Magical Hack: Heartbeat of Summer

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With Coldsnap entering the Constructed cardpool in a matter of days, Sean looks at a possible upgrade to the popular (and intricate) Heartbeat Combo deck. Into the North? Scrying Sheets? Does it add anything to this already-powerful deck? Read on to find out!

Considering the twists and turns of the metagame shifts, it should come as no surprise that a win for Solar Flare at U.S. Nationals one weekend would be followed up by a win for Heartbeat at Canadian Nationals and New Zealand Nationals. The cycle of the metagame marches onward week by week, and a pair of wins from Heartbeat will see the trend that brought Solar Flare forward now requiring Solar Flare to adjust or be left behind. Solar Flare’s rise may be a short-lived reign of terror, as we swing back towards Heartbeat’s reign during the Team Unified Standard season qualifying for Pro Tour: Charleston. The metagame marches ever onward, as this week’s metagame at Canadian Nationals shows. Some of the decks that showed up in order to stomp on Solar Flare and Izzetron included Red-White aggro-weenie strategies (along the lines of Flores Boros), Magnivore, and Owling Mine. Next week’s twisting metagame will have to deal with the rise of Heartbeat to beat the Solar Flare decks… and so the metagame twists and turns.

And yet, a chill wind rose… The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the metagame… But it was a beginning. The Coldsnap soon shall come.

Not this weekend but soon, soon enough, Coldsnap will enter the Standard format, and like one might see in Mike FloresIcicle articles, there is good reason to feel that some of these cards will be playable. These thoughts come chained together in my mind… the addition of Coldsnap and the rise of the Heartbeat deck… because I think there is reason to feel one change might be married to the other to good effect. Yes, one can blindly follow on the heels of success and just play this

… or you can put your thinking-cap on and take the blinders off, and at least try to figure out whether there is anything in Coldsnap that is worth changing for. Yes, this is the aggressively-streamlined version of Heartbeat, losing maindeck versatility by shedding off one-of’s in order to just play more Weird Harvests, since that single card with enough mana available is the combo by itself. Or you can actually combine your efforts, trying to figure out what elements led to Heartbeat succeeding, and look at it through the lens of Coldsnap. I’m not one for holding onto sacred cows (the cows being more of Jack Stanton thing than mine anyway). Not asking questions is tantamount to conceding defeat on the intellectual playing field. I am a rather inquisitive fellow who isn’t content to accept things on faith and just run with it. For example, what if we ask the question “what if we replaced Kodama’s Reach with Into the North?”

Forum-posters from the Heartbeat thread from forever ago have debated the issue of Rampant Growth, and dismissed it as clearly inferior to Kodama’s Reach; for just one more mana, you get that second land, and the card advantage is incredibly key in controllish matchups. The redundancy of eight turn 2 Sakura-Tribe Elder effects is better for the aggro matchup, but not actually enough of an improvement just because it saves a mana. After all, against beatdown decks, you’d hate to miss a key land drop and accidentally die, right? Now, what if your Rampant Growth came with benefits that could be compared to Kodama’s Reach when it needed to, and perhaps be even more ridiculously in your favor than the Reach if you’re given the time to abuse it?

Take the Canadian Nationals winning deck and apply the following twists:

Replace Kodama’s Reach with Into the North;
Replace Swamp with Scrying Sheets;
Replace Maga, Traitor to Mortals with Research / Development for additional main-deck flexibility, with the option to just draw cards or make men;
Snow-Cover the remaining basic lands. (Sorry, I can’t make myself agree with 12 Forests / 8 Islands, I’m even stretching my usual opinion just going up to 11/9 instead of 10/10.)

Now you have a redundant two-mana play to accelerate your mana, and additional copies of Weird Harvest so you don’t have to Transmute Muddle the Mixture every time in order to go off, both of which help against fast, aggressive decks. You also don’t have the card advantage of Kodama’s Reach… but in its place you have the ability to fetch out Scrying Sheets and win the mana war against controlling decks, which can be quite ridiculous in combination with Sensei’s Divining Top. The sideboard is completely different, and reflects what tools I like seeing there… specifically, tools that are equipped to deal with Pithing Needle. Three of those sideboard slots get eaten by lands, some of which are additional copies of Scrying Sheets to help win the Thawing Glaciers war against controlling decks or even just mid-range decks that give you the time… and can effectively replace the Bottled Cloisters that were previously used to combat discard decks, by keeping your hand full instead of hiding it from the opponent.

And the sideboard plan respects another idea I had from the first moment I’d seen the card… how to build a better man plan. I’d always liked the Vinelasher Kudzu portion of the Man Plan, but didn’t like the tapping five or six for Meloku or Keiga part of the plan. Allosaurus Rider gives us additional Vinelashers, that attack faster and grow larger more consistently even if they are worse at surviving Wildfire. Just by doing what you naturally do, which is play a land for the first three turns and search out a third land on turn 2, by turn 3 we’re attacking with something Dragon-sized. As good as Vinelasher Kudzu is at its job, Allosaurus Riders is better: it may ask for more from you, since it costs two Green cards instead of two mana, but it attacks for four on the second turn, five on the third, six on the fourth and kills on the fifth if left unhindered and unblocked. Arguing that it’s so expensive that a second copy in the opening hand is flat-out useless doesn’t even work, because the second copy can pay for the first, and in the late-game when you are actually paying the cost of the darn thing he’s downright humongous. Nothing is perfect, of course, but when the price we’re quoting starts at “free”… why complain?

The role of the Man Plan varies, either from an outright kill mechanism (“I’m going to attack you, and you’re going to die”) or to force a reaction from a control player that will allow you to capitalize on their tapping mana by killing them when they finally respond to your threat. Vinelasher Kudzu does this very well, as it can just be incidentally dropped into play and left to do its job forcing the opponent to do something four or five turns later, but the commitment to an Allosaurus Rider is so large that the secondary function of threatening the combo kill is basically infeasible: too much of the working parts of the combo have to be invested in the Riders to really threaten killing the opponent after, say, a Blue-White deck taps out to Wrath on turn 4 instead of dying. It does supplement the Kudzu for those games where you are honestly trying to kill your opponent with creature damage, because it does it quickly and it does it well. If it comes down on the first turn it even dodges all the countermagic that could normally stop it.

Thinking of Snow-Covered lands, the new Thawing Glaciers-like effect is provided by Scrying Sheets, and through the strong reactions to a metagame that is filling with Heartbeat decks. Rather than join them, it occurs to me that it might be nice to actually, y’know, beat them. Taking another twist, we can end up with the following, marrying Chad Ellis‘ mono-Blue deck from the same Team PTQ season that showed us the strength of Heartbeat with a much older deck, going back to the old, old days of yore and playing mono-Blue control with Steel Golems.

This deck goes back a long, long time in the Wayback Machine, going back to the days when a 3/4 for three in a Blue deck required you to never be able to cast another creature spell for as long as it was in play. Now, your Steel Golem instead asks for 1{S} to untap, which means it’s not as ideal of an early beater… but at least it doesn’t ask for it at the wrong time, since you can keep mana up for countermagic, and as the game goes longer that “drawback” suddenly becomes an advantage when you can attack the opponent and still block with your Steel Golem-cum-Serra Angels. Blue Control used to love having Thawing Glaciers, but instead of Thawing Glaciers you get Scrying Sheets… and instead of Quicksands you get Mouth of Ronom, the land that casts Char… and the land that kills Meloku through a wall of countermagic. All told, this particular spin through the wayback machine looks pretty profitable. Compare to the same idea, circa 1998:

Yes, decks have gotten much better and more streamlined since then, picking the right countermagic in bulk instead of a little of this, a little of that. Most similar decks of the period also had Capsize, to perform a late-game Caps(ize) Lock on the opponent’s permanents, by doing such rude things as activating a Disk and returning it to your hand in response, buying the Disk back for later use.

I think the comparison is downright favorable, especially if we’re living in a world where most control decks (read: three-color control decks like Ghazi-Post or Beach House or Solar Flare) can’t take advantage of the Thawing Glaciers in the format. The choice of Repeal is a funny one, because it can substitute as either a board control spell for the things that slip through the cracks or as a pure card-drawing spell, drawing two cards for just two mana at instant speed… so long as you have a Sensei’s Divining Top. Between Counterbalance’s potential to overpower cheap spells, Scrying Sheets in a deck that is 50% Snow, and the Repeal trick, there should be no such thing as a “dead” Top, considering that it is a key component of the deck’s card-advantage engine.

As we saw in how this deck used to work, if you had enough redundancy then you really didn’t need a lot in the way of card advantage, and just Impulse for filtering and Whispers every turn you had the window of opportunity was good enough. Likewise, ‘just’ Scrying Sheets with enough Top action to make sure you are drawing at least one extra card a turn is probably good enough, and with multiple Sheets you can go crazier still. If Jushi Blue decks can get by relying heavily upon the little Apprentice that could, leaning on Tops and Scrying Sheets can in fact get you where you need to be fast enough to matter. After all, if you draw a spell every turn and your opponent sometimes draws a land and sometimes draws a spell, in the long-enough time-scale you get +1 card for each land they draw that you don’t. Meanwhile you also play a land every turn, which is what Blue decks like to do, and some of these lands are actually spells (like Char, but only pointed at men) while others let you Thaw more.

The sideboard is rough, painfully rough, but is based off the need to control early creatures and the assumption that Ghost Quartering opposing Vitu-Ghazis, Scrying Sheets and Tron pieces is better than Annexing them, which is not an argument I would automatically believe… the two cards do very different things that can at first seem very similar. After all, using Ghost Quarter will never accelerate you into a turn 5 Keiga.

The absence of Jushi Apprentice in either the main-deck or the sideboard is based on the belief that Scrying Sheets serves the same role well enough, even if you can’t ever flip over a Scrying Sheets and use it to deck the opponent. Being able to keep it in play no matter how much creature removal your opponent has in hand, however, and being invulnerable to countermagic plus never requiring you to tap mana on your own turn, both sound better. My deck from Regionals relied on four Apprentices in a format that was looking to be heavily populated by the Mortify-heavy Ghost Husk deck and the Seal of Fire-activated Heezy Street, and worked out reasonably well in all of those match-ups… I am most certainly a fan of Jushi Apprentice, truth be told, but Jushi Apprentice is still just a man, and decks right now are very, very good at killing men. Killing your Thawing Glaciers… now that’s a challenge for most decks.

It may be that in the world of Blue control decks, the Snow-Covered Island is king.

Coldsnap is full of interesting potential, and so far we’ve only really talked about one card (Scrying Sheets) and its potential ramifications for a very few decks. Its theme essentially goes against type for the remainder of Standard, brushing up hard against the multi-colored theme of Ravnica Block and offering significant returns for use of snow-covered lands for either five mono-colored (snow-covered) decks or the five allied-color pairs, so long as those allies are willing to give up the use of their Karoo, Shock-Land and Pain-Land in order to use a snow-covered version of the Invasion dual lands, Scrying Sheets, and snow-covered basic lands. The cost to your manabase is high, but the quality of the returns is also very high… and some decks will be willing to pay it, while others will not. Does a mono-colored Snow-Covered deck exist, besides perhaps the Blue one? Probably not, unless one is willing to conceive of a mono-Black control deck. Scrying Sheets basically requires one of two things: either it requires Sensei’s Divining Top, or it requires the use of snow-covered permanents besides land: snow-covered creatures, very few of which are of high enough quality to consider for Standard. Either way, that puts a significant limitation on a deck, pointing you down a very narrow path at a time when Ravnica Block has broadened all of the horizons.

Two-color decks are reasonable to consider if one color is Green, as can be seen with Mike Flores Icicle. Green-White can be quite nice when given a hard-to-break source of card advantage, and between Into the North and Sakura-Tribe Elder you have the color-fixing that you are missing by not playing a $200 mana-base, the high cost of being snow-covered. Green-Red could arguably do likewise, as Mouth of Ronom recursion with Life from the Loam already sounds solid but is better yet when there is Wildfire on the menu. White-Blue, Blue-Black, and Black-Red all seem to have little reason to abandon good mana in search of Thawing Glaciers, especially since they don’t have to stop at two colors if they don’t want to… and the other five color pairs frankly do not exist at all in a snow-covered format, meaning you have an interesting thought puzzle for seven decks: the two allied-color Green decks, and the five mono-color decks. The opportunity cost is high, however; either you’re a control deck, or you’re playing Snow cards.

Let’s look at the playable Snow permanents that might fit with a mono-colored beatdown deck, before laughing the concept off entirely. After all, a mana base of 19 snow-covered basics, 4 Scrying Sheets, and about four solid snow permanents as a four-of will have an amazing long game if its initial push is halted.

Adarkar Valkyrie
Blizzard Specter
Boreal Centaur
Boreal Druid
Frost Raptor
Ohran Viper
Phyrexian Ironfoot
Rimebound Dead
Rimefeather Owl
Rimescale Dragon
Stalking Yeti
Wall of Shards

Gelid Shackles
Coldsteel Heart

Clearly the beer goggles are on, because we’re now saying that some moderately unimpressive cards might just be playable in Standard if only because you’ll draw them for free if you try hard enough. The Boreal pair are low Constructed quality, with at least two if not three one-drop Elves generally being considered better if not for the Snow supertype. Boreal Centaur is a bear that can get bigger one time in a fight if it has to, which is solid for a bear but not necessarily worth the sacrifice of playing Snow over Nonsnow in order to get it. Frost Raptor is basically dreck, as is Rimebound Dead; Rimefeather Owl and Rimescale Dragon are being given the benefit of the doubt that a seven-mana spell might be worth playing in a mana-hungry Scrying Sheets deck. Talking about the cards we wouldn’t necessarily laugh at, by color:

Black — Blizzard Specter (but we’d basically agreed that a two-color non-Green snow deck was unplayable.)

Blue — Blizzard Specter (see above)

White — Adarkar Valkyrie, Wall of Shards. (Note that these two probably go in very different kinds of decks.)

Green — Ohran Viper

Red — Stalking Yeti

Artifact — Coldsteel Heart, Phyrexian Ironfoot

So, basically… unless we see some Snow permanents in Time Spiral (and as a “mash-up” set meant to follow on the footsteps of both Ravnica Block and Coldsnap, with the early rumors being it will mix in all sorts of wacky and fun keywords from sets of yore, that’s not impossible), the Snow supertype is going to be playable in decks that play Scrying Sheets in a controlling role, and that’s it. However, if Heartbeat of Spring can be looked at sideways and half-considered for a serious treatment using snow-covered lands, and a months-old archetype (not to mention years dead, as Steel Golem Blue truly is) might be revived by the use of snow-covered lands plus a little help from Rune Snag and Phyrexian Ironfoot. Even more cleverly, if the idea of Snow-Covered Heartbeat is going around enough that people are responding to its divergent card-choices by packing more Pithing Needles, it’s even possible that regular Heartbeat might gain an advantage just by snow-covering its basic lands, just to gain the 5% chance of confusion that will potentially see a Pithing Needle on Scrying Sheets instead of a card actually in their deck.

As interesting as the twists and turns of the metagame this weekend and the next may be, it’s the release of Coldsnap that I think may prove most interesting of all… and be most representative of our starting point for Standard as Kamigawa Block rotates out and Time Spiral rotates in, and thus looking at the upcoming change and following it will keep us best informed of the Standard format that is the precursor to the State Championships.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]

My lady is a peach among fruit,
She’s sweet and furry on the tongue;
While I may not be getting any older,
She keeps me feeling young…
Paul Emerson Leicht, “Unrelated Verses”