Killing On Turn 2

If you’re interested in Vintage, be sure to read this article by Patrick Chapin, author of Next Level Deckbuilding, about the possibilities of Hermit Druid in the format.

Not a basic . . .

Not a basic . . .

Not a basic . . .

Man, I’m starting to wonder if I’m ever going to hit a basic!

. . .

I like Hermit Druid a lot.

I’m not saying I’m impartial—because I’m not.

Hermit Druid and Skullclamp are two of my favorite cards to build around in Vintage, as they are two of the most powerful cards in Magic that no one plays with. Obviously this is mostly because they are banned in every format but Vintage; however, they are both legal as four-ofs in that arena, making for opportunities to do some pretty sweet things.

It’s not that I think either should be restricted. Far from it. While there isn’t a pressing need for any restrictions in Vintage, if anything were to prove to require one my guess would be that it is Oath of Druids or possibly Mox Opal. If I were to attack Vintage from the high-stakes, maximizing EV, win-at-all costs perspective, those would be the first two strategies I would explore.

However, that’s not the usual perspective I take on Vintage.

Vintage is a dance of sophistication. Whenever two gentlemen or ladies engage in the time-honored tradition, it really is a performance art. Look, I love riding a Bob or Jace to victory as much as the next guy. Assembling Key + Vault? Tinkering for Blightsteel Colossus? Forbidden Orchards or Bazaars or Shops? Boring. Impressive, no doubt, but we’ve all seen those dances a thousand times.

Vintage is this magical world where you can play with any of the real cards except sadly Shahrazad (dexterity cards and ante cards are less real than many Unglued cards). Incidentally, this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of Vintage. You are concerned about tournaments taking too long? Please, this is Vintage. The power level of Shahrazad is so low compared to the cards people actually play that the abuse will be quite minimal, and honestly if someone tries to break things, hit them with slow-play penalties.

Anyway, Vintage is this Magical Christmas Land where you can power up all sorts of strategies, and it is glorious. Both Skullclamp and Hermit Druid are ripe for use by the most discerning of Vintage artists. In recent months we’ve already discussed Skullclamp a bit, so today I’d like to look at Hermit Druid. For those with more of a taste for Skullclamp, may I suggest:

As for Hermit Druid, the gimmick is that if you play no basics tapping it will mill your entire library, which should translate into either immediate victory (via Dread Return) or setting up victory with Memory’s Journey (if you don’t want all the bad cards that go along with Dread Return).

In addition to actually playing some kind of a graveyard combo kill, Hermit Druid also puts a couple minor deckbuilding constraints on us that we need to keep in mind. First, we obviously can’t play basics, which can be easy to forget in a format like Vintage where people often copy and paste mana bases with one or two basics to fight Wasteland.

Second, we have to be very careful about cards like Blightsteel Colossus. If we are killing with Dread Return, there is no problem having a one-card library from Blightsteel Colossus (and in fact it could be a plus in some corner cases), but if we are on the Memory’s Journey train, the Colossus can very easily get in the way and should probably be avoided at least in the maindeck.

Beyond this you really don’t need much. I guess you need an answer to Abrupt Decay, but playing Thoughtseize or some such is not exactly a great cost.

There are quite a few ways to win once you mill your deck, but the real question is one of philosophy. Are we trying to win as fast as possible? Are we ok slowing things down a little? How much backup plan do we need?

An obvious place to start is with Laboratory Maniac since the puzzle it presents you is almost entirely solved by the Hermit Druid activation. You still need to get the Maniac in play and draw a card so it doesn’t do everything for you, but it does require the fewest slots of any kill condition.

This is definitely on the slower end of the spectrum for a Hermit Druid deck.

This setup gives us lots of room for disruption, like Thoughtseize, Cabal Therapy, Mental Misstep, and Force of Will, but does involve some amount of messy business getting from step 3 to step 4. After all, if you have a Mox to power out a turn 1 Hermit Druid, untapping might give you enough mana to Hermit on your upkeep and Memory’s Journey (if your Mox is a Sapphire or Emerald), but you are still a Black Lotus away from casting Yawgmoth’s Will. You can Memory’s Journey both, but then you either need to wait one more turn or play some card draw spell like Gitaxian Probe.

The good news is that if you spend turn 1 playing Thoughtseize or a library manipulation spell you can Hermit Druid on turn 2 and remove the Mox-color problem. You still get bottlenecked the following turn, but you aren’t always in that big of a hurry so maybe it isn’t that bad.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to go off. If the game has gone a few turns, you can Hermit Druid your deck on your upkeep and then use a Snapcaster Mage on Shallow Grave and kill on your draw step. The key is to remember to order your graveyard properly. In Legacy and Vintage, it is not legal to rearrange your graveyard; however, all of the cards that Hermit Druid mills technically go to the graveyard at the same time, meaning you are allowed to put them in the graveyard in any order. Shallow Grave reanimates the top creature, so we need to make sure we put the two Laboratory Maniacs on top.

There are two Maniacs primarily so that you can pitch one to Force of Will; however, we still want to put both on top of our graveyard because that gives us a line of defense against Deathrite Shaman (Shallow Grave doesn’t target). Besides, none of the other cards we are milling really care about the order they go to the graveyard.

Cunning Wish does a few interesting things for us and plays into the whole “slower and more durable” approach. To begin with it solves lots of problems ranging from various Stax board states to Oath of Druids to most creatures to just needing another way to interact with the stack (such as Flusterstorm or Mental Misstep). The real fun however is getting Demonic Consultation. Consult for Hunted Wumpus (or anything else you aren’t playing) and Laboratory Maniac can win without even involving a Hermit Druid.

Playing a graveyard combo game 1 is no big deal, but we do need to adapt after sideboarding. An awful lot of people are going to have four-to-seven graveyard hate cards, not to mention Tutors, so having a transformational sideboard can go a long way. I like the Tinker + Blightteel package because it is very compact and we don’t have a lot of space to spare. We have enough disruption to actually force it through, and it isn’t vulnerable to Abrupt Decay, Lightning Bolt, or many of the other cards people are likely to want against us.

When we are “going for it,” we will typically lead with a Cabal Therapy, sacrificing our Hermit Druid that we already used, just so that we know for sure everything is going to work out. With so many Thoughtseizes and Gitaxian Probes, we might actually just want more Cabal Therapys on their own strength. The first one is pretty close to a freeroll though.

Thinking about Hermit Druid’s play pattern, I am reminded a bit of Cephalid Breakfast, another combo deck that wants to mill its whole deck. While it is often tempting to overload a deck with combo pieces (to avoid having to actually tutor for them), it rarely works out well. You just end up with too many weird mixes of cards, and pinpoint disruption like Thoughtseize can be particularly brutal. Disrupting a key piece can leave you with a fist full of unplayables.

Nevertheless, here is an all-in approach utilizing both Hermit Druid and Cephalid Illusionist.

Combining Cephalid Illusion with either Shuko or Lightning Greaves lets you mill your entire library by continually reequipping the same creature over and over. Shuko has the advantage of costing just one, but Lightning Greaves is particularly nice with Hermit Druid. Giving it haste can speed your kill up in a turn in many circumstances, but you do need another creature in play to combo off due to shroud.

Once we mill our deck with Hermit Druid or Cephalid Illusionist, we put all of our Narcomoebas into play, Cabal Therapy to make sure we’re good to go, and Dread Return back The Mimeoplasm, exiling Lord of Extinction and Triskelion. The Mimeoplasm will end up with 40 or 50 +1/+1 counters and have Triskelion’s ability to shoot the opponent with them.

Hermit Druid or Illusionist in play generally means we’ll have at least four creatures when we “go off,” which is important so that we can cast Cabal Therapy. While the previous list used it primarily to make sure the cost was clear, the Breakfast style of kill points it at itself quite often. You can’t actually combo off with The Mimeoplasm, Lord of Extinction, Triskelion, or Dread Return in your hand, so Therapy yourself and get down to business!

This version is blisteringly fast, with turn 1 kills a very real possibility and turn 2 kills with disruption common. The problem?

4 Cephalid Illusionist
3 Narcomoeba
3 Shuko
2 Lightning Greaves
1 The Mimeoplasm
1 Lord of Extinction
1 Triskelion
1 Dread Return

Over a quarter of your deck is unplayable trash outside of the actual combo. We may have ten ways to interact, but if someone interacts with us, we don’t play a very good backup game. This is another deck that could sideboard Blightsteel Colossus and Tinker pretty effectively, though we have a lot fewer ways to protect and force it through. As such, we are going to need more disruption in the sideboard for when we are slowing down and trying to not get totally blown out my graveyard hate. Most likely we will board out our five Equipment and four Illusionists against the hate. This gives us plenty of room to board stuff in while still featuring Hermit Druid for the fast kill if the situation presents itself. We can’t sideboard out the whole combo since it takes up twenty slots in this version.

Another possible direction to go with Hermit Druid is the Survival of the Fittest route. Hermit Druid is basically a one-card combo, and Survival goes and gets it. Even better Survival gives you something to do with all those bad cards you draw from The Mimeoplasm kill, not to mention setting up Anger so that you can give your Hermit haste. Finally, Survival of the Fittest is also a one-card engine that gives you a powerful way to fight through disruption. You can just bury many people in the card advantage and selection it provides.

Ten discard spells make it very realistic to stick a Survival of the Fittest, and then continually discarding Squee lets you effectively draw two cards per turn. With all those extra cards, you can thrash them with Mesmeric Fiends and Eternal Witness until you feel secure going for it.

While we are still very vulnerable to graveyard hate, this approach brings with it a much better built in backup plan. It sounds goofy, but just bashing with an army of dorks can get the job done. With a few utility creatures and a few fatties, we can realistically just try to “play fair” if we can’t combo off.

Remember, we don’t actually need to Hermit Druid if we are Survivaling and have time. We can:

1. Discard anything to go get Lord of Extinction.
2. Discard Lord of Extinction to get Triskelion.
3. Discard Triskelion to get Mimeoplasm.
4. Cast Mimeoplasm for the win.

While we could consider Karmic Guide + Kiki-Jiki + Deceiver Exarch as our kill instead of The Mimeoplasm + Lord of Extinction + Triskelion, I don’t think it’s worth it. We’d have to reimagine our mana base with a lot more City of Brass types, but what are we gaining? To back up, we still need to go:

1. Discard anything to go get Kiki-Jiki.
2. Discard Kiki-Jiki to get Deceiver Exarch.
3. Discard Deceiver Exarch to get Karmic Guide
4. Cast Karmic Guide and just go off.

That is no cheaper or faster than the above Mimeoplasm plan but is more vulnerable and harder on our mana.

Why use Hermit Druid at all? Compare the above to:

1. Discard anything to get Anger.
2. Discard Anger to get Hermit Druid
3. Cast Hermit Druid and activate it

The Hermit Druid method takes just five mana after Survival, while the backup plan takes eight. Besides, if we are balling on a budget, the Survival for Hermit Druid plan actually curves perfectly. We can turn 1 Survival with any Mox and turn 2 go find Hermit Druid and cast it. Now we are poised to win on turn 3 (should we be facing someone that isn’t interacting with us or threatening to kill us turn 2).

This version does have ten discard spells, but without any permission we sure are vulnerable to unfair decks. Often we are going to lead with our discard spells and then Survival and go get Fiends until we are satisfied that we can actually spend the time it takes to combo off. We may actually want to go even further down a hate-bear line with cards like Gaddock Teeg, Ethersworn Canonist, or Meddling Mage to give us ways to lock out unfair opponents. The downside to that direction is that we are almost surely going to have to add a Savannah and some City of Brasses. That is not the greatest cost in the world, but it is a cost.

Whatever you do to the mana base, it is crucial to remember to make every land able to produce green mana. Strip Mine and Wasteland are spell like enough that you could sneak some in if you want, but cards like Underground Sea are definitely off the table. We need to be able to Survival with all of our mana whenever we are forced to fight “fair.”

As a note, only in Vintage is it considered “fair” to be activating a Survival of the Fittest.

I like that the Survival approach gives us something productive to do with our bad draws while still featuring a fair bit of interaction, but I lament the lack of permission. What about a BUG good-stuff deck that just happens to feature four Hermit Druids and one Memory’s Journey?

The minimalist approach means we have almost no bad cards (just Memory’s Journey and Tendrils of Agony since Hermit Druid is effectively a lethal threat). We have a lot of great built-in backup plans, and we don’t need the combo at all.

The downside? Even when we “go off,” we aren’t going off that hard. Any card-draw spell still means we can get the usual Black Lotus + Yawgmoth’s Will. When we cast all of our artifact mana and maybe a spell that doesn’t do anything like Time Walk, we’ll easily get enough storm to Tendrils most people out.

You know, that might not be half bad . . .

Of all the Hermit Druid decks we discussed today, this one might have the most promise (though I do like that the Survival deck hits from such a different angle than most Vintage decks and has some nice backup plans).

What else could you combine with Hermit Druid? I considered Dredge since we likely wouldn’t actually need much in the way of kill conditions. Just activate Hermit Druid and then Dread Return a Flamekin Zealot and swing with your Bridge from Below tokens.

The problem of course is that Hermit Druid is slower than Dredge is on its own, is easier to interact with, and doesn’t do anything Dredge needs. You are still dead to graveyard cards. Besides, Hermit Druid is much weaker without Moxes, and Dredge typically doesn’t want those at all. If Dredge and Hermit Druid were to be married, my guess is that you’d need a version of Dredge that can actually support the artifact mana.

Another Hermit Druid possibility is to combine it with Stoneforge Mystic. I realize that sounds bizarre, but imagine if we were playing a Breakfast deck. You could play just one Shuko and one Lightning Greaves and find them with Stoneforge Mystic in the right circumstances. This is slower to be sure, but fetching a Jitte or a Batterskull is a far better backup plan than the decks above generally offer. It’s not actually clear that we can’t make room for a Skullclamp too.

Actually, even if we don’t go the Breakfast route, Stoneforge might be a good backup plan to consider anyway. One Skullclamp, one Jitte, and one Batterskull is a pretty hot package that would give a variety of ways to fight people with Leyline of the Void. Six or seven sideboard slots is all it would take, or you could try to maindeck it.

Another possibility is to start with a shell of:

4 Hermit Druid
1 Memory’s Journey
1 Tendrils

And sideboard into:

4 Oath of Druids
2 Griselbrand

(With Forbidden Orchards already a part of the mana base.)

You would probably not even sideboard out the Memory’s Journey or Tendrils. Alternatively, you could replace one of the Griselbrands with a Blightsteel Colossus and add a Tinker to the Mix.

One final line of Hermit Druid deckbuilding we could pursue is to put it in some kind of a “fair” hate-bear deck. You still need to actually kill people when you combo off, so you probably have to add a Memory’s Journey and a Tendrils or a Burning Wish or some other kill card. Finding one that doesn’t interfere with the hate bears you want to play is the real trick.

Once we have a bunch of creatures in our deck, we can probably do much better than Tendrils actually. For instance, Haunting Misery is the same thing but a mana cheaper assuming we have at least 25 or so creatures in our deck. In fact, we don’t even need to Yawgmoth’s Will if we can put Haunting Misery back into our deck from Memory’s Journey.

If we are feeling particularly frisky, we could use a Shallow Grave and a Splinterfright. This takes an extra slot but does save us a mana when we are going for it. Soulshriek is another mana cheaper but requires an awful lot to be going right to capitalize on.

There are basically three ways to approach Vintage right now.

1. Tuning and polishing the existing strategies.
2. Trying to get Oath of Druids or Mox Opal restricted.
3. Inventing something crazy.

Which of the existing strategies do you believe is most dominant?

Are Oath of Druids or Mox Opal breakable?

What other overpowered but underplayed cards are worth looking at?

What else can we abuse that isn’t legal in other formats?

Now, what do I think about Hermit Druid’s chances of winning in Vintage at the moment?

For many, winning in Vintage is about style.

Hermit Druid scores a definite 10/10 for style.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Next Level Deckbuilding