Familiarity Breeds… Speed

I really think Familiars are going to be a vital part of decks for some time to come. Why? Speed kills.

How ’bout those Planeshift Familiars? They’ve been keeping my mind busy for the past couple of days as I’ve salivated over the possibilities. Seriously – how ’bout them?

I haven’t heard much hoo-hah on the net since Planeshift’s release, but I really think they’re going to be a vital part of decks for some time to come. Why?

Speed. Speed kills. Speed wins.

Why is Fires such a good deck right now? Because in an environment that is filled with slower cards, Fires is the fastest deck on wheels. It lays down damage in record time, and it does it through mana acceleration and haste.

Zvi presented a nice theory a little while back called”The Fundamental Turn.” It’s the turn a deck busts loose with its key plays. Familiars speed up that turn or make it even more explosive. Let’s look at what a turn 3 could consist of with a Bird, an Elf, and a Thornscape Familiar in play. How about Rith, the Awakener or Two-Headed Dragon? That’s one heckuva big threat so early in the game. How about a Fires and then a Chimeric Idol that can join the Familiar in the attack that turn? How about Scorching Lava-ing both their Sergeant and Falcon, attacking with the Familiar and Elf, and still being able to Port their land their upkeep?

The Familiars accelerate by conserving your mana. The catch is that they can only trim mana from allied colored spells. This means that one effective use of Familiars require them to be the main color of the deck (so you can cast them early), and that the splash color or colors are your bombs. Familiars then let you cast the bombs early and often. Gold cards fit in nicely here. Your Stormscape Familiar allows you to cast Recoil for just UB, and your Nightscape Familiar lets you cast that Blazing Specter on turn 3.

The Familiars can also offset some mana expenses, as in the Port example given above. How about neutralizing the Leech drawback, or the original”leech” – Derelor? Maybe your G/W deck with Thornscape Familiars splashes red for Ruby Leeches. A 2/2 first striker for one red mana might be pretty decent. How about effectively paying for the mana washing of Nomadic Elf? Kicker costs and buyback can be conserved, too.

So, the Familiars are good in theory… Right? How are they in practice?

Well, we’d need to look at them individually. The first question you have to ask yourself, is the creature worth playing on its own? A couple of the Familiars are questionable in this regard. The Sunscape Familiar is a 2cc 0/3 wall. Yuck! The only walls worth playing right now have at least a six toughness. This is by far the worst creature of them all. The Thunderscape doesn’t fare much better; while first strike might be a decent ability, the fact that it’s only a 1/1 blunts its effectiveness to zip. And who cares that it’s a Kavu? It’s just about as worthless as the Sunscape.

The familiars in the other colors show some promise, though. Stormscape is a relatively cheap flier; people play Spiketail Hatchlings, don’t they? While the Hatchling is more of a reactive threat, Stormscape Familiar allows you to cast your own splash spells more cheaply, conserving your mana for more important things – like reacting to a cast threat. Stormscape Familiar gives you about the only white mana acceleration available, and helps give more consistent mana acceleration to your black spells without resorting to Dark Ritual. In this case, maybe they’d be more useful in the splash color; in a B/u deck, the Familiar might net you quite a bit of mana in the long run.

Nightscape Familiar has a couple of things going for it. Regeneration is a nice ability; even though it costs one more mana than a Skeleton, the fact that you’ll be conserving mana should make it less problematic to keep that mana available. And this is one Familiar where its creature type is actually useful! Planeshift adds some goodies for any of us who want to toy around with Zombies; with a Lord of the Undead on the board, this Familiar is both difficult to kill and difficult to keep dead.

The best of the familiars, in my opinion, has got to be Thornscape Familiar. He strengthens two of green’s powerful themes – mana acceleration and mana diversification. Green-based decks are much more likely to splash strong spells from allied colors, and to do so successfully. Just look at two of the more successful decks from Pro Tour Chicago: Fires and”The Red Zone.” What spells would be cast cheaper with a Thornscape Familiar on the board?

Kibler’s The Red Zone – Armageddon, Ancient Hydra, Rith the Awakener.
Fires, as played by Zvi MowshowitzFires of Yavimaya, Two-Headed Dragon, Earthquake, (Rishadan Port).
Fires as played by Finkel – Fires of Yavimaya, Urza’s Rage, Ancient Hydra, Rith the Awakener, (Rishadan Port).

A Fires deck with a little more heat, like Finkel’s version, obviously benefits from a Familiar more than Zvi’s version. Kibler’s deck would do even better, helping to conserve mana for both white and red spells.

Thornscape Familiar offers a solid alternative in the 2cc slots for green/x decks. Whereas most players automatically reach for River Boas right off the bat, Zvi gave a good reason why they DIDN’T include the snakes in their Fires deck – River Boas slow a deck down. With a one toughness, you’ve got to keep a green mana available at all times in order to make sure you can regenerate him. In effect, the Boa leeches you of a green mana each turn. On the other hand, Thornscape Familiar gives you the same aggressive capability with a two power, but also accelerates your mana curve. Zvi’s gang ended up ignoring the 2cc slot altogether, but then they didn’t have the choice that we have now. I think Thornscape bears consideration in aggressive G/x decks of the future.

Right now I’m tinkering with decks containing Thornscape Familiars – most currently, a R/g deck with Tahngarth! I expect Thornscape will prove his worth to players fairly soon, but don’t be surprised to see a few other familiars to start making appearances in decks not too long down the road.