How Strangleroot Geist Will Change Standard And Other Decks

Jeremy Neeman is Australia’s star player and winner of GP Brisbane; what’s caught his eye from Dark Ascension as he tests for the Pro Tour in Honolulu?

Hey everyone!

Welcome to week #1 of Dark Ascension brewing! Already, from admittedly limited Constructed testing, some broad archetypes are starting to emerge. Upon the initial spoiling of the set, a lot of players expressed doubt that the power level would be high enough to displace Delver/Moorland Haunt from the top spot. Testing has shown that impression to be completely false. There are new cards that are efficient enough and powerful enough to give Snapcaster Mage and Geist of Saint Traft a run for their money. You can’t just run Gut Shot and Vapor Snag as your creature removal anymore and expect to beat Strangleroot Geist into Strangleroot Geist or Honor of the Pure into Lingering Souls.

I think this set is pretty good all round for Constructed. Cards like Tracker’s Instincts, Dawntreader Elk, and Thought Scour are all useful enablers that will find homes in Constructed decks. Faithless Looting is a very, very good graveyard enabler, and if there turns out to be a graveyard-based deck in either Standard or Modern, this card will probably be a key part (I understand it’s already found a home in Legacy and Vintage).

Grafdigger’s Cage reminds me, almost to a tee, of Pithing Needle—it’s also a useful, cheap, universally sideboarded hate card that was massively overhyped when it came out and ended up being worth a lot of money, probably out of proportion to how good it was. If sacrificing Strangleroot Geist to Birthing Pod becomes an important part of the Standard metagame, it might see a little bit of sideboard play, but unless that deck runs all four Green Sun’s Zenith as well, I still don’t think it’s worth it. It’s like Surgical Extraction; the card is an inherent 0-for-1, so you have to make sure it’s getting you a ton of value as the game goes on for it to be good enough. Against Dredge and Reanimator, sure, but there’s no way you’re playing this just to turn off Snapcaster Mage or Geralf’s Messenger.

There are also a few cards like Markov Blademaster and Ghoultree, in which it isn’t totally clear where they go, but they’re certainly powerful enough to make it. Markov Blademaster is vulnerable as anything, but dear lord does she hit hard. She actually does 21 damage by herself in three swings; I think that’s unprecedented for a three-drop in the history of the game. Whether she ends up seeing play or not is largely dependent on Gut Shot; there’s a decent chance it’ll stop being good with all these token decks running around. Any pump effect is insane on her, especially if it grants evasion, so keep an eye out for any good, cheap pieces of equipment. Swords are pretty nice.

Ghoultree is a little like Tombstalker, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. Tombstalker had the advantage that you could play him in a deck with tons of counterspells, cantrips, and removal—he was the huge finisher you needed, basically Tarmogoyfs five through eight. Ghoultree might cost effectively the same, but you need to put creatures in your graveyard. That means you’re playing a deck with a ton of creatures, and decks with a ton of creatures tend to want ways to interact usefully with the opponent, not another huge dork. Still, he is a 10/10, and between Faithless Looting, Tracker’s Instincts, Forbidden Alchemy, and Thought Scour, you’re halfway there. I think this is a guy to keep an eye on; the next set could make him very good indeed.

But there are two cards in Dark Ascension that get me very excited about brewing. These cards don’t just go into existing archetypes—they’re good enough that they can create new ones all by themselves. They’re versatile, efficient, resilient, and way, way above the curve. If you’ve been testing Constructed with Dark Ascension at all, perhaps you can already guess what the first one is:

Strangleroot Geist

I talked last week about how unbelievably good this card looked. As it turns out, he’s every bit what I expected. Saying he’s green’s best two-drop in Standard is accurate, but it’s like saying Novak Djokovic is the best Serbian tennis player; it doesn’t really do him justice. Green Sun’s Zenithing for a Strangleroot Geist is actually green’s best three-drop. The Geist is that good. Turn 2 Strangleroot Geist, turn 3 Zenith for Strangleroot Geist is going to be a very familiar start at Pro Tour Honolulu, and it puts opponents under a ton of pressure. By turn 3, they’re already at 14, and neither removal nor blockers nor Day of Judgment trades favorably with the opponent’s board.

The thing that really pushes Geist over the top is that he’s not only good on offense. If your opponent goes one-drop, two-drop, then a Geist shuts them down in their tracks. Removal can’t get through it, barring something like an O-Ring, and two power is enough to trade with the majority of aggressive creatures in this format (Geist of Saint Traft, most Champions of the Parish, Diregraf Ghoul, Geralf’s Messenger, etc.). Strangleroot Geist is cheap, resilient, efficient, versatile; he’s a huge reason to play green in the post-DKA world. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Strangleroot Geist is the real new Kitchen Finks. Geralf’s Messenger just happens to have some numbers in common.

There are also a few cool synergies with the super-efficient two-drop. Phantasmal Image (or Phyrexian Metamorph) copying a Geist brings back memories of Body Double on Kitchen Finks, except wayyy cheaper. When the Clone dies, it gets to come back as the new best creature in play—a Titan perhaps or a Huntmaster of the Fells. If you can put a -1/-1 counter on Strangleroot Geist somehow, you give him an extra life, similar to the Ajani Goldmane/Kitchen Finks synergy. Unfortunately the options in Standard are pretty slim: Hex Parasite and Contagion Clasp are okay, but Virulent Wound, Fume Spitter, and Pith Driller are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s worth noting that Scarscale Ritual is a cute little synergy for Modern.

But the strongest synergy in Standard is with a familiar, powerful New Phyrexia rare. If I was into the world of Magic finance, I’d be investing in Birthing Pods right now. Players who’ve run the Melira combo deck in Modern know just how strong Pod is with persist creatures like Kitchen Finks; when you can turn one creature into two, it’s very difficult for them to ever break your Pod chain. Strangleroot Geist is the exact same thing, now legal in Standard. You know what’s better than putting a Skaab Ruinator into play, at the “cost” of putting a +1/+1 counter on your two-drop? Doing it again next turn.

I think that, going forward, there are two ways to build the Birthing Pod/Geist deck. One list is straight G/W that uses Birthing Pods as more of an incidental different angle of attack than as its main plan. The other has blue for Phantasmal Image, Skaab Ruinator, and Ponder—its Birthing Pods are more powerful, and Ponder helps you find them more regularly, but the mana is worse, and you lose out on Gavony Township. Here are examples of both lists:

Thalia is an option for this deck. Unfortunately Green Sun’s becomes a lot worse, and Garruk for five is pretty bad. It does hurt most other decks a lot more than it hurts you, and a 2/1 first strike for two is reasonable on its own merits, so it depends on what decks you expect to play against. For example, in a metagame full of Tokens, Thalia is very, very good.

Garruk Relentless is a card I think is well placed right now; Strangleroot Geist allows your deck to be aggressive enough that your opponents won’t often have the chance to pressure your planeswalker. Also, a flipped Garruk has the same Birthing Pod-esque awesome synergy with Geist; you get to tutor twice from the same creature and swing for three while you’re at it.

The list with blue might go something like:

This is obviously very rough, and I feel like it wants another early creature. Ideally you could play like six Birds of Paradise, but a couple Green Sun’s Zeniths might be what you want to play a Birds on turn 2. The mana is not great, even with Evolving Wilds; it’s not clear if the extra midgame power is worth it, but it’s certainly something to try.

You can also ignore the Birthing Pod synergy and just plan to attack with Geist as early and often as possible. There’s definitely a good green aggro deck out there waiting to be found. I think the core of any list is going to be:

4 Llanowar Elves
2-4 Birds of Paradise
4 Strangleroot Geist
3-4 Green Sun’s Zenith
3-4 Garruk Relentless

…along with some good green creatures as tutor targets (Vorapede, Acidic Slime, Thrun, Daybreak Ranger, and Predator Ooze spring to mind).

From there we have a few options:

1. Mono-green

This gives us Dungrove Elder and makes it much easier to cast Predator Ooze. Unfortunately we have very few ways to interact with problem permanents—Garruk Relentless and Mortarpod are okay for killing small creatures, but Beast Within doesn’t synergize so well with our plan of trying to beat down with 2/1s. Also, we don’t really get a utility land; we have to play a bunch of Forests for Dungrove, and it’s been a really long time since a good decklist started off with “23 Forest” (sorry, Jamie Wakefield):

2. Green/red

Notably, this gives us Huntmaster of the Fells, which has proven to be an excellent four-drop. We also get a little bit of reach and removal in the burn spells available—Incinerate is the best, but Shock/Galvanic Blast are both pretty good, and Arc Trail has a lot of utility in a token-dominated metagame. Daybreak Ranger and Markov Blademaster are both decent options at three, which otherwise we have a paucity of; seriously, Green Suns-ing for a second Geist is the best thing you can be doing. Even if I have four mana, I often choose to get Geist over Daybreak Ranger.

I posted a G/R list last week; the above list is the evolution of it. I don’t think Sword of War and Peace is well placed at the moment. It’s excellent against the white-based token decks and against Humans, but very bad against Zombies and usually too slow/clunky in the matchups where protection isn’t relevant.

3. Green/white

This gives us Oblivion Ring, which is pretty nice with all these undying creatures/Phyrexian Obliterators running around. We also have a good three-drop in Blade Splicer, and Hero of Bladehold never disappoints in a deck that can run six to eight one-cost mana dorks. I won’t post a list because it’d be very similar to the first Birthing Pod list I posted—basically you take out the iffy tutor targets and the Pods and replace them with more consistent cards, like O-Rings and the fourth Hero.

The second platinum hit from Dark Ascension is also something a lot of people have anticipated:

Lingering Souls

To use a Modern analogy, if Strangleroot Geist is Wild Nacatl, this card is Rite of Flame. The Geist is perhaps more efficient, purely in terms of beating down. But when it comes to synergies, versatility, enabling new decks, Lingering Souls is way ahead. Wild Nacatl being banned only served to make the aggro decks less efficient. Rite of Flame being banned killed combo Ascension, killed Dragonstorm, and made it impossible for Storm to go off through a single counterspell, when previously they could ignore everything short of Mindbreak Trap.

Most people have seen or tested against B/W Tokens by now. If not, here’s a fairly stock list:

This deck is very scary. A lot of the time, it feels like you’re way ahead—you’ve been casting creatures and beating down, while all they’ve done is durdled around casting a couple Anthem effects and maybe a Doomed Traveler. Then they drop 15 power on the board, activate Vault of the Archangel, and you lose just like that. It’s a critical mass deck much more than it is an aggro or control deck: two Anthems and three token-making effects is nigh unbeatable for an average draw of creatures and removal. Not to mention it can produce 12 flying power on turn 4 with just three cards: Lingering Souls and two Anthem effects. That is pretty unreal, and it’s not even that out of the ordinary, which should give you a feel for how powerful this strategy really is.

The Geist strategies were fairly ordinary—they just used Strangleroot Geist as an efficient creature in an aggressive green shell. In comparison, the Lingering Souls decks are both more dangerous and more vulnerable. This list as posted is incredibly weak to Ratchet Bomb, a card which I expect to see a lot more play over the coming weeks (pick this one up now as well, folks). It’s a Plague Wind for two mana, and you don’t even have to blow it straightaway. Once the B/W side of the board is clear, they have free rein to attack and finish off your planeswalkers, so it’s not even that far from a one-sided Planar Cleansing. It’s possible playing more cards like Hero of Bladehold and Geist-Honored Monk is correct, to reduce your vulnerability a little bit.

Curse of Death’s Hold has gotten some hype as an answer to the new token menace, but I’m a little skeptical. Most decks with Lingering Souls are running at least four and often all eight Anthem effects—your Curse is too often going to be a Disenchant for five mana. Sweepers a la Whipflare, Slagstorm, and Day of Judgment are a little better, but they’re not perfect. For example, if they’ve had a curve like Intangible Virtue, Lingering Souls, Sorin (which is pretty normal), then Day of Judgment is not going to do very much. Ratchet Bomb is exceptional mainly because it’s one-sided; you get to sweep their board, then attack, so it’s perfect for decks that are trying to apply pressure anyway. Other options include Massacre Wurm and Elesh Norn—they’re expensive, but the token decks aren’t running Mana Leaks, so if you can afford their casting cost, you’re probably in good shape. In decks that can support it, Ray of Revelation is great against B/W; Lingering Souls is a lot more fair when the tokens it makes are 1/1 rather than 3/3.

But that isn’t it for Lingering Souls. Not by far. It’s powerful enough and synergistic enough that I expect to see it crop up in the most unusual of places. I posted a W/g/b tokens build last week that used Garruk Relentless and Gavony Township in addition to the standard features of Lingering Souls and Sorin. (Although I’m coming around on Gather the Townsfolk. It should probably be main in that deck over Shrine of Loyal Legions.) Maybe Lingering Souls could replace Timely Reinforcements in Esper Control and allow you to take a more Fish-like role; you need to be a little bit proactive in this format, after all:

The synergies don’t stop there. Drogskol Captain is a Scion of Oona-ish character that has a particularly nice synergy with Lingering Souls. Could a U/W/b Spirit deck be good enough? Probably not at the moment—past Doomed Traveler, the cheap Spirits are pretty thin—but it’s something to keep an eye out for.

However, we can get yet another angle. Decks that abuse their graveyard with Faithless Looting or Liliana of the Veil are definitely interested in discarding Souls for value. Given Smallpox exists, and given Gravecrawler is another guy who synergizes beautifully with both of the above, there might just be a deck here. Here’s another look at (almost) mono-black:

Until next time,


tux_the_penguin on MODO