Ideas Unbound – The Survival of the Fittest Problem And How to Fight It

Thursday, October 21st – StarCityGames.com Legacy Open: Nashville is the third tournament that Survival has made a strong showing, dismissing claims that it’s just a flash in the pan.

Five slots in Minneapolis. Five slots in Baltimore. Five slots in Nashville. Ever since Grand Prix Columbus, Vengevine decks using Survival of the Fittest as a one-card combo have been a regular fixture in the Top 16 of StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens. With Nashville being the third tournament where Survival has put up such a strong showing, claims that the new Vengevine lists are just a flash in the pan can be fairly easily dismissed. The powerful strategy of using Survival of the Fittest to chain Vengevines into your graveyard before returning them all with two copies of Basking Rootwalla is apparently here to stay.

So how do we fight it? Graveyard hate isn’t too spectacular, and neither is an overload on mass removal. The best way to fight Vengevine Survival is to fight the card Survival of the Fittest.

The enemy:

This is a fairly stock version of U/G Vengevine Survival. Popular variants include a slightly different permission suite with Spell Pierce or Spell Snare or more copies of Daze in place of the Stifles. Some builds include Intuition as a tutor for Survival or a way to add value to Vengevine; these builds generally don’t include Wasteland or Aquamoeba. Some versions also include Fauna Shaman to function as additional copies of Survival. The winning list from Nashville had a white splash for Gaddock Teeg and a powerful beatdown strategy if the Survival plan didn’t work out, but at the cost of losing Force of Will.

Other versions of Survival include a white splash. The white splash can be for Swords to Plowshares or Enlightened Tutor, and opens up the possibility of the addition of Loyal Retainers, allowing Survival players to cheat Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Iona, Shield of Emeria into play.

The nature of Survival of the Fittest makes decks that play Survival infinitely customizable. This makes it harder to anticipate your opponent’s game plan; what is he capable of? You can be reasonably confident that if your opponent untaps with a Survival that he’s at least going to be able to send a bunch of Vengevines your way in a hurry, but it’s hard to know what specific Survival bullets he has access to or what his exact permission package is.

So we want to do battle with a deck that has some light permission, a turn 4 combo, and a mediocre beatdown plan as a backup option. What are the best ways to attack those strategies?

The Sledgehammer Approach

At this point, it seems reasonable to assume that you’re going to play against Vengevine Survival two or three times if you’re going to win a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open. If that’s the case, one valid strategy is to pick a deck that has an excellent Survival matchup and is a contender against most of the rest of the decks you’d expect to see at an Open. Specifically, Merfolk has recently risen as a foil to the Vengevine decks:

Merfolk has plenty of countermagic available to fight the card Survival of the Fittest, and because most Survival decks can’t remove Merfolk’s lords, Merfolk’s creatures match up pretty well against Survival’s in a fight. It’s true that with Survival in play, Wonder can take the Survival deck to the skies… but Lord of Atlantis and Merrow Reejery are pretty good at giving their Merfolk buddies evasion as well. The versions of Merfolk with the black splash for Perish are particularly well suited for the Vengevine matchup; Perish may not kill Wild Mongrel, but it sure does a number on basically every other creature in Survival. Just watch out for Zoo!

Another option is Tendrils. The Vengevine decks are pretty slow at actually dealing damage to their opponents; most of it comes in one big shot on turn 4. This means that Tendrils decks don’t have to worry too much about their life total for the purposes of Ad Nauseam. Moreover, the Vengevine decks don’t actually have that many counterspells. A single Force of Will isn’t too hard for a deck full of Duress/Thoughtseize/Silence/Orim’s Chant/Pyroblast/Xantid Swarm to beat, and Spell Pierce or a Daze or two can be defeated simply by having a little extra mana. Xantid Swarm in particular is a huge beating for Survival, because they have to have Force of Will to beat it on the draw, and even if they’re on the play, it’s not hard to play Swarm on turn 2, pay for a Daze, and win on turn 3.

That’s a list that I’ve been working on for the last few weeks. Xantid Swarm is in the maindeck to fight Survival and Merfolk. I added a second Ad Nauseam to the main over Empty the Warrens at Brandon Adams’ suggestion; it has been very good. The sideboard reflects the lack of Tendrils in the Northwest (no Dark Confidants for the mirror) but has Duress and Pyroblast to fight Counterbalance.

Haters Gonna Hate

A different option is to try and fight the Survival decks by using sideboarded hate cards. There’s just one problem with this plan: how exactly do you hate out Survival? Part of their game plan is reliant upon assembling four Vengevines in the graveyard, so the natural inclination is to board in Tormod’s Crypt or Leyline of the Void… but what if you get double Leyline, and they just pay retail for a Vengevine or two and go to town?

(Let’s not even get into what happens with Basking Rootwalla if you try to get them with Wheel of Sun and Moon…)

It seems that attacking Survival’s graveyard is one way you can fight them, but Survival is hardly going to roll over and die if you show them a Tormod’s Crypt; rather, Crypt is simply one of the tools you can use to slow Survival down. Extirpate is a pretty good ‘gotcha’ card if the Survival player doesn’t see it coming, though…

(If you suspect that your opponent might be up to shenanigans involving Loyal Retainers, though, graveyard hate becomes more important.)

Another traditional method of shoring up an aggressive matchup with sideboarding is to overload on removal and card drawing to win a war of attrition with your opponent. Trying to battle Vengevine with spot removal is a pretty loose plan, but there are some mass removal options that are attractive. Perish, for example, is okay against the Vengevine decks that don’t have Aquamoeba; if they aren’t hyper-combo-finishing you with four Vengevines in a single turn, you can get like a Vengevine and a Noble Hierarch and set them back a bit. The problem with Perish is that it doesn’t fight the nut-draw of Survival into four Vengevines.

Instead, you want to be fighting the card Survival of the Fittest itself. Without Survival, the Vengevine deck is a pretty mediocre beatdown deck. Even with the nut Mongrel-RootwallaVengevine draw, all they’ve got is a 4/3 haste on turn 2.

“Neat. Bolt it. Done?”

If you’re a blue deck, probably the best card you can have against Survival is Spell Snare. Snare fights Survival even if you’re on the draw and is perfectly serviceable against Wild Mongrel, Fauna Shaman, and Aquamoeba if your opponent doesn’t draw Survival. Spell Pierce isn’t quite as good because Survival is one of the only non-creatures in Survival, but a single Pierce is probably fine. If your opponent is also using Intuition, Pierce becomes very attractive indeed.

Black decks, on the other hand, can use Thoughtseize and Duress to fight Survival. Brainstorm isn’t stock in Survival, so you can be reasonably confident that your Duress on the draw won’t be answered by “Brainstorm, hide my Survival.”

I should note that Krosan Grip isn’t a particularly powerful answer to Survival. For one thing, if you’re on the draw, your opponent still gets a whole turn of use out of Survival, and even if you’re untapping and casting Grip immediately after your opponent casts Survival, you’re losing a mana’s worth of value. Compare Grip to Pithing Needle, which is much more mana efficient and beats every copy of Survival in the other guy’s deck. If you do lean on Needle, though, recognize that Survival will have Trygon Predator to go after your Needles; be prepared to kill it!

In general, the best way to fight the Survival decks is to either have a faster combo or to go after the card Survival of the Fittest. Focusing on a fight over Survival’s graveyard only lets them come at you from different angles. If you can disable their namesake engine, though, the deck is fairly easy to defeat in a fair fight.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

In other news, I made it to round three of the Great Designer Search 2. I can discuss the test in further detail if people are interested, but for now I just wanted to share the cards I submitted:

(These are all mock preview cards for a new set. One would go with every article that ran that week on dailymtg.com)

1. Feature Article

Azelor Cypric (mythic rare)
Planeswalker — Azelor
[+1]: Draw a card.
[-2]: Search target opponent’s library for a card and exile it. Then that player shuffles his or her library. Until the beginning of your next upkeep, you may play that card.
[-6]: You get an emblem with “Whenever you play a spell, gain control of target permanent.”

2. Making Magic

Desecrator of Flesh (rare)
Creature — Human Wizard
Epiphany — Whenever you draw a card, you may return target creature card in a graveyard to the battlefield under your control. If you do, that creature is a black Zombie in addition to its other colors and types.

3. Serious Fun

Soulshine Elemental (mythic rare)
Enchantment Creature — Elemental
Transference — Whenever Soulshine Elemental attacks, you may reveal an Elemental card from your hand. If you do, double the life total of any number of target players.

4. Limited Information

Garsim’s Lightstriker (uncommon)
Creature — Human Soldier
Transference — Whenever Garsim’s Lightstriker attacks, you may reveal a Soldier card from your hand. If you do, Soldier creatures you control gain lifelink until end of turn.

5. Savor the Flavor

Zolara, the First to Wake (mythic rare)
Legendary Enchantment Creature – Elemental
Creatures you control have haste.
Epiphany — Whenever you draw a card, you may put a 3/1 red Elemental creature token onto the battlefield under your control. If you do, exile it at the beginning of the next end step.

6. Building on a Budget

Ancient Amulet

When Ancient Amulet enters the battlefield, draw a card.
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

7. Top Decks

Zolara’s Ruins (rare)
Legendary Land
Zolara’s Ruins enters the battlefield tapped.

T: Add R to your mana pool.

2RR, T: Put a 3/1 red Elemental creature token with haste onto the battlefield. Exile it at the beginning of the next end step.

8. From the Lab

(mythic rare)
Draw your library.

9. The Week That Was

Natural Defense

Choose one — Destroy up to one target attacking creature with flying; or put a 3/3 green Beast creature token onto the battlefield under your control. If you drew a card this turn, do both instead.

10. Latest Developments

Research into Death

Epiphany — Whenever you draw a card, put a research counter on Research into Death.
B, Sacrifice Research into Death: Target creature gets –X/-X until end of turn, where X is the number of research counters on Research into Death.

Wish me luck!