Food For Thought: Witchety GWUB

Today, Talen brings us a fun deck with explosive potential… based aound a four-color creature from Guildpact. Can a Nephilim deck really do well in the evolving Standard metagame? Read on to find out…

I’ve found myself in an odd little niche on this here site here. Specifically speaking, I confine myself to the Standard card pool, but I write about casual decks. This means that I paint myself to Craig as neither fish nor fowl – I might have some legitimate tech, so I can go in the Standard area. But that tech might be in a deck that wants to swing with Mindleech Mass, which I’m fairly sure isn’t going to scare Burning-Tree Shaman*.

So, in my interesting state as some kind of writing snuffleupagus, I continue in my merry way and hope that people find something for them in this little diatribe. Apologies if I wax overenthusiastic about this particular little outing – perceptions are colored over time, and play results change as metagames shift.

First, though, I have to say – this format is an astonishingly diverse critter. These past few weeks since the release of Guildpact online (and is Dissension really only three weeks away? Holy mackerel) has been deck after deck after deck. Then the pros go and crack the format a bit, and wow, there are a lot more decks. Some of them have common ground with what I wanted to play. Even more mysteriously, they’re honed, focused, and absolutely ridiculous in the casual room even when you strip away expensive cards. By absolutely ridiculous, I mean you never are left with a feeling of “well, of course I lost – my deck sucks.” No, there’s always some feeling of power tingling in your fingertips, making it feel like you could have played better, you could have won with more refined play, and ultimately, it’s not the deck, it’s you.

As a player, especially one practicing to get better, you want that feeling a lot. It’s the best way to get better. Jokes about ham sandwiches aside, you want to make sure you take a gun to knife fights when you’re a tournament-goer, because you know damn well everyone else is going to want to pack one. You’d better make sure you shoot straighter.

Since release week, prices have stabilised. This helps me a lot – I no longer have people quoting me ridiculous prices for non-Shrine cards. Some cards with no tournament pedigree at all are seeing high prices, and cards that warrant good rates because of their relatively obvious ridiculousness are in fact being sacked down in price because they’re “probably” bad. Hatching Plans and Ghostway should not sell for 2 each, but at the same time, I think selling Debtor’s Knell for a mere 2 is also being disingenuous.

(Side note; Lay the hell off Ben Bleiweiss for Knell. It’s not that expensive.)

In my set review, I did a cursory outline of this article writing about the Nephilim. It was eventually cut – by me – for being both boring and untested. But the Nephilim interest me – they entrance me as someone who has been playing four-color decks of late and knows how reliable your mana base can be.

I honestly thought, looking at the Nephilim, that the Dune Brood was going to be my favorite. It did the job I wanted to do, and was a 3/3 for 4, instead of the somewhat weenier brothers he had. Dune Brood has indeed undergone a bit of testing on my end – and it’s testing that is constrained by my budget. Dangit. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to play the game with playsets of duals and their ilk, since Dune-Brood loves land-based acceleration; but I’m just not in the market for that kind of wallet-punching.

But, this is not to be the case eternal. Oh no. See, while Dunebrood wants a whole variety of spells to work with him, his lesser brother is, in fact, quite happy to hang out “in the ghetto.”

That’s right. Witch-Maw Nephilim.

Unnecessary History Lesson To Pad The Article
I’m sure everyone, everywhere, anywhere, who knows about Magic knows about sickestever.dec. It was – for everyone reading this who I just clarified into nonexistance – an aggro-control deck from the Extended era that included Ice Age and Mirage blocks, that built itself on the foundation of abusing Quirion Dryad, or one of its Threshold creatures, while using the Mercadian Masques free spells to counter threats to your Dryad, draw cards, or just generally go berserk. Even sicker, however, was that it ran Winter Orb. So while you were being eaten by a two-mana 7/7 creature (whoops, it’s a 9/9 by now), you were untapping one land at a time, and your opponent’s grip was full to bursting, with their land drops nearly guaranteed.

Oh, it was a bastard of a deck to fight.

Eventually, the format rotated and the deck died, smoothly transitioning into Vintage, where it got a card restricted (Gush, natch, being both Blue and cheap making it totally broken in the land of the Free Spell), and into Legacy, which used it for a while, but ultimately, opted for “better” builds that featured no more Dryad, but instead ran better (!!!) dudes, like Werebear, who doesn’t care if the spells are cast before, or after him.

Anyway, so this was sickestever; also known as Super Gro, Miracle Gro, Gro-A-Tog and it was just a pig of a deck. For all that I malign the deck, though, it’s a blast to play. Any control player can marvel at how safe your Dryads are, even in a world that has Swords to Plowshares and Force of Will. Aggro players will boggle at how fast you deploy a 5/5 or bigger, and how your game plan focuses on it just turning sideways. Combo players could feel the sick sensation of realising that every card combo’d with every other card, and realise they were playing a 60-card pile of Combo that was even capable of winning in one huge, grotesque turn.

It was also doable in pre-rotation Extended. If you have a post-rotation extended decklist for it, I’d be very interested – the deck is nothing short of magnificence in action.

But what of Standard? Well, I feel that Standard has given us the spiritual successor to this particular bit of evil brilliance – and it’s proven astonishingly resilient to opposition. My initial experiments were to find a casual deck, but, to my total astonishment, I instead stumbled upon something that I see beating up fully-powered decks.

That Maw, Stupid
The Witch-Maw Nephilim feels just wrong, compared to Quirion Dryad. Quirion Dryad costs two. Quirion Dryad costs one colored mana, making her so much easier to cast. Quirion Dryad doesn’t mind being played off Mana Drain mana, or off an off-color land or Moxen. Quirion Dryad encourages you to grow her, and Quirion Dryad had free spells. Plus, she was a curvy chick.

Witch Maw Nephilim looks like Grandma’s dentures being stolen by the tongue from the Toohey’s Quest Ad. To explain that Cultural Reference, just envision a tongue crawling out of a man’s mouth to go get a beer. Now envision that tongue, with a vast, saliva-filled maw, drooling quietly, while wearing Grandma’s dentures – not unlike Grandma wearing Grandma’s dentures.

Not a pretty sight, is it?

For all that he is an ugly bugger, Witch-Maw Nephilim can do something Quirion Dryad couldn’t do, except for those lists that attempted to marry her to Armadillo Cloak (cute guys, but isn’t winning better?). He can trample.

I must confess, I have had many games playing this deck where I have been finding myself glad for the electronic interface of Magic Online. Because I sit there giggling like a goddamned fool, laughing myself silly at the sheer ridiculousness of what happens. Mulligan to four? No problem, let’s see where we wind up. One-land hand? Sure.

I suppose after all this pimping, you’ll want to see the deck, yes?

Yes. 21 lands. As you’ll find when 2/3rds of your deck cantrips, you can run a rather skimpy mana base. The thing that terrifies me about this deck is how often it’s mana-flooded, not mana-screwed. With twenty-one mana sources and an insane fifteen cheap cantrips, you can find yourself hitting pockets of land more often than you do spells. In this instance, that’s a damn shame.

See, Witchy doesn’t mind if you feed him with any color of card. Suddenly, green spells that go and fix your mana base are as good as counterspells to this Neo-Dryad. Now, some notes for the deck.

The Manabase: This one is, for better or for worse, up to what your wallet can handle. However, you want to curve up your spells, so you don’t want to run Karoos, nor do you want to run the tempo-killing Kamigawa depletion lands. As unpleasant a truth as it is, a playset of Yavimaya Coasts and the odd dual would not be out of place in this deck. I’m still sold on Sakura-Tribe Elder, because while you feel no need to rush to a particular mana amount, you do want to be able to play Nephilim plus Cantrip as soon as possible once you get your colors online. So Farseek plus Duals mightn’t be a better idea, but I’m also not entirely sure that I won’t miss the occasional card advantage the Elder gives you. Elder blocks just fine, and given your cantrip base, you can keep yourself entertained on turn 2 holding mana open for (say) Telling Time and Quicken, without needing to pop your Elder as soon as possible

Plains essentially tap for colorless mana in this build. Swamps are useful for casting Shadow of Doubt and Nephilim. This means that if you’re going sorcery-speed pump with Kodama’s Reach, Sleight of Hand, and Sakura-Tribe Elders, to lead up to a king hit from the Nephilim, then you tap the White and Black sources first, given they are of minimal value. However, if you’re going for your opponent’s end of turn step, your plan is instead to use the Green sources as colorless, since you have no Green instants in the deck, in this build, unless you’re using Chord – and you want to map any turn that involves that carefully. Specifically, you do not chord out a Nephilim naked. Ever. You always want to have the gas to play another instant in response to anything. If you see Mountains and Plains, or Swamps, you want to play two more instants. Have the bullets in the chamber before you go for the Nephilim.

The Nephilim: I was running four originally, and Chord of Calling to cheat on his colors, but while it was great for dumping him into play end-of-turn, you don’t want to hold two of these guys with one already on the table. Clutch of the Undercity is your virtual Nephilim four and five; no need to get cuter than that.

Originally, the deck ran Orochi Leafcaller as a way to ignore the Nephilim’s cost, but they always wound up being totally irrelevant, as the Reaches put the non-major colors online. More often than not, Reach just says “1G, thin your deck a bit.” So while your creature base is light, you’ll find them fairly easily, and, in fact, more commonly, find yourself with a backup in hand that you don’t want to cast.

Deckthinning: Deckthinning doesn’t do much in most decks. If you’re drawing naturally, a single land from your deck won’t make a difference till something like your fortieth draw, which is way too long to matter. However, this deck will routinely see 20-40 cards in the space of a game. This means that if you can pull lands out of your deck before you go cantrip-nuts, you should.

Cantrips: There are a bunch of good cantrips in Standard right now. We’re not quite in the era of Repulse and its demon cousin Exclude, but the format has a handful of good cantrips. My plan for this deck was to hell with subtlety, and instead, charge in, balls out and guns blazing. The only concession the deck has for protecting its Nephilim from non-damaging removal is Remand – which is, of course, not very good in the long game.

Also, you have very few ways of recouping card advantage. Let me make that very clear. No matter how many cards you draw with the ‘trips, you are not gaining cards. You’re running on the spot, and you do it for two reasons – to look for something (Nephilim) or to go berserk once you’ve found him. So you do not extend into Wraths. You do not play a second Nephilim unless doing so wins you the game this turn. You do not walk into mass removal spells, or ways of giving your opponent cards. It’s just bad practice. Use your Compulsive Researches carefully – they’ll get you out of mana flood a lot of the time.

Furthermore, you have such an insane cantrip base, that barring for two or three truly ridiculous circumstances, you will always be able to rebuild. If a Nephilim is removed, and you don’t have the counter, or the counter will merely protect him long enough to get in for a non-lethal attack, don’t bother. Save the counter, dig for another Witchy. You can play the long game, sculpting a hand like Astral Slide did – don’t waste your load of cards banking on the top card of your library to bail you out.

That said, I use the cantrips I do in this set because the MTGO Casual Room format is defined by aggressive creature-based decks and primarily non-counter based control. Those counterspell decks that exist tend to be either light on win conditions, or grossly out of place in the casual room. Shadow of Doubt does so much and so little at once – countering Gifts Ungiven is priceless. Shadow gives you tempo. That’s the most important thing about the card – Shadow buys you time. Shadowing any of the land search, tutors, or transmute effects does a great job of protecting your hiney.

Quicken is a relatively untested component of the deck. Simply put, it’s a one-mana cantrip. Sometimes, it’ll let you bust out a Compulsive Research in someone’s end step. Sometimes it’ll let you Kodama’s Reach, untap, and go barmy, but those times have so rarely cropped up for me in testing. Most of the time, it’s a Reach Through Mists. Also, because Quicken is rubbish, it’s nice and cheap on the pocketbook as well as the mana base. I have had one turn versus Heartbeat of Spring, where – with an Island and a Forest – they dropped a Heartbeat. In their end step, I Quickened, cast Kodama’s Reach, untapped, laid the land, cast a Nephilim, and Repealed the Heartbeat. Not a bad turn, that one.

Oh, yes, and before I forget. Never remove Repeal from this deck. Repeal answers so many problems. Leylines, troublesome creatures, turn 1 Birds of Paradise, Burning-Tree Shaman, Rumbling Slum, and sometimes it just clears out a blocker so you can swing for the fences. Faiths’ Fetters sucks pretty hard when it puts your opponent two life ahead and no cards instead of four life; Repeal answers common foils for your Nephilim, is very cost effective for cantrip bounce, and can make every solution “bad” for your opponent.

The Demon Of Small Minds
The thing that ultimately gave me that creeping “tournament” feeling along the back of my neck is that most terrifying demon. Consistency. This deck wasn’t just smashing my opponents in the casual room; it was playing out similarly every time. Turn 1 cantrip, turn 2 Elder, turn 3 Remand and cantrip, or Reach, turn 4 some more cantrips, turn 5 Nephilim-and-go-nuts. Nephilim would not see my opponent’s untap step without being 5/5s or 7/7s, and it made me a lot less frightened about the apparent vulnerability of the creature.

Pure, brute power is this deck’s offer. Against beatdown decks, you just ignore them for a bit – and most beatdown decks are running bigger threats nowadays, like Sunhome Enforcer and Yosei and the like – and then rampage over the top with an enormous trampler. Few aggro decks can remove a Nephilim who’s gone large, and even fewer can do it through countermagic. Control decks – now that Wrath of God is seeing play – are actually scarier.

Common Questions, Common Answers
Before I can say that this deck has the potential to be a good FNM deck, however, I have to look at the gauntlet. In deck design, that’s harder to do; I simply do not have the cards, or the time to really test it. My only potential forum is the Tournament Practice Room on MTGO, which is calmly laughed at by those who know it, or Premier Events.

Love you all, but I’m not paying money to test this deck right now – especially since that doesn’t give you consistent testing. However, I can offer some theoretical answers here.

Standard right now – if you will ignore briefly the strange idea that you fight decks rather than cards – has a number of cards which, in and of themselves, require some acknowledging before you can determine if the deck has any play.

Umezawa’s Jitte
The pointy fork of doom has only two things it can do to you – make you fall short on a Nephilim Charge by gaining some life, or by killing a Nephilim in response to some counter-related shenanigans. Now, nobody saves the counters on their Jittes unless they’re saving up to kill something that they absolutely, honest-to-yahweh, have to kill. So you only have to worry about that first counter.

The solution is simple. Don’t blink.

You don’t drop a Nephilim naked, anyway.

If your opponent tries to kill a Nephilim with a Jitte counter, you respond with an instant. If you’re dropping a Nephilim while holding nothing but land and sorceries, chances are you’ve lost anyway. Then they’ll remove another counter. Here’s where you need to produce the peonies to cast another instant. But the important thing is make them start it.

You can also bounce a Jitte, or its wielder, to prevent the counters accruing. I can’t assume you’ll always have the Repeals on hand, but it’s there as a strategy. If you go bare-assed and drop a Nephilim on turn 3, and your opponent on their turn 4 makes a Jitte, you don’t necessarily have that many problems, if you went first. Then you have an untap step to leisurely massacre whatever plan they had with counters and cantrips. But, if you didn’t, then you’re in a bit of trouble. In which case… don’t drop the damn Nephilim naked. If they have an active creature on the board on turn 3, you don’t raw-dog the Nephilim and pray for rain.

Ghost Council of Orzhova, Kokusho, Yosei, Loxodon Hierarch, Angel of Despair, Partridge In A Pear Tree
These guys for the better part represent the exact same thing to the Witch-Maw. A speed-bump. The only one of these who can seriously affect your game plan is the Angel of Despair, and her way of doing it is by killing the Witch-Maw.

If your opponent can do that before your Witch-Maw has eaten the better part of their head, and you have no way of preventing it, I’m surprised. Ultimately, with Standard the wild and crazy place it is, this is likely going to be a pain in the ass, but hey.

So the game plan: Roll over the top of the silly sods!

Greater Good
This is one of the things that has me considering Seed Spark and Faith’s Fetters for the sideboard. Fetters is so good at stemming early rushes from Aggro, and turning off important, powerful cards like this one.

Against the Good itself, you can just snigger and hit them. But the Good is not the sole problem – the Good indicates you’ll be seeing a Yosei who will die on command, instead of dying when you swing over his head and beat down hard on your opponent’s skull. That’s going to be the end of you.

Against Good, you want speed. For the better part, Greater Good doesn’t pack a lot of powerful answer cards, and you have some countermagic to get the GG player to rack off for a while – not a lot, I know. In this kind of matchup, an Ivory Mask would be sweet if they weren’t packing infi enchantment-destroying effects.

Greater Good, very simply, is in the “Eek” category. I haven’t seen a lot of it lately, but that might just be Guildpact getting people to stop paying attention to it for a bit – it might well just be as fine as it was before. The trick is going to be dodging it, Ruel-like, and then dealing with it impressively when you do hit it.

Pillory, Faith’s Fetters
Answers that aren’t. Just grow your Nephilim while you wait for your repeals to show up, bounce the enchantment, and kill them.

Eek. An actual answer. You have to Repeal this one, but you don’t nearly have as much time to do it. It costs a meaty amount, so it won’t come online too fast, unless your opponent is playing a fast, Izzetron-style build of deck. The simple answer is hope like hell you don’t have to deal with it. Eminent Domain might still be a contender – and if it is, it will eat Witch-Maw alive.

Plain-Out Removal Spells
Of these, there are two that are seeing play. Mortify and Putrefy. You got nothing. Let ‘em hit, make another Nephilim, and swing for the win in one big turn. You really can’t fight hard removal, of which there isn’t too much right now. Fortunately, they’re also not that common – you’d be surprised how few decks are actually packing the cards – which still confuses me.

Oh yes, and Sickening Shoal can be a complete frown.

These are the cards that define the deck’s Achilles Heel. It’s threat-light, in every sense of the word. With a virtual four Witch-Maws, it really plays like a combo deck, and if your combo gets farted out… well, you’re screwed. Suck it up and move on to the next game.

Sword and Board
There’s no sideboard for this deck right now. If I were to make one, I know that Overwhelming Intellect would own a place. Nightmare Void, while pricey, might be an option to keep the path clear for the Nephilim and providing late-game plays for the Nephilim, but if you prefer a more common style of thumping your opponent in the nose, the Honden of Night’s Reach should do the trick. Dredge spells have nice synergy and all, but there aren’t so many that advance your actual gameplan.

This deck is a total blast to play, but you have to be willing to play aggro-control as aggro-control. It’s like riding a Graveborn Muse – you are playing a dangerous game, riding a very fast car with the brakes off. Just kill your opponent before your deck breaks down, and you should be fine. It’s scary how easy that rule is.

One final note: This is the deck that Chris Romeo was talking about in his interview with Vrax. Now that I have advertised for two other fine writers for This Here Site Here, I think my obligatory pimping duties are done. Yoiks, and Away!

Hugs and kisses
Talen Lee
talen at dodo dot com dot au

* Note, if someone winds up winning a PT with this, you heard it from me first.