Not Quite Black and White: Two Takes on Orzhov for Standard

I’ve been rather surprised with the flexibility and diversity of the Ravnica guilds in Standard. Each with their own individual mechanic, you would think that would pigeonhole them into specific roles, e.g. beatdown, control, etc. Not so. Case in point: the Orzhov. You would think putting together an Orzhov deck would be as simple as black and white, but in reality, there’s several shades of gray.

I’ve been rather surprised with the flexibility and diversity of the Ravnica guilds in Standard. Each with their own individual mechanic, you would think that would pigeonhole them into specific roles, e.g. beatdown, control, etc. Not so. With a little help from Ninth Edition and Kamigawa block, you can play both beatdown and control with the same core guild cards. Case in point: the Orzhov. You would think putting together an Orzhov deck would be as simple as black and white, but in reality, there’s several shades of gray.

Oh, the puns. I slay myself.

The Orzhov do have a pretty good discard/beatdown base, so let’s start there. Now, I respect Sean McKeown work a great deal, but I’m pretty sure there must have been a typo in has last article highlighting the early decks for PTQ: Honolulu, specifically, his B/W Aggro-discard deck. I mean, how do you have an aggressive B/x deck without Bob? What about Bob?

So what came out for Bob? It was either Ravenous Rats or, in my humble opinion, the overrated Nezumi Shortfang. The Rats at least snag you a card. Shortfangs require mana every turn, and you can’t swing with them if that’s what you want to do.

However, Ravenous Rats are never going to be mistaken for an offensive threat, and Shortfangs do present problems for the many control decks in the environment. Much as I like the Ravenous Rats and dislike the Shortfangs, the Rack-on-a-stick stays.

I don’t think I’ll miss the Rats that much, as the deck already has twenty discard effects and didn’t need four more. Cry of Contrition can be a two-for-one Blackmail under the right circumstances, Castigate is brutal, especially against decks packing reanimation strategies (that means you, Gifts), and then you have the gruesome twosome of Shrieking Grotesque and Hypnotic Specter.

Heck, I think Shrieking Grotesque is better than Hypnotic Specter. At least, in this build it is.

Once you pick your jaws off the table and before you dash off those flames to the forums, let me explain my reasoning:

Shrieking Grotesque will always net you plus-one card. It may be a crappy card, but it has a come-into-play guarantee that he’s going to nip something from your opponent’s hand. The Hyppie, on the other hand, needs a turn and a clear path.

Hypnotic Specter comes into play with a ginormous bullseye on him. A turn 3 Hyppie will draw out whatever burn/counter your opponent has available. That may or may not necessarily be a bad thing, if you want the card to read: “When Hypnotic Specter comes into play, opponent discards best counter or spot removal spell. Sacrifice Hypnotic Specter.”

However, once the Grotesque comes into play, he’s done his duty and is free to swing for two, four, six plus points until your opponent gets weary…or wary…of it. Compare the Hyppie in this build to BUG Aggro decks that can power it out on turn 2 and protect it with Remand or Mana Leak on turn 3; it’s a bit more powerful/useful in that build.

Mind you, Hypnotic Specter is an awesome creature that will usually win you the game with one or two hits. But how often does he get to do that before he gets hit with Pyroclasm, or Electrolyze, or Shock, or Boomerang, or…

You get the picture. That doesn’t mean I’m not playing the Specter, I obviously am. Just don’t underestimate the power of Shrieking Grotesque.

When everything clicks, this deck will have your opponent playing The Topdeck Game in short order. Turn 1 Cry of Contrition, turn 2 Castigate, turn 3 Grotesque, and, hey, you’re pretty much out of cards. Kind of hard to win that way. And look, I’ve got a Jitte. Thank you, drive through.

You get nibbled to death by the discard, hence the quasi-catchy name. Of course, it’ll just be B/W Aggro to everyone else. One of these days I’ll get a catchy name to stick… one of these days.

I’m not sold on Sean’s tech of Descendant of Kiyomaro in the sideboard to slow down the fatty beats, but it can swing back, unlike Souls of the Faultless. Pithing Needle is a definite four-of, as is Last Gasp for other weenie-oriented decks. I toyed with Conjurer’s Ban, and kept coming up with these situations against my arch-nemesis, the U/R deck:

I play Conjurer’s Ban, naming Mana Leak. Opponent plays Remand.
I play Conjurer’s Ban, naming Pyroclasm. Opponent plays Electrolyze.
I play Conjurer’s Ban, naming Blaze. Opponent plays Invoke the Firemind.

To quote “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Just when you think you know all the answers, they go and change the questions.” Simply put, Abeyance this ain’t. So, Cranial Extraction is the choice du jour, as it will eliminate any topdecks of card X, no muss, no fuss.

The major problem with this deck is its vulnerability to burn and global removal spells, as, outside of Ghost Council of Orzhova or a having a Jitte’ed up critter handy, your entire team dies to Pyroclasm, and Electrolyze is no damn fun either. That said, it’s pretty darn good. I’d like to find a way to fit the potential 8-point life swing of Blind Hunter in this deck, but what would you take out? In an aggro deck, a 4/4 for four mana trumps a 2/2.

Then there’s my B/W deck at the other end of the spectrum, a much more expensive concoction on multiple levels:

Comparing these two B/W decks is a bit like comparing a puncher and a fighter, or, better yet, two styles of baseball. The first is your prototypical National League team, scrabbling to get men on base, steal bases, and scratch out runs where it can, whereas the latter is akin to those 90s New York Yankee mashers that want to set themselves up for the long ball. Play some lands, strip some cards, kill a few creatures, then set yourself up for the murderer’s row of Yosei, Kokusho and, hitting cleanup and batting .369 with 47 home runs, Angel of Despair.

Oh, come on. It’s expensive, overloaded, and evil. And wins…a lot. What else could it be but the Yankees?

This deck has had an interesting evolution. It started out as an attempt to abuse Debtor’s Knell, but I figured out pretty early in the process that while a recursive 5/5 Dragon is pretty impressive, the damn beastie ought to be able to kill my opponent outright, and we don’t need to futz with a seven-mana enchantment that does not say “you win.”

Out went the Knells, in came more removal. Better, but it still didn’t quite click. Too often I’d get a hand full of pricey monsters and no removal, or tons of removal and be begging for a creature to throw out. I needed something to bridge the gap between the cheap removal/discard and the expensive heart of my lineup. Enter Derek Jeter… er, that is, Ghost Council of Orzhova, and, much like the beloved/behated captain of the Bronx Bombers, it’s the glue that holds the deck together. With signet acceleration, it can come out as early as turn 3, and it can not only hold the fort with a fat behind against aggro-creature decks, but also press the offense (or suck out a counter) against slower control decks.

Ghost Council also provides an additional sacrifice outlet for Kokusho and Yosei, gets the bonus from Eiganjo Castle and Shizo, Death’s Storehouse… and the come into play effect shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Speaking of Signets, I run a full set, along with two of the bounce lands. I’ve had arguments over whether twenty-four lands, four signets were better than twenty-three lands and four signets, but I prefer the full set. They provide critical mana smoothing and acceleration, which is necessary in a deck that depends upon double Black and double White on a regular basis. While a turn 3 Ghost Council is damn good, a turn 5 legendary Dragon is scary good.

If I change one thing, I might remove the singleton of Orzhova, the Church of Deals, as too often it gets in the way of that key turn 2 Castigate. Given my dependence on double mana costs, and since I definitely don’t want to lose Miren, the Moaning Well, Orzhova might just be pushing the envelope a little too much.

It took me a long time to fine-tune the amount of removal and discard I needed. I finally settled on the current configuration that offers six instant-speed kill cards and four Faith’s Fetters.

Yes, I’m aware that Faith’s Fetters isn’t a “removal” spell per se, and probably belongs more under the “utility” designation. It was originally Wrath of God, but the deck already performed very well against other creature based decks. Wrath of God was just overkill against those decks and not that good against dedicated control. Then I sampled Kagemaro, First to Suffer, and while “Wrath on a stick” is great, there were too many situations where I’d have a 2/2 that really wasn’t all that scary.

Faith’s Fetters, on the other hand, has proven to be worth it for versatility, locking down Jittes and Melokus, and the four life isn’t bad either. It’s the Mariano Rivera of the deck, shutting down the heavy hitters of your opponent’s deck.

With this much removal, creature-based decks (that means you, Gruul Clan) have a hard time punching through enough damage before I drop either Sheffield, Matsui or Rodriguez…that is, Kokusho, Yosei, and Angel of Despair, and we all know how good they are.

Maybe Angel of Despair is more of a Vladamir Guerrero than A-Rod. Discuss amongst yourselves. I’ve already stretched this analogy far beyond the breaking point as it is.

Castigate, as has been established, is the bees’ knees and all that, and is my favorite turn 2 play. Since I had a few slots left, I added the more aggro-centric Shrieking Grotesque. I’ve already sung his praises in a beatdown, but in a control deck, it serves as Ghost Council fodder and chump blocker. I tried both Blackmail and Cry of Contrition to bolster the discard and found them wanting, and we’ve already discussed the downside of Hyppies.

I’m still not quite sold on the Grotesque, though. If the metagame shifts towards control, then this might be a perfect home for Nezumi Shortfang (yes, after dissing the Shortfang, I’m considering running them – do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes…although lately, it would appear I contain multiple six packs of Mirror Pond Pale Ale, sadly).

Finally, the last few slots went for extra card drawing in Phyrexian Arena. Why only three? For one, no one likes being Arena-glutted, and when your life total is at single digits against aggro decks (lo, their numbers are legion), dropping an Arena is dangerous. Three feels right to me.

The sideboard has evolved considerably. I did have Order of the Stars to further flummox the likes of R/G, but with all the removal already at my fingertips, what do I need a perma-blocker for? I can at least send the Ghost Council on offense. What we have there now are answers for most anything the field can throw at me. More discard for dedicated control decks (Persecute, Cranial Extraction), more removal (Last Gasp, Eradicate), pinpoint shutdown (Pithing Needle), Sacred Ground for the Wildfire-based decks and the occasional Ponza variant, and an extra Arena if I need it against control. Sacred Ground might yield to Shadow of Doubt if the metagame calls for it.

So how’s it play? Against most anything that depends on turning creatures sideways, the Magic 8-Ball likes your chances, although the B/W aggro-discard deck will shred this version easily, and BUG Aggro, if they get the discard engine going, is no day at the picnic either. Against both Gifts and Ghazi-Glare, the deck has the tools, especially after sideboarding, to neuter those two. The toughest matchups, I’ve found, are dedicated Blue-based control decks, and old school Eminent Domain gives me fits. Get your own damn lands, I said, and stay off my lawn!

That said, if you happen to have all of these expensive cards (or want to drop a few C-notes on my kind employers here), you’ve got a pretty good swing-for-the-fences aggro-control deck here. And these are just two – two! – different builds of B/W, not counting the combinations of B/W/G, B/U/W, et cetera, et cetera. There are other directions you can go with straight B/W, but these two I think are the strongest.

So what are you waiting for? Get trading, Steinbrenner!