No one doubts the impact that Rich Shay Control Slaver has had on the Type One metagame. The idea was simple: an opponent can’t defeat you if he or she can’t actually play. So the question is simple: if it works so well in Vintage, can we do it in the new post-banning Standard?
Slaver decks in Vintage use some combination of Thirst for Knowledge, Intuition, Mindslaver, and Goblin Welder to deny the opponent from ever using his or her cards ever again. While we don’t have quite the same tools, Standard does offer a number of functional equivalents. The most obvious analogues are Bringer of the White Dawn and Gifts Ungiven, but I was sure that anything assembled for Type 2 would probably be radically different, so I assumed nothing from thje start. Ignoring sideboards (since sideboards shouldn’t exist for unviable decks), the deckbuilding philosophy chosen was one of open-mindedness. The only mandated card choice would be Mindslavers. Anything and everything was up for consideration.
Well, okay, not just anything. Some investigation led to the fact that there were at least five completely different methods for Mindslaver recursion, but most of them were incredibly expensive and thus completely worthless. Anything requiring you to cast the Mindslaver and activate it required at least ten mana, which was impractical. For those of you who are curious, here are the various methods:
1) Recur Eternal Witness. You can do that in two ways: With 4 Witness, Proteus Staff will polymorph one into another for 3 mana, or you can use Isochron Scepter with Otherworldly Journey for 2 mana (but using more cards). Both methods will allow you to return Mindslaver to your hand.
2) Yomiji, Who Bars the Way will return it to your hand for free.
5) Bringer of the White Dawn will reanimate it directly into play, regardless whether or not you cast it previously.
Only the last two ideas are even remotely practical; with the Panoptic Sunrise plan unlikely to be viable due to the fact that it would be much more difficult to set up. There are quite a number of ways to cheat the Bringer into play and dump the Mindslaver in the graveyard, but cheating two expensive artifacts into play would prove to be much more difficult. Additionally (as if you even needed another reason), the Panoptic Mirror plan would be fragile, since destroying a Panoptic Mirror is much easier than destroying Bringer of the White Dawn. Although it was fairly obvious from the beginning that the deck would focus around the White Bringer, good deckbuilders will tell you it’s better to evaluate all of the options, even if your conclusion validates your initial decision.
With that setteled, it was time to turn to finding a reliable way to set up the combo. The easiest methods would be to get the Mindslaver in the ‘yard and find a way to play the Bringer without shelling out nine mana for it. Thankfully, the Bringer itself has an alternate casting cost that can be quite manageable; thus, the first option worth exploring was building a deck that could pay W/U/B/R/G reliably:
This build was remarkably consistent, putting up good results. One of the later additions to the deck was the inclusion of Kira, Great Glass Spinner. It proved to be one of the strongest support cards available, protecting Joiners and Mana Birds that allowed us to cast the Bringer, and then protecting the Bringer during the one-turn window that an opponent still possesses control of his or her turn (and yes, my wife insists that I acknowledge many women play Magic, too).
The problems with Sunburst Slaver, however, were fairly clear: it mostly fell apart to any form of mass creature removal. Hideous Laughter, Night of Soul’s Betrayal, Wrath, Final Judgment, Pyroclasm, Flamebreak – they all hosed the deck to smithereens. Adding the one Plains, Mountain and Swamp each tried to combat that, allowing the deck’s pilot to dig them out with Elders for casting Bringer off lands alone, but that didn’t change the matchups that much. Adding counterspells provided a loss in consistency and tempo that just made the deck significantly less effective (similar tempo concerns are the reason the deck does not run Fabricate or Gifts Ungiven, which proved to be unnecessary). Although that meant the Slaver lock wasn’t always assembled, it didn’t really matter. It happened often enough that I was satisfied with the way the deck panned out, especially since in some matches the ability to establish a lock really did make a difference. When it didn’t get the lock, the deck still won fairly often.
The sunburst mana base also allowed for some very strong potential sideboard cards: Clearwater Goblet, Etched Oracle, Engineered Explosives, and the mighty Blue, Red, and Black Bringers. I tested at one point with a configuration that switched out 3 White Bringers for Black ones, allowing me to dig out whatever pieces remained; but I found that it actually hurt the consistency of the deck because it gave considerably more time for an opponent to deal with actual 5/5 trampler on the table.
With enough experimentation and tuning, this build could be a viable contender in Standard. However, there were still quite a lot of options worth exploring in Standard, so I put this build on hold while I pursued other things. There was already one other “Green Monster” in the format that could cheat creatures into play, and no one doubts its efficacy. With that in mind, I started an adaptation of Tooth and Nail that would fetch a White Bringer into play and proceed with a Slaver lock. Tooth and Nail decks also have the mana capacity to hardcast Mindslaver if necessary, which was a definite advantage.
If need be, a Toothed-up Kira can be used to protect the Bringer, a Viridian Shaman to blow up Damping Matrix, or a Duplicant/Triskelion to remove the always troublesome Samurai of the Pale Curtain. You could even fetch a Fleshgrafter to ditch the ‘Slaver if you really wanted, although I doubt anyone would seriously consider running it. This, however, led us to the next question: Was it any better than normal Tooth and Nail?
Ignoring all concerns that T&N could be decimated by Sowing Salt and the rise of Black decks, the Slaver lock was proven to be less effective than another flashy, “instant-win” effect that was once advertised. Door To Nothingness could be used after Nailing up 2 Composite Golem, and that won on the spot without the need to go into any fancy recursion. More importantly, though, testing showed that converting Tooth & Nail into Nail Slaver was so utterly pointless that I’m not even going to bother posting a decklist. Even the most inexperienced T&N players would realize that fetching Sundering Titan + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker was a much more powerful lock; taking out up to six lands the turn they come into play and providing a nigh-unrecoverable game swing. With that type of effect available to the current T2 Green Monster, slavery was just an underpowered parlor trick.
Continuing the search for a potent Slaver build led to this next build, which was honestly the first idea that popped into my head; even before the sunburst plan:
The idea is simple: dump both a Mindslaver and Bringer in the graveyard, and reanimate the Bringer. You win during your next turn.
The advantages to Grave Slaver were apparent. First, it only needs to resolve two spells to win: Thirst for Knowledge and Zombify. That means after a turn 2 TfK dumping Bringer and ‘Slaver (you can always dump two if you want, even if one is an artifact) and turn 3 Zombify spells doom for just about every major deck in the field, in the vast majority of cases. Furthermore, since the deck runs Black, you have the card drawing of Night’s Whisper and the disruption of Distress, which could be powered out on turn 1, leading the way for the above plan to go unmolested. It was relatively easy to pull off early enough that the number of available answers an opponent could have would be significantly diminished.
As a result, Grave Slaver was remarkably consistent during goldfishing. It draws and draws and draws cards until it finds what it needs, not unlike Goth Slaver in Vintage. It then proceeds to win. It also carries a certain level of resiliency, since it can always reanimate the Bringer again, or even use Beacon of Unrest to reanimate the Mindslaver directly.
Attempting to perfect the build, a potential sideboard strategy was briefly considered; since the deck’s frame would allow for silver bullets (in the form of reanimated creatures) for particular matchups. The obvious weapons of choice were among the following: Living Hive, Hoverguard Sweepers, Sundering Titan, Platinum Angel, Magma Giant, and The Unspeakable. Opting to also run Goryo’s Vengeance in the board meant that The Unspeakable was particularly useful, and at that point Kuro, Pitlord was also a viable bullet. Any single one of those creatures hitting the table early could prove disastrous for an opponent. Gifts Ungiven was incredibly strong here, as it gave opponents headaches as they attempted to determine which two creatures they would least like to see staring them down.
The disadvantages, though, soon became clear as I sat down to playtest against actual opponents. While the deck can win early, often on turns 4-5, there are enough answers available at that point that opponents can deal with your threat in that window of opportunity. In particular, White Weenie was a real uphill battle, since Samurai of the Pale Curtains stops Mindslaver recursion. It’s also not hard for them to throw enough chumps in front of a charging Bringer to stop it, and Shining Shoal helps take out the Bringer for free; so even reanimating the Bringer alone won’t save you. Similarly, Iwamori and Yokura were other inexpensive 5/5 creatures that could easily face a Bringer in combat.
So the other disadvantage was clear: Was it better just to play it as a straight reanimator deck? After all, the aforementioned bullets were bigger, more disruptive once they hit play, and overall more threatening. It’s also easier to assemble if you only have to worry about getting one card in the graveyard.
Thus, it seemed that running an actual reanimator deck would be both more powerful and more consistent. In an effort to embrace the slavery aspect, I played with card numbers, fiddled with alternate card choices, and playtested even more games. Ultimately, as a Slaver deck, it reached its limitations. It showed all of the weaknesses inherent in a real* Type 2 combo deck: an inability to recover easily. No matter how much tuning and tinkering the deck received – and it received quite a lot – the deck’s fundamental weaknesses could not be fixed without converting it to a straight reanimator plan.
(*I refuse to call Tooth and Nail a combo deck, even though it technically is one. MeanDeath – now that’s a real combo deck.)
It was a great if yet uncomplete accomplishment, but it wasn’t my intended objective. So I put the deck aside and looked elsewhere. Even though the deck’s strengths were probably greater than its weaknesses, there was still good reason to pursue other options. After playing Grave Slaver, finding a deck with some “staying power” was the next direction for expreimentation. Doing a full 180-degree turn led to this controlling Slaver build:
Proteus Slaver had many advantages over Grave Slaver and Sunburst Slaver, primarily the fact that it could effectively neutralize many aspects of an opponent’s deck. Samurai of the Pale Curtain was much less of a threat, since after stealing it with Shackles, it could be Oathed into a White Bringer with ease. It also had room to squeeze in a few counterspells. And running heavy Blue, it had a lot of the draw and search that helped make it a viable combo deck.
Reweave was added to improve the deck’s consistency, as well as serve as another Gifts target. Note, though, that Reweave must be used on a Shackled non-artifact creature, since unlike Proteus Staff, using it on an artifact creature like Guardian Idol or animated Blinkmoth Nexus could fizzle by putting an artifact or even a land into play instead of the Bringer.
The deck actually played fairly well, tackling most decks fairly effectively (MUC and MBC gave us some problems). There were still issues, though. Opposing Vedalken Shackles was a problem, since your slower pace gave them time to drop enough Islands to steal your Bringer long before you could start recurring Mindslavers. (At least Sunburst Slaver could play a Viridan Shaman, and Grave Slaver was fast enough it could beat the 5-Island mark.) True, you had some counters and Echoing Truth, but testing showed that it wasn’t enough.
Of course, the quandary (more like gaping problem) was the same as before: Once a deck can Oath up a creature, why would you want to retrieve up a Bringer when you can slam down Darksteel Colussus? Big Tin Man seemingly presents a much more serious threat in Proteus Staff decks than a recurring Mindslaver since it’s so much harder to disrupt. Grave Slaver at least had the advantage of being able to go off early. With Proteus Slaver, it was highly unlikely you would be able to move that quickly, and the deck needed an unshakable win condition; and the White Bringer had nothing on Tin Man. That one-turn window really mattered enough, since opponents could Wrath, Death Cloud, or even use standard spot removal to take out the Bringer.
Searching for other ideas, I was indeed surprised to find that there was still yet another way to cheat fat creature costs in the current Type 2 environment: Through the Breach. Considering the success of Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Extended Sneak Attack deck, it seemed reasonable to experiment with it in Standard, where many of the components still reside. While Standard obviously lacks the Sneak Attack itself – removing 50% of the cheat methods from the deck – a lot of the speed infrastructure is still there. A first turn Arc-Slogger or Kumano is nothing to be ashamed of.
At first, I tested a mono-Red build that used Hanabi Blast as a means of dumping the Slaver in the ‘yard. (No, it didn’t work very well.) The deck really needed Blue as a means of recouping steam after playing out quick mana, and I was actually really surprised by how powerful the deck became after I switched to U/R. Here’s the build:
For all of you naysayers who believe Through the Breach is an awful card, you clearly never played with this deck. This deck was capabale of bordering on the degenerate. Goldfishes showed that I was getting at least turn 2 fat in as much as 30% of the games, with turn 3 fat showing up in as much as 60% of starting hands.
Don’t let the 31 mana sources throw you off – there are only 19 lands in the deck. If you’ve ever read Stephen Mennendian’s primer on the original Long.dec, you would know that effective and resilient combo decks often need extremely high mana counts. Those Desperate Rituals and Seething Songs proved to be quite useful, though, even if you drew them late game: they fueled Kumano and Slogger activations, allowed you to hardcast (and possibly even activate) Mindslaver, and the splice ability on Desperate Ritual meant that with two of them, you could end up almost doubling the mana production of four lands. (Two mana to play Desperate Ritual, two more to splice the second, producing six; play the second Ritual for a total of seven mana.)
Some may think that with the plethora of five-mana creatures available to Red, Through the Breach might be unnecessary. That notion ignores the full potential of TtB, though – it turned out to be a potent trick in general. It’s an instant, so dropping Arc-Sloggers and Kumanos in the middle of combat came as a real shock to some opponents. Playing Breach during an opponent’s EOT meant that an opponent had little time to address the newly laid monster before it started wrecking them when you untapped. [Just like with Astral Slide, end of turn effects don’t take effect until the next turn so when you Breach in a creature at your opponent’s EOT, it stays around until your EOT. – Knut, sure some might be confused] The Blue draw along with the Magma Jet’s scrying ability allowed for the deck to dig and manipulate enough to retain gas for later turns, after a Kumano or Slogger was going to town.
If you’ve been paying attention, you would know that the point of this deck was supposed to be getting a ‘Slaver lock. It happened fairly often with Arcane Slaver, in fact. Nonetheless, I kept wanting to side out the Bringers and Mindslavers for 2 Echoing Truth, 2 Heartless Hidetsugu, and 3 Bosh, Iron Golem; which made the deck just really, really mean. Bosh could actually be hardcast through Seething Song (and two meant you could do it using only three lands), and you only needed to connect twice before a sacked Bosh was lethal. In particular, Hidetsugu was psycho in this deck, since tapping him once could mean one successful hit from any creature in the deck put you in lethal range of Slogger shots. Other nice creature options were Magma Giant and Furnace Whelp, the latter being particular scary if it hit the opponent and would obviously easy to hardcast. Earthshaker and Ryusei, the Falling Star were great choices, too. In the end, Arcane Slaver suffered from the same problem as Nail Slaver, Grave Slaver and Proteus Slaver – it was better off not actually using the Slaver lock at all. [All these Red fatties make me wonder if Overblaze actually has a place… – Knut, familiar with Heartless + Overblaze in Limited]
One thing I did gain from this exercise was a particular insight that, in my opinion, was somewhat of a breakthrough. Throughout testing Arcane Slaver, more often than not I would have a White Bringer in the grip and nothing to do with it. Recalling that Fujita’s deck took advantage of fat creatures in hand with Blazing Shoal, I began to realize that pitching Bringer of the White Dawn to Shining Shoal was a pretty powerful maneuver. Considering that a White deck would have the proper manabase color to potentially cast the Bringer, I decided to try and avoid cheating the mana cost and use a slow, control frame instead:
Surprisingly enough, this worked rather nicely – I thought it would be too slow, but it proved to be very competitive. Between the the Wayfarer’s Baubles and Solemn Simulacrums, it wasn’t hard to finally reach the nine mana to hardcast a Bringer of the White Dawn, hardcasting and activating a Mindslaver along the way. Culling Scales was quite possibly the most amazing piece of tech in the deck, allowing you not only to slowly eat away at opponent resources while you Pulse away, but deal with opposing Genjus that tend to evade Wrath spells, equipment that stuck around after a Wrath or Final Judgement, and whatever else they would throw at you. Unfortunately, they had to be cut for Thirsts since the deck really needed some card draw, but the Scales would certainly occupy three sideboard slots, without question.
The deck certainly wasn’t impervious. Clearly, decks with either counterspells or discard clearly had an advantage in game one. One Persecute could put you out of the game. The blue splash for counterspells and Thirsts helped those matchups a bit, but you still don’t have the counterspell density that opposing Blue control decks have, and there’s only so much you can defend against 4 Distress and 4 Persecute. Ponza’s land destruction and Black’s Death Cloud tended to beat us back failry savagely as well. So while the deck had some very favorable matchups and served as a fairly strong control deck, it didn’t seem to have the necessary elements to compete in what will be a fairly fast-paced, high-disruption Standard. In a potential sideboard, though, Ivory Mask, Karma and Sacred Ground could help a lot in those matches. It remains to be seen how successful this deck could actually be, but out of all the decks, the Slaver lock seems like the best fit here.
In conclusion, I’ve noticed something rather interesting: Slaver might not be a very viable deck given the current environment, but as you can clearly see, I’ve outlined the fact that there are a number of ways to get fat creatures into play while cheating the mana costs, and the choice of said fatties is probably the largest and most robust it has ever been. Standard is probably ripe for some of these decks to see play, leveraging their infrastructure by eschewing slavery for a more consistent deck. T&N has already proved the power of bone-crunching creature fat can be an effective way to win; there’s no reason we can’t do the same in other colors now that Raffinity has been killed off.
That doesn’t mean you may never find yourself victimized by the Gleemax Cap. If I had to choose one of the above Slaver builds, I would have to say that Sunburst Slaver is the most reliable and probably the easiest to pilot without needing to take into account a particular metagame. However, Breach decks (sans slavery) have a lot of potential, and it might be worth it just to explore those instead.
Regardless of which Slaver build you opt to play, it is rewarding to know that you can still play Slaver without shelling out five grand for a set of the Power Nine, a playset of Mana Drains, several dual-lands and a few Intuitions. It might not be even remotely close in power level, but a flashy Slaver finish is still enough to say, “I own you, dude.”
P.S.: This article was brought to you by the encouragement of the Kidman-ogling Kanoot, who essentially challenged me to write an article. Thus, much of the mad props do have to go to Teddy Cardgame, who unknowingly directed me through a very enjoyable deckbuilding process. (Be sure to thank him with large checks made out to cash.) The rest of the mad props go to my pal Jimmy Katz and my charming wife Sari Malka for the playtesting opposition.
P.P.S.: I think I’ve been Cranial Extractioned so many times in the process of writing this article, I’ve gone nearly brain-dead. Unfortunately, it’s imossible to tell the difference.