In Limited, Green seems to be the odd man out. Red and Black have always offered drafters valuable removal, while White and Blue packed flyers, but Green tended to shuffle its feet and look morosely down on its collection of ground-pounders and mana acceleration. There are exceptions, as when Green suddenly found itself as the new top dog at killing off artifacts right in the middle of the artifact block, but more often it suffers from general anemia in the fields that drafters care about. Even though it was carrying its own weight in triple-Champions draft, it’s certainly fallen back into disfavor for the Champions-Champions-Betrayers environment.
But why? At first blush, it seems like Green may have actually improved with the infusion of Betrayers; there’s a playable common creature for every slot on your mana curve, from Child of Thorns up to Scaled Hulk (although I’m not the biggest fan of Harbinger of Spring), and it can now better handle fliers with Traproot Kami and Matsu-Tribe Sniper. Pound for pound, it also still offers some of the biggest bodies on the market, so where is it suddenly going wrong?
Where Green has lost its steam is in its relationship to the environment. In triple-Champions, Green was consistently able to use Sakura-Tribe Elder or Orochi Sustainer to accelerate into a handful of powerful four-drops that could outclass the smaller bear-sized creatures most other colors were running. With Betrayers, the format has slowed enough that busting out quick Orders of the Sacred Bell just isn’t as impressive as it used to be; these days, they’re more likely to just run up against a Takenuma Bleeder. Green is lacking in ways to get around obstructions like these, so it’s just forced to trade, or even worse, keep its creatures at home. What used to be the color’s marquee play has lost some of its value, so it’s natural that Green has thus lost some of its luster.
Still, that doesn’t mean Green has nothing worth offering. Even though some high-profile authors are completely averse to playing Forests, I find myself playing them a fair bit of the time. Perhaps I’m simply gravitating to the underdrafted color, but this has given me the opportunity to really dissect what makes Green tick – why it works when it does and what pulls it up short the rest of the time.
The modern Green deck has about one and a half game plans. The first is easy: play efficient men and smash with them. The problem is that this plan can be rather easily obstructed by opposing critters, even though they probably aren’t of as high a quality. With few ways to actively disrupt an opponent’s board, there’s not much you can do to stop your opponent from building up to a defense where no attack is quite worth the cost. Be it because it forces your creatures to trade with smaller ones or leaves you open to counter-attacking, trying to plow through isn’t an option. Making things worse, Green is lacking in ways to get out of such situations compared to other colors, particularly in the common slot, so these situations are harder to get out of.
Removal is the best example of a card that can stop a stalemate from forming, while fliers, fear creatures and direct damage spells are the traditional examples of cards that can close the deal after the ground gums up. Unfortunately, few of these come with the little Green symbols in the upper right. Lacking in both ways to keep the game from stalling out and ways to get it started again, it’s little wonder that Green seems to be coming up short.
Still, that doesn’t mean that game-breakers don’t exist for Forest-floppers. Although you may have to rely on your other color more often than not, certain other cards can become game-breakers when paired with the solid bodies that Green offers, and others that are usually only temporary fixes tend to be enough when you’re forcing through big enough chunks of damage.
I’ll get to those in a minute, but first let’s take a moment to look at what happens when Green goes savagely right. In a recent draft, I cracked Jugan, the Rising Star in my first pack and committed myself on the spot (although with the distaste for Green being what it is these days, I could have conceivably gotten the card third pick). Anyway, I ended up Green/Blue and won the draft with this:
Child of Thorns
Kami of the Hunt
Kami of the Hunt
Jugan, the Rising Star
Genju of the Cedars
Reach Through Mists
Honden of Seeing Winds
Honden of Life’s Web
Obviously, this deck was pretty atypical. Specifically, it had the ability to just say “Oops, I win!,” and spit out a quick Jugan, whether by Sustainer acceleration or a Lifespinner activation. The Lifespinner plan actually won me about half my games, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive (or effective) if not for the fact that dragons fly.
By flying, Jugan gives this deck the game-breaker that most Green decks lack – if the game goes long enough, you can just produce a gigantic flier and beat your opponent about the head and shoulders with it until they stop moving. A deck of generic ground-dwelling creatures, like Green usually offers, has trouble getting around other armies, but dragons tend not to have this problem, and so the deck as a whole no longer feels the problem as badly. (On a related note, notice the inclusion of Callous Deceiver over a River Kaijin that sat in the ‘board – Green’s men are more than capable of holding down the fort if necessary, and another potential flier was far more important than a big butt.)
People shy away from Jugan just because he commits you to Green, but the fact is that he helps solve Green’s main problem in and of himself. Not only that, but he resists most removal and gang-blocking by leaving a very angry army behind when he dies, so even then you’ll still be able to break through the walls your opponents set up. I still have no problems first-picking him, but if the rest of you insist on shipping him along, I’ll be happy to put him in my pile.
Sadly, you can’t just lucksack into a bomb that just happens to solve all your problems every draft. Here’s another of my Green decks, this time paired with Black, that didn’t fare so well, losing in the second round:
Kami of the Hunt
Horobi, Death’s Wail
Harbinger of Spring
Genju of the Fens
These decks are clearly two different animals. The second brings quality removal into the equation instead of evasion creatures, but both do attempt to manipulate Spirits to get ahead in the game while also applying efficiently-costed beaters to the opponent’s face. The G/U deck has a more powerful bomb (not to mention two ways to tutor for it), but the extended Soulshift capabilities of the G/B deck seem capable of overwhelming an opponent. Unfortunately for yours truly, that was not the case.
Don’t get me wrong; part of the responsibility for its failure falls upon a triple-mulligan into an opponent’s Umezawa’s Jitte, but that’s not the whole story. If you compare it to the first deck, you’ll see that while this specimen has the removal front pretty well covered, it is severely lacking in breakthrough potential. It’s easy for this deck to get tied up in a ground stall against a highly defensive position, as it did in the first game of the match that brutally concluded with the mull-mull-mull I mentioned above. Facing down a Kitsune Diviner and Moonlit Strider backed by a high life total, even though I was pinning a Kabuto Moth down with the Sniper, I couldn’t force through any significant damage – just three a turn from a Nezumi Ronin until Konda’s Hatamoto got in the way. Eventually Nighteyes the Desecrator showed up and I was slowly overwhelmed.
What I needed in that circumstance was something, anything that could help break past the obstructions my opponent had created. While I had plenty of medium-sized men, I couldn’t overcome the Strider and get a serious clock going. Although topdecking a removal spell would have helped, this stall was also my own fault; if I had better recognized this potential pitfall during deckbuilding, I would have maindecked a Serpent Skin instead of forcing Harbinger of Spring or Waking Nightmare into a spirit/arcane theme that wasn’t very strong to begin with. (Yes, I’m stains et cetera, but I’m learning. To my slight credit, I did end up boarding it in both matches.) Serpent Skin on a medium-to-large sized dude creates breakthrough potential in the form of a battering ram that just keeps plowing in and soaking up blockers or life point.
Also note that even a regular pump spell could have helped one of my beaters break down the Strider, or a Matsu-Tribe Decoy could have tied it up sufficiently to reduce my opponent below the eight that he stabilized at, which could have forced bad blocks and sacrifices that could have kept the game in my control. Without the life cushion he had, my opponent wouldn’t have had the time to sink the necessary mana into flipping Nezumi Graverobber, which would have changed the dynamic of the entire game. Because Green creatures generally hit harder than other colors’, even a one-time solution like a Kodama’s Might or a kamikaze Decoy can let you drop your opponent low enough that their hand is forced on later turns.
Just by way of comparison, the first deck I listed has several ways to keep pushing through a stalemated position: Jugan, as described above; Soratami Mirror-Guard, both as a flier and an evasion producer; Genju of the Cedars, for a stream of 4/4s willing to keep costing your opponent resources; Unchecked Growth, to trample up a Spirit and spill over lethal damage; Budoka Pupil, to build up a couple counters and then confuse opposing math; and Honden of Seeing Winds sets up long term card advantage that can slowly overwhelm an opponent. (Notice how none of these are Green commons?) Granted, these all “play fair” – you still have to turn guys sideways to get the W – but you take what you can get sometimes. It’s still a sight better than the second deck, which only has Horobi (who dies to anything that looks at him) and the Genju as legitimate game-breakers. Not to undercut the removal, of course, but if the hole it created were patched by some other creature, this deck would still be out of luck.
The moral of these little examples is that, while Green certainly isn’t the best color these days, it’s certainly workable; it has good tools, but needs a little more help to make them work right. This help can come from other Green cards, although those are harder to find, or from the other color in your deck. This is an instance of the need to draft the cards you need for your deck, as opposed to always taking the empirically best card overall. This is a tactic generally seen when drafting a specific archetype, but it is applicable here as well – Green almost is an archetype unto itself. The cards I’m going to talk about are some of the lesser cards that will often be overlooked, and they shouldn’t become your first picks once you’ve committed to Green, but you should be aware of the need for these types of roleplayers and think more about picking them up as your draft progresses.
As I’ve been saying, Green itself finds these kinds of card fairly thin on the ground, especially at the common level, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Aside from standard pump spells that you should already be looking for, Serpent Skin and Matsu-Tribe Decoy, as mentioned above, are the two best examples. The Decoy will let your other creatures sneak around the biggest of blockers while the Skin can enable you to just batter them down. Still, anything even resembling evasion is viable and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t once board in a Jukai Messenger for the Green/Red mirror-match. It worked, too; that guy was a Lava Axe and a half in a game that would probably have otherwise taken forever. Moss Kami is also big and tramply, but he’s already highly valued; just keep doing what you’re doing with him.
Thankfully, Green uncommons have a little more to offer, and since the color’s popularity is at a wane, these may be easier to come by than usual. The well-documented Strength of Cedars will probably be stolen and splashed by other players, but heavy-commitment cards like Budoka Pupil will get passed and can prevent games from ever getting to a bogged down state. Still, that’s a card that any Green player should already be drafting highly. One sleeper is Orochi Eggwatcher, which serves double-duty, creating swarm potential before upgrading into the ridiculous Shidako, Broodmistress. I would want probably eighteen creatures before feeling totally comfortable with the Eggwatcher, but when she turns on, she ends the game fast. If all else fails, there’s always Lure, which can stop gridlock from forming by hopping on a Moss Kami or just open the doors for lethal damage.
Moving on to other colors, Red tends to be the shakiest partner for Green because it also falls short in the evasion department, but it can still be useful. Everyone is already aware that Frostwielder can poke around defenses or make blocking difficult and that Kami of Fire’s Roar can turn off big defenders like Kami of Old Stone, but some lower-tier cards can also help. Uncontrollable Anger is a good bet for the Green mage, as adding even just a little more size to one of your already-beefy bodies, especially when your opponent has already committed blockers, can create a very hard to handle threat. The drawback, of course, is nearly non-existent; what else were you really planning to do with that 6/5 every turn, anyway? It even allows you to force a troublesome defender to tap itself by attacking, although I recommend caution with this approach, as you may end up creating a monster you are unable to deal with.
Crushing Pain gets a brief mention as an acceptable way to break down fat-butted Blue and White creatures, but I also want to touch on Unearthly Blizzard. In Green/Red, this card is not always an immediate finisher. It can be used to turn off enough blockers to let you swing through for ten or more damage, even if it won’t kill them, which will make it impossible for them to effectively gang-block you on later turns without dying. The reason this doesn’t always work the other way around is that if you alpha strike first with the intent of finishing them off in the Blizzard, you may lose too many dudes to blockers for you to still make lethal damage on the next turn. Obviously this depends on the exact setup, so do your math.
Red uncommons have less to offer a Green player. Blind with Anger is ridiculous as always, but Genju of the Spires really isn’t the kind of card you need. When you can practically guarantee that it will be blocked every time, that 6/1 just isn’t very thrilling. Initiate of Blood has potential in forcing opponents to think much harder about gang-blocks, but your best options are the constant damage sources: Honden of Infinite Rage, Blood Rites and Hanabi Blast. Any of them are more than welcome, but you are more likely to see the Rites, as it is somewhat less powerful than the others. If you do see it, take it, because you’ll need it.
Black has its normal complement of removal, which can stop a stalemate from ever getting settled. This is a valuable commodity, but it is already a priority for any drafter and so nothing changes on that front with Green in the picture. If a stall does develop, Black loses some of its push. Kami of the Waning Moon should be moved up the charts, and Devouring Greed is as welcome as it has ever been. Betrayers brought a drop-off in quality Spirits, so the Greed has lost value to other players, but Green mages still want it just as badly. Soulless Revival or Stir the Grave may give fits to an opponent whose best answer to fat is to team up on it, but you still want no more than two such spells. Anyway, those are matchups in which you should already have the upper hand.
Getting into the Black uncommons, Dance of Shadows is still the marquee card for mass-fear, but Hired Muscle is definitely worth playing as well. Although he dwells somewhat in the shadow of the rest of his cycle, Scarmaker will still get the job done. However, I would recommend getting at least three counters on him before flipping unless you know that only two will suffice or you need the 4/4 body quickly. Kami of Lunacy and Painwracker Oni are hard-hitting evaders that still go later than they should; the Demon shouldn’t be too hard to feed with cards like Dripping-Tongue Zubera sitting around and the Kami will usually have plenty of Soulshift targets.
Blue’s commons are great companions to Green, as they include many fliers that can simply patch the holes left by the Green creatures. Support cards aren’t as vital, as you can simply rely on the Blue air force. Still, there are also a few good helper cards worth mentioning. Phantom Wings has obvious synergy with a giant creature, and Toils of Night and Day can shut down blockers like a slightly smaller Blizzard or buy the turn you need to attack for lethal in the air. Soratami Mirror-Guard creates a lot unblockability, but Veil of Secrecy doesn’t do quite enough on that front, although the untargetability half can still come in handy. Also, Lifted by Clouds is still awful.
In the Blue uncommon pile, we find more big fliers, which are great, but also enablers like Minamo Sightbender (expensive, but worth it) and Guardian of Solitude. If you have a realistic possibility of flipping him, Student of Elements is the best here that he will ever be. Genju of the Falls is good for you as well, but that’s not exactly news.
Finally, there’s White. With a few solid fliers like Mothrider Samurai, White can also provide the air force Green doesn’t have, but your options are mostly the same cards that everyone is pining after. Kabuto Moth and Waxmane Baku are great, but everyone already loves them. Blessed Breath can ruin a gang-block, but that’s another card you’ll be looking for anyway. You may want to pick up the pseudo-evasion of Kami of the Painted Road or the pump-factor of Indomitable Will, and let me say I’d prefer the latter.
Sadly, most of White’s uncommons really do not play well with Green. The thought of playing Ghostly Prison or Kami of Old Stone in a Green/White deck makes me want to cry, and Honden of Cleansing Fire is acceptable only because a Nezumi Cutthroat will destroy you otherwise. You really want Innocence Kami, which can shut down multiple blockers at once or keep opposing evasion creatures in a holding pattern, but that’s about it other than already-powerful stuff like Faithful Squire. If I sound disparaging, I’m not trying to, because this combination is certainly playable; you just won’t really need to adjust your valuations of the White cards.
With all of this in mind, I decided to put my newfound theories to the test. I went through three drafts before I ended up green again, but I once I was there I tried to keep all my important points in mind. The packs were a little on the weak side (a few other players commented on it during the draft), and it shows a little, but I was reasonably happy. My deck:
Kami of the Hunt
Kami of Fire’s Roar
In the Web of War
In retrospect, I believe I misbuilt this; I would cut the two Lava Spikes for an Unearthly Blizzard and Traproot Kami, and maybe also lose In the Web of War (which I never drew, to be fair) for Lure. As you can see, I didn’t completely follow my own advice – while Lava Spike is great for triggering guys like Soilshaper and can finish someone off, Blizzard tends to be a little more emphatic, as does Lure. Traproot Kami would have put me at the eighteen creatures I requested above for Eggwatcher, plus added vital flying defense. Web? I haven’t really figured it out yet, but with very few high-end drops, it just doesn’t seem so great. I just never found myself saying, “Man, I really hope I draw Web.”
That said, this appears to have several of the cards I was hoping to get: a Serpent Skin and an Uncontrollable Anger, plus two other pump spells (including Unchecked Growth), a Kami of Fire’s Roar and the Eggwatcher. On the whole, it wasn’t too bad, although I’d still prefer the above modifications. Maybe this is because hindsight is 20/20 – you see, I lost the first round in three games.
Wait, I lost? That’s not supposed to happen! Doesn’t that call this whole thing into question? I call shenanigans!
Alright, hold on a second there. The principles are still sound. You see, I lost to another Green deck, and a much better one at that.
After I lost to manaflood in the first game and my opponent lost to manascrew in the second, it all came down to game 3. (Bad Player Alert: Even after seeing that my opponent was both Green and Blue, I had somehow still neglected to grab my Traproot Kami.) My opponent came out on turns three and four with Callous Deceiver and Soratami Mirror-Guard, and then spent two turns undoing me with a splashed Rend Flesh and Consuming Vortex. While I eventually topdecked a Pain Kami to take down the Soratami, I had been knocked to eight and was now trying to fight through a Matsu-Tribe Decoy and Honden of Life’s Web. These both can help break through a stall, but they’re also more than capable of creating one if you have another victory path open.
I’m learning to both love and hate MTGO’s replay feature, as it looks like I might have still been able to fight back if I hadn’t made one mistake that I totally missed – on one later turn, I decided to block and kill the Decoy when I could have killed the Deceiver. Still, I’m more kicking myself over the Lava Spike in my hand at the end of that game which should have been a 0/7 Traproot. Still, this serves as a fine example of how Blue makes a better companion to Green than Red does; those fliers come in handy sometimes. Stupid third-pick Pain Kami.
Actually, I’m adding one more totally obvious point about Green here before I finish: If your other color isn’t offering you any flying help, remember to grab some Snipers or Traproots before Betrayers winds down. Then, remember to play them.
clauticea at kenyon dot edu