your combo through the opposing disruption I mentioned above. If your Retainers is stopped the first time, getting a Genesis into your graveyard with the next Orders will allow you to try again turn after turn. Heck, going for Eternal Witness and Genesis the first time you Orders makes it very hard to stop you from just recurring those Orders until it finally sticks (a sac outlet for the Witness would admittedly be useful), at which point you can start casting and Genesising your Retainers until they run out of answers.

So if this is what Jarad is ordering us to do, how do we best implement his commands? The first thing to realize is that our combo isn’t incredibly fast (costing four plus three mana while only putting a fatty into play instead of outright killing the opponent), so we aren’t racing anyone. Instead, its strength is in being a hybridized combo kill deck that usually attacks from a totally different angle.

One deck looking for that kind of finish is Nic Fit, a deck that has already successfully adopted the Scapeshift kill to provide a similar functionality. Reasons to run the Orders plan over Scapeshift are flexibility (Orders doesn’t just work to end the game), less need to mess with your mana base (Stomping Ground in Legacy? Really?), and, quite importantly, the fact that you don’t actually need to have seven plus lands in play for it to work, increasing resilience to mana denial.

The list I’ve played some games with to promising results looks like this:

The Griselbrand is actually a stand-in for Iona, Elesh Norn, and himself at the moment, as I very much want to only run one maindeck fatty because drawing it is clunky and all that, though you might want two in case you draw one of them without a Liliana available. As I don’t know which is best for this deck yet, I simply treat it as the correct one whenever I hit it, keeping track of which one I want each time to help determine my maindeck choice. The others will be in the board to come in against the appropriate matchups.

Obviously the list is still rough, but so far it has been testing quite well, though I’m sure there are some improvements I haven’t figured out yet which all of you will come up with soon enough.

Just to mention it, as I haven’t reached the finished decklist stage yet, there is also a different approach I’ve been contemplating. I think there might be some value in listening to Jarad for a Junk style aggro-control deck. Not only do you get the Genesis recursion engine for grinding I outlined above (and the Retainers combo, if you want it), but you also get the mother of all Mother of Runes: Glory.

Giving yourself the ability to hand out protection to your team at will while also stocking your hand with the most appropriate threat for the situation seems like an ability that might well be worth 2BG, especially given that nothing keeps you from also integrating the Genesis engine to grind out those you can’t just crush. Some food for thought for those of you that need some additional inspiration.

Rest in Pieces

Remember what I said about Rest in Peace being one of the cards I’m least happy with in the whole set because of it being overwhelming hate? Well, it turns out that it also has some endearing qualities. The thing is that a double-edged Leyline of the Void that is easy to hard cast actually has some far more interesting applications than just crushing Dredge. Check out these two cards:

Now we’re talking.

For those not aware, if you activate Helm of Obedience with a Rest in Peace in play, no cards will actually be put into the opponent’s graveyard by Helm’s ability, leading to it churning through the opponent’s complete deck. That’s a seven-mana, two-card instant win. Pretty neat.

While this functionality was available before thanks to Leyline of the Void, starting the game without a Leyline in hand made decks based around that combo incredibly clunky (hard casting Leyline and Helm is terribly slow), in my opinion a big reason why the it never caught on. Now with Rest in Peace, you get to sculpt on turn 1, drop Rest in Peace on turn 2, Tutor on turn 3, and get Helm down turn 4, which seems like a much more consistent way of doing things.

There are a few reasons to use this slightly more expensive combo instead of Painter/Grindstone. First and foremost, you get to ignore creature removal, quite the big thing given typical Legacy decklists. Secondly, you get to ignore all those Emrakuls in Show and Tell decks instead of needing to find some way to get rid of the opponent’s graveyard in addition to your combo. Those same decks also can’t ever cast their namesake card again as soon as a Rest in Peace (plus one untapped mana) is play—you might drop a Helm and kill them, after all!

Finally, both of your combo pieces provide some utility on their own. I already mentioned above that Rest in Peace is probably the most powerful card to lock Dredge out of the game ever printed (assuming they don’t kill you before you can drop it), but it does a lot more. At least half the other decks out there actually really won’t like seeing it.

It locks Tarmogoyfs into being 0/1, Nimble Mongooses stay 1/1s, and Knight of the Reliquary doesn’t get above its original 2/2 size. ANT won’t have threshold for Cabal Ritual and loses access to Past in Flames, Reanimator is pretty much cold to it, and Scavenging Ooze, Snapcaster Mage and Lingering Souls also become quite a bit worse if there are no graveyards to profit from.

As for Helm, although it isn’t the greatest thing to have in play, I think you’ll have fun if you ever get to start Helming a Show and Tell or Reanimator deck. Against some Miracle builds, Helm can also be a viable win condition (there are a number of lists that are essentially creature-less), especially as you can use it to get rid of their Entreat the Angels in response to a Top flip.

So why was there a picture of Energy Field above if all I’m talking about is the Helm of Obedience interaction? Well, it just so happens that Rest in Peace works differently from Leyline of the Void in one important way: it affects both players. That means as long as Rest in Peace is in play, Energy Field will never trigger and will keep protecting you from damage until your opponent deals with it straight up. That’s quite the combo, as some decks can’t deal with Energy Field at all (Goblins, Fish, or Canadian Thresh, for example, at least pre-board) and others will at least be slowed down until they can either naturally kill the Energy Field or find a way to first destroy Rest in Peace and then put something of yours in the graveyard—which will hopefully take long enough for you to Helm them out first.

Using both synergies together seems like it could lead to a reasonably powerful prison/control deck with a combo finish. Maybe something like this?

Note that this list is what I’m going to start testing with (the reason it still has 61 maindeck cards); I’m far from sure this is the correct way to build the deck. Maybe it should try to incorporate Land Tax (as well as some Mox Diamonds for additional speed and Tax synergy), maybe you want a few Ancient Tombs to accelerate your high drops, and maybe—just maybe—Jace just isn’t what this deck wants given that its biggest defense engine against creatures is the Energy Field lock. Then again, it’s Jace, and you do have Ensnaring Bridge.

The seventeen-card sideboard also is obviously a first draft, though I’m quite sure Oblivion Rings (for planeswalkers, Choke, and Show and Tell) and Leyline of the Void are going to make it in. Leyline is especially sweet here because it allows you to both have very fast graveyard hate (the one loophole for graveyard decks to beat a Rest in Peace is its speed) and the ability to basically transform into a combo deck with interactive elements post-board. With three Tutors, four Helms, and eight "Leyline" effects, you’re up to a Show and Tell level of combo-pieces, after all.

Into the Sunset

I really hope Return to Ravnica is the beginning of yet another new era of Magic design, one less focused on overwhelming threats and with a stronger focus on a balance of threats and answers than the creature power creep of the last few years has provided us with. So far this set has impressed me beyond my ability to describe, and I’m actually looking forward to having my Counterbalances blown up by Abrupt Decay, as weird as that may sound. The simple truth is that Magic needs answers to be fun.

I hope you share my enthusiasm for Magic’s latest addition and are as overwhelmed by the beautiful design work that has gone into this set as I am. Maybe my latest brewing expedition has given you some ideas of what you want to do with the new cards; I sure hope so. If you need a reason to take what I say seriously, remember that you heard about Terminus and Omniscience here first—so I feel I have a pretty reasonable track record so far. Let me know what you think in the comments. Until next time: enjoy the City of Guilds!

Carsten Kotter