Magical Hack – Bant Shardly Wait

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Friday, October 3rd – Taking an early look at Shards of Alara for Constructed play, it’s not hard to see why the Bant shard is getting the attention for Standard. While it is Naya that claims the most efficient monster, with a Thoctar so big you can see Russia from atop it and the low price of just three mana, it is Bant who claims the miniature Exalted Angel at that same price.

With the Prerelease behind us and the complete set of Shards of Alara now known to all, there has been a frenetic energy surrounding the new Standard format. Whether it’s Mike Flores podcasting about River Kelpie, Patrick Chapin tying himself down to Cruel Ultimatum or Kyle Sanchez dipping his toes into the world of Magic Workstation, there’s all sorts of excitement around the new cards. What most everyone seems to be excited about, though, is trying out the new Bant cards… sure, some people look at different portions of the set and pull together different decks, but at one point or another everyone’s going to try playing a Bant deck because it seems as if some of the Green/White/Blue cards are just flat-out better than the cards in the other shards.

Taking an early look at the set for Constructed play, it’s not hard to see why the Bant shard is getting the attention for Standard. While it is Naya that claims the most efficient monster, with a Thoctar so big you can see Russia from atop it and the low price of just three mana, it is Bant who claims the miniature Exalted Angel at that same price. Five power for three mana excites… but it’s just a beater. Add most of the parts that mattered to an Exalted Angel that never had to pay that clunky second turn’s investment in mana, and you get everyone’s attention at an undercosted control creature. 3/4 for 3 is already above the curve considerably, when you realize that Flores’s Gnarled Mass made the cut as a control creature as a mere 3/3, and the control creature of choice (Kitchen Finks) is but a 3/2 (if a sturdily-built one). Much like Kitchen Finks, Rhox War Monk has a significant amount of lifegain attached to him, so he gets the brain thinking about how best to use him in a controlling shell, which is far more interesting than any beatdown creature no matter how efficient. And towards the end of Kamigawa Block in Standard, I came to realize just how good Descendant of Kiyomaro is, so a creature that looks an awful lot like that one but doesn’t require me to mind my hand so closely has to be a good one.

And besides, he’s Blue. Duh.

Add to that fact what is possibly the splashiest Rare creature for Standard seems to be Stoic Angel, another efficient Green/White/Blue creature with some element of board control stapled to her, and it’s a good day to come from the Seaside Citadel. When the trend for modern decks seems to include a dogpile of Kithkin activating Windbrisk Heights, a boatload of Goblin tokens, or making good use of repeated attacks from Bitterblossom tokens, a Winter Orb for your opponent’s army is an eye-opening effect.

Add to that fact the best of the five Charms, able to effectively destroy any creature it can target, destroy an artifact, or counter an instant, and it’s coming up aces for Bant. There’s plenty of other options to build around too, because the Bant tricks are pretty deep… forego the ‘control’ plan and trade Stoic Angel for the similarly-costed Rafiq of the Many and you have some bonkers beatdown potential waiting to be tapped. Richard Feldman started looking into Bant decks last week with the following:


4 Treetop Village
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Flooded Grove
4 Adarkar Wastes
3 Plains
2 Brushland
2 Mystic Gate
2 Seaside Citadel

4 Shorecrasher Mimic
4 Jhessian Infiltrator
4 Broken Ambitions

4 Rhox War Monk

3 Hungry Spriggan
4 Bant Charm

4 Cryptic Command
4 Rafiq of the Many
3 Sower of Temptation
1 Oona, Queen of the Fae

4 Deft Duelist
4 Wake Thrasher
4 Cloudthresher
3 Wispmare

It’s a first draft, and that shouldn’t be held against it. Richard quickly recanted in the Forums over playing Hungry Spriggan as one of 60 cards instead of 40, the set hadn’t even been fully spoiled, and the idea to consider Kitchen Finks likely wasn’t there yet. Coming from the “be aggressive” standpoint, he even makes sense, because high power plus Trample means lots of damage from Rafiq the next turn. No need to mock anyone for their first try before showing my own.

Looking into building a Bant deck, I started by challenging theories. I clearly wanted the following cards in my deck:

Kitchen Finks
Rhox War Monk
Stoic Angel

Cryptic Command
Bant Charm

That’s a good chunk of deck right there, with 20 of the potential 34 slots taken right there… 34 because the focus on three- and four-drops hints that we will need 26 lands for the deck to operate properly, because we never want to miss our three-drop. The deck also needs more early-game action, so we want to do something useful with cheaper creatures or spells so we aren’t completely backpedaling from turn 3 onward, leaning on a Rhox War Monk to do all the heavy lifting because we skipped our early drops.

The first question to be asked is, what are the benefits (if any) of stretching our mana further than the Seaside Citadel? What we would do with Black or Red mana should tell us whether we need any, and the only thing really coming up on this list of things to do would be to cast Firespout… in a color combination that already has access to Wrath of God, and doesn’t necessarily want it. Wrath effects are colossal do-nothings against the more controlling decks in the format, not quite good enough against Faeries due to fighting sorcery-speed cards against an Instant speed deck, and one that can steal your turn with Mistbind Clique at that.

Abandoning the notion of playing five colors, then, lets us look at the benefits to playing a manabase that includes no Vivid lands. Our manabase then will likely be some or all of the following:

Seaside Citadel
Reflecting Pool

Faerie Conclave
Treetop Village
Forbidding Watchtower

Adarkar Wastes
Yavimaya Coast

Wooded Bastion
Flooded Grove
Mystic Gate


We can start crossing things off right now. Forest and Plains are off the list, as are Brushland and Wooded Bastion. We want a deck that is able to easily support Cryptic Command mana, and to do that we need a strict bias against the Green-White lands. When trying to make sure we have stable win conditions, at that, we can also cross off Faerie Conclave (one toughness means it’s just too hard to try and kill the opponent with) and Forbidding Watchtower (one power likewise means it’s just too hard to try and kill the opponent with). Treetop Village is the best manland in our colors, and if we play more comes-into-play-tapped lands beyond Seaside Citadel, this would be it. Citadel is an easy add, as is Reflecting Pool, but from there we really have to start specifying what the rest of the cards in our deck are.

The deck’s focus on a life-gaining efficient three-drop impact us in two ways. The first is that we can afford to take a little more pain from our lands than we usually want to, because we can anticipate getting a reasonable return of life-points over the course of the game. Tapping for the right colors of mana and coming into play untapped will be a price worth paying one life for, because we’ll have a higher life cushion to work with as we try to stabilize or to defeat our opponent. The second is a subtler effect, which is that since the game starts on turn 3 for this deck, spells that help ensure we have the right mana and a creature to play on turn 3 will be at a premium to us. That means we can very easily add another spell to our list… Broken Ambitions… because it is both a turn 2 play and a draw-smoother in the early game, which will help us have a turn 2 counter followed by a meaningful turn 3 play. But since we have so few two-mana plays, and really can’t afford to miss our colored mana or our third-turn play, I am likewise putting a premium on another spell: Ponder.

Ponder requires Blue sources that tap for Blue by themselves, though, so that “we can take more pain” thing means I’m starting this decklist with four each of Adarkar Wastes and Yavimaya Coast to sit next to some small but nonzero number of Islands, and that I want no fewer than eleven Blue lands that come into play untapped on the first turn… a number I found I was quite comfortable with playing Faeries in Standard circa Regionals or so, to have a turn 1 Blue source to go with those Ancestral Visions I found myself playing. Any fewer than that and Ponder will really start getting in the way.

Let’s see where the spells for this deck are now, then.

4 Kitchen Finks
4 Rhox War Monk
4 Stoic Angel

4 Cryptic Command
4 Bant Charm
4 Broken Ambitions
4 Ponder

That’s 28 out of 34, so we have six slots left to work with. Those slots are pretty flexible, but I already have an idea for what I want to do here. Two slots should go for supplemental card-drawing, because we can already keep a steady flow of cards with Ponder, Broken Ambitions and Cryptic Command, but don’t have any real raw card advantage going yet, and we’ll need something to compensate for the fact that we are playing a land-heavy deck. That marks two slots as Oona’s Grace, the breakout spell of Block Constructed very late in the season, first in Five-Color Control and then in Kelpie.dec… two decks that slowly but surely started to look like each other, as Kelpies were eventually added to five-color decks and awesomeness may or may not have ensued.

The obvious choice for those last four slots is Mulldrifter, given that we’ve just discussed the need for card advantage. But the obvious choice isn’t always the right one; we need to do something meaningful on turn 3, not just cast Council of the Soratami, so we’ll never want to drop him early. As the game goes later, we’ll want to keep up Charm or Command or Ambitions mana, and failing the use of those spells cycle lands with Oona’s Grace… nowhere in here are we going to suddenly want to spend five mana for a 2/2 just to draw two cards. We can’t abuse it with Makeshift Mannequin, and we’ve specifically chosen to look at this deck through a three-color lens rather than a five-color lens. Many of these same Shards of Alara cards will tantalize the seasoned five-color mage… but this deck is not that deck, so we aren’t going to just stuff in Mulldrifters and say we’re geniuses because good card is good.

We need a good deck, not just good cards, and for that we need an idea of how the deck plays out. For the immediate short term, I stuffed a few cards in those slots to see if I liked them, two Cloudthreshers and two Remove Souls. I then managed to upload the Shards of Alara update to my copy of Magic Workstation and went trawling for games, trawling for basic proof-of-concept work, to figure out against random opponents the kind of things you learn by facing well and truly random opponents: how upset am I when they destroy my lands, do I like playing against burn decks, can I really survive against creature decks without Wrath of God?

I wouldn’t even mention the method of testing were it not for the sheer humor of the story. After all, I got my patch uploaded and the deck locked in, and went to play some games… I had a Mono-Red opponent, a Faeries opponent, several other Bant opponents, and even a Tokens deck or two in there. The deck performed pretty well… I drew mana of the right colors in the right proportions, and the ‘late additions’ of Ponder and Broken Ambitions were overall pretty good while the Oona’s Graces were absolute rockstars in the deck. Ponder into the right mana into Kitchen Finks, game in and game out, and more Cryptic Commands than I knew what to do with, and occasionally a 7/7 to really swing the game home. I had to have been winning two out of every three games, because I just drew the ultra-consistent hands full of Finks and Commands…

… Yeah, about ten games in I realized that my Magic Workstation patch seemed to have been completely compatible with the part of the program that lets you build decks, but not the part that actually lets you play them. The reason I never stumbled on any Seaside Citadels was because they weren’t in the deck to trip on; the reason I never drew a turn-three Rhox War Monk is because they weren’t in my deck! You’d draw way more Cryptic Commands, too, if your deck was only 40 cards.

Nowhere in here did I get the obligatory “NOOB!” token, because my opponents never noticed the ticker that said I only had 40 cards either. My laugh came from the fact that I intended to playtest Shards of Alara cards and just flat out played without ’em… but man, was the deck awesome! (Despite having exactly four Finks, two Cloudthreshers, and three Treetop Villages to win the game with… and those Cloudthreshers were an afterthought.)

For proof-of-concept, it could have been better. Re-installing the patch and rebooting the computer seemed to do the trick, though, so from there on we were off to the races to learn what kind of Blue deck, White deck, or Green deck we’d concocted, to play enough games to get a feel for the flow of the deck. The deck looked very Blue… board-controlling fliers and lots of counterspells… but also had this strangely Green vibe to it, as if the White mana was literally an afterthought for the Bant cards but that’s it. Finks was a Green card here, just like Cloudthresher and Treetop Village… but it didn’t feel as if they were solely things your Green half of the deck played to let the Blue half win, it felt almost as if the Green half was subverting the Blue half to its will for once, and I sort of wanted to keep working on the deck as that weird Green and Blue amalgam… and to release whatever tensions there were, because the deck played as a counterspell deck on turn 2 and from turn 5 afterward, but as a tap-out deck on turns 1, 3, and 4.

In its own strange way, I’d stumbled onto a Fish deck. Great. Except those Counterspells were only nominally Blue — it felt like they were just the tools the Green half of the deck was using to make their opponent play fair, trading one-for-one with only incremental advantage to be gained: part of a card from the lifegain of Kitchen Finks and Rhox War Monk, part of a card because Finks left a 2/1 after it traded, part of a card because I got to Scry off my Clashes. The Blue portion was certainly deadly… you can’t play four Cryptic Commands and have them be mostly harmless, they’re surgical blades that are quite capable of dissecting an opponent’s board position and they were of course absolutely devastating with the tempo-stealing Stoic Angel.

Wait a minute… incremental card advantage, one-for-one trades with the opponent’s spell… Crap.


4 Kitchen Finks
4 Rhox War Monk
4 Stoic Angel
2 Cloudthresher

4 Cryptic Command
4 Bant Charm
4 Broken Ambitions
4 Ponder
2 Oona’s Grace
2 Austere Command

4 Seaside Citadel
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Yavimaya Coast
3 Island
3 Treetop Village
2 Mystic Gate
2 Flooded Grove

That’s right, despite being a Blue deck with Cryptic Command, I’d managed to build a deck that was almost the textbook definition of a Rock deck. But as a Blue Rock deck, I can sort of live with this… see, the problem with the Rock was basically that as it traded one-for-one with the opponent’s cards, it didn’t have a very defensible way of gaining card advantage to win the game with, just a solid process of grinding the opponent’s resources away so it eventually won with something. Those one-for-one trades were often done with discard spells, not countermagic, so they absolutely had to be used proactively and were reliant upon the opponent not topdecking… and they certainly never wasted his mana in the attempt, and thus bought you time while their spell was countered.

Checking the assumptions, we had the following. The desire to use Ponder and thus favor painlands over Vivid lands or Hybrid duals. The assumption was that we really wanted Ponder to smooth our early-game draws, helping us find the right colors of mana, always hit our three-drop, and maybe just maybe increase our chances of having a turn 2 Broken Ambitions. The other assumption coming from this was that we could afford the life loss, on the broad shoulders of Rhox War Monk and Kitchen Finks. And largely these things proved true: Ponder was always great, turn 1 or turn 20, and helped to moderate screw and flood situations so we could draw out of the worst extremes a deck can throw at us. The eight life-gaining three-drops were likewise great, cushioning our life totals so we could better race the opponent’s creatures or contain them, whichever was appropriate at the time. The painlands were painful… obviously, that’s what they do… but never grievously so, even though it hurts the soul a little to play turn 1 Ponder off a painland, knowing this is going to commit you to more pain on turn 3 for your creature drop, and for all you know your opponent could be a Red deck.

Another assumption we had was that we didn’t want Wrath of God. This was true… mostly. You’ll see the last addition to the deck is basically a Wrath of God, but here’s the Wrath we want for the deck rather than just “Wrath of God.” Actually, the last two additions were both Wraths, but Cloudthresher is a very carefully aimed Wrath and we’ll get to him in a bit. Austere Command just happened to complement the rest of the deck very neatly, giving us the access we wanted to a Wrath effect without committing us to the card always making us regret the fact that this deck is clearly designed to play a three-drop every game. The Austere Command was the last addition, since it could blow up weenies and leave us our Cloudthreshers and Stoic Angels to work with, or blow up fatties and leave War Monk and Finks in play. It also had that extra flexibility of providing a permanent solution to Bitterblossom, although conceptually at least the deck is somewhat positioned to deal with the Blossom thanks to fat attacking three-drops, and was just the perfect Rock-like spell to add once I realized ‘well crap, this is a Rock deck.’

The deck was sound with the number of comes-into-play-tapped lands, and could probably afford an eighth comes-into-play-tapped land if we wanted the fourth Treetop Village. Villages were an excellent kill condition, working very nicely with our own Stoic Angels as a creature that got around the Winter Orb effect (… like the Angel herself, conveniently) and cost us very little due to coming into play tapped… but I am loathe to cut another Blue land from the deck to add another Treetop, so while we can afford another land coming into play tapped, we can’t afford anything that made early Ponders harder to cast or cut into our chances of casting Cryptic Command on turn four. Reflecting Pool was great with every other land in the deck but could be quite awkward with Treetop Village or Island, and while Island can be forgiven for that transgression (it casts Ponder and fixes the problem!), I fear Treetop Village couldn’t pull its weight as a four-of. The number of painlands was high but tolerably so, because the deck has ‘gaining life’ as part of its standard operating procedure… I didn’t usually have to take more than three or four pain over a game from them, and would routinely gain that much from a single Finks or far, far more than that with a War Monk.

But the part I found most interesting was the effect Oona’s Grace had on the deck. Clearly I wanted to just play some efficient creatures and try to contain the board… I am a Rock deck, and have cards like Stoic Angel and Rhox War Monk as new additions that help to contain the board single-handedly. But after the third and fourth turn, where I could expect to play a creature on those turns, I found the deck stopped casting things on its own turn and kept up a variety of Instants to choose from… and the single most important thing was that even if the opponent did nothing, I wasn’t wasting my mana when I could have been playing more creatures or attacking with Treetops. Oona’s Grace carried the deck in so many ways, and was aided in its consistency by the power of Ponder and the light dig of Cryptic Command and Broken Ambitions. The part where the deck succeeds, despite being a Rock deck, is because it was able to leverage one spell a turn towards the purpose of grinding the opponent’s resources down, while the opponent could leverage less than one spell a turn on average because they drew lands instead of spells at least some of the time.

Against an opponent playing eight man-lands, I fear this effect would be minimized… but against a random assortment of decks, Oona’s Grace was the glue that held the rest of the deck together, making sure the deck always had action going on or some ability to control the board. But as a rule it played two threats and then kept up countermagic for the rest of the game…

… And that was when I learned to give in and love the Cloudthresher.

Never mind that he was included incidentally to serve as a mild Faeries-hoser, because while I didn’t want Wrath of God, I did want Wrath of Faeries, and had six cards in my sideboard locked in: Wrath of God as a four-of, for those times when I was clearly wrong and did want Wrath of God in my deck (see: Kithkin), and the remaining two Cloudthreshers for against Faerie decks. But Cloudthresher does something special in this deck having nothing to do with the Evoke effect or even really the Hurricane part. The deck deploys a three-drop on turn 3, and either a four-drop or another three-drop and a tapped land on turn 4, then keeps its mana up for the rest of the game. But every Instant you add to the deck adds extra value to the plan of keeping mana untapped… that is why both Faeries and Mystical Teachings/Teferi decks were so successful with their boatload of Instants, because when everything is an Instant then you just play your normal game, but always get to apply the correct response to your opponent’s actions because you take your turn at the end of their turn. And Cloudthresher was not a Hurricane on legs… but he was a surprise 7/7 blocker at an inconvenient moment, and an end-of-turn 7/7 nightmare that snuck into play and I got to untap my mana to protect immediately. And the ‘price’ of playing this instant-speed Dragon was the willingness to require GGGG from my manabase alongside UUU and UGW… which thanks to the Treetop Villages I already wanted, was just this side of reasonable… and the ability to take two from my own spell without it really hurting me. Cue the reminder that this deck gains life casually as part of its overall strategy.

So this was an odd deck overall… but it felt like it was doing something right. It didn’t lock itself in to the control role, because it’s more of a midrange tempo control deck than a true control deck; it could play threats and protect them, then cover everything else with countermagic. It didn’t lock itself into the aggro role either, it really is a mid-range deck tried and true. It’s neither a Green deck nor a Blue deck, but something that skirts both of those roles as it sees fit, and it’s certainly not a White deck, since the White is there for the Bant spells and the two-of Austere Command.

Where the deck will develop in the coming weeks, as a metagame starts to piece itself together and we prepare ourselves for States, I don’t quite know. Clearly we need a sideboard, and for that we need to know what’s out there and grab some test games against them… so next week’s article will be a first look at the actual decent decks that seem to be coming out of nothingness as we start playing with Shards of Alara cards, as we try and piece together the relative strengths of all these things and figure out what in Tarnation is going on with this Standard format of ours.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com