Like an Icicle at a Gunfight, Part I: Snow Discussion and Beatdown Matchups

Coldsnap is (virtually) here, and with it comes a Brave New World of Standard exploration. Cumulative Upkeep, Snow Mana, Protection from Snow creatures… does Snow actually matter in the evolving Type 2 metagame? Mike brings us a Snow-themed deck that has surprisingly consistent results against the top beatdown decks seeing play in the modern game. Maybe Snow does matter after all…

MJLaMoAHS: Is it bad that my Snow deck only has eight non-land Snow cards?
Barn Julian the N’Sync Intern a.k.a. Mother Superior… IV [hereafter BJtNIakaMSIV]: Coldsnap isn’t legal.
MJLaMoAHS: I know. I just like making decks.

New set.

New strategies.

New mechanics.

New decks.

Though its power level is obviously lower than that of the second Mirrodin Block expansion (which was home to Skullclamp, Arcbound Ravager, and Pulse of the Forge), Coldsnap seems reminiscent of Darksteel. The various kinds of mechanics Wizards R&D releases come in two broad swathes… two-and-a-half, maybe. The first are the “Visions” cards: cards like Impulse and Uktabi Orangutan that are very good, and can go in any deck that can cast them; the subset of these cards includes cards like Lightning Helix and Rise / Fall… Cards that are very good but can only go in certain kinds of decks based on strict color requirements. Coldsnap, like Darksteel (or, say, Onslaught which had ready-built decks based on cycling and enchantments), has specifically mechanic-driven strong cards. Arcbound Ravager is maybe the second-best two-drop in the history of Magic, but “only in a modular deck.” Ancient Den never hurt anybody, ever, but it got banned along with the rest of the artifact lands – despite the fact that in some formats all a guy wanted to do was Enlightened Tutor for one so that he would hit his next drop. When played all together, and next to Disciple of the Vault and other in-block or even in-set components, the artifact lands (including poor Ancient Den) contributed to an un-fun format. Similarly, Coldsteel Heart is functionally better than Sky Diamond or Marble Diamond in a U/W deck… but that doesn’t really matter, because a U/W deck in the market for a two-mana artifact accelerator would just play the Azorius Signet, which comes into play untapped after turn 2. However, played alongside other Snow permanents, Coldsteel Heart can contribute in the same way that Arcbound Ravager – quite meek in the absence of Seat of the Synod & co. – becomes a minor deity when combined with fellows that share his mechanic-driven theme.

The obvious place to start for a mechanic-driven Snow deck is, of course, its centerpiece of card advantage, Scrying Sheets. As a draw engine, Scrying Sheets requires only one thing to be effective (and it’s obvious): a critical mass of Snow permanents. The only question is how many Snow permanents, exactly, qualifies as a critical mass? If you have thirty Snow permanents in your deck, Scrying Sheets is somewhat less effective for its mana than a Whispers of the Muse; that is, you net about one card for every six lands you tap, the upside being that you can run this at the end of the opponent’s turn. With Sensei’s Divining Top in play, you need a little more than one-third Snow permanents to consistently draw a card at four mana. At exactly one-third, because you will be leeching Snow with Into the North and successfully depleting potentials with some number of Scrying Sheets activations, not to mention having Scrying Sheets itself in play (an easy-to-forget but relevant drag on your percentages), you will not hit consistently in the long run, simply because your deck’s concentration of Snow permanents will not be able to keep up with the relentless selection strength of Sensei’s Divining Top if you are drawing extra in the early game. As such, I tried to err on the side of long-term consistency and fit the full one-half in my first pass Scrying Sheets Snow theme deck:

The Holy Church of Arcbound Ravager

As was implied in the opening dialogue, this deck lacks a large number of non-land Snow permanents. This is more than a little worrisome to me – especially considering that half of my non-land Snow cards are themselves mana producers – but the options for Snow-stamped finishers was surprisingly thin. Rimefeather Owl is scary, especially as sevens continue to prove themselves as the new sixes. As I will discuss below, I just don’t see how the mana is there to support UU in a base-Green deck, even going to six or seven turns (the deck has to be Green, of course, because the incentive to Snow is Scrying Sheets, and Into the North makes Scrying Sheets twice as good). Rimescale Dragon is arguably the strongest Snow threat, but I don’t see the immediate incentive to G/R/x Snow control. Why would you go G/R to run Mikokoro and a seven that is considerably worse than Simic Sky Swallower, when you could just run an arguably more broken specialty land (set) and, you know, actual Simic Sky Swallowers? For that matter, what is the incentive to playing a G/R Snow-themed deck when you can just play Kird Ape, Moldervine Cloak, and Giant Solifuge?

What really struck me was the complete absence of a random Snow fatty in Green. I don’t need Spiritmonger, but I would have settled for a Snowy Gleancrawler or something. Arctic Nishoba would have been a fine candidate. Really, I’m not all that picky, just shocked that for the first time ever, Green seems bereft of some Big And Dumb in-theme furball, when for the first time it has a genuine reason to play that side of the curve instead of the other end of the spectrum. This is neither here nor there, but I actually wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the confused world of Time Spiral we saw more Snow… The suite from Coldsnap alone feels unfinished somehow.

In any case, I elected to go base-G/W with the intention of always smashing beatdown. By adding Black as my splash color, I left open the option to touch for Cranial Extraction against combo and control, and auxiliary life gain / creature hate against the beaters. This seemed like a reasonably versatile configuration, giving me the strongest outs against those decks over three games. The sideboard posted is just my thinking out loud. I definitely want the Extractions, and probably the Ancient Laws, but as you will see below, despite strong anti-beatdown percentages, I think the deck will ultimately want more creature kill or life gain. I actually had Ribbons of Night in the initial sideboard before I started testing, with one Snow-Covered Island in place of the singleton sideboard Snow-Covered Swamp, one Boreal Shelf in place of a Plains, and one Frost Marsh, but then I decided that would be awful. While we are used to playing eight or even twelve Ravnica-brand comes-into-play-tapped lands these days, the Coldsnap ones are serious. You don’t get to selectively play them untapped, and strong as it is, Coldsteel Heart is no Dimir Signet. I don’t know what the sideboard creature hate will end up being, but I know that I want something.

Once you get past the initial “these aren’t Ravnica duals” hee-hawing, the single biggest issue when playing with dedicated Snow-Covered lands as part of the Scrying Sheets engine is the inability to play Karoos. I had no idea how spoiled I had become on manabases until I realized that not only were there no in-color Black dual lands for me to play (viz. Overgrown Tomb or Orzhov Basilica) but that I was dragging on primary colors. For instance, including Rakdos Signet and Tendo Ice Bridge, the three-color Rise / Fall deck I have been playing for hours every night in the Tournament Practice room has access to eight Blue sources, twenty-two Black sources, and twenty-six Red sources… and Blue is there only for the Rise half of Rise / Fall and the kicker on Ribbons of Night (sideboard). Contrast this with Icicle, which is dedicated G/W: Not counting Coldsteel Heart (which I know is a bit off in terms of “apples to apples” comparison, but Coldsteel Heart serves a different, both more- and less-focused, purpose in Icicle than Rakdos Signet does in that other deck, and is in any case set to Black most of the time), this deck – again heavily dedicated to two colors – plays only ten primary White or Green sources! In order to hit its Black, Icicle almost has to play one of the two-mana accelerators (though to be fair, if it does hit any of the three, Icicle can bust out third turn Cranial Extraction out of the board with reasonable consistency)… and the deck is 58.33% mana! The loss of Karoos makes this kind of deck far less capable of staying with the relentless card draw of today’s Steam Vents decks (though I guess the signature Scrying Sheets replaces Golgari Rot Farm or whatever I’d normally be playing from that side). I suppose I could run Karoos (or switch in a Miren suite with better creatures) in “spell” slots, but, again, Icicle is already 58.33% mana in a format where most decks are 33-40% dedicated mana and even land-hungry SSS ‘Tron falls below the 50% mark.

To start, I decided to run Icicle against the kinds of decks that I thought it would beat. In the next instalment I will go over the Steam Vents and combo decks, but for the initial testing, opponents were the Tier 1 beatdown opponents, arguably the strongest performers of the last six months: Heezy Street and Ghost Husk.

Matchup 1 – Heezy Street

Game 1 — W
This game was quite close. I used Scrying Sheets blind once, and hit into a Valkyrie (how lucky). Heezy’s draw was slow, which is the only reason Icicle won (finished on about three); Crime / Punishment was key on three to take out Moldervine Cloak and Burning-Tree Shaman when doom was imminent.

Game 2 — L
Heezy got the draw that makes the young girls wet and weak in the knees… Kird Ape on the first turn with Frenzied Goblin leading multiple Giant Solifuges safely past Sakura-Tribe Elder and Adarkar Valkyrie. Icicle failed to draw Wrath of God, Loxodon Hierarch, or Faith’s Fetters, and was blown out.

Game 3 — L
I actually hit two-for-two on blind Sheets and stuck a Valkyrie with a reasonable life total of eleven points… but just died to Sophisticate plus Moldervine Cloak despite being up about five cards. Moldervine Cloak is just too good.

Game 4 — W
I was bagel-for-four on blind Sheets, but the fact that I revealed two Loxodon Hierarchs, Crime / Punishment, and Debtors’ Knell as the Scrying “misses” probably went a long way. As such, I elected not to play my Sakura-Tribe Elders for fear of accidentally sacrificing one, or casting Into the North. There’s no place like the top of your deck. Incidentally, this game was the first one I drew Loxodon Hierarch, and it proved a cold-blooded murderer of Gruul beaters, but I guess that’s not news.

Game 5 — W
This game I improved to a one-for-five on blind Sheets, but the one was Adarkar Valkyrie. I had multiple shufflers but didn’t use them because I kept revealing Crime / Punishment and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, which were relevant in the spots that they showed up. The City-Tree held off a couple of guys post-Wrath of God until I got value on Crime / Punishment and then peeled multiple Fetters and another Wrath off the top.

Game 6 — L
I would have thought that Icicle would have won this game, given that it hit Top, Tribe-Elder, Loxodon Hierarch as its first three plays… but that was it for spells. Not another was drawn or played for the rest of the game, whereas Heezy got the perfect curve of Rusalka, Scab-Clan Mauler, Burning-Tree Shaman, Char (for the Hierarch) and two Solifuges… on the play.

Game 7 — W
Finally Sensei’s Divining Top and Scrying Sheets showed up in the same game, which apparently is impossible to beat for certain opponents. I got Loxodon Hierarch plus Adarkar Valkyrie this game (the Valkyrie being set up by Scrying Sheets), which beat a great Heezy Street draw that started on Kird Ape into Scab-Clan Mauler. Heezy lost with Flames of the Blood Hand as its last card… There was just never an opportunity to cast it at a relevant time; this was quite lucky, as I won with Icicle at fifteen life, having gained twelve of those points.

Game 8 — W
This game featured a weird opening of double Snow-Covered Forest into Sakura-Tribe Elder, which accidentally scared off first Frenzied Goblin (curve issues) and then Dryad Sophisticate. Heezy stalled on two and got mushed by Wrath of God. Icicle followed up with Debtors’ Knell, fake Debtors’ Knell (Adarkar Valkyrie), and recurring Loxodon Hierarchs.

Game 9 — W
This game was quite close, as I staved off certain doom with a Faith’s Fetters, pulling me to six when I was dead to any burn spell. That out of the way, all four Sheets came online in the endgame, basically a Tidings a turn. An avalanche.

Cut coupons and SAVE!

Game 10 — W
Heezy stalled early, whereas Icicle went turn 2 Into the North for Scrying Sheets, followed by Loxodon Hierarch and Wrath of God. All four Sheets were online with Divining Top in the late game, setting up a wholesale cost Valkyrie, promotional Coldsteel Heart, and instant rebate Snow-Covered Forest in one turn!

7-3 in favor of Icicle.

Conclusions on Heezy Street
While 7-3 is obviously a nice test set, it is not conclusive regarding the Heezy Street matchup. Heezy honestly felt to me like a 55-60% matchup, and I think that Icicle got some wins where Heezy was just not lucky in the endgame. Because of the color restrictions discussed in the opening sections, I think that the proper sideboard card for beatdown will be Carven Caryatid. It doesn’t help against Dryad Sophisticate or Moldervine Cloak, but it increases early game velocity and should help draw into the bombs that give Icicle its margin.

Matchup 2 – Ghost Husk

Game 1 — L
Ghost Husk mulliganed but hit the second turn Dark Confidant. I wasn’t sure about how I felt regarding this, when the little bugger set up three Castigates immediately. For Icicle… no mana accelerator. The one Wrath I did draw was the victim of the first Castigate, followed immediately by Crime / Punishment and Loxodon Hierarch in the removed from game bin. In sum, Icicle played nothing.

Game 2 — L
Ghost Husk only plays three Castigates, and in this game, it drew two of them, which I guess is an improvement (from Icicle’s standpoint) on the first game. Wrath got no value because – necessary as it was to play at the time – Husk had Ghost Council and Promise in play. A blowout.

Game 3 – W
I was getting a bit leery after the soft matchup with Heezy (despite numbers) and I wasn’t really expecting the 0-2 open against Husk. This game got Icicle on the right track, though… two Crime / Punishments took out Bob and Jitte, and Jitte and Kami of Ancient Law (these consecutive turns are the ones where it really hurts to have no Karoo). Despite the impressive defense, Icicle still needed a clutch Wrath when Husk went all in on the board, threatening a kill the next turn with the signature machinery. Late game saw Husk playing off the top and Icicle playing off two Tops with all four Sheets in play. Two Nantuko Husks, a Promise, and a Pontiff seem impressive, but not more so than “a Tidings a turn.”

Game 4 — W
Husk had to Castigate Sensei’s Divining Top instead of Wrath of God when Icicle opened on Arctic Flats, as these two cards were sitting next to Scrying Sheets and Into the North in opening grip. A token Dark Confidant received some value by drawing out the Wrath, but Husk had to contend with a triple Hierarch spread the next several turns. Two Promises and two Jittes contributed nothing, as Husk had no Ghost Council or Nantuko to make them at all scary.

Game 5 — W
Icicle had the early game machinery and set up beaucoup removal cards. Top plus Scrying Sheets cut a swathe of dead Husk cards, until a lone Orzhov Pontiff was staying scared at home, staring across The Red Zone at Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. Late game Husk ripped a bunch of lands; Icicle also ripped a bunch of lands, but managing those rips with Scrying Sheets and Divining Top.

Game 6 — W
Icicle wins the early fight of Crime / Punishment on Maher, buying the time to set up Top plus Sheets. I suppose the game must have been somewhat close because while Icicle ended on sixteen, that life total involved three Loxodons and Fetters.

Game 7 — W
This one was a complete blowout for Icicle. Top and Sheets came online on turn 3, setting up multiple Wraths, trumping Maher and Promise of Bunrei. Late game was double Valkyrie offense and plus-24 life gain… Easy win.

Game 8 — L
I think that my five-game win streak just caused me to play sloppily this one. I think I just took too many early beats so that when I stabilized, Husk was in good position. It ended up being one of those games where control is trying to dance with Ghost Council, thinks it finally wins, but all of a sudden Husk and Promise are online for the Hatred kill out of nowhere (still guessing this was early game human error from Icicle’s side).

Game 9 — W
Icicle wins on twenty-one, but needs two Hierarchs and a Fetters to reach that total. Husk is clutch, ripping a Kami out of nowhere for the Debtors’ Knell (would have started nabbing Ghost Councils), but really, once the Top / Sheets combo is online and pumping Valkyries, there isn’t a lot Husk can do to stay in the game.

Game 10 — W
Husk mulligans into flood. This game is pretty anticlimactic, with the most exciting play being the solo activation of Tomb of Urami on the earliest possible turn… with two lands left in hand. Icicle makes the brilliant play of Crime / Punishment for zero, while accelerating with multiple Tribe Elders into the double Valkyrie game. With no relevant spells, Husk is just never in it.

Conclusions on Ghost Husk
Though the first couple of games were disheartening, Ghost Husk basically rolled over following. It’s like Patrick says in some of his matchup descriptions… When the machinery isn’t in place, Ghost Husk can play like Mons’s Goblin Raiders and Gray Ogre. Obviously a Gray Ogre with a Jitte is still dangerous, but anything with a Jitte is dangerous. I would still sideboard Caryatid if that proves its way into the sideboard, but I don’t find myself stressing about the de facto best deck in the format right now.

Conclusions on Beatdown
Winning against two decks that rely on early game tempo and little in the way of card advantage going long is no great accomplishment for Icicle. As I said in the opening sections, I wasn’t sure how to go about tuning Snow, so I decided to create a deck that I could be reasonably sure would crush beatdown. In the twenty games that I have tested so far… Well, let’s just be trite and say “so good.” Next time Icicle will be facing a much different suite of opponents, the kind that might require those Cranial Extractions out of the board. Will Snow continue to be a viable – or at least ostensibly viable, thus far – strategy? I hope so. Drawing cards with the one-sided Mikokoro is really puts you in the driver’s seat.