Warning: Contains Spoilers!
It’s hard to believe the M12 Prerelease is just days away! With just 18 cards left to be revealed (thanks to MTGSalvation.com for compiling the
spoilers), we have a pretty good idea of where the power points in this set have been distributed. It definitely seems a little odd that there are so
many good cards in this set, but that most of them are reprints.
Grim Lavamancer is a pretty massive reprint; that combined with Incinerate and possibly the new options of Chandra’s Phoenix or Stormblood Berserker
elevates Mono-Red to bona fide Tier 1 status. Outside of a straight-up card quality increase, we also must consider the implications of the other
baseline “good” strategies. What is good against Valakut and Twin? Discard, permission, Memoricide-types, Torpor Orb, Spreading Seas, Tectonic Edge,
Dismember, and Nature’s Claims. Now, how are all of these cards against Mono-Red?
Conversely, what cards are good against Mono-Red? Kor Firewalker, Obstinate Baloth, Batterskull, Wurmcoil Engine, Baneslayer Angel, Phyrexian
Obliterator, Wall of Omens, Mental Misstep, Pyroclasm, and Lightning Bolt? Not only are these not the cards you want against combo, but most of them
are not really cards that naturally go into decks that beat combo.
Valakut and Twin may be the two boogiemen that everyone is talking about, but Mono-Red is really the other extreme that will constrain deck design out
the gate. If Valakut is level zero, Twin level one, and anti-combo decks (like U/B Control or Mono-B) are level two, then Mono-Red is level three. The
metagame is so young and fresh that we cannot be content to just scratch the surface of the format. When formats develop, there is less incentive to
focus on deeper levels because we cannot be sure how deep everyone else is going.
I’d like to talk about the new Garruk today, a card that (probably) does not fit into any of these three strategies. To get to that point however, we
need to understand what the extremes of the format appear to be so we can talk about the sorts of decks that can exist in the near future. We have
already seen some of the new tools Mono-Red has at its disposal, but what else can we predict about the metagame (at least of tomorrow) as a result?
Well, Mono-Red is already playing four Dismembers in the sideboard, at the least (and should probably play four Blackcleave Cliffs). In fact, it seems
the majority of decks I have seen thus far have used Dismember heavily. This makes life a lot tougher for the Firewalker, Baneslayer, Obliterator, and
even Wall of Omens, Obstinate Baloth, and Batterskull. Dismember has always been the most offensive design to me in New Phyrexia, and this is just one
more way we are seeing the problems that card causes. Â
It is not so bad that it is a total colorbleed (since you can justify anything as a colorbleed, because of artifacts, if you use the right logic). The
problem is that it is better than almost every removal spell in the format. This makes the weakness of colors matter a lot less. Dismember has already
done its thing to every format up to Legacy, and would/will do it to Vintage when people get around to it. Unfortunately, this means we will be feeling
the effects of Dismember from now on. It is just now part of Magic that Mono-Blue Merfolk decks get good one-mana removal spells, for
There is often a particular amount of toughness that separates the big creatures from the small ones. This number has often been three (to escape
Pyroclasm and Volcanic Fallout) and four (Lightning Bolt, Slagstorm, and so on). Today, it appears that number might be six. The threat of Dismember
makes any creature with a toughness of five or less subject to the Dismember-test. For those familiar with the Jace test (Do you lose value if your
opponent bounces this creature with Jace?), it is pretty easy to conceive the Dismember-test. Do you lose value if your opponent Dismembers this
Grim Lavamancer does some important things, as well. While he is not particularly insane against Valakut, Twin, or Mono-Red, he sure does punish people
who try to do anything different. For instance, imagine playing Fauna Shaman against this bad boy. Now what about any of the countless White Weenie
Patrick Sullivan has mentioned that Grim Lavamancer is a strange card to reprintâ€”not only for its power, but for what it does to the format. I am
not convinced that Lavamancer will take over the format, but it sure does incentivize people to play strategies that normally need no further
It is far from clear whether Chandra’s Phoenix catches on, but I definitely like it in principle. If it does catch on, we could see an increase in
cards like Nihil Spellbomb. Between the Phoenix, Bloodghast, Vengevine, Vengeful Pharaoh, Kuldotha Phoenix, and Bonehoard, there are far more
graveyard-based threats than there used to be; and this is to say nothing of what Innistrad will bring. We would do well to remember that the better
graveyard strategies there are, the more graveyard hate we’ll actually have to face if we go down such a road.
Valakut and Twin have already been receiving a lot of press, but there have been some important breakthroughs, this past week. First of all, the
revelation that Ponder will be in M12 is pretty significant. Twin now has access to both Preordain and Ponder to help set up the fast combo-kill, which
is more important than most will realize at first. Remember last year when Pyromancer Ascension totally took over the format (even if only briefly)? It
was the rotation of Ponder that really knocked the strategy out of Tier 1 (not the loss of Time Warp). The difference between four cheap and effective
library manipulation spells and eight is big, as they all start chaining together.
Twin decks did lose Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so it’s not like this addition is really that over the top; however it helps set up the turn four kill alot better than Jace would. The format is a much more dangerous place because of Ponder,Â and I think we are going to see a lot of people squeezed out, as a result. It’s funny that people are already arguing about Ponder vs. Preordain, as though they forgot that
both were legal this time, last year. Remember, Ponder is better if you’re looking for a specific card and have a ton of shufflers. Preordain is better
in the abstract and in “fair” strategies.
We are going to see U/R Twin decks using more Misty Rainforests than they normally do, so that they have more ways to shuffle with Ponder (which only
makes Mono-Red even happier). The reason for using shufflers with Ponder is so that when we look at the top three cards, even if we see one we want and
two we don’t, we can keep the good one and shuffle away the bad. A common play is to Ponder on turn three, then play a Misty Rainforest, and do
something that costs two.
Pondering on turn one is fine if you just need to dig to mana, but remember, this means you are keeping at least two of the three (since you have to
draw for your turn on your second), and you are stuck with all three if you can’t shuffle your deck. If you are planning on casting both Preordain and
Ponder, you may want to ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. If you just want the best value, you can Ponder, keep your best, then Preordain
the rest to the bottom. If you just want to see as many cards as possible, you may want to Preordain first, then Ponder (ensuring you have seven
“chances” at whatever you are looking for).
Ponder doesn’t just help Deceiver, though, as basically every blue combo deck is going to want it. What about actual Pyromancer Ascension? Now that
Ponder and Preordain have been reunited, we are only missing Time Warp from the exact deck that made waves last summer. Despite this loss, there is
actually quite a selection of new tools available to a PA deck. To begin with, Gitaxian Probe is just fantastic. Aside from the information being
helpful for knowing how best to try to sculpt your game plan, it is just a “free” cantrip, which greatly accelerates your “combo.”
Turn two- Pyromancer Ascension.
Turn three- After playing the same two spells played on turn one, you have already Ascended with multiple mana available to start doing big things.
Pyromancer Ascension is much faster and consistent now, plus losing Jace doesn’t hurt it nearly as much as other people (since it didn’t really want to play Jace, anyway, preferring cards that actually trigger the Ascension). It isn’t clear whether Spreading Seas fits into the
maindeck, but it is a way to gain additional value against Valakut. As for sideboard options, PA decks are definitely not hurting there, either.
Deceiver/Twin, like Pestermite/Twin in Extended, makes for an excellent transformational sideboard. After all, do you keep your creature removal in
against PA? If you said yes, remember that the PA player doesn’t actually have to sideboard in the Deceiver/Twin combo. The fact that he has it at all
forces you to sideboard in ways you wouldn’t normally want to. Celestial Purge and Nature’s Claim are great against both combos, so the stock of both
should rise. Grim Lavamancer is also a potent sideboard option. After all, how many removal spells will a Fauna Shaman deck really have against PA
after boarding? The interaction between Grim Lavamancer and Deceiver Exarch is not to be underestimated.
A really fascinating side effect of Ponder is what it does to Mental Misstep. Mental Misstep was already excellent against aggro decks (Goblin Guide,
Vampire Lacerator, Llanowar Elf, Steppe Lynx) and U/B decks (Inquisition, Preordain, other discard spells). Now, the combination of Ponder and
Preordain (not to mention Gitaxian Probe, as well as possibly Lightning Bolt, Spell Pierce, and Turn Aside) means that we can count on Twin (and PA) to
have no shortage of good one-drops to Misstep. With Mono-Red and U/R combo on the rise, I see a future with a lot more Mental Missteps than last month.
The one problem with Mental Misstep?
Maybe they play some Lightning Bolts? I guess they could have a Treespeaker or Birds to tutor with Green Sun’s Zenith. No question, Misstep is
a soft card against Valakut, but that doesn’t mean we can’t maindeck it. After all, it isn’t as soft as say, Nature’s Claim or Celestial Purge…
What about Valakut? What has changed in Valakut, this week? After all, there are still no M12 cards that are automatically worth considering, aside
from Rampant Growth, right?
There has been a growing buzz surrounding Valakut-Twin, a strategy that sounds like a joke (ha ha, I get it, you are just sticking the Twin combo in
every strategy…), but makes a lot of sense when you look deeper. Deceiver-Twin decks generally have plenty of Islands, so it feels strange to
consider it in a Valakut deck, but do you need more than one if you have all that searching? Looking at the list GerryT’s discussedhere , last week, we see 17 sources of blue, not counting Primeval Titan or Green Sun’s Zenith, and before having Rampant Growth. This is
to say nothing of the number of Spreading Seas that will be pointed in your general direction.
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 4 Deceiver Exarch
Obviously the threat of turn four kills adds a very deadly new element to the Valakut strategy, but the package goes even deeper than that. Deceiver
Exarch helps make up the slack on defense from playing no burn. Splinter Twin can be placed on any of the fatties for added value; though if you have a
Titan that can attack, you are doing pretty well regardless. Acidic Slime and Obstinate Baloth are also exceptional targets to consider.
This list doesn’t include Spellskite, but I would at least consider it. It makes for a powerful trump against other Twin decks, and we can even
consider Twinning it ourselves. Once it has a Splinter Twin on it, it is going to be exceptionally difficult for an opponent to ever combo off or even
get your Spellskite off the table.
One last benefit of the Twin combo in Valakut is that every time your opponent has to leave up permission gives you that much more time to draw more
lands and get them the old-fashioned way.
Is Valakut definitely going to just merge with Twin? That is far from certain; however it definitely needs to be explored. One factor going against
such a merger is that presumably people are going to be packing a particularly high amount of Twin hate anyway, and by going this route, you don’t get
to stick people with a lot of dead cards.
There are so many sweet new cards that are high on power, but not particularly well-suited to combat combo or Red aggro. As a result, the bar is quite
high for main phase value cards like Solemn Simulacrum. This is a card that is quite high in power and works well with other cards in the format, but
may have a tough time in the format to come because of its positioning. Granted, three months from now, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Splinter Twin,
and Goblin Guide are rotating, so it is likely to be on a huge upswing then. Still, it is possible that there will be enough other strategies to make a
main phase value card worth it, even now. Â
Garruk, Primal Hunter is the latest candidate to audition for this role of “main phase value card.” Is the new Garruk “bad” against combo and Mono-Red?
Many people seem to say so, but then again it seems that most people don’t really like him at all.
I think they are making a huge mistake.
Before discussing Garruk against a Combo/Red metagame, let’s break down just how much raw power we are working with.
To start with, Garruk costs five and not just any five, a heavily restrictive triple green. This is going to make it tougher to compare directly, but
if your deck can support him, he is basically just the same cost as Gideon Jura (though playable in fewer decks). A starting loyalty of three that
typically goes straight to four is the perfect size, as he does not share Nissa Revane’s and Garruk Wildspeaker’s weakness to Searing Blaze.
The +1 ability compared to Garruk Wildspeaker’s -1 ability is much more important than people realize. How often have you played Garruk, only to have
him die, but at least been able to get one guy out of him? How many times have you untapped lands, just to get his loyalty high enough to live, but not
actually used the mana? Nissa Revane was a solid tournament card for a minute, and Garruk obviously outclasses her in every way. The Primal Hunter is
actually much more comparable to Elspeth, Knight-Errant.
The ability to +1 and make a 1/1 is just fantastic, and Elspeth is a serious contender for second best planeswalker ever (perhaps in competition with
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, Koth of the Hammer, and Ajani Vengeant). How much better is making a 3/3 every turn instead of a 1/1? A ton. It isn’t just
+2/+2 better; it scales every turn. It is as if you get to use both of Elspeth’s abilities each turn!
Let’s compare how much damage each card could deal at most, by turn:
Turns of Attacking
21 (made 2 guys at beginning)
27 (made 3 guys at start)
As you can see, even if you count Elspeth coming down a turn earlier, Garruk pulls ahead by the third turn you get to use him. Additionally, needing to
increase loyalty only three times, he threatens to go ultimate the same time Elspeth would (despite coming down a turn later).
So, Garruk has an ultimate that is relatively on par with Elspeth’s (strong enough to take over most games, but doesn’t win immediately), and his first
ability is somewhat comparable to both of Elspeth’s top two abilities if it is used on its own. What about his second ability?
There are two primary ways to use Garruk’s second ability, as I see it. Either he lives, or he doesn’t. You can sacrifice him immediately to play him
as a sort of Tidings type card, assuming you have big enough creatures, which could be well worth it. This is especially true if you are playing
against opponents with Oblivion Ring, Vengevine, or even just Staggershock. You do want to be careful to avoid going all-in on a Garruk -3 when an
opponent can blow you out by responding with a Go for the Throat on your guy, but this is generally not going to be that tough. Fortunately,
Garruk is worded ideally, so that if you have multiple creatures, even losing the big one lets you draw cards equal to the power of the second biggest
one (since it isn’t targeted). This also makes Garruk quite strong with hexproof creatures, like Thrun, the Last Troll.
The other way to use Garruk’s -3 is as a sort of second ultimate. It’s kind of cool, but Garruk is the first planeswalker to really feel like it has
What does this ultimate do? Well, you make a guy immediately, right? Now you have a four-loyalty planeswalker, with a good blocker, and you are
threatening a mini-ultimate next turn that would let you Ancestral Recall for free next turn and have a Garruk, Primal Hunter on the
battlefield. Getting to keep a Garruk, even with just one loyalty, is generally worth at least two more cards, putting heavy pressure on your opponent
the very first turn he comes down. You do have to be careful to not get blown out by a removal spell (for instance, if your Beast is your only
creature), but the amount of pressure this puts on your opponent is often going to force them to take lines of play they might not otherwise want to
Does this make him better than Elspeth? Well, not exactly. Elspeth has a pretty major additional set of abilities that come from her second line. She
doesn’t just grant +3/+3; she also provides flying and a form of haste (which is huge for combating planeswalkers). She combines exceptionally well
with double strike and lifelink creatures, plus just jumping your biggest creature can win games on its own. Besides, four costs a lot less
than five when it comes to planeswalkers (letting you use them a full turn earlier. She even naturally fits into more strategies than Garruk does, by
not having the dreaded triple-green requirement.
There is more in Garruk’s defense, however. To begin with, he is actually legal in Standard, which Elspeth certainly cannot claim. Next of all, he may
cost a mana more, but he still wins faster and ultimates faster. This doesn’t even take into consideration that he is green, opening up massive
opportunities for use with Lotus Cobra and Joraga Treespeaker, not to mention simple accelerants like Rampant Growth, Explore, Overgrown Battlement,
and Cultivate. Finally, we are comparing him to Elspeth-Freaking-Knight-Errant! That is really stiff competition. Imagine if he only
had to compare to Elspeth Tirel, Venser, the Sojourner, Gideon Jura, and Jace, Memory Adept!
The thing is, even though he could probably take all those guys, does he really need to? After all, there may be no shortage of good white and blue
five-drops, but how many good green five-drops are there? Acidic Slime? Sure, that is pretty good, but what else? Acidic Slime is a great card, but it
is definitely very different from Garruk, and there really isn’t that much competition between the two. It is really just a question of what you are
trying to accomplish.
Let’s take a look at a few possible sketches of homes for the new Garruk.
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 4 Wall of Omens
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Sun Titan
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
- 2 Viridian Emissary
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Blade Splicer
As is always the case with Birthing Pod decks, a couple “minor” changes could end up having a huge impact. This particular build probably needs to be
better against control decks, but it sure does look sweet against aggressive strategies. Four Arbiters is a plan, especially since this is not a deck
that just loses to Pyroclasm, but we also could get lucky with a Leyline. It would be nice to be able to do something about Nature’s Claim and Acidic
Slime, and Spellskite is tempting, but a single Primeval Titan still kills it.
Beast Within is especially hot, here, as it gives us answers to both Valakut (combining with Tectonic Edge) and Twin, and is mitigated by the
collection of Walls.
This build rides a very fine line between G/W goodstuff and true Birthing Pod. It is possible that you don’t even want the Birthing Pod action, instead
just relying on super-efficient G/W monsters and aggression. Your guys’ larger bodies should give you a strategic edge over aggression, and maybe you
can just play enough hate to beat the combo decks (not to mention trying to race them). Moving away from the one-ofs, you could instead play Lotus
Cobra, Hero of Bladehold, and other generally aggressively costed midrange monsters.
Alternatively, it might just be that this is the wrong home for the new Garruk, and that we should add blue for Venser, Sea Gate Oracle, Frost Titan,
and possibly even Trinket Mage. Venser is pretty amazing with Blade Splicer and all these other “enters the battlefield” creatures. Birthing Pod also
lets you set up the combination of Stonehorn Dignitary + Venser, which will lock out some people entirely. Even the people who it doesn’t lock out are
affected. For instance, this combination is very tough to beat with Twin, as it doesn’t even fold to a single Into the Roil.
While many players have been assuming that RUG is just another way to play Splinter Twin now, another possible route to go is to build around the new
Garruk may not just replace Jace, the Mind Sculptor straight up, but he can take over a game just as thoroughly. Like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, he is
excellent on his own but appears to “combo” with everything. He works especially well with creatures of power of at least three or more that come down
before him. Obstinate Baloth gets the nod here, as RUG has traditionally needed all the help it can get against Mono-Red. Besides, the first time you
“get” someone that tries to Smallpox you, it will all be worth it.
Setting up Titan + Garruk is ambitious to be sure, but it is a natural curve. This does bring up an important point about Garruk. If you are going to
draw that many cards, it is important to actually be able to use them. This means plenty of cheap spells, such as Dismember, Bolt, and so on. If you
just have guys, then drawing three to six more doesn’t actually do all that much that a Day of Judgment can’t undo.
I don’t know what it looks like yet, but it feels like there should be a B/G or B/G/x deck that is from a Rock-ish school of deckbuilding. The discard
and removal should give you better game against the combo people, and hopefully you can beat the creature decks with your green creatures. Maybe
- 2 Solemn Simulacrum
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 2 Grave Titan
- 4 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
This may be a hostile time for Garruk, Primal Hunter, but it was also a hostile time for Jace, the Mind Sculptor when he first saw print. What Garruk
does offer is raw power never seen before in a five-drop planeswalker. As a result, he may be like Jace or Cruel Ultimatum and able to fuel an entire
series of archetypes when surrounded with enough support cards that are right for the format. He isn’t supposed to “beat” combo decks or Mono-Red. He
is supposed toÂ give you the power you need to actually take advantage of having the right cards to slow those strategies down.
I know a lot of people hate on him now, but it isn’t as if we haven’t danced this dance before. He isn’t going to be a Mind Sculptor, but he will spawn
multiple new archetypes and will prove to be the real deal (and I am not so sure Chandra can actually say the same). While I have little doubt that
Garruk will go to new heights this fall, my intuition is that we won’t have to wait that long to see him be the flagship of multiple new strategies.
What is my opinion of the new Garruk?
I think he’s the best new planeswalker in M12, at least comparable to Gideon Jura, and one of the best cards in the set!