Feature Article – Rise of the Eldrazi: The Colorless Cards

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Tuesday, April 27th – Last time out, Pro Tour Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz examined Rise of the Eldrazi with the mana in mind. Today, he turns his gimlet gaze toward the wobbliest of the cards the set has to offer: the mammoth Eldrazi themselves!

I enjoyed Adrian Sullivan review last week because it was great to see someone with so much hope and faith, and it would be even if I wasn’t a Mets fan. It’s the one-line argument for why cards are good and every glass is half full rather then nine tenths empty. Those were good times. Instead, I’m going to spend the majority of this article splashing around cold water. We each have our own purpose.

All is Dust

I am one of the biggest advocates for board sweepers, but All is Dust costs seven mana to cast. That’s too much for a card trying to fill this role, so any deck playing this card is going to have to support it with Eldrazi Temple. On average, that knocks the cost down to about six. I can live with six, and the ability to fluctuate unpredictably to five or seven is probably a net positive especially since this card will sometimes come as a rude shock. The flip side is that Eldrazi Temple implies All is Dust most of the time. Hiding the land makes you unpredictable, but showing it reveals your plan. I’d recommend running the standard bluff of putting out Temple only in those games where you don’t have the All is Dust, and trying to sandbag it if you do have one.

There’s the obvious comparison to Akroma’s Vengeance, especially with the rise of Jace, the Mind Sculptor (just you wait until Jund is off its pedestal; they’re going to make its current price look positively cheap) and now Gideon Jura. The other comparison is with Martial Coup, which does cost seven mana but also kills the opponent after sweeping the board. That’s a much stronger side effect, plus it has the option to go smaller in emergencies. Blue getting the ability to sweep the board at any price is invaluable, but Blue doesn’t have that much incentive right now to go it alone, especially with White picking up Gideon Jura. Green concepts divide into decks using creatures for their mana acceleration and those using lands. If they use Green creatures for mana, they’re not going to want to sweep the board. If you’re casting Rampant Growth, Growth Spasm, or Harrow (and I suspect Growth Spasm is far better than people realize) as your method, then I don’t know how the rest of the deck is supposed to work with all that tapping out, and colorless land is probably a luxury the deck can’t afford.

In older formats where there are fewer artifacts, and colors are better equipped to go it alone in other ways, this gets more interesting, but the price also becomes even higher and there are even more colorless lands out there as alternatives, so I don’t expect All Is Dust to end up seeing much play. For those who do go down this road, I fear many will play it because they have The Fear of some card they cannot otherwise deal with, and doom themselves with a card far too expensive to play.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre

To cheat or not to cheat them into play? That is the question. If you are cheating, the bigger the better, but there’s a difference between a creature you probably won’t cast and a creature you might eventually scrounge up enough to pay for. Emrakul also has the Liliana Vass combo to do fifteen damage, for those who are interested. I think it’s cute, but Liliana is too easy to kill in the interim, so it has to be a secondary effect rather than the main event, and the decks that are most likely to want such an incidental effect are going to be so all or nothing they’re going to have trouble doing the final five damage.

The more interesting options are Summoning Trap and Polymorph. In both cases it is practical to expect to be able to goldfish out the creature of your choice most of the time around turn 4 in various ways. Turn 3 is possible (Polymorph can do it with a Garden and Chalice, Trap with a Mythic style creature mana explosion, and both are realistic) but will be rare. White/Blue can handle Polymorph with either Jace the Mind Sculptor, Day of Judgment, or Martial Coup so that matchup is probably impossible to win. Vampires have Gatekeeper of Malakir which is likely to work, and they also have Consuming Vapors, which Jund may also have. Casting a four-cost sorcery that gets only a powerful attacker and then hoping to survive is not the best plan.

Summoning Trap is an instant which solves a lot of problems, and you’re encouraged instead of forbidden to play other creatures, but it costs six mana. If you don’t do any setup the risk of backfire is large, and if you do set up then that seems like a lot of work in a world with options like Sovereigns of Lost Alara into Eldrazi Conscription. Mythic taught us that going larger than necessary is a drag on consistency you can afford to do without, and it also taught us that, if your deck is full of mana, all your threats need to be cards you can hang your hat on. You can’t hang your hat on a spell you can’t cast.

None of that is a knock on what these cards can do once they are in play, as they are definitely top notch cards to cheat with if cheating is practical. The no cheating clause is even an advantage so long as you’re cheating with them in a different way, as you can use discard to get them back into the deck plus pick up a bonus shuffle. Despite all that, I don’t see these strategies as being competitive with other Standard decks using the current tools. There will even be a lot of games that you get the creature into play and perhaps even attack with it, only to lose because your turn 4 or 5 big man came too late. Jund, Mythic, Naya, and most token decks will make a nasty habit out of sacrificing four to six permanents and winning anyway, and both creatures that are reasonable to cast are vulnerable to a wide array of instant speed solutions. Even Black has Vendetta now, which is going to hurt them a lot but hurt you more. It’s a trick you can only pull once unless you killed a different Eldrazi with Consuming Vapors, but once is all you are likely to need.

Other formats offer better opportunities. At minimum, Emrakul will probably start hooking up with Oath of Druids, and there’s always Tooth and Nail. As a bonus, if the deck is using an Urza’s land package in some way to set up Tooth and Nail, then casting the Eldrazi legitimately becomes realistic.

Casting the Eldrazi legitimately by paying the mana allows decks to lower the effective costs on the cards by about two thanks to Eldrazi Temple, and you also get good help from Everflowing Chalice. As I mentioned last article, for many reasons White/Blue Control is the existing deck that wants to consider going this route, and given it is currently playing Iona it essentially already has. Building a deck around the concept is also possible, perhaps in combination with the other methods. I went into some of this last time, but I expect the consistency issues to be crippling, while the additional upside doesn’t win that many extra games.

Eldrazi Conscription

The best Eldrazi of all turns out not to be a creature at all, but rather an enchantment. Why bring back an ancient abomination when you can assemble a new one out of ordinary household objects? A sticker price of eight mana is downright reasonable when you throw in haste and the discounting effect of Eldrazi Temple. The problem with that plan is that it leaves you with all the inherent vulnerabilities of creature enchantments. No one wants to invest eight mana in a spell when they can respond with removal. The best target remaining in Standard is likely Thornling. Trample is somewhat redundant, but you get indestructible, and all the extra toughness can be channeled into power. The closest match for this purpose alone is Uril, the Miststalker, but that is not a sacrifice I am willing to make for the cause. The opposite tactic is to use a disposable creature such as a Lotus Cobra or Birds of Paradise, or even a Saproling or Eldrazi Spawn token. The vulnerabilities involved are great, and the mana is no cakewalk, but as long as there are targets around it hurts little to draw this.

That is a good thing, because there’s a strong reason to want it around in your deck: Sovereigns of Lost Alara. This radically increases the power of what getting an aura into play can do, and even the first attack gets you an eight mana aura for a six mana price with another waiting next turn if the situation isn’t dealt with. The downside of this tactic is that you have to give an opponent with mana untapped a chance to stop you, and casting Eldrazi Conscription gives them that same opening. Usually that would doom such a strategy, but the upside is big enough that the risk is likely justified, especially as a deck like Jund can’t realistically hold back its mana on the turns you get to cast Sovereigns. They need to play Siege-Gang Commander and Broodmate Dragon, or other similar large men, and they can’t hold back on the chance you might have it every time the right land would get you to six mana. Once you get to attack once, even if the attack doesn’t kill them outright, they have two creatures that must die rather than one, and if you brought solid backup they’re probably toast.

The question then becomes what is the correct shell to use? My natural instincts turn to Mythic, of course, because this is what Mythic was born to do. You won’t be able to use Eldrazi Temple if you go that route, but this can become the new trick in place of some combination of Rafiq of the Many, Finest Hour, Thorning, Rampaging Baloths, and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, depending on what version you are running. Even without any Temples, getting to eight mana is not only realistic but will happen most of the time, if your mana is not under attack. Option two is to use a White/Blue shell that can either try to buy time with control cards or use this as the finishing blow of a creature deck. I find this model less interesting, but not without interest. A wild card is Naya on the back of Birds, Nobles, and an Island you can fetch with Terramorphic Expanse, which potentially gets you Uril, the Miststalker as a target, but doesn’t seem all that synergistic with the rest of the deck.

There’s only one other non-mana colorless card in the set worth discussing, so let’s finish off with:

Keening Stone

Keening Stone is expensive. For this price, the game needs to be stabilized before attention can be turned to winning since this will almost always require multiple activations. There are places where it won’t require that, but against a deck like Dredge this is not the kind of time you have. Much more likely is that this will be a Standard weapon since there are so few quality ways to kill an opponent without using creatures. There is already a deck focused on milling effects, and I do think this ends up making the cut as more expensive but worthy version of Archive Trap. With all the extra cards being drawn, graveyards will get full quickly, so it won’t take that many activations, but you’ll still need to get to about eight before you can survive playing the Keening Stone, and the deck doesn’t have Everflowing Chalice. My guess is that you do play the Keening Stone but it doesn’t represent much in terms of additional win percentage, and this deck is already all but set up for this purpose.

The other place to look is White/Blue Control, which has an easier time ramping to the required mana. Winning without creatures is always powerful, and the board sweepers should be a good way to get a few cards seeded into their graveyard, with the kill requiring two slots currently reserved for Iona. In many ways, six mana followed by five several times is faster than going all the way to nine once, especially if that nine will frequently require extensive support or even die. Iona gets a lot worse if opponents are killing with Keening Stone, and also gets worse if they’re using the other colorless bombs. I like the idea of starting with this as my win condition, so long as backups are in place as things can go wrong and anyone with an Eldrazi in their deck can start discarding it indefinitely. Assuming you can get there before they get that kind of mana, you can then take all the time you need to get an incidental kill from Celestial Colonnade, Martial Coup, and/or Gideon Jura.

What I like more than that, however, is playing no explicit win condition at all. Gideon Jura should enter the deck with at least three copies. The cuts from the tap out version are Baneslayer Angel and Iona. Aside from Red decks, Baneslayer Angel is no longer serving any particular purpose in game 1 that is worth the removal exposure, and it is fighting for the five-slot, while Iona is simply unnecessary. Gideon Jura makes Elspeth far more interesting as the two form an excellent team in a number of ways, and together they also encourage the return of Jace, the Mind Sculptor for those who weren’t already playing him. I can see not wanting four copies until the Jund problem dies down, but I can’t see playing none. I also expect Jund to lose a lot of popularity once Rise of the Eldrazi filters through Standard.

To end on a whimsical if impractical note, the other option is to try and help things along. Memory Erosion and Traumatize are both good ways to get some cards into the opponents’ graveyard. Traumatize is enough to put them in range for an instant kill, at the mana cost 5+6+5. Memory Erosion isn’t that powerful, since getting halfway to milling them out takes a while, but it means you probably need only two activations, and if stranded on its own, Memory Erosion is both cheaper and a faster kill, although if you’re splashing the milling effects all around your deck a diverse mix is superior to any other option. That doesn’t mean this is in any way viable outside of a strategy for strange matchups, but it is always fun to think about.

I’m also reminded somewhat of Battle of Wits, which is a thought that made me smile.

Until next time…