Apology from the Author
To begin with, I would like to thank all of you who were kind enough to write me your opinions of my previous article, Wild and Untamed Thing. I read every one of your letters (some of them twice), and not a few tears were shed. Many of you wished that I would stop composing pieces for StarCityGames.com. In the words of my harshest critic, Danny Rudolphus,”You suck worse than ever. There’s a reindeer here at Grover Cleveland Middle School that writes better than you.” Nevertheless, it is with the sincerest regret that I must inform my readers that, far from being a character-building life choice, ceasing to write Magic articles would mean running away from my fears and weaknesses. For what is a weakness but a shadow of oneself? And how, as St. Paul asked the Eritreans, could a man fulfill his destiny if he lacked a shadow? Did not Jesus have a shadow? Did not Mary?
I believe I have made myself understood.
…And That’s the Way it Is
Any bush that I might have been tempted to beat around a few weeks ago has now been thoroughly razed. Not only have the results from European Regionals tournaments shown that Ravager Affinity is vulnerable to maindecked hate, but they have also made it clear that Goblins and Goblins Bidding are not automatic successors to Affinity’s throne. Even more surprisingly, Affinity’s and Goblin’s declines have not come primarily at the hands of the much-vaunted W/R Slide, but from a host of other decks as well, including Mono-White and U/W Control, R/G Land Destruction, and Tooth and Nail. Just a short time ago, on this very website, I proclaimed that Green was competitively untenable in Standard. Oh, well.
In retrospect, the process by which these circumstances occurred appears simple:
Pre-Darksteel Era: U/W Control dominates the field.
Reaction 1: Patriarch’s Bidding works its way into most Goblins decks. This helps against U/W Control but also makes Goblins slower. Nevertheless, Goblins’ speed is second only to that of Aggro/Control Affinity, a deck that has trouble against U/W Control.
Reaction 2 (Start of Darksteel Era): Affinity receives Arcbound Ravager and Skullclamp, making it so fast that, all else being equal, it’s clearly the best deck in the metagame. Skullclamp aids immensely in the struggle against U/W Control, a deck that quickly falls by the wayside. Quietly, Goblin Bidding appropriates Skullclamp for its own use and becomes a pseudo-combo deck.
Reaction 3: The power of Ravager Affinity has made it the target of considerable maindecked hate, including Damping Matrix in Mono-White Control and W/R Slide. Damping Matrix also harms Goblin Bidding.
Reaction 4: Ravager Affinity begins maindecking artifact removal to deal with Damping Matrix and opposing Skullclamps. This makes Ravager Affinity slower. Meanwhile, Goblin Bidding is in a quandary as it is difficult for the deck to include artifact removal and Skullclamp yet still have enough Goblins to support Patriarch’s Bidding. Quietly, Goblin Bidding becomes Goblins. This makes Goblins faster.
Reaction 5 (Status Quo): As Mono-White Control and W/R Slide run few artifacts, they find that Damping Matrices are short-lived in matchups against Ravager Affinity and Goblins. U/W Control, however, benefits from the slowing down of Ravager Affinity. Similarly, Tooth and Nail now has time to set-up its own pseudo-combo against Ravager Affinity. Importantly, Goblins is strong against U/W Control and Tooth and Nail, yet it still loses to the now sub-par Ravager Affinity decks.
Projected Reaction 6: Fearing artifact hate, many Ravager Affinity players will reassess the situation and switch over to Goblins. Goblins will win handily against some of the slower decks in the format, and artifact hate will lose much of its usefulness.
Projected Reaction 7: In light of the fact that artifact hate will have fallen from grace, there will be a revival of Ravager Affinity, a deck fast enough to outrace Goblins.
Naturally, my two predictions might turn out to be untrue. It is, nonetheless, evident that the metagame won’t be driven by any single force, that is, it will not uniformly veer toward either Aggro or Control. Additionally, while it is true that maindecked artifact hate will decrease, the very nature of Mirrodin Block ensures that most decks will find ways to destroy artifacts. With this in mind, it is dangerous to try walking a fine line in regards to playing artifacts. If you play no artifacts at all, artifact hate isn’t a problem although, obviously, you lose many deckbuilding options. If you play many artifacts, you’ll probably lose a couple of them to the random Shatter and Oxidize, but you still ought to have plenty leftover (barring Akroma’s Vengeance). The trouble, at the moment, comes for decks that, like Mono-White and U/W Control, W/R Slide, and Goblins, run only a small number of keystone artifacts. These decks, originally built to defeat Ravager Affinity, will falter because all of the other decks designed to beat Ravager Affinity will have answers to Damping Matrix and Skullclamp.
There are, no doubt, many factors and many decks to consider. In this article, I will present just one deck, a deck that is unlikely to ever post fantastic tournament results yet which, I believe, highlights many current issues in Standard. The deck is not unplayable, but its metagame dependence means that it might not remain viable for long. The deck’s true value lies in its use of presently underutilized mechanics. The more sardonic among you will correctly point out that these mechanics are underutilized for a reason, but I’d like to proffer just this one value statement: If an unusual, unexpected deck can compete in the metagame as well as an established deck, the unusual deck should be preferred for the sake of promoting metagame variety. I might also add that the deck is bushels of fun to play. I’ve named it Cowardly Rift although most people, I suppose, will call it something endlessly boring like U/R Rift. I was going to name it the Wicker Man, but then, I recalled that I’d already used that one on another deck.
I’ve Seen Blue Skies, and This isn’t It
I realize that I have some explaining to do.
Strangely, Cowardly Rift was born not of some mad desire to find a use for Cowardice in today’s Standard but, rather, from an analysis of the flaws of W/R Slide. W/R Slide provides wonderful things like direct damage, mass removal, enormous creatures, and oodles of land. It can quash Ravager Affinity, smite Goblins, and outmaneuver other Control builds. What is there not to love? Well, W/R Slide is prone to the dangers of a low artifact-count mentioned above. Damping Matrix is great, but every deck besides MBC (which, incidentally, it’s useless against) can send it to the graveyard with no trouble at all. This, however, is just a minor point.
Most damagingly, for all its versatility, W/R Slide lacks mid-game adaptability. Its early-game is much the same as its late-game, the only difference being that, in the late-game, the deck has to not only deal with opposing threats but also deal damage.
With the exception of the often unused Spark Spray, its creature removal is all high-casting cost unless Lightning Rift is in play. Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance are great, but the latter is self-defeating if you have enchantments out, and both are better utilized by Mono-White and U/W Control, decks which also have synergy with Oblivion Stone. What’s more, though Starstorm and Slice and Dice appear to be fine mid-game plays against Affinity and Goblins, W/R Slide has more three-drops than the landlord’s daughter; Damping Matrix, Astral Slide, Slice and Dice, and to a lesser extent, Pulse of the Fields and Exalted Angel all compete to see play. The deck has sufficient creature destruction, but these spells often must be held back for the sake of board development. Despite its innate ability to stop damage in the early-game, W/R Slide usually fails to do so.
Cowardly Rift on the other hand… To be fair, it’s really two decks in one, neither of which are particularly good. It has the same early-game creature destruction as W/R Slide, but due to the deck’s make-up, its removal spells need not stagnate in your hand while you wait for defensive permanents to come online. In the late-game, Cowardice comes to the fore and changes everything. Everything. Oftentimes, you’ll wish that you’d never drawn it, but sometimes, it’s just magical. You haven’t known fun in its purest, most innocent sense until you’ve played Cowardice against an Elf Combo deck. Pyrotechnics and Choking Tethers become miniature Evacuations. Arcbound Ravager, Ornithopter, Tooth of Chiss-Goria, Welding Jar, Skullclamp, and Goblin Sharpshooter all start looking silly.
In essence, though it costs two more mana than each, Cowardice is a combination of Damping Matrix and Astral Slide. It’s slightly inferior to Damping Matrix but, in a creatureless deck like Cowardly Rift (pre-sideboarding), significantly better than Astral Slide. Despite the fact that, with Cowardice in play, the deck only has six spells that kill (rather than bounce) creatures, by the time Cowardice does enter play, your opponent will likely be casting creatures that W/R Slide also has trouble dealing with. Since fifteen of Cowardly Rift’s twenty-nine cyclers target creatures, and there are an additional five targeting spells (not to mention Lightning Rift) in the deck, it is likely that you will be able to consistently bounce multiple creatures per turn in the late-game at the same time as you incrementally deal damage to your opponent with Lightning Rift.
Cowardly Rift’s maindeck is completely lacking in both artifacts and creatures (I swear, Gempalm Incinerator doesn’t count), so it will render dead many of your opponents’ cards. Since absolutely creatureless decks are so rare in today’s Standard, other Control builds will not, even post-sideboarding, be able to make their entire decks useful. On the other hand, most of your own Red creature removal spells (unlike White’s) can damage players, so they will never be completely useless against opponents running few creatures.
Because much of Cowardly Rift is so unusual, more explanation of card choices is required than is often the case.
Slice and Dice
It might raise eyebrows that, in a Control deck without Wrath of God, only a pair of Slice and Dice are used. Though it is certainly a powerful card, Cowardly Rift’s inability to gain life often makes it dangerous to cast or cycle in the late-game. After testing, I replaced two copies with two Pyrotechnics, a more synergistic card that will be evaluated later.
Primarily a late-game finisher, Fireball also acts as supplemental creature removal and bounce in the early- and mid-games respectively. Though much less efficient at bouncing than Choking Tethers or Pyrotechnics, this use should not be forgotten.
Possibly one of the more surprising cards in the deck, Pyrotechnics splits tasks in the late-game to concurrently serve as both a bouncer and source of direct damage. In the mid-game, it will often rid you of just as many opposing creatures as Wrath of God. Though you pay a premium for its versatility, it’s never a dead card.
Solar Blast is much maligned, yet like a link of blood sausage, it’s really much better than it looks. Cantrip removal, even at such a meek level, is not to be snuffed at, and with Lightning Rift in play, cycling Solar Blast has the same potency as hard-casting it.
Often the odd man out in W/R Slide, Spark Spray serves a vital purpose in Cowardly Rift, protecting you from damage and removing Disciple of the Vault in the early-game. In the late-game, it’s most useful as a one-mana cycler which, all things considered, is not so bad.
Although it is not, admittedly, the most useful of Cowardly Rift’s early-game cyclers, Choking Tethers should not be disregarded; tapping a single creature while drawing a card isn’t so shabby if that single creature happens to be a 10/12 Ornithopter. With Cowardice in play, it can, as an instant, bounce four creatures for four mana.
Dragon Wings is the one card you shouldn’t mind cycling early, as its value lies in its recursiveness. With Cowardice on the board and Dragon Wings in your graveyard, your opponent won’t be able to keep in play creatures with casting costs higher than five. Since every major deck besides Goblins (which sometimes packs Rorix Bladewing), White Weenie, and B/G Cemetery include high-casting creatures, Dragon Wings will be useful more often than you might think. It only takes one of these enchantments to shut down all four of your opponent’s Myr Enforcers. Also, considering the rising stock of Tooth and Nail, Dragon Wings could give you a number of easy wins. In the match-up analyses, you’ll notice that Dragon Wings is frequently sided-out; it’s one of the most expendable cards in the deck but also, sometimes, one of the best.
Maindecking Gempalm Incinerator in a deck with no other Goblins must appear strange, and the targeting ability when it’s cycled is usually only helpful with Cowardice in play. Nonetheless, the defensive nature of this deck requires it to include as many cyclers and creature targeters as possible. This is yet another card which fits the bill. Against Goblins and Goblin Bidding, its value increases. Incidentally, the situations in which you’ll want to hard-cast Gempalm Incinerator are exceedingly rare.
All will become clear when you see the sideboard. In any case, though Cowardly Rift needs continual land drops in the early- and mid-games, drawing into a land clump later is one of the most common reasons it trips up and loses. Wooded Foothills helps thin the deck.
Without Naturalize in the sideboard, Cowardly Rift would flail about helplessly when faced with Circle of Protection: Red, Story Circle, and Stabilizer. Naturalize is also useful against Oversold Cemetery, Skullclamp, and Lightning Rift.
Though Naturalize is faster, Nantuko Vigilante shines in long games against other Control decks. With Cowardice in play, it becomes reusable but expensive artifact and enchantment removal. It’s not a great card, but since the Circles of Protection can so thoroughly ruin your day, it’s necessary. The fact that many of these same decks running Circle of Protection: Red will be W/R Slide decks packed with other enchantments you’d like to destroy, is, as they say, just a sauce made by thickening and seasoning the juices that drip from cooking meat. A hint for those of you playing W/R Slide who expect many mirror matches: Ever considered Aven Cloudchaser?
If your opponent hasn’t sided-out all of his or her creature kill, Riptide Mangler is easy to remove. However, few aggressive decks will keep in their creature destruction just on the off chance that a Riptide Mangler shows up, and if this card is unanswered, it can, with Cowardice, win the game. Riptide Mangler is not only reusable bounce but reusable bounce that is limited only by your mana. One of a number of cards in your deck that punishes the playing of large creatures, Riptide Mangler is never awful and can buy you some time even if only used as a blocker.
Why the Hekla Don’t You Play That?
In Cowardly Rift, Complicate is most often just a grain husk separated from its seed during threshing. It’s a lovely card in U/W Control, but the presence of Cowardice means that spells will be cycled and mana spent more often during your opponents’ declare attackers phase than his or her end of turn phase.
While I can see the beauty in combining Culling Scales with Cowardice, the artifact fails to make the cut for three reasons: 1) As an artifact in an otherwise artifactless deck, it would have a great, big target painted on its dainty, little head; 2) I’d rather not have to sacrifice my own Lightning Rift; 3) if it were included, Cowardly Rift would have more three-drops than the landlord’s daughter.
Temple of the False God
Though these lands power Fireball and Starstorm, they also prevent you from splashing Green. Sure, everyone else is running four of them, but if everyone else decided to jump off a bridge…? Or decided to play Skullclamp…? Well, Okay. Maybe.
Honestly, I considered it. However, there’s a difference between using an ungainly card like Cowardice because you want to challenge your playskills and doing so because you want to give purpose to those 14th pick commons from yesterday’s draft.
No Banalities, Just Match-Up Analyses
During Cowardly Rift’s development, I assumed a strong Ravager Affinity presence in the metagame. Don’t be fooled into bringing in Naturalize from the sideboard; Riptide Mangler is almost always better (an exception would be if your opponent, following my Wicker Man build for example, runs Genesis Chamber). Even before Cowardice enters play, Riptide Mangler trades with Myr Enforcer and makes your opponent think twice about using Arcbound Ravager to pump Ornithopter. Make it a priority to keep Disciple of the Vault off of the board; if you manage this and can untap with Cowardice in play, you’ve likely won. Beware of Shrapnel Blast.
As with Ravager Affinity, resist the urge to side-in Naturalize. Cowardly Rift’s instant speed creature kill ought to be able to deal with Skullclamp targets in the early-game while Cowardice stops any nonsense later. The Siege-Gang Commander problem, however, illustrates one of the inherent risks of Cowardice; generally, creatures with comes-into-play effects are not good news. Also, Goblin Warchief’s haste-granting makes bounce considerably less effective. Riptide Mangler helps combat this and is spectacular against Clickslither.
Though sideboarding against Goblins and Goblin Bidding is the same, you’ll find the latter an easier matchup. Slightly slower than its counterpart, Goblin Bidding is also more harmed by Cowardice. As with Goblins, remove what creatures you can in the early-game with targeted burn, but take care to save your untargeted, instant speed removal for use after Patriarch’s Bidding resolves. Here, Choking Tethers can be an unexpected lifesaver.
Most White Weenie builds will rely heavily on Equipment and include Leonin Shikari. These builds will not be pleased by Cowardice. Don’t be frugal with your targeted burn early in the game, but try to save your mass removal for Silver Knights. Riptide Mangler shines against equipped creatures; as always, be sure to bounce last the creature with the highest power. If you see Circle of Protection: Red or Story Circle in game two, side-in Naturalize for game three.
Zombies is a fast deck, but unlike the four already analyzed, it isn’t fast enough to kill you before you take control of the game. Aim your burn at Zombie Warchief. Recursion via Unholy Grotto might be annoying, but such antics can only go on for so long, since your bounce and removal spells draw you extra cards. Unless Zombies splashes for Green, it has no answer to your enchantments.
Cowardice swiftly answers Clerics’ combo mechanism. The trick is holding back that combo long enough for you to get the enchantment into play. Cowardly Rift’s targeted burn is less than useful if Daru Spiritualist is on the table, but it can take care of Leonin Shikari. Equally dangerous, perhaps, is Scion of Darkness, a card that you have no way of removing until turn 6. Burn away Dark Supplicants as soon as you see them in the early-game.
Much depends on which build you’re facing. Your primary burn targets are Bloodline Shaman, Wirewood Hivemaster, Wirewood Channeler, and Birchlore Ranger. Use your Naturalizes against Skullclamp and Intruder Alarm/Faces of the Past. Only bother destroying Tangleroot if you’re bored. Disrupt the combo (and there are a number of different combos Elf players can choose from), and you ought to win. More focused than Clerics, Elf Combo decks suffer under Cowardly Rift’s instant-speed removal.
Helpfully, most decks with Green components include Oxidize rather than Naturalize. In this matchup, the interaction between Dragon Wings and Cowardice is essential. Remember that most Tooth and Nail decks are now playing Leonin Abunas to protect Darksteel Colossus and Platinum Angel. There’s little you can do to slow Tooth and Nail’s early development, yet there will be times when burning away Vine Trellis is favorable option. You’ll find Solemn Simulacrum vexing if you have Cowardice in play.
This is a matchup for which sideboarded Complicates would be nice. Death Cloud will always harm you more than your opponent, and besides just being aware of its existence, there’s little you can do about it. Use Naturalize against Oversold Cemetery to make your opponent careful about casting Death Cloud. Viridian Zealot’s ability to destroy enchantments will also harm you. This is one of Cowardly Rift’s poorest matchups.
If the deck veers heavily toward destroying artifacts, you’re in for a treat. Otherwise, there’ll be a-very-hot-place-once-thought-to-be-located-beneath-Iceland’s-Mount-Hekla to pay. Despite including twenty-seven lands, Cowardly Rift doesn’t appreciate having them destroyed, and your opponent’s mana acceleration cancels out some of the effectiveness of your bounce. Riptide Mangler probably won’t survive the burn for long, but it’ll sometimes trade with Ravenous Baloth.
Prior to sideboarding, Cowardly Rift holds a clear advantage over W/R Slide inasmuch as its creature removal spells nearly all deal damage. After sideboarding, Cowardly Rift becomes slower, but your opponent, considering how much burn was bandied about in the first game, will be wary of playing a turn 3 morphed Exalted Angel. Although you lose eight cyclers after sideboarding, you’ll be able to feed off of your opponent’s spells. Once you get Cowardice in play, both Dragon Wings and Nantuko Vigilante become real problems, the former ensuring that Eternal Dragon never attacks and the latter acting as reusable enchantment removal. The loss of Slice and Dice will be felt because you’ll have to hold back Starstorm in case of a cycled Decree of Justice. It may be necessary to use your enchantment removal against Circle of Protection: Red or Story Circle.
MWC’s mass removal generally hurts you more than W/R Slide’s does. Fortunately, even after sideboarding, MWC is likely to have a number of dead cards. Play against MWC much as you would against W/R Slide. The primary difference between the two matchups is that MWC is more dependent on its creatures than W/R Slide is; you will find this helpful. Additionally, MWC’s lack of direct damage allows you take more risks.
Although U/W Control is quite different than MWC, you should sideboard against it identically. Play a slow game against U/W Control, baiting counterspells with Lightning Rift so that you can get Cowardice into play. While there’s no way for Cowardly Rift to completely lock down any deck, MWC’s and U/W Control’s lack of offensive threats lets you lean on Cowardice. Again, be careful of Circle of Protection: Red and Story Circle.
But Wait, There’s More!
You might not have noticed, but so far as even vaguely tournament-worthy decks go, Cowardly Rift is astoundingly inexpensive. Take out the Starstorms and Wooded Foothills, and *bam!*, you have a fifty-two-card deck! Seriously, though, there are some changes a cash-conscious player can make to produce a cheaper and less effective Cowardly Rift. To build an entire deck at half the cost of an Arcbound Ravager play set, just try the following:
I can already hear some of you complaining about that sky-high-priced rare, Riptide Mangler. Fine, fine, replace it with Neurok Transmuter, I don’t care. What? Cowardice is rare too? Oh, just stop it.
Final, Passionate Appeal
After all this bluster and huffing and puffing, I must remind you that Cowardly Rift is highly metagame dependent and might not be suited for your region. There are, however, some things which transcend Regional divides: Love, friendship, peace, and the ability to jaywalk without being thrown into the slammer by the Man (like what happened to my tawp dawg DJ Lishus (token rap reference)). Cowardly Rift can’t help you with any of these things, especially not jaywalking (deck holders are cumbersome and make fleeing the police more difficult). What can Cowardly Rift do for you? Well, if you show up at a tournament with something unique and inventive like Cowardly Rift, you won’t be accused of netdecking… Oh, to Hekla with it all!