In which our hero embarks upon an excellent adventure through time and … er … time. He indulges in a history lesson and then spreads dire portents. The Three are returning.
Randomly browsing the ole forums here at StarCityGames, I came upon this amusing gem in response to Mike Flores last article (or probably the one before last, by the time you actually read this).
“Where’s a Solar Flare update?”
Leaving aside the obvious fact the article in question was concerned only with aggro decks, I do feel honour-bound to metaphorically pick the poster up and shake them like a rag doll until all their bones disassociate and they end up looking like a pink shapeless blob.
Solar Flare! Have you any conception of what’s about to hit Standard! It’s the apocalypse! We’re talking rivers of blood, skies falling in, the rape and ruin of virgins and *shudder* Scotsmen winning Wimbledon.
It’s the end of all things as we know it, and you want to play a slow Black/White control deck with a sort of, maybe, please-don’t-be-a-naughty-boy, meagre suite of permission?!
I have nothing against Solar Flare. I think it was the best deck for its time, in the same way that the Black/White/Blue Nomar-type control decks eventually evolved as the best deck in the complex Invasion block format. But while Nomar finally solved that block, I wouldn’t play it in Standard and the same analogy holds (I think – I may end up looking very stupid in a few months time) for Solar Flare in the post-Time Spiral world.
Normally, when an old block rotates out and a new set comes in the Standard environment is initially dominated by updated versions of block decks until the new cards finally find a home. Time Spiral is different as it contains an extra 121 card subset of Timeshifted cards.
So what, you might think, we’ve already had an extra set in Coldsnap and that didn’t make too much of a difference (apart from the snow lands, Skred, Counterbalance, Cryoclasm, oh and that annoying snake thing).
Except this “little” sub-expansion features a line-up of cards that reads like a who’s who of star players from tried and tested decks. R&D weren’t messing around when they decided to indulge in nostalgia. There is a heckuva lot of power sporting those natty purple expansion symbols (ignoring Squire, which at least proves R&D still has a sense of humor, albeit of the sick and twisted kind), and anyone thinking they can just turn up to a Standard tournament in the next few months with a tweaked version of an existing archetype is going to be in for a nasty shock.
That shock can be alleviated by actually indulging in some *shudder* history. You know History, it’s that subject everyone sleeps through at school. (At this point I could take a cheap shot at our American friends, you know the obvious joke about there not being enough material to warrant a History class, but that would be oh so frightfully unsporting of me).
Anyway, back to the point. Nearly all of these cards (as in everything apart from Squire) have cropped up in decks in the past, and while R&D have been careful not to slip any of the truly stoopid cards back into the mix (Necro, Oath of Druids, Replenish), looking back at these decks might give some clues as to how the purple cards might impact on the forthcoming Standard format.
Unfortunately, while I’ve actually been playing long enough to remember tapping Maze of Ith in tournament play, my memory isn’t what it used to be (which wasn’t much in the first place). However, all is not lost. Through a happy series of coincidences (and skilful application of a twenty-pound lump hammer to a certain timelord’s noggin) I am in possession of a blue police box that is a lot more than it seems. So hold on tight, it’s time to take a jaunt through the time stream.
No old deck lists for this one. Back then the ability to do four damage to any target was a little underpowered when you could just Channel–Fireball your opponent into oblivion.
Now… oh boy.
No other card takes the fundamentals of the color pie and defecates all over them to the extent of Psionic Blast. Blue is all trickery and subterfuge. It either stops things entering play, or finds temporary solutions such as bounce. What Blue shouldn’t be able to do is blast perfectly decent sized monsters into smithereens.
Psionic Blast does that and more. Now, one of the weaknesses of Blue/Green – namely the inability to actually kill an opponent’s man – has been completely negated. Who needs Red for Char any more?
Psionic Blast is also going to fundamentally change how we play against certain deck types. Against aggressive Red decks (excluding heavy goblin variants), once your life total dropped below ten it was time to start getting nervous. Against Blue/Green or Blue/White aggro decks this was never an issue; often you could quite happily go down to one life before Wrathing the board away. As long as you kept their guys at arm’s length, that one life was unassailable.
What is the comfort zone now Psionic Blast is here? Five?
What if they draw two copies?
All of a sudden sandbagging that Wrath to try and extract maximum return becomes a far riskier prospect.
Flying Men, Unstable Mutation and Dandan
Another thing Blue shouldn’t have is access to efficiently costed guys. There have been aggressive fish decks in the past, but they mainly played the role of combo/control eater. Against other “real” aggro decks (translation: Red deck) they get ripped to pieces.
This trio of cards from Arabian Nights allows Blue to play beatdown with the best of them.
This is one of Mark Rosewater favourite decks from prehistoric times:
Mark’s Little Deck
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Tropical Island
2 Argothian Pixies
4 Birds of Paradise
2 Elvish Archers
4 Flying Men
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Scryb Sprites
4 Concordant Crossroads
4 Giant Growth
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring
1 Time Walk
4 Unstable Mutation
Okay, so there’s also a hefty amount of Power Nine in here, but the general principle is to put out a little guy with evasion and smash face with pump effects. An unanswered Flying Man with Unstable Mutation attacks for four on turn 2 and will have done nine damage, nearly half your life total, by the end of turn 4. All for the princely investment of two Blue mana. And don’t forget they also have access to Psionic Blast to finish you off once you think you’ve stabilised.
The biggest downside to this strategy is it’s going to run out of steam extremely quickly. Although the offence is more efficient than Masques era Skies decks, they had access to “free” support spells such as Daze and Gush. Finding some way to refuel the deck is going to be a definite must.
Keen eyes will also spot Pendelhaven amongst the returning cards. As various members of R&D got to select their faves, I wonder if these are MaRo’s choices. (Concordant Crossroads got nixed because Enchant World is too much of a dinosaur, even for Time Spiral)
So what about Dandan? Didn’t that come back in Chronicles? A 4/1 with Islandhome for UU… that doesn’t seem very exciting.
We tend to associate control mirrors as battles for card advantage with the eventual coup-de-grace being administered by a solid finisher such as Meloku or Morphling (or a single Air Elemental for the more classically inclined). Dandan is a nasty surprise from the sideboard, as he slips in under counter-magic on turn 2 (Spell Snare will happily nail him though) and he hits damn hard. He’s not terrible against beatdown either, as he’ll quite happily take down an attacking Watchwolf or even a Hierarch. The relatively undercosted Hammerhead Shark fulfilled a similar role in Blue sideboards a couple of years later.
Soltari Priest, Dauthi Slayer, Bad Moon
In keeping with the theme of turning small guys sideways, mention also needs to be given to these two Tempest stalwarts. Both have the requisite two power for two mana, and both are also functionally unblockable as they have shadow.
While Suicide Black decks used to be more about busting out Hatred on a turn 1 guy such as Carnophage and Sarcomancy, Dauthi Slayer was still an acceptable part of the beatdown suite.
Suicide Black (Dave Price – Top 8 GP Seattle 2000)
4 City of Traitors
4 Dauthi Horror
4 Dauthi Slayer
4 Phyrexian Negator
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
1 Kaervek’s Spite
1 Spinning Darkness
Fortunately R&D haven’t quite gone insane, so no purple reprints for Dark Ritual or Hatred. However, Black aggro decks do gain a bonus in the form of Bad Moon. Currently the major drawback for me appears to be the lack of decent turn 1 plays. Plagued Rusalka is damn useful, but doesn’t have the raw power of either Sarcomancy or Carnophage. So for the moment I can’t see a slot for Bad Moon (although it is probably very funny with Sengir Autocrat and Endrek Sahr). Dauthi Slayer will probably be a solid two-drop for Rakdos strategies, however.
Now onto the white and an Extended listing from 2001:
White Weenie (Katsuhiro Mori – Worlds 2001)
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Meddling Mage
4 Mother of Runes
2 Paladin En-Vec
2 Soltari Monk
4 Soltari Priest
2 Soul Warden
4 Warrior En-Kor
4 Empyrial Armor
1 Enlightened Tutor
3 Seal of Cleansing
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Samite Archer
4 Spectral Lynx
Okay, so again things aren’t quite as bad as they could have been. No Empyrial Armor to boost unblockable guys to stupid levels (although we do have Unstable Mutation…) and R&D clearly hasn’t been replaced by a troupe of stoned baboons as Armageddon is still lost to the mists of history (forever we hope).
Look carefully at the two-mana slot. Between Warrior En-Kor and both Soltari Monk and Priest there’s a certain amount of resilience. In the modern White Weenie the two-drops will probably include Soltari Priest and Knight of the Holy Nimbus. Good luck Pyroclasm’ing those away.
StarCityGames has these at $10 (last I looked), and has plenty in stock. From this I can only assume players have very short memories, as Call of the Herd is the best tournament card out of all 121 purple cards (yes, even better than Psionic Blast).
Elephants used to be a bit of a joke. Arabian Nights had a land that regenerated Elephants, but you couldn’t even build a competent casual deck around it as every elephant was something like a 2/2 for four mana. Then came Rogue Elephant, and after it this monstrous flashback card.
Call of the Herd very quickly became the money rare from Odyssey, mainly because it got everywhere. The damn thing was like a virus, albeit a rather chunky elephant-sized one. Aggro decks ran it because it was an efficient beater with built in “2-for-1” card advantage. Even control decks started to run it.
Before I officially became the luckiest Magic player in existence, the most famous top deck in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour was when Kai Budde found a Morphling to overcome Tomi Wallamies “Operation Dumbo Drop” control deck.
3 Adarkar Wastes
3 Flood Plain
4 Tropical Island
3 Call of the Herd
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Force of Will
2 Gaea’s Blessing
3 Seal of Cleansing
3 Swords to Plowshares
3 Wrath of God
1 Call of the Herd
3 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Devout Witness
2 Powder Keg
2 Rootwater Thief
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Swords to Plowshares
Call of the Herd is good in control decks for pretty much the same reasons as it’s good in Aggro decks. Against other control decks it’s an efficient beater with built in card advantage. Against Aggro decks it’s a veritable roadblock. Many decks reliant on two power attackers and Shocks have dashed themselves to pieces on “Wall” of the Herd.
I think Call of the Herd was one of the surprise cards to see returning as it was so ubiquitous the first time round, but then I was also surprised that they gave players the opportunity to vote Troll Ascetic into the main set. At least this time round control has the tools to fight as the Repeal plus Remand tag team will quite happily play the role of big game elephant hunter for the next year.
Now it’s time for the juicy stuff as we head off into the realm of combo decks, and oh boy has Time Spiral returned some spice.
I might as well start with one of my all-time favorite cards. I never really expected to see this Ice Age enchantment ever come back, as it tends to break the game in half whenever it’s in play. Few cards make going infinite so easy.
Worlds 1999 was interested as a bunch of new rules changes had thrown up a chaotic Extended format where nobody was entirely sure how many of the old cards worked any more. Randy Buehler was ripping open boxes of Visions in search of Shrieking Drakes, and emergency sticking plasters had to be applied to prevent a loophole in the wording of Phyrexian Devourer from busting open the field. At the time I remember asking if Enduring Renewal was still okay as it “had always been broken.”
When Ice Age first appeared I built awkward four-piece combo decks that ran off Enduring Renewal, Ashnod’s Altar, Ornithopter and Triskelion. With Invasion this became streamlined into Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, and Shield Sphere. This was the combo I played at Worlds 1999, with a scarily fast “Jar” manabase. The deck was explosive but extremely flimsy.
Finally, in one of the high points of English Magic, John Ormerod and co created the most talked about deck at PT: Chicago 1999:
4 Academy Rector
2 Phyrexian Walker
4 Shield Sphere
1 Aura of Silence
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
3 Enduring Renewal
4 Goblin Bombardment
1 Mana Vault
3 Mox Diamond
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
3 Peat Bog
3 Phyrexian Tower
4 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
3 Aura of Silence
1 Defense of the Heart
2 Mana Short
Currently the most obvious combo involving Enduring Renewal is Grapeshot and Wild Cantor (play Cantor, sac Cantor for the mana to replay Cantor, repeat ad nauseam until you have a storm count to make Grapeshot lethal). You could just as easily replace Grapeshot with Pandemonium (a little bit more unwieldy, but it at least means Dimir House Guard can tutor for both parts of the combo should you so wish) or alternatively win through “real” means by attacking with Nantuko Husk.
There is a problem, and I’ll come back to it later after I’ve been through the other combo variants.
I’ve already mentioned Pandemonium, but this Red enchantment has cropped up in solid combo decks on two occasions. The first was a simple two-card combo that (I believe) no longer works.
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Gemstone Mine
3 City of Brass
4 Phyrexian Dreadnought
4 Lotus Petal
4 Mana Vault
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
2 Vampiric Tutor
3 Final Fortune
Make Pandemonium. Make Phyrexian Dreadnought. That will be take twelve, sir. And when I reanimate Dreadnought with Reanimate that will be another twelve. Oh dear, you appear to have run out of life points.
I couldn’t find a deck list to illustrate the second combo; you’ll have to take my word that it was about. Basically Pandemonium plus Saproling Burst added up to a convenient 21-point Lava Axe to the head. Throw in the fact Replenish was still kicking around being evil, and you had another nasty deck.
Off the top of my head I could only think of the Enduring Renewal combo, although I think there’s some trickery to be had with Saffi Eriksdotter (and even a use for Norin the Wary!). So Pandemonium might not burst onto the scene just yet. Worth keeping an eye on for possible interactions over the next couple of years. Alternatively you could go for mega-style points and throw it in a deck with Dark Depths.
Stuart Wright tried to break this with Kokusho right after Kamigawa came out. Kokusho’s kicking his feet up and heading off into the sunset, but no worry as Bogardan Hellkite falls right into the gap. The big problem is the freaking thing costs nine mana, and you have to have cast three other spells beforehand. Seething Song just couldn’t quite reach last time.
Now there is Lotus Bloom, Seething Song, and Rite of Flame. I don’t feel I’m telling you anything new here (no surprises there) as Dragonstorm has already generated a lot of interest in the forums. Personally I haven’t tried out the deck yet (I have to pretend to study at some point), so I don’t know whether it will be a genuine threat or one of those quirky Tier 2 decks that randomly ambushes the spikes from time to time.
The biggest problem with all these decks is the lack of efficient tutoring. Combo decks in the past fed off Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Consultation, and could go off very quickly. While mana enablers such as Grim Monolith and Mana Vault are long gone, a turn 1 Lotus Bloom will probably be more than adequate, but less reliable after turn 1. I think question marks will have to be raised about consistency, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen truly explosive combo decks so it may catch some of the newer players by surprise.
Last year, at Worlds, I picked up a fairly important lesson in redundancy and diversity by seeing the Ghazi-Glare deck in action. I’d gone with a Greater Good / Yosei lock deck, but as usual had overcooked it and made the deck too focused. As a result I died whenever a Cranial Extraction resolved. The strength of the Ghazi-Glare deck was it had so many different avenues of attack. I feel like the new combo decks will need to incorporate that level of robustness if they want to dominate the new Standard.
And now I’ll move onto a few quasi-combo decks and re-animation, which is sort of combo.
Again I’m thwarted in my quest to find a decent example of this. I remember playing against the damn decks and they seemed very solid.
For some reason people look back on this time and say that Stormbind wasn’t that good, that people weren’t so good at building decks back then (okay, so Necropotence was in the same set). All I can say to Stormbind’s return to the Standard fold is… “Life from the Loam.”
Reanimation: Akroma, Avatar of Woe and Nicol Bolas
I can’t really do a review of the purple cards without mentioning everyone’s favorite purple-haired gal. Yeah, she’s a house. Move over Mr SSS, Akroma is almost as untargettable and flattens Simic Sky Swallower (and just about everything else) in a fight. That eight mana is an issue. The format doesn’t feel slow enough that we’re going to be busting her out with the help of a cycling dragon and Temple of the False God, but there are other ways:
4 Underground River
4 Polluted Delta
4 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
4 Putrid Imp
3 Rorix Bladewing
4 Vampiric Tutor
4 Careful Study
4 Chrome Mox
1 Show and Tell
1 Sickening Dreams
4 Cabal Therapy
3 Phyrexian Negator
2 Gilded Drake
2 Show and Tell
1 Echoing Truth
1 Cranial Extraction
1 Energy Flux
1 Energy Field
Solar Flare originally started out as a half-assed dragon reanimation deck. Akroma is powerful enough to drag the deck back in that direction, especially as Time Spiral adds a number of ways to get her into the graveyard (Careful Consideration and, for the more creative, Lighting Axe) and two other ways to drag her back again (Resurrection and Dread Return). Avatar of Woe also makes a nice target, except it has a built-in cost reduction that feels silly in a dredge deck.
More for Extended really. Turn 1 Lightning Axe your dork, discarding… wait for it… Nicol Bolas. Next turn cast Goryo’s Vengeance…
The Return of the Dreaded Three
There are three deck archetypes spoken off in dread tones, strategies that send Timmy running for the hills and Johnny weeping over his broken toys. Even the Spikes talk about them in hushed tones. These are the strategies that R&D try and avoid giving any tools as they basically make Magic unfun.
First off is Land Destruction, or LD as we like to call it, and… oh, hello Darwin.
LD – Avalanche Riders
4 Avalanche Riders
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
2 Arc Lightning
4 Cursed Scroll
3 Hammer of Bogardan
4 Stone Rain
2 Ancient Tomb
2 Ghitu Encampment
Trivia note: I actually beat Mark in the first round of that tournament. Unfortunately I couldn’t draft worth sh** and the wheels fell off (and the car engine exploded, got hit by a meteorite, yada yada) in day 2.
Darwin Kastle (or should it be Mess)’s card is Avalanche Riders. Darwin was a fairly avid Survival of the Fittest / Recurring Nightmare (now why couldn’t this get the purple treatment – because it’s silly, oh yeah) player at the time, and I’m fairly sure he submitted Avalanche Riders as it provided the only CiP effect creatures were lacking at the time (we had Ravenous Baboons as a sort of Wasteland on legs). Destroying a land with a built in Shock, or maybe even bear if you paid the echo, was good times, and Darwin smashed a fair few lands during his stint in Standard, even making it into the dangerous Angry Hermit decks a year later.
The interesting thing is if you look at the list above there are actually quite a few functional reprints of most of the cards in the list (If you stretch things really really far). Throw in Cryoclasm and Stone Rain, and LD is almost on the cusp of that dangerous critical mass.
Discard – The Rack, Stupor (maybe)
OMG, they reprinted The Rack. Then I checked the amount of discard available. When discard has been bad for so long it kind of fades from view. Then all of a sudden you look up and suddenly realise there’s a lot of it around.
You might want to think about packing artifact removal for The Rack.
But Craig, I only need three cards in hand. All I need to do is…
You won’t. Trust me on this.
But I can beat it if I just hold cards….
Won’t happen. You never beat The Rack by trying to get back up to three cards in hand. Doesn’t happen. It’s like trying to crawl out of quicksand.
What’s even worse is there’s a repeatable discard effect, and it’s a land (Rix Maadi).
Be prepared to smash The Rack, or it’ll smash you. Enuff said.
Permission – Whispers of the Muse
Randy Buehler, you are a sly one. I wonder if this purple reprint was your doing.
4 Mana Leak
4 Powder Keg
4 Whispers of the Muse
4 Faerie Conclave
4 Stalking Stones
3 Legacy’s Allure
2 Maze of Shadows
The last in our dreaded three is permission. These are the decks that say no to everything while busily outdrawing you. With a few exceptions they never do anything except in an opponents end of turn step. In an attempt to try and make things more interesting the recent policy of R&D has been to make good card drawing sorcery-speed.
Now that’s all changed. Whispers of the Muse has snuck back through the time rifts. For one Blue mana it isn’t very exciting, just cycling effectively. Once you hit six mana then things change dramatically. Congratulations, you now have your own personal Howling Mine.
Now the Blue decks can happily leave everything to the end of turn once again.
Did you do anything that turn? No? Well, I’ll draw a card then.
Whispers great strength is its versatility. In a pinch early on you can burn it for land, something that isn’t true of comparable repeat card drawers such as the classic Jayemdae Tome.
With Whispers returning and the new counterspell, Cancel, I wonder if old style draw-go decks might make a comeback. Not having Keg or Disc is a substantial drawback, but there is a lot of countermagic around and Whispers fills that demand for a decent card drawing engine. If you use snow-covered lands there’s even a fairly efficient defence / threat in the form of Phyrexian Ironfoot. You could even throw in Academy Ruins and Chronatog Totem (If there was more time I could go on about how good Chronatog was as well) for extra durability.
Hmm, and at that point it feels like a good point to leave. That cunning fox, the Doctor, has managed to slip his bonds and retake control of the Tardis.
Overall I’m very impressed with the job Wizards have done with the Timeshifted cards. It feels like we’re going to be playing Extended for the next few years. One of the best indications of strength is I haven’t even got round to talking about cards like Shadowmage Infiltrator (mainly because he’s obviously good without Wild Mongrel and Psychatog to cramp his style), Serrated Arrows, and Void.
I hope this jaunt through the mists of time has been useful. Standard has changed, and you’ll need to change with it.
Now all I need to do now is hitch a lift back from Mars. Timelords can be so touchy…
Thanks for reading