Food For Thought: Simic Serow – UG for Standard

You’ve spent last few months slaving over the intricacies of this game we call Magic. You’ve been building delicious-looking decks all on your lonesome and, then, when said decks crumple up before Heartbeat, that Heeziest of streets, or — God forbid — both, you’ve been forced to mix them into the fruity filling of that humble pie you’re working on. I know how it is. Trust me, I’ve been there.

I suspect that I owe you an explanation.

You’ve spent last few months slaving over the intricacies of this game we call Magic. You’ve been building delicious-looking decks all on your lonesome and, then, when said decks crumple up before Heartbeat, that Heeziest of streets, or – God forbid – both, you’ve been forced to mix them into the fruity filling of that humble pie you’re working on. I know how it is. Trust me, I’ve been there. Just not lately.

Lately, I’ve been folkloring my patookie off. Yes, that patookie. And someday soon, I’ll be bearing the fruits of my labor for all to gaze at in wonder. But not quite yet. There is, however, some good news hidden in the rough of these jumbled metaphors. I’m truly excited about Dissension. Sure, I’ve worked half-heartedly on some decks during my absence from this website, but they’ve never really amounted to anything. I still have a soft spot for my numerous Into the Web of War contraptions, and some of them might even have ended up playable with enough extra testing and fine-tuning, yet now that Dissension’s on my mind, I just can’t bear thinking about Into the Web of War anymore. If you really want to know, the great – and most annoying – thing about this particular Red enchantment is that it works amazingly with both small creatures (tokens and the ones you need in the early game but hate to topdeck later) and large creatures (the ones that everybody would be playing if they had haste and didn’t die to removal as soon as your opponent untapped). Sure, 8/4 North Trees and 10/8 Forces of Nature are fine, and turning all of your bears into temporary 4/2s is even dandier, but somehow, Dissension just blows it all away. That, and the fact that, in this paragraph alone, I used three different “bear” homonyms.

Anyway, to cut a long story shorter, one Dissension card that’s really caught my eye is Coiling Oracle. This snake of ours is a strange concoction. On the one hand, it will always act as an improved Merchant of Secrets or much-improved Flash Foliage. When you get lucky though, it will one-up Sakura-Tribe Elder. The trouble here is that very few players want to run Merchant of Secrets-style effects to begin with; in any case, if they do, they’ll gladly splurge on that extra mana and buy themselves a Carven Caryatid, a creature which can actually do something besides chump block. As for the Sakura-Tribe Elder side of the bargain, the types of decks which want mana acceleration will usually want mana-fixing as well and will need a reliable accelerant, not one which might just piss up a redundant copy of the as-of-yet-uncastable game winning spell. Coiling Oracle can do a number of things for your deck, but it won’t always do what you want it to.

Just like everyone else who doesn’t have a reputation to get hung up on, my first thought upon seeing Coiling Oracle was, “Woah! Time to dust off the Stampeding Serows!” This was, of course, only figurative. Suffice it to say, my Serows are never dusty for long. Anyway, I knocked up a decklist lickety-split. It contained all of my usual companions for Stampeding Serow, all of those comes-into-play (CIP) creatures which act like non-creature spells but make keeping track of the game state so much easier on account of their not being instants. I liked what I saw and was ready to get hold of the necessary cards for testing against Rasmus or J.K. Then, to my enormous chagrin, I realized that Coiling Oracle was the only Blue card in the deck, and whatever card advantage it brought me would be negligible compared with the burden it would place on my manabase. Although Stampeding Serow and Coiling Oracle is a combo, it’s not a terribly impressive one. You don’t want to build a deck around it. Sometimes, I even get the sneaking feeling that I only build Stampeding Serow decks in order to play five-power tramplers for four mana. Prior to Ravnica, Stampeding Serow wasn’t able to cut the sennep, not even with all the spiritcraft in the spirit-world. One problem was the lack of a replacement for the historic Stupid Green’s Wall of Blossoms. At the time, I reasoned that even though Serow plus Eternal Witness was godly, Witness was simply too costly and too fragile to support an entire deck, and Haru-Onna didn’t deserve to see the light of day. Coiling Oracle isn’t any less fragile than Witness, but it is cheaper to cast, a benefit that is counterbalanced by its inferior CIP effect. Would I still rather have Wall of Blossoms around, a card that can block as well as draw cards? You bet.

Now, Carven Caryatid is nowhere near as good with Stampeding Serow as Wall of Blossoms would be. When Ravnica was released, I never gave the card a second thought in this context, not because it isn’t fun to bounce but because it isn’t sufficiently fun to bounce to make a deck worthwhile. Although Serow will be a five-power beater no matter what, there are so many playable five-power beaters out there that one is loathe to either 1) play one with a mana-consuming disability or 2) play one which requires the dilution of a deck’s aggro power. This all changes with the addition of Coiling Oracle to the card pool. Playing both Coiling Oracle and Carven Caryatid in a Serow deck gives you more redundancy than the landlord’s daughter gets on a busy night. Putting a four-set of walls in an aggro deck isn’t often a smart idea. Putting in two four-sets of walls might appear even worse on the face of it, but having either Oracle or Caryatid out alongside Serow will be monumental, and those extra CIP creatures make the likelihood of assembling your “combo” all that much greater.

Assuming Serow, Caryatid, and Oracle as the basis for a deck, there are a number of different directions we can go in. I’m actually pretty certain that the direction I chose to test isn’t the best one, yet it may be the one that’s best at helping us get a handle on the new set. As I see it, here are the main possibilities:

  • Play GU Serow, splashing White for Loxodon Hierarch. This is the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to being able to recreate Stupid Green, although it’s a bit disturbing that this deck would be three-colored, not mono-colored. Such a deck focuses on CIP effects. Loxodon Hierarch is an absolute monster to begin with, and only gets better with Serow. Unfortunately, the White splash compromises the manabase a bit, and one can question the value of playing a life-gain creature when choosing to play it means the inclusion of more pain lands. Even if the deck is relatively light in Blue, due to Coiling Oracle, you still want Blue mana early. Another benefit to the splash is Congregation at Dawn.
  • Play GU Serow with a humongous monster aggro-plan. Mana acceleration leads to quick a Serow/Giant Solifuge/Kodama of the North Tree/Simic Sky Swallower. Simic Guildmage combined with Moldervine Cloak and minor elements of graft help to turn your untargetables into unstoppables. This is the deck that I turned my attention to rather early on. It pleases my outer Timmy and it still might be the best option.

You’ll just have to read the rest of the article…

In tooling around with deck #2, I ran into a bit of a problem. I liked the idea of using Simic Guildmage to boost already magnificent monsters, but I quickly discovered that it was either Moldervine Cloak or nothing, since graft is only a truly powerful mechanic when it’s out in force. Now, even though Moldervine Cloak is fantastic and all, it isn’t great enough to make you want to use up slots on a card like Simic Guildmage. Additionally, the enchantment is sub-par with Serow. If targeted removal means that you’ll have to bounce a creature grafted with +1/+1 counters during your upkeep, it’s no great loss. Those +1/+1 counters had been on another creature (a creature with graft) to begin with, and this initial creature certainly declined in quality upon gifting +1/+1 counters to the soon-to-be-bounced creature, but at least no card disadvantage is accrued. Also, Simic Guildmage is all-too-necessary to this plan. The creatures you’ll least want to bounce are your mammoths, the very ones which – excluding Serow – are untargetable. The possibility of a 7/4 Giant Solifuge or 9/7 North Tree is exciting. It just isn’t very reliable, and the last thing a removal-free Green-Blue deck wants is an unadorned Giant Solifuge.

The Deck

With this in mind, I attempted to build something that was heavier on the graft. I ended up with this:

I have not built or tested with a sideboard. [I’d think about 4 Yavimaya Coasts, but that’s just me… – Craig.]

The above deck is not nearly as explosive as what option #2 would have given me. It is, however, far more consistent. While nowhere near as good as Loxodon Hierarch all on its lonesome, Cytoplast Root-Kin is a powerhouse here. Eleven other cards in the deck produce +1/+1 counters. An opening of, for example, turn 1 Llanowar Elves, turn 2 Plaxcaster Frogling, and turn 3 Cytoplast Root-Kin is capable of outsizing the dreaded Heezy Street itself. Nor is this the ideal way of beginning a game. The point is, even when you don’t find the Serow engine in your opening hand, even when your deck isn’t working ideally, its backup plan is solid. I would never suggest that the brute size on display in a GU graft deck is superior to the combination of size and burn that Heezy Street can throw around. Where, however, pure aggro decks tend to be topdecking before they know it, Simic Serow is most robust in the mid- and late-games. A deck like Heezy Street is going to have to hope that the early damage it can get in will be enough to let eventual burn finish up the job.

When your back’s against the wall, Cytoplast Root-Kin is no Spike Feeder or Spike Weaver. When you have some creatures on the board, though, it’s far superior, and seeing as this deck is nothing but creatures, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. It might seem odd to make an all-creature deck when Simic has so many interesting spells at its disposal. Where’s Voidslime? For that matter, where’s Plaxmanta?

I have no trouble saying that Plaxmanta is my favorite card in Dissension. It does exactly what I want a creature to do, and Plaxcaster Frogling will rarely be countering any spells even though its presence on the board might save a few of your creatures. The problem is that Stampeding Serow decks aren’t too friendly to instants, especially not counterspells, which are, in a sense, at the mercy of your opponent’s sense of timing. It’s not merely that you usually use most of your mana during your own turn, either re-casting a creature or toying with Simic Guildmage; you frequently be use it before combat to draw a card with Carven Caryatid, or pump your army with Cytoplast Root-Kin. Unlike Plaxmanta, Plaxcaster Frogling has utility even when it isn’t countering anything.

As hinted above, Stampeding Serow should be seen as a finisher as much as a CIP enabler. Even when it’s just a 5/4 with trample, it’s way above the curve. The deck’s true game-ender is, however, Kodama of the North Tree, and although it’s obviously best when stocked with +1/+1 counters, I don’t cry when it’s merely a 6/4. In contrast to some other legendary creatures, like Experiment Kraj or, to a lesser degree, Keiga, the Tide Star, drawing multiple copies Kodama of the North Tree is not card disadvantage. Whereas Keiga and the old Krajer can be chump-blocked until the cows come home, so long as North Tree keeps attacking, you’re going to win in short order. The important point here is not to be overly protective of your key assets. I’ve found in testing that once you reach the mid-game, you’re spoiled for monsters. Serow, North Tree, Vinelasher Kudzu, and Plaxcaster Frogling all have a tendency to be bigger than the opposition, so if your opponent kills North Tree or Serow with a suicidal double block, the board’s going to be open for your high-power non-tramplers. In a way, Serow also needs to be seen as legendary since you’ll rarely want two in play at once. This doesn’t mean that you should never play out a second Serow, just that when you do, you should make sure to attack with the first one. It should be noted that, against most decks, both North Tree and Serow are un-Keigable. [Now that’s a word! – Craig.]

Novijen, Heart of Progress is beautiful in this deck, as you always have creatures popping into play due to card drawing and Serow. If you have the mana to spare, it’s sometimes even a good idea to pump something like Carven Caryatid that you plan to bounce next turn, in order to shift that +1/+1 counter with Simic Guildmage. You will never need more than one Novijen at a time, and if this deck’s mana wasn’t so good already, I’d feel fine about dropping down to two copies of this land. Indeed, I might remove a land – probably an Island – from the deck in future testing. For the initial testing, I wanted to play it safe on the mana, especially since, given time, this deck will supply you more cards in hand than you can possibly play, no matter how many elves you have out. Unfortunately, not all metagames consist of decks that are willing to give you this time, and if the playing field is heavy with Heezy Street and Rakdos, I’d definitely suggest testing with one less land. What to replace the land with is another matter. Because this is an abnormal deck, some of the possibilities are rather abnormal as well. On the shortlist are Trygon Predator, Dryad Sophisticate, Peel from Reality, Cytoshape, and Trophy Hunter, although it should be remembered that these options have not yet been tested. Obviously, if you put one of these in, you might feel like tinkering with the rest of the deck as well since only Dryad Sophisticate is redundant to what you already have.

If this deck weren’t consuming so much mana, I’d put in multiple copies of the underused Trophy Hunter in a heartbeat. At 2/3, Trophy Hunter is just barely really below the curve, and it can really irritate some Rakdos and Azorius aggro decks. The +1/+1 counters are clearly a bonus. Trygon Predator would be a more solid choice, and you’ll certainly want some combination of this and Indrik Stomphowler in the sideboard. Although Cytoshape and Peel from Reality are interesting, in a deck like this, your opponent is definitely going to realize you have some trick if Plaxcaster Frogling isn’t in play and you’re not tapping out every turn. Besides that, Peel from Reality – despite wrecking Rakdos and probably granting you card advantage – might just be too tricky for its own good. As mentioned above, Dryad Sophisticate is the safest option since it merely duplicates Vinelasher Kudzu’s role. In my first build of this deck, there were three Dryads but no Kudzus at all. Once, however, I’d decided on Cytoplast Root-Kin, the relative superiority of the Kudzu became clear. When you already have large tramplers, unblockability loses some of its virtue. Another possibility is to find a way of including Patagia Viper, and if I were building a purely casual deck, this oddball Snake would undoubtedly make an appearance. For now, however, this option is more cute than competitive.

The Match-Ups

I don’t think anyone has a secure handle on what the post-Dissension Standard metagame is going to look like. Mike Flores is acting all greasy about Simic, but Rakdos and Azorius seem like they can produce stellar aggro decks as well. This is something of a surprise since, previously, only four other guilds in Ravnica block had produced “their own” successful decks (Boros, Orzhov, Selesnya, and Gruul). Rakdos is definitely going to be a challenge for both Combo and Control, which is a good thing since Simic Serow has no chance whatsoever against Heartbeat. Barring an explosive Pride of the Clouds start, our deck has a chance at racing Azorius aggro, and Arashi, the Sky Asunder/Trophy Hunter out of the sideboard is truly menacing. In any case, I haven’t had the opportunity to do testing against the entire field (for example, Ghazi Chord and the booming Ghost Husk).

The Rakdos match-up is intriguing because this guild’s strategy is so focused, meaning there are a multitude of powerful cards competing for the two- and three-drop slots. For our purposes, the vexed three-drop question is most important. In what proportions will Rakdos be running Hypnotic Specter; Avatar of Discord; Rakdos Augermage; Lyzolda, the Blood Witch; and Rakdos Ickspitter? With the exception of this final creature, these are all absolutely stunning. Against Simic Serow pre-sideboarding, Avatar of Discord is simply unbeatable. Hypnotic Specter and Rakdos Augermage are bad news, but at least you should have the card drawing and the ground power to make a game of it. Hopefully, the appeal of low-mana aggro will keep Lyzolda from appearing in too large a number. For the Rakdos player, however, I think this is a mistake. Lyzolda absolutely begs to be targeted by removal, and when you’ve opened with the likes of Gobhobbler Rats and Dark Confidant, there’s nothing wrong with letting your opponent spend mana and a spell on destroying your three-drop. Furthermore, if some idiot like me decides to play a deck without removal, Lyzolda helps Rakdos go long. Simply, this is one of the best creatures you could ask for and, with three power, she can mess around in combat with nearly everything at a comparable casting cost. The question of “should I wait to play Lyzolda until I have open mana left over?” is somewhat academic, as Rakdos players will often have another three-drop or two in hand anyway.

Not least because of Carven Caryatid, Simic Serow has a good game against Heezy Street, a deck that, itself, is less resilient to the ravages of Rakdos. Depending on your hand, it’s sometimes wise to chump block early. Since your mid- and late-games are so much stronger than your opponent’s, you want to avoid being burned out. Ghost Dad is a more complex match-up but also more in your favor. Pillory of the Sleepless doesn’t do much at all against your primary threats, you have multiple creatures which can stand up to Ghost Council of Orzhova, and your card drawing engine is superior to that of Tallowisp.

On the Control side of the metagame, you’re quite vulnerable to Vore’s Pyroclasm and mana disruption, even though you often get something into play that can survive Wildfire. Owl is not such a happy story. Even without opposing card drawers, Simic Serow often has a stocked hand. After sideboarding artifact destruction, the match-up should look a bit more favorable. Incidentally, Stampeding Serow is no friend of counterspells.

So, what’s the low-down on Simic Serow? Can it compete? I believe it can compete, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s a great deck to play in a fully competitive environment. A complete lack of removal is rarely a good thing, even assuming my philosophy that bigger threats are superior to answers. This philosophy worked better prior to emergence of Rakdos which primarily has small but devastating threats. It is, similarly, rather depressing to have no game at all against a popular deck like Heartbeat.

As I stated even before displaying my decklist, I’m not sure that this is the best way to go about abusing Stampeding Serow at the moment. It is, however, a great way of learning the power of the graft mechanic. Possibly, by weakening some of the deck’s individual card choices and including substandard graft creatures like Aquastrand Spider, the whole can be strengthened. It also might be better to turn back towards the huge monster plus Moldervine Cloak route.

There’s still a lot of folkloring left for me to do, and this Fall I’ll be leaving my natural element and starting a PhD in Ethnography at the University of Aberdeen. Still, however busy I may be, you can expect me to write about more Stampeding Serow antics.


Adam Grydehøj
[email protected]