Innovations – Vengevine In Standard: Things Are Different Now

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Monday, April 19th – Now we’ve had a chance to play with Rise of the Eldrazi, it’s fair to say that the set is matching expectations across the board. In today’s Innovations, Patrick Chapin examines Vengevine, and suggests how this powerful creature is poised to revolutionize the Standard format…

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is how I go about building a deck. That is a pretty big question, but it is a fair one. The short answer is that I usually use one of two methods: “Templating” or “Build Around Me.” Templating is taking an existing design and using it as the blueprint for a new one, potentially with a different cardpool. A common technique I advise players to learn is that of manabase templating. This involves taking the manabase of an existing deck that has key similarities to the deck you are working on. Simply copypasting that manabase (if it is the same format) or using it as a guide to how much of each color, how many tapped lands, how many manlands, and so on, is a very useful way to getting a starting point for a new deck’s manabase.

When it comes to figuring out what decks to experiment with in a new format, templating is especially important. Here, what we mean is building every classic archetype that we don’t have reason to believe isn’t viable. For instance, in new Standard there is much dispute over how much Rise of the Eldrazi will actually change things. Some people think the format will totally turn on its head. Others just see Jund’s iron grip strengthening with countless new options. One thing we can all agree on, however, is that we should at least try building updated Jund decks, as well as the other existing archetypes, such as U/W Control, Bant, Naya, as well as fringe decks that we have reason to believe may have gained significantly from key new cards, such as WW, Red Aggro, and Summoning Trap.

“Build Around Me” deck building is a bit different in that it generally focuses not on what already is, but rather what is not (though should be). With BAM building, the deckbuilder generally focuses on aspect of the game that is not being well exploited, and imagines how to exploit it. Sometimes this involves taking a fringe deck to the next level by re-imaging it based on a new star player. Just as the Cleveland Cavaliers entire organization warped around Lebron James being printed, so to should Mono-Red decks warp around the printing of Kargan Dragonlord, for instance. Whereas Wall of Omens is a fantastic card that will help U/W Control decks tremendously, it doesn’t really change the face of the archetype. Kargan Dragonlord, on the other hand, is a card that is so much better than any non-Lightning Bolt card in Mono-Red, it is worth scrapping the existing barely tier 2 strategy in favor of a new Mono-Red deck built around the Dragonlord. Essentially, the question we are asking is “What is the best Kargan Dragonlord deck?” We believe Kargan Dragonlord is not yet being fully exploited (and rightfully so, as it comes out this weekend…) and as such, BAM building is useful in addition to templating based on previous Mono-Red decks. It is not uncommon for these two methods to have overlap, often in situations where the best play for the deckbuilder is to alternate between them as they tune their deck.

While there are a number of excellent examples of this opportunity today, there are also going to be times where a new card is printed that gives rise to an entire new archetype, a new deck (at least for that format). For instance, Bitterblossom, Reveillark, Reflecting Pool, Ancient Ziggurat, Vampire Nocturnus, and Everflowing Chalice are examples of powerful cards that demand new decks come in to existence to exploit them, as each one was printed during a time period where there was not already an existing deck to put them in. Sometimes cards like Bloodbraid Elf; Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Baneslayer Angel, and Ajani Vengeant are printed, cards which are so strong they demand to be played, but are so flexible they can go in any number of strategies both new and old. While these cards can be built around, they are generally so flexible, so multipurpose (and just so generally good) they do not actually need to be built around. You really can just stick Baneslayers in just about anything. Bloodbraid requires a bit of effort, but he is so over the top, he fits well in any strategy that doesn’t mess up Cascade. Reveillark, Vampire Nocturnus, Everflowing Chalice? These are cards that are absolutely unreal powerful, but you don’t just shove them into decks and expect to get paid. These are franchise players that need the rest of the team picked to support them.

To do this, a good starting point is to take the card (or mechanic such as Affinity, Madness, Tribal, Cycling, etc, though this is really about Arcbound Ravager, Wild Mongrel, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, or Astral Slide, not the mechanic itself) and ask yourself “What would a deck built around Card A look like?” This seems simple, but it can actually greatly organize your thoughts when deckbuilding. What does it take for the card to be maximal effective? What does the card promise you? What does the card ask of you? Is there an existing deck to use as a template for your new deck?

When Tom “The Boss” Ross built Boss Naya (which is just called Naya now on account of there being no other Naya lists but his), we find he was looking for a home for the especially potent Stoneforge Mystic. Stoneforge Mystic is a powerful card, to be sure, but doesn’t just get shoved into a deck without some thought as to the stones he is planning to forge. While many deckbuilders tried getting uber-cute with all the Stoneforge tricks they could, Ross stayed minimal and simple. This “package” was trimmed to just 6 cards (3 Stoneforges, a Behemoth Sledge, a Basilisk Collar, and a Sigil of Distinction), and the question became, where is the best place to put it? Rather than just build a G/W deck from scratch, Ross explored building around a Coimbra (a la Flores) world championship Naya shell. Using it as the template, he was able to not only flesh out the right types of support spells, he was able to uncover the key questions that needed to be answered to maximize this new technology.

First of all, there is the question of how to make room for this package. Ross asked himself what the new technology added (reliable lifelife and a regular supply of strong threats). This helped bring to light the weak link was now Baneslayer Angel. While Baneslayer is among the best, it does not offer a dimension the deck actually needs, since Stoneforge turns all your small guys into pseudo-Baneslayers, plus you are not getting top dollar for your equipment when so many of your headliners don’t even care to carry them. There was also a bit of tension between Bloodbraid Elf and Sigil of Distinction. While it was debated that maybe it should stay, in the end, Ross elected to cut down even more on his new package (-1 Stoneforge, -1 Sigil) so as to keep the shell intact.

The addition of manlands was not much of a functional strategic change, but rather just a straightforward upgrade to the manabase, increasing the threat density thanks to new options. The Knight of Reliquaries replacing Woolly Thoctors was a natural swap on account of the existence of good manlands, which brought along with it more fetchlands, Sejiri Steppe, etc. All in all, holding Boss Naya up next to Coimbra’s Naya Lightsaber deck can be an instrumental lesson in templating. Among the variety of decks I want to discuss today, the first two are possible places to put one of the cards I am most excited about in the set, Vengevine. I am going to build a Vengevine deck using Templating, then build one using BAM.

To start with, let’s look at Vengevine itself. When I look at Vengevine, I see a four-power haste creature for four mana that dreams of scenarios where you will want to naturally play two creatures in the same turn in the middle or late game. When it is at is best, it is a relentless threat that hits hard and fast, while being somewhat immune to much of the common creature defense, such as Lightning Bolt, Terminate, Maelstrom Pulse, Wall of Omens, and trading in combat. It promises to win the game for you in much the same way a Demigod of Revenge does, if you but try a little to enable his trigger. Incidentally, it is the best anti-Blightning card in the format.

What does it take to make Vengevine work? Well, it is pretty easy to see that the name of the game is playing two creatures in one turn. The trick is, that early, if your creatures aren’t cheap, it will be hard to play two in a turn, and later in the game, you will not necessarily always want to hold your creatures. There are a variety of ways to work around this. The first that comes to mind are creatures that let you cast multiple creatures themselves, such as Ranger of Eos and Bloodbraid Elf. This is the reason why I thought it useful to use Boss Naya as a template for a Vengevine deck. While I think there a variety of possible Vengevine decks (such as Jund, Bant, G/W, and more), I do want to try building one from a base that has a proven track record and at least try that and see what lessons can be learned. Other ways of trigger Vengevine will be discussed more at length below.

First, for reference:

So, the first thing I do is look to see where I could squeeze in some Vengevines. Often this is a matter of comparing casting costs, as you often don’t want to end up with 16 four-drops, if you know what I mean. Boss Naya has, at it’s core, Ranger of Eos and Bloodbraid Elf, so I am looking to stonecold anything else to try to make room, especially since these are the primary enablers for Vengevine (though it should be noted that Bloodbraid Elf is significantly worse than Ranger here, especially since there are currently a number of possible cascades that won’t trigger Vengevine). The first cards I can see to try and cut are the two Ajani Vengeants and the Baneslayer Angel. I would like a fourth Vengevine, but for now, let’s explore the implications of cutting the Baneslayer and the two Ajani’s. First of all, Ajani and Baneslayer don’t really mesh with this build’s game plan, but are rather just absolute top tier cards on power level. The life gain is not a big loss, as the equipment package continues to provide options in that area, though cutting two Ajani Vengeants does reduce the deck’s reach, as well as its removal. Still, on the whole, there don’t appear to be any glaring weaknesses as a result of these cuts.

What other cards change in value as a result of the Vengevines? While turn 4 Vengevine, Turn 5 Ranger of Eos + Scute Mob (plus being ready to trigger Vengevine again next turn) is a devasting opening that will invalidate many archetypes, what other ways do we have to “live the dream?” Bloodbraid Elf currently looks to trigger Vengevine 68% of the time (17/25), which is pretty respectable. Just holding Noble Hierarchs or Birds is certainly valid. Do we need more? I see some people talking about Elvish Visionary and Wall of Omens, and while those options may be reasonable elsewhere, I don’t think they are well suited for how aggresive a build we seem to be moving towards.

The enabler that pops into my mind is Kor Skyfisher. This underrated quite team player already has respectable pedigree, courtesy of Craig Wescoe Tricked Out White Weenie in San Diego. There, he combined it with Sigil of Distinction, Steppe Lynx, Stoneforge Mystic, sometimes Devout Lightcaster, and even Oblivon Ring. In addition, just having a flier was of particular value. With the printing of Wall of Omens, I think that is more true than ever. I think this is not the last we have seen of Kor Skyfisher top 8’ing constructed Pro Tours.

When it comes to Vengevine, Kor Skyfisher has a number of applications. First of all, just casting it implies being able to trigger Vengevine, as bouncing itself at the very least is enough to get you there. In fact, if you just keep a Kor Skyfisher in hand, your Vengevines will never stop coming back. Simply play Kor Skyfisher twice (leaving it in your hand at the end). Your Vengevine(s) hop back onto the battlefield and bash. If your opponent can kill them, repeat. Four mana is all it takes, and if your opponent doesn’t kill them, you don’t have to pay to get them back.

In addition to “The Dream,” Kor Skyfisher naturally combines well with a number of the best elements of Naya, Ranger of Eos, Bloodbraid Elf, and Stoneforge Mystic (and possibly Oblivion Ring). This many great combos all but ensures value to be had from Kor Skyfisher, though there is a subtle cost. While Kor Skyfisher is a two drop, he really does function better as a turn 5 or 6 play. With Vengevine, Ranger, and Bloodbraid already providing a lot of action there, not to mention manlands and equipment, the question becomes, do you really want more of that? In addtion, turn 4 Bloodbraid into an empty board flipping Kor Skyfisher is actually slightly awkward, as you can’t bounce the Bloodbraid still on the stack. You can, however, just bounce the Kor Skyfisher itself and replay it at your leisure, so it is still fine. One possible solution to consider is to play even more mana-ramping so as to get to your higher stage gameplay faster. I am not yet sure how best to apply this combo, but my intuition is telling me that Vengevine + Kor Skyfisher may end up being at the center of some new deck, as that two card combo, along with Ranger of Eos, provides a very powerful engine that can win the game by itself. Maybe the key is to build around these three cards and figure out what the best support spells are. Any two of these three cards together is awesome, but all three together totally invalidates many reactive and mid-range strategies.

When considering the implications of less removal (on account of Ajani Vengeant getting cut) I asked myself what sort of removal I could use to replace it. All of the obvious choices — Lighting Bolt, Path to Exile, and Oblivion Ring – would actually further weaken the Bloodbraid triggering Vengevine aspect of the deck. While this is not necessarily a deal-breaker, I at least wanted to consider more heavily creature-based alternatives. The one that sprung to mind was Cunning Sparkmage. Cunning Sparkmage is a reasonable role player and can be especially potent with Basilisk Collar as a form of creature removal. Cunning Sparkmage already is pretty universal as a sideboard plan, but does the sideboard plan makes sense maindeck, with the advent of Vengevine?

Another card I have been considering is Borderland Ranger. The somewhat maligned Borderland Ranger could accomplish a number of things that Knight of the Reliquary does not (though admittedly at a much lower power level). Borderland Ranger is a much more reliable way to fix your mana (a very real problem for anyone that has experience with this sort of Naya deck) than Knight of the Reliquary, especially against removal heavy opponents. In addition, Borderland Ranger combines well with Kor Skyfisher and continues the theme of Bloodbraid, Ranger, Stoneforge, and Vengevine is making removal pretty terrible against us. After Cutting Baneslayers, we are left with only Knight of the Reliquary as “must kill threats” and cutting them does have the nice upside of making cards like Terminate generally awful against us. The biggest downside to this plan is that we have already cut Ajani Vengeant and Baneslayer, so we are not exactly looking to keep reducing the overall power level of the deck.

For reference, here is the base that I am going to start from, experimenting with each of the above variations:

This list is probably fine, but not exactly that groundbreaking. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but I am interested in trying to push Vengevine much harder. As I was about to list a possible experimental version, I couldn’t help notice more and more that almost everything I am trying to do is G/W, with Bloodbraid being pretty much the only thing I am really that interested in out of Red (beyond maybe a basic Mountain for Wild Nacatl). Maybe there is just no reason to move away from Red, but it is at least worth considering. For instance, if we totally abandoned Red, could we possibly pick up Student of Warfare? I would feel a lot less bad about abandoning Wild Nacatl if the Student was part of the deal. Also, maybe I am crazy, but I think that Joraga Treespeaker is underrated. That card is what Lotus Cobra could have been had it gone to college and made something of itself instead of just daydreaming about the possibilities (though admittedly it doesn’t mesh well with the Student of Warfare plan).

Here are two G/W sketches to start thinking about the possibilities:

Is it just crazy to not be playing Akoum Battlesinger and Bloodbraid Elf? What about a little more “little-kid g/w?”

The problem I have with these sorts of decks is that I imagine them having trouble with decks that seek to sidestep traditional creature battles. For instance, how can these decks compete with a turn 4 Emrakul (on their endstep) thanks to Summoning Trap? What about Cunning Sparkmage + Basilisk Collar against them? What about U/W Control sitting behind Walls, exiling Vengevine, and casting Martial Coup? This is not to say that G/W cannot work, but it may take some new element. Then again, it may just be that it is necessary to include Red or Blue (maybe even Black?)

Blue does not offer that much more for Vengevine, but it may be that there is already enough and that what Blue really adds is Bant Charm and maybe Negate or Deprive (though it would be super sick if there was some sort of Looter deck…). I initially was drawn to Jund with Vengevine, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it might be foolish to not play Ranger of Eos with it. At that point, why are you Jund? I will surely try it, but Bloodbraid alone is probably not enough to entice me (especially with Bolts, Pulses, and Blightning). It might still be right to just play a couple Vengevines instead of Garruks or something, but that just seems so far from realizing his full potential. I want more!

Prediction: Vengevine hurts Jund far more than it helps it. Vengevine finds multiple homes and turns out to be the real deal, at least in Naya, and maybe in a variety of other places.

What changes besides Naya decklists? Exile is better, Terminate is worse. Planeswalkers are threatened more. Wall of Reverence improves. Day of Judgement is worse. Ethersworn Canonist is better. Blightning is weaker. Malakir Bloodwitch is worse. Baneslayer Angel is better (in decks where it blocks). Counterspells are worse. Locks and Combos are better. This seems like a lot of waves for one little card to be making, and it is, but that is because Vengevine is a card that will have a lot of impact. It won’t push most of these thing to extremes, but it will add and subtract percentage points all over the place. It is one of the most important cards to come out of Rise of the Eldrazi, and anyone seeking to build a successful new Standard deck would do well to contemplate what all is different now.

(There is no more in-game technology, so if the economic nature of the following section is not of interest to you, you won’t be missing anything in-game. This is technology, but a very different kind.)

A final word about Vengevine and its status (alongside Gideon) as the latest busted Mythic that makes it cost a lot of money to compete:

Yes, it is a Mythic. Yes, it is a great tournament card. Would you have all the Mythics suck? Either you want them all to suck, or you want some to be good. If one want them to all suck, it would seem that they are against Mythics in general. These people are generally the same people who think that M10 rules makes Magic “dumbed down” and for beginners. I will tell you what I see. I see that Zendikar Block is a big success from a design point, with unheard-of levels of different fun and powerful cards, without breaking the format in half. Despite the huge number of tournament cards, there are no Bitterblossoms, Cryptic Commands, or Bloodbraid Elves. The most (arguably) most powerful card (Jace, TMS) is actually introduced at the most hostile possible time, ensuring an opportunity for players to use him, but not have to.

I also see that Magic is at an all-time high. It is not just that more Magic cards are being sold now than ever before, it is that there are more Magic players, more tournaments, more places to play, more opportunities to play whenever you want, more ways to play, and Magic Culture is thriving. Do you think it is an accident? A coincidence? Mythics (and M10 rules) are good for the game because they not only help sell packs, but they make it possible for packs to retail at the price they are at. You may think that is high, but if not for Mythics, fewer cards would be sold and prices per pack would have to go up. Wizards of the Coast is a business, and it is one that costs a lot of money to operate. The cards don’t design or print themselves, and Mythics are instrumental in the future ability of cards to be designed and printed.

Also, it cannot be stressed enough that Mythics have depressed the value of many tournament staple rares. Broodmate Dragon is $5, Day of Judgement $9, Pithing Needle $4, Sunpetal Grove $5, Ball Lightning $6, Honor the Pure $5, Sphinx of Lost Truths $1.50, Martial Coup $6, Malakir Bloodwitch $5… the list goes on and on. You know darn well there is no way those would be the prices of those cards if not for Mythics driving down the price. Do Baneslayer, Jace, Elspeth, Vampire Nocturnus, and so on fetch a pretty penny? No question, but don’t rewrite history and don’t conveniently forget the benefits that go along with this.

Why am I ranting about this seemingly at random? Vengevine is a sweet card that has people worried about the cost of the card on account of it being a Mythic, and I have been asked a lot about it recently. Here is something to think about:

How many great Mythics were in M10? Baneslayer, Nocturnus, and what, the Planeswalkers reprints? How about Shards? Elspeth, and I guess maybe some of the other Planeswalkers? Worldwake? Jace and….Abyssal Persecutor? Conflux (The set)? Progenitus and… ??? (Why do you think Noble Hierarch and Knight of the Reliquary are expensive!)

Let’s see what happens with Rise of the Eldrazi. With Gideon, Kargan Dragonlord, All is Dust, Emrakul, Vengevine, and Sarkhan the Mad, not to mention Ulamog, Kozilek, Lighthouse Chronologist, and Trancendent Master. This is an unheard of number of tournament Mythics. What does it mean? Well, aside from people being heavily incentivised to open packs, it also means that any one specific Mythic is going to end up at a lower price than it normally would. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but that is because people have been speculating on the cards as though this were a set like previous ones. With so many tournament Mythics making up some of the equity of the opened boxes, the price for an individual card will be lower.

For instance, look at Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Part of why he is so expensive is that people need to make a certain amount of equity out of packs of Worldwake or none would get opened for singles. There are few other particularly valuable cards, the ones of value go for more. With Rise of the Eldrazi, so many packs will get opened by people looking for Gideons, they will end up with extra Dragonlords and All is Dust. People looking for Emrakul will end up with extra Vengevine and Sarkhan the Mad. The point is, more people will have more extras of the Mythics they aren’t using, and the market will help distribute them to those that want them.

Think of it this way: if you open a case of M10, it is not just that there are maybe 2 Baneslayers, it is that there are maybe 8-9 good Mythics in the case, plus some number of quality rares and uncommons (and some Lightning Bolts…). Opening a case of M10 costs a certain amount of money. In order for it to be worth it to dealers to open cases, they have to be able to see enough value to pay for the case (and labor). That dollar amount is divided between all of the cards that actually sell, and if there aren’t many, the rarest of them end up expensive.

When someone opens a case of Rise of the Eldrazi, they are not just looking at maybe 2 Gideons, they are looking at 17-18 good tournament Mythics, not to mention the quality rares, uncommons, and so on. That means that the value that needs to be realized out of a case to pay for opening it is divided between more cards, making each individual card cost less (once the market has time to correct itself). You may be saying, “Why would dealers sell the cards for a lower amount? They want to make money!” The answer is that the market corrects itself. Every dealer may start out with prices based on previous demand, but they are just reacting to people’s demands. If everyone wants Gideons presale, it is only natural to keep raising the price (perceived supply/demand).

Once people actually get RoE packs and start busting them, there is magically going to appear to be a larger supply of Gideons, Emrakuls, Kargan Dragonlords and so on than people realized, and in order to sell them, dealers are going to have to start charging a little less. As long as the prices on these cards is so ridiculously high, a lot of dealers are going to bust a ton of packs. This is going to mean a huge supply hitting the market during the next month. This huge increase in supply will drive the price down on most of these cards (maybe not a ton, but most of them will drop a little). This will cause dealers to stop opening more packs, since the margin disappears. As a result of fewer packs being opened, the prices will stabilize, with the greatest fluctuations coming as a result of metagame shifts, making some cards suddenly increase or decrease in popularity (demand) rather than packs getting opened (supply).

I know that many readers may have glazed over these paragraphs, but those that have eyes to see will appreciate this technology for what it is. I could come out and say that I think many of the Mythics in this set are going to drop in value, and that I think that busting packs of Rise of the Eldrazi on release day is a good investment. I recommend spending whatever you are spending on RoE on boxes, not Mythic singles, but that would just be “a decklist,” not real understanding. Understanding economics of Magic singles and understanding economics of mana and cards go hand in hand. What good is being from the future if you don’t capitalize on it?

I normally buy singles as well as open packs from drafting, but Rise is a set where my plan is to just spend that money opening packs (getting a ton of practice drafting!) and trade extra cards to complete the playsets I am looking for. Trading is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but many love it, and this is one of the best sets for trading ever. Obviously I am not advising anyone to do anything other than what they think is best for them; this is just what I think is best for me. See you next week, when we start to examine how the new metagame is shaping up!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”