It’s Going Down—I’m Yelling Timber

Drew just watched Kiki Pod win the Modern Grand Prix in Richmond. Can it possibly take down a SCG Legacy Open, such as the one taking place in Seattle this weekend?

You better move. You better dance.

Ever since Cube came to Magic Online, I’ve loved Orcish Lumberjack. Cube is a format where ramp is revered and the Lumberjack is a reusable Black Lotus. But while Cube’s other mana acceleration cards—Elves of various names, Show and Tell, Sneak Attack, Reanimate, and Natural Order—have made it into Legacy, Orcish Lumberjack has not. Could it be that a one-mana creature that taps to add three mana isn’t powerful enough for Legacy?

It is likely that Orcish Lumberjack’s lack of success has more to do with its relative obscurity than its low power level. People have tried to build decks around cards far less powerful than Orcish Lumberjack before—just look at The Source’s New and Developmental forum for proof of that. People are trying to cast Kavu Predator and Skyshroud Cutter in this format, but they haven’t found a way to play Orcish Lumberjack yet? I’m not buying it.

Orcish Lumberjack enables five mana on turn 2 so long as one of your lands is a Forest of any type. Clearly, we need to play a lot of Forests and a lot of ways to take advantage of our accelerated mana, but that’s about it. So how should we use that fast mana? What costs five mana on turn 2 that’s really, really good?

My first instinct was to build a much worse Sneak Attack deck. After all, Through the Breach and Sneak Attack plus activation both cost five, and Natural Order plus Dryad Arbor is also five mana:

This is just a worse Sneak Attack deck of course, but there are lessons as to why it’s misbuilt. On a macro level, this is classic "don’t play a worse something else." Why is it a worse something else?

First of all, there’s no plan B and no way to rebuy on plan A quickly and efficiently. In Sneak and Show, you have cantrips that help find another copy of your important spell. In Elves, you have Wirewood Symbiote and Elvish Visionary to churn through cards and stall the board while you hang out and wait for your one-mana knockout (Glimpse of Nature) or your four-mana instant win (Natural Order for Craterhoof Behemoth). If all that fails, you have a robust beatdown plan and a way to out Deathrite Shaman any opponent. This deck is all in on plan A, and it has no way to rebuild. That’s a huge pair of red flags for any combo deck.

Then we should be brutally honest with ourselves: plan A isn’t even that good. When someone reanimates Griselbrand on turn 2, they can generally draw a Force of Will or Daze for their opponent’s next turn, followed by a backup creature and a full hand at the end of turn 3. When someone Show and Tells in a Sneak Attack, they can generally either win in one turn or Jokulhaups their opponent before passing. When someone copies Dark Depths, they make a 20/20 indestructible flier in their opponent’s end step. When this deck "goes off," it actually never kills their opponent. For a Legacy combo deck, that’s a pretty big problem to have.

This deck isn’t attacking any particularly vulnerable aspect of the metagame. People play a ton of Dazes, Force of Wills, and Spell Pierces nowadays, people have a lot of ways to interact with one big monolithic threat, and we aren’t offering up any interaction with opposing combo decks. For a new combo deck to be worth playing, it should attack popular metagame predators on an axis where they lack strong interaction. Unfortunately, U/W/R Delver has answers to everything this deck does except for Progenitus, and it can race a midgame Progenitus with Batterskull, True-Name Nemesis, and Delver of Secrets.

Finally, on a more subtle level, this deck isn’t leaving its opponents with any dead cards. Almost every Show and Tell deck, for instance, leaves control decks with a bunch of dead spot removal spells by relying on Omniscience or Sneak Attack and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to win. This deck is very soft to Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares on Orcish Lumberjack, but it’s also very vulnerable to Daze, Counterspell, Spell Pierce, and Force of Will. There are no interactive cards that it dodges, making it very unlikely that everything lines up well. It was this realization that got me to scrap the idea—if my opponent gets to cast Lightning Bolt against my Sneak Attack deck for any kind of value, why am I playing it at all?

So I went back to the drawing board. What costs five green or red mana in Legacy? I turned on the Modern Pro Tour and watched a round or two. Somewhere, something clicked.

This card costs five red and/or green mana.

So does this card.

This card plus activation only costs four, but it can cost five if we want it to.

Let’s go to work.

This is the deck after several iterations. Earlier versions fiddled with the number of maindeck Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker; creatures ranging from Phyrexian Metamorph and Thrun, the Last Troll to Fleshbag Marauder and Huntmaster of the Fells to Thragtusk; and more Worldly Tutor in the sideboard to fight Grafdigger’s Cage.

The above list is definitely not the best possible iteration of the deck. I’m sure there are some sweet creatures I’m missing from earlier in Magic’s history, but this is the first list that I’m not embarrassed to share. It still has some warts (Brainstorm and Wall of Blossoms in a deck with Spirit of the Labyrinth?), and the mana certainly isn’t perfect. But it’s reasonably close for a five-color green deck.

Before we talk about the upsides (of which there are many), let’s talk about what’s wrong with the deck. We aren’t out to delude ourselves or others about how good the deck is, and we always want to be honest with ourselves about what the deck can do better. So for starters:

  • Our mana base only casts spells. This isn’t a huge problem, but it’s worth noting that almost every single mana base in Legacy does more than cast spells. The exceptions are all combo decks’ mana bases, and even they tend to do more than cast spells: they blunt the effectiveness of opposing Wastelands. No such power here—a Wasteland is going to be quite good against our five-color mana base.
  • We’re playing five colors, with mana costs ranging from R to G to U to 1WB to 1GW to 2RRR. We’re going to be favored if we can cast our spells, but we’re vulnerable to people messing with our mana. This means that we should have some good plans against attrition-heavy decks that want to play low-resource games.
  • We’re not a fast combo deck, we don’t disrupt people super effectively, and we’re not a lock deck. We’re in the market to beat the hell out of fair decks, but can we do enough against Show and Tell, Storm, Reanimator, Dredge, and so on? This deck is very prone to getting awkward draws that take a few turns to smooth out, and you don’t get those extra turns in Legacy. How will the deck deal with that?
  • We’re top heavy. This is to be expected from any Orcish Lumberjack deck, since you want to be able to exploit its ability, but it makes for some awkward games where we don’t have Lumberjack.
  • We don’t actually make the best possible use of Orcish Lumberjack. Don’t get me wrong, we are capable of doing some really cool things with it, but as this deck is built, it basically reads “tap, sacrifice a Forest: cast Kiki-Jiki, Zealous Conscripts, or Birthing Pod." That’s good, but it’s not great. I’d love a few more green and/or red three- and four-drops, as that’s both a spot that Lumberjack can cast easily and a spot where there ought to be some sweet stuff. I’m a solid researcher, but I’ve been coming up short on this one. Kitchen Finks and Murderous Redcap aren’t getting me all the way. And no, I refuse to play Rendclaw Trow, Heartmender, or Grazing Kelpie.
  • The sideboard is a MESS. There’s no other way to put it—it’s really ugly and only debatably solves the problems that this deck has. Some of the cards are definite cuts. We’ll need to go over that in depth.

So far this evaluation looks like any Birthing Pod critique: slow, unfocused, clunky in the early game, terrible mana, and prone to getting screwed and flooded at different points. Yikes. So what does the deck have going for it?

Like any toolbox deck, it has a lot of knockouts against various decks. I’ve tried to position those as best as I could, but there’s more work to be done. So far, here are the dreams:

Like the Modern deck, we have Kiki-Jiki plus Deceiver Exarch, Restoration Angel, and Zealous Conscripts. Unlike the Modern deck, we can just kill them on turn 3 by having Orcish Lumberjack and two Forests in play at the beginning of turn 3. And Spell Pierce is garbage against us. People lean on Spell Pierce against combo really hard, so narrowing peoples’ stack interaction down to Force of Will and Daze is a huge boon. It also helps that people are typically pretty bad at knowing where to point their removal, so our opponent is typically out of removal by the time we try to combo them with Kiki-Jiki.

Brainstorm is going to be great for us. We have twelve fetch lands and four Birthing Pods as ways to shuffle, so we’re basically never going to get Brainstorm-locked. Also, if we ever need to get a card back into our deck so we can Pod for it, Brainstorm is our card. And unlike other Birthing Pod decks in Legacy, this deck’s Pods are typically lethal if given a full turn, just like when you compare Kiki Pod in Modern to Melira Pod – one of the two plays attrition, the other just kills out of seemingly nowhere. When you consider the competition:

This deck starts to look a lot better. After all, I can get behind playing a BUG value midrange deck, but if I’m playing a four-mana card, it better kill them. I’m not playing a bunch of mana producers and weird creatures and expensive artifacts for fun, I’m doing it because they Voltron together to get my opponent dead.

So let’s talk about the cards that make up this Voltron, why they’re there, and why some other cards aren’t there. For starters, the mana base:

Twelve green fetch lands: Since we’re playing with Orcish Lumberjack, it stands to reason that we want a bunch of Forests. Since we want to always find our Forests, it makes sense that our dual lands would be Forest/X lands, making our splashes Bayous, Taigas, Tropical Islands, and Savannahs.

4 Tropical Island: We want to cast Brainstorm into any of the rest of our spells, so we probably want a lot of blue mana. Given that we’re sideboarding more one-mana blue countermagic and want to hold up double Glen Elendra Archmage activation, having a lot of blue mana sources is important. We’re also most likely to want to lead on Tropical Island on turn 1 so that we can Brainstorm, fetch, and play out our turn 2 from there.

3 Taiga: We are a deck that wants to, on occasion, hard cast a triple-red five-drop and a double-red four-drop. We want enough red mana.

1 Volcanic Island: The only non-fetch, non-Forest in the mana base. We want more blue mana to cast Brainstorm and sideboarded countermagic, but we also want a fourth red dual land for games where we want to cast Kiki-Jiki through Wasteland.

1 Savannah, 1 Bayou: Never want to draw a second copy, never need to fetch for it more than once.

1 Forest: Having a Forest to fetch so that we can cast Birds of Paradise or Deathrite Shaman through Blood Moon or Back to Basics seems like a very low opportunity cost.

It’s possible that this mana base has too many Forests and that I didn’t give enough thought to the merits of non-Forest duals, but maximizing Orcish Lumberjack is an important part of putting the card in your deck. I’d prefer to err on the side of making it too good rather than unplayable.

With the mana base out of the way, let’s look at the obvious inclusions:

4 Birthing Pod: This is, without a doubt, a Birthing Pod deck. You can tell when a deck is “a [certain card] deck" because you win a lot more when you have the card. In Sveinung Noding’s BUG Pod deck, it basically draws a card every turn – Baleful Strix draws a card, Eternal Witness and Wood Elves draw a card, Sower of Temptation draws a card, Acidic Slime draws a card, and Grave Titan . . . well, you get the idea. Here, though, we aren’t so much in the business of “drawing cards" as we are in the business of “making infinite creatures with protection." Both goals are honorable, but we are a midrange deck that hangs around until we can combo, not a midrange deck that hangs around until our opponent is out of cards. We would never dream of cutting a Birthing Pod ever.

4 Brainstorm: A card that feels weird, at first glance, to stick in a deck that wants to play all Forest-typed dual lands. Trust me, we’re playing enough Islands for it to be good. This deck shuffles a lot, has a lot of situationally powerful and situationally useless cards, and cares a lot about the cards in its hand as well as the cards remaining in its deck. Brainstorm is good in all of those circumstances, so this is pretty clearly going to be a good Brainstorm deck.

4 Orcish Lumberjack: The inspiration for the deck. It may end up being the case that we want to cut down on these, as multiples are pretty awkward to draw, but having a copy on turn 1 or two leads to all of our best starts.

3 Deathrite Shaman, 1 Birds of Paradise, 1 Wall of Roots: This is one of the decisions where I feel least confident in my choice. Since we have twelve fetch lands, Deathrite Shaman should always be “on," but I still kind of want to hedge my bets. Wall of Roots is a fine but not great card in a deck without Chord of Calling, but it’s a mana producer that doesn’t get Bolted and that allows us to get sneaky with Exarch and Restoration Angel. I’m not entirely sold on it, but it’s never been outright bad for me.

It’s entirely possible that the correct distribution of mana producers should be 4/3/2/0 Shaman/Lumberjack/Birds/Wall. I’m interested in hearing from you all on that.

3 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker: Having more than one copy in hand is pretty uncomfortable without a Brainstorm, as getting to five lands isn’t a common occurrence. Naturally drawing exactly one by turn 4 or five, however, is just perfect. Being able to cast one on turn 3 off of an Orcish Lumberjack is obviously the dream, and three copies is (I think) striking the right balance between enabling nut draws and hedging against too many dead draws. Overall, being able to end-step a Deceiver Exarch or Restoration Angel, untap, and win the game out of nowhere is something that Legacy players aren’t ready for. As I mentioned earlier, Spell Pierce is hot trash against us, so people often just can’t do anything about creature into creature combo kills.

2 Deceiver Exarch, 1 Restoration Angel, 1 Zealous Conscripts: Our various go-infinite counterparts. We want more Deceiver Exarchs because Exarch untaps Birthing Pod, letting us go from a two-drop to a four-drop in one turn. Exarch also buys a turn against Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and screws with Sneak Attack something fierce—if anything, I’d bump them to three rather than cut to one.

Restoration Angel is important as much for its size as its role in a Pod chain. For an exhaustive list of Pod chains that lead to going off, read Ari Lax’s excellent Modern Kiki Pod primer. In short, Restoration Angel survives Lightning Bolt, eats Insectile Aberration, and blinks Deceiver Exarch to untap Birthing Pod, letting you set up a Kiki-Exarch combo kill with four mana, eight life, a Birthing Pod, a one-drop, and a two-drop. To paraphrase Ari’s section, the kill is as follows (paying two life and one mana for each iteration):

Two-drop into Deceiver Exarch, untap Birthing Pod.

One-drop into Phantasmal Image as Exarch, untap Pod.

Image-Exarch into Restoration Angel (mana cost is a copyable characteristic), blink Exarch, untap Pod.

Angel into Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, make a million Exarchs, kill them.

Without Restoration Angel that chain doesn’t exist, and it’s a pretty important chain to have access to. Also, eating a Delver of Secrets with invulnerability to Spell Pierce is awesome.

1 Phantasmal Image: Almost certainly the weakest card in the deck, it exists only for the above Pod chain and is very bad outside of that. I’m not a fan, especially in Legacy. You can’t copy someone’s Titan, I don’t care about copying someone’s True-Name Nemesis, and it doesn’t work like you want it to against Show and Tell. If I felt like I could, I’d cut it.

2 Wall of Blossoms: These have been excellent for me. Being able to Pod a one-drop into something that replaces itself is a big draw, and I’m actually in the market for something similar on the three-spot. (No, I will not play Wistful Selkie, though that’s closer. Kitchen Finks might be fine as more than a one-of, but I’m holding out for something better.) As I mentioned earlier, having a creature replace itself and then serve as Pod fodder is excellent. I’ve been very happy with Wall whenever I draw it, and its interaction with Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki has been real nice.

2 Glen Elendra Archmage: The anti-combo plan. Combo decks play Spell Pierce and Swan Song and Flusterstorm to beat resistance, none of which interacts with Archmage. Some combo decks play Abrupt Decay to destroy hate cards, but Archmage costs four. I don’t know if the second copy is good enough, but I like the first copy an awful lot. Its utility as a four-drop with persist (so that you can Pod into Conscripts plus Kiki) is also very valuable. I don’t know how many persist four-drops are correct, but I’d rather have more Archmages than more Redcaps, as persist-Negate is better than persist-Shock in Legacy.

The one-ofs: Let’s go down the list.