Peace of Mind: Guildpact Mechanics, Part III

So far, we’ve taken a look at Bloodthirst and Replicate, two of the three mechanics introduced with the latest expansion, Guildpact. The last mechanic, Haunt, is the one that many analysts can’t quite seem to figure out yet. We should have known Orzhov wouldn’t make it easy on us – after all, they’re the ones in charge, not us, and if they wanted us to be able to easily figure out their secrets, they’d tell us.

So far, we’ve taken a look at Bloodthirst and Replicate, two of the three mechanics introduced with the latest expansion, Guildpact. The last mechanic, Haunt, is the one that many analysts can’t quite seem to figure out yet. We should have known Orzhov wouldn’t make it easy on us – after all, they’re the ones in charge, not us, and if they wanted us to be able to easily figure out their secrets, they’d tell us. You know the old saying, "If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you?" Yeah, that’s the Orzhov Syndicate. You think they don’t control information? There are no leaks in the Syndicate, only lures; there are no spies, only tools.

White-Black is a combination I’ve always enjoyed. Aside from the misguided-but-persistent "good versus evil" dichotomy that we innately associate with it, the colors can create interesting combinations of effects – including a lot of fun recursion, both competitive and casual. The color pair can handle nearly anything – indeed, the only thing it struggles with in today’s environment would seem initially to be a fast answer to Umezawa’s Jitte, since Terashi’s Grasp and Seed Spark are strictly worse than the Disenchant of old. Other than that, Orzhov can give any pairing a run for its money, and is uniquely positioned to be able to handle both the aggressive and controlling decks in the environment. Early removal? Check. Efficient big and small creatures? Check. Sweepers? Check. Discard, evasion? Check. Enchantment removal? Yup. Access to a powerful secondary mechanic? Yup, Dredge. White-Black’s potential was what excited me most about Guildpact coming in. Part of my rationale for saving this guild for last was because it was the deck I wanted to test the most. True enough, at the end of the article I’ll continue my deck sharing.

Before we delve into our Haunt analysis, I wanted to correct an error in math from part two of this series. When discussing Leap of Flame, I used an example of having a Hearth Kami and a Wee Dragonauts out on the second and third turns, and following that up on the fourth turn with a replicated Leap of Flame.

"…a Replicated Leap of Flame means you’re attacking with two first striking flyers with stats of 4/1 and 4/3, respectively."

Obviously, as sometimes occurs, this error slipped through the net. Presuming you targeted each creature once with the spell and its copy, though the Wee Dragonauts would indeed be 4/3, the Hearth Kami would be 3/1. Somewhere mid-sentence, my brain apparently decided to tack on another +1 to the spell. I apologize for the confusion and error. While I still don’t think the spell is exceptional, and it isn’t "my type" of card at all, I do think it has potential application in an evasive Red-Blue aggro deck, if such a thing exists.

Let’s look at that for a moment. See those two words, "potential application"? The criterion for niche cards is just that; not every card can be classified as playable in every deck. Sometimes, cards have a very narrow range of usefulness. Mimeofacture has potential application in both proactive and reactive decks; it’s pretty damn solid. Leap of Flame does not share that potential, and is inferior in terms of influence and reach. However, as I’ve commented previously, I think people often make the grave error of simply discarding cards out of hand because their effect isn’t overly powerful or applicable to multiple archetypes. The key to creative deckbuilding is to consider options for every card, and embrace the possibilities.

Some cards are so drastically inferior in effect or cost that they’re hopeless. Many others are hard to judge in terms of an entire game or match. Shock is a good card; it’s a staple. It’s cheap, reliable removal in an environment that’s full of one- and two-toughness critters, from Jushis to Lions to Elves to Guildmages. However, if you draw Shock on turn 17 of a long, drawn-out game, will it be helpful? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Does this make the card bad? Certainly not. Suboptimal? Possibly, but even advocates of Char or Volcanic Hammer can’t say for sure that any of those three burn spells is preferable to the other at that point. Any card can be useless late in the game.

Shock will be mostly useful most of the time. Leap of Flame may be somewhat useful some of the time. That’s a terribly thin and arbitrary line; it’s what makes judging card strength so difficult. In the right deck or environment, cards that were laughed at become powerhouses. I don’t normally like cards that are classified as "combat tricks"; they’re just not my type. However, the Red-Blue aggro player who’s trying to think of a way to race past Green/Red might just consider Leap of Flame as an evasive condition that allows them to win, or kill larger creatures they aren’t expected to be killing – while keeping their nimble offense alive.

A lot of potential application comes from the power-to-cost ratio. At RU, as an early tempo effect, Leap of Flame has potential. If Leap of Flame were 2RU to cast for the same effect, its potential application would disappear, because it starts competing with more versatile, useful, and threatening cards in that slot. We’re often more willing to gamble on a set of four questionable cheap cards than expensive cards; it’s easier to cut something costly that clogs your hand than something easy to cast that you got to use once or twice and actually saw some effect from. If those cards generate early/cheap power at the expense of late-game uselessness, we take a chance on them – and seriously, I bet everyone has some closet favorites in the one to three mana range that some of their friends snicker at them for using. It’s okay, gang. It happens to all of us at some point. That’s part of the joy of Magic – no matter how many analyses you read about cards, you’ll form your own opinions – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Still, it helps define your decks. It gives you character. Go, go, Ichorid.

Power-to-cost ratio is paramount when judging cards. I’m more willing to be lenient with a cheap card than I am an expensive card, because you must factor in not only what you’re getting for that mana, but also what you’re not getting. If you cast a six-mana spell, you have to consider what you could be doing if you could cast two spells with that mana, and what they might be.

With that in mind, we turn to the Orzhov guild, and their Haunt mechanic. Now, Haunt is fairly easy to understand; the difficulty lies in attempting to utilize it and judge whether or not the cards are viable in Constructed play. With that in mind, let’s begin our examination:

Haunt (10 cards)
Haunt means, "When this card is put into a graveyard from play, remove it from the game haunting target creature."

You can Haunt creatures (including tokens) that either you or your opponent control; you can even use multiple Haunt cards on the same creature. Obviously, if you choose to Haunt your own creatures, you have a larger degree of influence. If you have a method of sacrificing your own creatures, you can take advantage of the mechanic much more proactively. If you Haunt your opponent’s creatures, unless you’re running board sweepers or are willing to potentially waste removal spells simply to gain the effect of a Haunt, your influence is much less. In the former case, Haunt becomes more of a deck theme; in the latter case, Haunt becomes more of a disorganized afterthought. I find that effects you have little control over often become frustrating and inconsequential. A well-tuned deck relies on its ability to generate consistent, specific conditions that enable it to win.

Obviously, upon creation of this mechanic I’m sure there was a lot of discussion about balance. Finding the niche that makes these cards playable without making them overpowered in Standard and other formats is rough. Something as simple as a cheap/early removal spell could become quickly overpowered if you were able to cast the spell, Haunt your Sakura-Tribe Elder, and then sacrifice it to kill another one in short succession. Even if the sacrificial cards were less prolific or useful than the Elder, people would use them if the Haunt cards they were facilitating were powerful enough. Haunt started with one foot in the grave then, so to speak. The cards had to be interesting enough to use, but expensive enough not to be abused.

Did it succeed?

There are ten White or Black cards featuring Haunt. As I did last week, I’ll list the cards by casting cost and card type, except that my primary division this time is between spells and creatures. Since all of the Haunt cards have the "When X resolves or the creature it haunts is put into graveyard, Y effect occurs" caveat, I won’t feel the need to repeat that text at the start of each brief description. Be aware that the Haunt card must enter a graveyard from play; if someone forces you to discard your spell, the Haunt won’t take effect.

Here are our cards:

Instants/Sorceries (3)
B – Cry of Contrition – Discard a card.
W – Benediction of Moons – Gain 1 life for each player.
2BB – Seize the Soul – Destroy target non-White, non-Black creature. Put 1/1 flying White Spirit token into play.

Creatures (7)
1WB – Orzhov Pontiff – 1/1, Your creatures +1/+1, or their creatures -1/-1.
2B – Orzhov Euthanist – 2/2, Destroy target creature dealt damage this turn.
3W – Absolver Thrull – 2/3, Destroy target enchantment.
2WB – Blind Hunter – 2/2, Drain 2 life from opponent.
3WW – Belfry Spirit – 1/1, Put two 1/1 flying black Bat tokens into play.
4WW –Graven Dominator – 4/4, Each other creature becomes 1/1 until end of turn.
5B – Exhumer Thrull – 3/3, Return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand.

Once again, we have only ten cards, which puts it with Radiance and Replicate at the low end of available mechanics. Just like Bloodthirst and Convoke, the very nature of Haunt mandates that the casting cost of most cards is larger than we might prefer. Comes-into-play abilities are commonplace and we’re used to paying a bit more for the secondary effect. In the case of Haunt, we’re in essence generating two to three effects with each Haunt card. As such, we’re going to see some cost inflation.

When I think Black and White, I think of the following effects: discard, lifegain and drain, removal, evasion via protection or flight, enchantment control, recursion of creatures, and sacrificing permanents. True enough, most of these abilities are represented. I was initially surprised to find the majority of Haunt spells being creatures, but it makes sense and is more flavorful to imagine a creature sticking around to finish its business than being able to just cast a spell twice.

Of our three non-creature cards, Cry of Contrition is the best. Only once before can I recall a one-mana spell causing a two-card discard effect, and that’s Tendrils of Despair from Weatherlight. Tendrils wasn’t that impressive because it cost you a creature, making it a two-for-two. Cry of Contrition acts slower, but is better because it’s a one-for-two; it can just lurk around and wait for something else to die.

Again, that’s what makes Haunt difficult to judge. How useful is a discard effect you can’t control? It depends on the creature you’re haunting. You’re generally not going to be able to Haunt cards that the other person already plans on getting rid of, such as the aforementioned Sakura-Tribe Elder, since they’ll just sacrifice them in response. Cry seems to be the most useful against an aggressive deck that has threats you are able to get rid of quickly. Against control decks, by the time they drop a Meloku, if Cry isn’t backed up with other discard it’s just going to get an unwanted and not-really-missed land drop, with not much of an effect on the game.

The power of discard comes from timing, choice, and repetition. You need your effects to start early, when your opponent generally has the most resources in hand (their initial draw). If your opponent can choose a card to discard, it’s much less powerful than randomness, or your choosing the card to get rid of. You need to be able to follow up with additional discard; one card every tenth turn is about as useless as a random deck milling.

If you’re playing a focused discard deck, there are a lot of options available currently. I’m not sure if I’d play it over Blackmail, Distress, or Castigate, but it’s possible that you’d use one of those in conjunction with Cry. Just remember – if you’re focusing on discard, you’re going to be putting their cards in the graveyard, meaning there might be very few creatures in play. That means fewer Haunt targets, which means your Cry may become steadily worse as your discard strategy works.

Cry obviously isn’t a good first-turn play. It’s more of a follow-up to Ravenous Rats, which makes it a suboptimal third turn play. It can synergize passably with Abyssal Nocturnus, so in some sort of aggressive deck that cares more about the combination of effects (one card, plus a 4/4 fear creature) than what card it nets or what effect it has long-term, it might find a home. Thus, you can’t write Cry off completely. Overall, however, its influence on the majority of decks seems low, which puts it firmly in the niche category.

At least it might have a niche, though. Benediction of Moons wasn’t put in there for Constructed play – it’s a multiplayer card. Even then, the effect is minor, unless you play some seriously large multiplayer games. I suppose multiplayer decks have skill tester cards just like other formats, but seriously, if you’re out there somewhere playing with your five friends, I don’t think that the potential lifegain from this card is going to offset the fact that you’re going to be perceived as "that annoying lifegain guy" that everyone wants to pummel before you draw anything actually useful.

Felix, a star of Garfield's game

Lifegain works best when it comes attached to a 4/4 elephant or something that rhymes with "Frightening Felix". Yes, there are times when you wish you had an extra two life that could win you the game. There are also times you wish you could change a creature’s color to Red so your Paladin en-Vec could block it, but you’re not going to run Chaoslace in your Boros deck. Lifegain needs to be associated with something more. For our purposes, this is a waste of a card.

The most interesting Haunt card is Seize the Soul. My estimation of this card has vacillated. It’s severely limited, particularly in a multi-color format. That being said, it is pure removal that nets you an additional creature; it’s card advantage in the most immediate sense even before the Haunt effect is taken into account. The creature can be sacrificed to Ghost Council of Orzhova. It can fly over whatever’s stalling your Council from attacking. It can buy you another turn against non-tramplers, to find your Wrath of God. Really, anything that generates a free creature makes us happy.

The cost and the limitation are prohibitive. It’s going to be useless against all guild-colored cards except Gruul, Izzet, and Simic. It will assist against some cards in other decks, but the fact that you can’t rely on it makes it very difficult to maindeck. One prohibited color, and you can play around your opponent. Two prohibited colors, and you play around yourself, which will force you into poor decisions and scenarios.

The virtue of the card is that it doesn’t compete with cheap removal. When you’re analyzing expensive targeted removal, you examine the fat or expensive creatures it’s going to be taking out. It doesn’t necessarily matter that you can’t hit your opponent’s Savannah Lions; if you’re relying on a four-mana spell to take out a one-drop, you have much greater problems. Even people running non-targeted removal, a la Wrath of God, typically run backup targeted removal such as Mortify, Devouring Light, or Last Gasp. Smart players know not to overextend versus White. You usually don’t want to trade your Wraths for only one or two of their creatures, because you’ll fast find yourself on the receiving end of a beatdown when they simply outlast and overrun you. As a result, you always have other spot removal so that if you have to make a bad Wrath trade, you’re getting something that’s a large threat, not merely a one-mana beater.

Therefore, Seize the Soul seems best served as a Wrath of God alternative in the more expensive removal spot. It nets similar card advantage in a more roundabout and unique manner but allows you to play out more of your own creatures. This is potentially important in Orzhov decks, since Black and White have some creature effects that don’t synergize well with Wrath. Look, everything’s dead, I can’t Haunt anything! Sorry, Teysa! Sorry, Skeletal Vampire dude.

Since you’re running cheap removal in addition to Seize – indeed, you really have to in order to take advantage of Haunt – it’s not going to hinder your early defense that much. Seize is designed to handle the Rumbling Slums, Melokus, and um, you know. Other large creatures like Koku… no…Yose… no, wait. Kodam… hmmm… Hierarc… ok, screw it. There’s a lot it can’t handle. Right now, that’s bad news. It’s not that the card isn’t powerful. One Seize the Soul kills two creatures and nets you two creatures; that’s one card for a swing of four creatures? Two Seize the Souls kill four creatures and net you four. One for four. Two for eight. Those are the sort of ratios you usually chortle about when you’re throwing around Wrath of God – but in this case, you’re not losing your creatures as well. Yup, that’s powerful. That’s precisely why the card is so obscenely restrictive, though, and the powerful cards in the environment at the moment need to be taken care of, not danced around. Ever try and wish away a Kokusho? Doesn’t work.

That restriction is important – aye, it’s necessary – but makes it hard to find a deck for this to fit in currently. Obviously, as a sideboard card, it’s potentially very powerful. Izzet can’t redirect it to your creatures; and it’ll take care of the majority of Gruul attackers. In multiples, the card really shines, because of the chain reaction of creature removal and spawning. I expect it to see some play, and keep people curious from a distance. With better removal options out there for the majority of decks, I don’t see it as being optimal enough for widespread maindeck inclusion. One or two in a slow Orzhov deck is probably the most you want to go, and that’s only if you really like the card.

So far, none of our instants and sorceries stands out, despite the intrigue of Seize the Soul. Let’s examine the seven Haunt creatures now, and see if they’re any better.

Orzhov Pontiff seems to have some definite potential in an aggressive deck. For a control build, it doesn’t quite deliver high enough removal punch. While it does arguably the most effective job versus green’s mana accelerants and the tokens that said decks can generate, overall I feel there’s better options early and late. You certainly aren’t going to cast the Pontiff because of its power or toughness. Its strength is its versatility; it’s a Glorious Anthem for a turn that in a pinch can clear out annoying blockers. If you can find a way to control its effect, such as by sacrificing a creature to Ghost Council, obviously +2 or -2 makes the card far stronger. However, I question where this card fits into a deck.

Much like Seize the Soul, it seems to be designed to be a one-sided replacement for some of the global effects we’re familiar with: Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Hideous Laughter, Wrath of God. Those are cards we’re all familiar with – and in decks utilizing them, some people expect to lose some of our own creatures along the way, and some people design the decks to work around them altogether. If we’re paving the way for our attackers so that we can use the +1 effect, I would think we’d be going about it the wrong way. Wouldn’t we rather use evasion to avoid their creatures, and stronger countermeasures to destroy them? If that’s the case, then either Pontiff effect doesn’t really benefit us.

Conversely, if we’re trying to utilize very few creatures and are playing a control build, then there’s no reason not to use the stronger global effects – once again, either Pontiff effect doesn’t benefit us. The only real advantage is against token decks, or if your deck has a lot of fragile creatures with activated abilities, like a Nezumi Shortfang, that you don’t wish to kill along the way. Even then, it’s a curious strategy.

As such, I’m pretty sure it’s relegated quickly to the sideboard against, say, Glare decks and not much else – since Glare is so prevalent, however, we can’t ignore that Pontiff has a potentially ready-made spot for it in the metagame. Really, Orzhov would seem to be Glare’s worst enemy even beyond the Pontiff. It doesn’t care how many of whatever you make; it has plenty of removal effects to combat both your creatures and your enchantments.

While Pontiff at least has some application, you have to wonder about Orzhov Euthanist. While somewhat effective in Limited, his ability seems to work against the Orzhov pairing. Orzhov doesn’t do damage; it either kills creatures outright, or weakens them until they die of zero toughness. Douse in Gloom, Consume Spirit, Ribbons of Night, Swallowing Plague? These aren’t going to push ahead of Last Gasp, Mortify, or Devouring Light. He’s not at home in Orzhov, so why does he work for them? He isn’t a Dimir spy, because Dimir can’t use him any more effectively. Golgari just shrugs and reanimates something bigger and better. Orzhov Euthanist would seem much more at home elsewhere, like Black-Red. As such, he might be biding his time until Dissension comes out and the Rakdos Cult reveals its power.

The good news is that his 2/2 nature means he can trade with a number of critters just by chumping them, and you might be able to set up a Haunt for later. The bad news is, it doesn’t have to target your opponent’s creatures (also known as Bite You In the Ass potential), and he’s still a glorified Gray Ogre. So, where does he fit? He’s most useful when you have smaller creatures attacking into larger creatures. Ok, how often do we do that? If your creature is larger, he’s going to kill it anyway. If your creature is smaller, you likely won’t attack. As a bluff, sometimes, sure, but I’m pretty sure that a person with a Rumbling Slum is going to take the risk that you have some devious plan, let your Ravenous Rats through and be willing to trade five damage for one as many times as you like. The Euthanist’s window of opportunity just seems too narrow. If you want to clear out a blocker, do it before you throw a creature into its maw, y’know? Then drop something more useful for three mana.

Absolver Thrull has a more straightforward CIP ability. At the moment, the enchantment many know (and fear) the most is Glare of Subdual. Running behind it is Greater Good and anything that’s being played in Eminent Domain: Annex, Dream Leash, or Confiscate, depending on whose build you’re playing. White has no problems removing enchantments, as they have viable targeted and non-targeted removal at the moment. However, the Thrull can potentially take out two enchantments, which makes it strictly better against the control portion of Eminent Domain and may cause them to play around you, particularly if your deck is somehow built to abuse Haunt effects. Since ED builds have crept up with Pyroclasm in them lately, the Thrull’s extra point of toughness over Aven Cloudchaser might prove relevant to a point. Most importantly, however, when Wildfire is cast, the Cloudchaser just dies. The Thrull most likely grabs a permanent back along the way, which is excellent.

That being said, I don’t know whether I’d pick the Thrull over a 2/2 flyer for the majority of matchups. The extra point of toughness does you no good if you’re dying to a late Lantern Kami, and while the Cloudchaser only buys you a turn against Kamigawa dragons, at least it buys you one. I think this is simply a case of having plenty of viable options to choose for your enchantment removal. It’s a useful card; it just depends on what you want to plan against. What do you fear most? Adjust your removal accordingly. This card is just plain solid, and really the most useful Haunt card yet.

The next four mana card is Blind Hunter, which fits into the realm of usefulness in Limited, and uselessness in Standard. Ok, it’s not completely useless, but the last 2/2 flyer for four mana that I liked was Voice of All – and I’ll blame that on my peculiar soft spot for defensive cards I can tailor to my opponent. With that sort of backhanded compliment to the Voice, you can imagine how enthusiastic I am about Blind Hunter.

Face it, for four mana, 2/2 is weak. It flies and has a potential four-point life- swing with its effects. Its most common comparison is Highway Robber, which had some playability. If there’s a way to abuse lifegain effects, I’m sure someone will find it. Really, I just don’t know where it fits – it’s not big enough to be a threat on its own, and if you’re playing a strict beatdown deck, you’re paying two extra mana for your Leonin Skyhunter. That Skyhunter, by the way, would have likely swung for two already, possibly twice, making it a better deal for you than the Blind Hunter. On turn 4, you’re spending precious mana for a 2/2 flyer when you should be dropping Ghost Councils or blowing away a blocker. Blind Hunter isn’t going to stop Loxodon Hierarch from smashing your face in, either. Playing creatures? Why run Blind Hunter? Playing control, with Wrath of God? Why run Blind Hunter? Play something useful, for the love of Pete.

If Blind Hunter was three mana and 2/1, I’d be very intrigued. Ifs and fifty cents will get me a Coke at the vending machine. Still, the life-swing effect always attracts people, and I bet they’re thinking that two Blind Hunters are an eight-point swing, plus whatever he attacks for. Additionally, he’s a Bat. I don’t know if that’s going to be relevant at all, but you know people love their theme decks, and Bats are out in force with the Hunter, Belfry Spirit, and Skeletal Vampire. That doesn’t make him playable.

A pair of bat-seat drivers

Belfry Spirit seems to work well with Skeletal Vampire, sort of clunky White and Black answers to Meloku, respectively. Aside from that, I don’t quite see the benefit. Whereas the Vampire seems to have potential with its mini-Bat engine, the Spirit simply creates a few 1/1 flyers. There is some usefulness in throwing out a bunch of blockers – a veritable wall of 1/1’s can help stall dragons for a long time. I suppose with the aforementioned Pontiff, they could be 2/2 flyers, or even more with enough Haunt effects and control over your sacrifices. At some point, however, you have to question how consistent and reliable a deck basing itself on Haunt is. There’s a glass ceiling at the point where you have too many cool tricks and not enough stability and consistency. Belfry Spirit seems to be one of them.

It does create tokens, which could help in a Selesnya deck if Green-White didn’t already have plenty of token generators to choose from. Shrug. If you’re going to build a cool Bat deck involving Hunters and Spirits, all power to you. I’ve seen stranger things brought to Constructed tournaments, and in Block decks this card might be viable. This card doesn’t reduce me to tears; I’m just not a fan of it, mostly due to its cost. Five mana is too much to invest in it. I’m also not a fan of Blind Hunter. I’m throwing them in the box.

Last, we have our pair of six-mana creatures: Exhumer Thrull, and Graven Dominator.

Ah, Graven Dominator, how I yearn to be able to figure out a way to make you more useful.

When you first see the effect, you think it isn’t a bad one. When you start thinking about it, you soon realize that you’ll need more mana to be able to combo something to take advantage of it. Dominator plus Pyroclasm seems a horribly inefficient way to sweep the board; anything else and you’re paying a lot of mana to leave a 4/4 flyer on the board. The only combo trick I can immediately think of is Dominator plus Night of Souls’ Betrayal. In a control build with no creatures, that might be useful indeed, but if you use that combo, you’re paying 4WW for a 3/3 flyer when you could just pay 2WW for a Wrath of God and then drop something better and less dependent on needing another card slot dedicated to a facilitator.

You look at Haunt on this card, and it’s hard to figure out what they intended. It’s overly complex threat minimization for a color that has solid, if not always spectacular, removal. In this manner, it’s analogous to Orzhov Pontiff; it doesn’t have a spot as a beatdown creature or a control creature. It’s not going to prevent your opponent from attacking with fully powered creatures unless you find a way to kill them on your turn, in which case you’re simply paying for an expensive Serra Angel that taps when swinging.

If you had a bunch of tramplers – maybe in a Green-White O-Naginata deck, like some that have circulated the forums – you might be able to benefit from a trampling alpha strike, but that seems disingenuous at best. If you had a dedicated Orzhov deck with Pontiff, Ghost Council, and Graven Dominator, I’m sure you could play some interesting tricks – but why would you in Standard? What’s strange is that even in Limited, its effect is deceptively unwieldy. During the prerelease, I opened the Dominator and was very pleased at first – until I realized there was very little I could do with it. Since my cards were low on threats, I decided that the 4/4 flyer was worth the risk. This was a bad choice, because sometimes the effect was a detriment, such as against opposing pingers and Pyromatics. This meant the Dominator, ironically enough, sat in my hand scared and useless. Here you go, friend! Feel free to destroy my creatures when I cast the Dominator, while I frantically search for a way to make it relevant for my benefit. If you use him in Limited, be careful. Be aware of this downside, because your opponents won’t hesitate to kill your suddenly 1/1 creatures while they can. If you use him in Standard, you better have a damn good idea backing him up.

The other expensive creature is likewise disappointing. Exhumer Thrull, you’re no Ink-Eyes. Or Gravedigger. Or Death Denied. Or Soulless Revival. You’re not even Raise Dead or Zombify. You’re just too expensive. If you were four mana, you’d be nice. At six mana, however, I’m thinking that as a 3/3 you’re ostensibly no different than a 1/1 getting in the way of whatever’s attacking you. Reanimation effects are plentiful; if people don’t play with Gravedigger, they’re not going to give you the time of day. I suspect that reanimation is one of the most basic misconstrued effects in Magic. It’s powerful in certain cases, yes, but unless you’re filling your graveyard full of creatures, it’s an unreliable resource that will have no effect on the game more often than it will swing it in your favor.

In Limited, you might be able to swing a game with the Exhumer. In Standard, you always have to consider what other cards are 1) in that slot, and 2) being played by everyone else. On turn six, your opponent drops Kokusho. You drop Exhumer Thrull, and bring back what? Perhaps you bring back something that’s going to block Kokusho for a turn in the air, but it’s not remotely close to the same power level or appropriateness of either threat or answer. You drop Exhumer Thrull, and Ink-Eyes beats him down, regenerates if you block with two critters, and takes something from your graveyard that died the last time it tried to be useful. Skeletal Vampire’s a better play at six mana than the Exhumer, not only regenerating itself but also feeding its own effects. Why recur if you don’t die in the first place, eh?

Just like the Euthanist, when the Rakdos Cult arrives, the Exhumer might find more use since both Red and Black have a history of sacrificing their creatures to harm the opponent. That’s a rather huge might, and it still has to beat out more efficient cards, but I can at least roll – I mean close – my eyes and say it’s a possibility that some odd and powerful combo might take place. Still, please, don’t play with this card. If you’re that desperate to get your creatures back, find another way.

Now that we’ve analyzed all of the cards, let’s see how they rank:

Not bad at all (1)
Absolver Thrull – 3W – 2/3, Destroy target enchantment.

Has a niche somewhere (3)
Cry of Contrition – B – Target player discards a card.
Orzhov Pontiff – 1WB – 1/1, Your creatures +1/+1, or their creatures -1/-1.
Seize the Soul – 2BB – Destroy target non-White, non-Black creature. Put 1/1 flying white Spirit token into play.

Put me in a box and label it "No" (4)
Blind Hunter – 2BW – 2/2, Drain 2 life from opponent.
Orzhov Euthanist – 2B – 2/2, Destroy target creature dealt damage this turn.
Belfry Spirit – 3WW – 1/1, Put two 1/1 flying black Bat tokens into play.
Graven Dominator – 4WW – 4/4, Each other creature becomes 1/1 until end of turn.

I’m crying IRL (2)
Exhumer Thrull – 5B – 3/3, Return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand.
Benediction of Moons – W – Gain 1 life for each player.

40% approval rating – four out of ten ranked above "No" – is barely acceptable. However, there are caveats. One, cards such as Euthanist may be much more powerful in a future guild pairing. Two, some people rave about Haunt and may completely surprise us with their functionality despite their seeming inherent unreliability. Finally, many of the cards I dislike are vastly more powerful in non-Standard formats. There are some powerful effects to be had, but they’re going to be hard to break, if that’s possible. It’s not surprising that the mechanic we can’t put a finger on winds up being rated slightly below average. I’m not necessarily disappointed in it, since obviously every mechanic isn’t going to be viable across every format. I wish they were, but that’s unreasonable. Something that’s useful in other formats and not Standard is much better for the game than something not useful in any.

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at how well the White and Black cards currently available in Standard facilitate a proactive Haunt strategy – that is, one in which you have a large degree of control over the death of your own creatures. Since sacrifice is the normal way of achieving this, I simply searched for "sacrifice" in Gatherer and came up with this short list of cards. It therefore doesn’t include effects like Wrath of God.

Bile Urchin
Call for Blood
Deathknell Kami
Devouring Greed
Dimir House Guard
Divebomber Griffin
Drooling Groodion
Exile into Darkness
Ghost Council of Orzhova
Golgari Rotwurm
Grave-Shell Scarab
He Who Hungers
Hell’s Caretaker
Kagemaro, First to Suffer
Kami of Ancient Law
Kami of False Hope
Martyred Rusalka
Moonlit Strider
Nantuko Husk
Nezumi Bone-Reader
Nezumi Shadow-Watcher
Plagued Rusalka
Pus Kami
Sanctum Guardian
Sanguine Praetor
Scuttling Death
Shambling Shell
Skeletal Vampire
Thoughtpicker Witch
Vindictive Mob

There are some stinkers in that list, but also some very solid cards that we’ve seen in a variety of decks. I included some non-Orzhov cards, because not every Haunt card is both White and Black, despite it being the guild’s mechanic. I didn’t look at Green or Blue cards, since I suspect Haunt will play a very minor role in Golgari or Dimir-oriented builds.

Since there are decent cards available to slot into Haunt-based decks, we’ll have to wait and see if the mechanic demonstrates any genuine power in Standard. At this point, I’m inclined to say that it will not. Indeed, I don’t think it was really made for Standard. Allow me to explain.

Think you’ll see the movie Nanny McPhee? I won’t. Sometimes, you see a movie preview and you think to yourself, "There’s no way I’m going to that, ever." It’s not that it’s necessarily a bad movie – it’s that it’s not targeted at me. It’s a children’s movie, and as such has very limited appeal – to that audience. Children deserve entertainment too; all power to them. I’ll just choose not to see it. I’m sure my girlfriend feels the same way about stuff like Miracle or Glory Road: She isn’t the person they’re trying to attract.

That’s how I feel about Haunt. I feel it’s a fun mechanic for multiplayer and casual games, and Limited environments. It’s the sports flick, or the chick flick, or the children’s movie that I don’t have any inclination to see – but for certain people, it’s going to be very entertaining. It ups the quotient of Things to Consider, and the effects are in flavor and fitting. You will have to play around them, and consider their effect on the game, much more than you would a mechanic like Radiance or Transmute. It’s just not my style of mechanic, and as such I’m ambivalent about it. I wish it’d been better, but it isn’t. I’m less disappointed in Haunt than Bloodthirst, because I can see more application of the "bad" Haunt cards in other formats than I can the lesser Bloodthirst cards. As such, I can’t fault the design like I have Radiance, which I’m sure I’ll always shake my head about. I’ll just chalk Haunt up as being "not intended for Standard play."

Something that is intended for Standard play is my Orzhov deck. While other people have been busy working on tricky bleeder variants, I decided to start from a very straightforward base of attack: Discard and removal. Without further ado, here’s the deck:

What’s the key to discard again? Timing, choice, and repetition. Now, it’s very rare for a card to be able to attain all three. If it possesses two of the qualities, it’s usually considered very good. Castigate gives you choice and timing. Nezumi Shortfang gives you timing and repetition, before it flips. These two are excellent cards. Ravenous Rats and Shrieking Grotesque are simply timing, but come attached to a creature.

Castigate is subtly more powerful than it seems. Sure, it’s just a dual-colored Distress, but it comes with free graveyard hate. This card is the anti-Dredge, and seems easier to cast than Distress – maybe I just have sketchy manabases, but I always seem to have an easier time getting one of each color on the second turn than two of one. There’s always a bit of demoralization for people who see a card disappear from their hand. The timing and choice elements are key here, however; it’s an early play that allows you to see what your opponent is packing. I like knowing what my opponent is holding.

There are ten cards you can play on the second turn to start the discard rolling, and fourteen discard cards overall. Obviously, Ravenous Rats and Nezumi Shortfang need no introduction. I’ve done a significant amount of damage with Stabwhisker the Odious, whose 3/3 body is often harder to get rid of than you might think. The Rack effect adds up. When Stabwhisker is active, he’s a danger. If you’ve been playing out your hand against discard, you’re in trouble – if you can’t kill him, the only way to stop the rat clock is to stop casting spells, in which case they’ll probably just get discarded anyway.

I had some difficulty deciding on the proper amount of Rats and Shortfangs in this deck, and opted for a 2/4 split instead of 3/3 so that I had a better chance of flipping to Stabwhisker and still maintaining consistent discard control. Between the Rats and Grotesque, we have six discard creatures. I find Grotesque superior to Hypnotic Specter because it guarantees its effect. The Grotesque is easier to cast, and is great against decks packing bounce as creature stall.

Since Shortfang takes some time to become active, it’s key to be able to put pressure on with your other discard cards. Rats and Grotesque do that. Generally, I see a lot of this happen: Summon Hypnotic Specter, see it die. It’s a shame if you’re running four discard cards that never cause your opponent to discard. Since many decks are running countermeasures versus Leonin Skyhunters and other white weenies, I expect them fully to be able to handle the Specter. I’m taking the sure thing with the Grotesque over the more powerful possibility inherent in the Specter. This may change at some point, but it has worked well, including late in the game when you’re able to force an extra discard.

Order of the Stars is one of my pet cards, because it’s a strong defensive measure. Aside from keeping counters off Jittes, in this multicolored world it survives against a lot of removal. It doesn’t trade; it just absorbs. As I alluded earlier, White-Black has some trouble with early Jittes. The Order helps guard against them until you can get something else online. A lot of people laugh at defensive cards, but Order of the Stars is simply a pain in the ass to play against. It drastically changes combat by negating your strongest creature and whatever the Jitte is on. Remember my comments previously about valuing trample in Gruul decks? This is why. Best of all, it’s cheap. It has very little impact on your ability to generate discard or threats; it’s simply a one-drop answer.

Speaking of threats, the meat of the deck is the Ghost Council and Kokusho. While sometimes you win with Grotesque beatdown – no, seriously – your ability to have resilient creatures and sacrifice-the-dragon on command is typically your finisher. Ghost Council needs no introduction. It trades with any number of ground creatures, and usually survives – there are enough creatures to keep it alive throughout the game. I considered dropping Castigate for more Rats to aid with the Council, but so far haven’t had problems with the current setup that warrant a tweak. Ghost Council’s just a great card. Kokusho likewise is famous for his ability to swing games. If he connects once and you have the Ghost Council out, you’re essentially able to hit for 11 by the end of your turn.

Your removal is straightforward – Mortify and Last Gasp. There isn’t any great need to discuss the reasons behind these. You want to be resilient against early beatdown? Here you go. Last Gasp is also a Jushi-killer. Making them choose between protecting Jushi or guarding against discard is often important. Faith’s Fetters was a late addition as additional defense. It’s Jitte and Glare backup, it stops Vitu-Ghazi, it holds legends at bay, and it comes with four free points of life. Remember, we like lifegain when it comes attached to something useful.

There are a lot of lockdown elements in this deck. Discard, Order, Fetters, targeted removal, and plenty of creatures make it a challenge to play against.

The land base is straightforward. I skew a bit towards Black in order to ensure I can pay for the Shortfang. The Church of Deals is surprisingly useful; it has won games despite its high activation cost, and usually steals a few points of life in any matchup.

I don’t always create sideboards, but part of my testing for this involved running the gamut against champion decks. The Sacred Grounds were pivotal against Eminent Domain, and rarely had difficulty getting through their light counterbase. The permanent theft in ED is amazingly strong, but it’s Wildfire that is the backbreaker that makes it difficult for you to recover. Sacred Ground shuts that off; all you have to do is substitute out Order of the Stars.

Against Glare, or beatdown decks that are simply going to overpower me, Wrath of God comes in. That’s another reason I like Grotesque; I don’t really care if it dies. It provides two points of flying beats more often than you’d think, but if it dies, c’est la vie. I’m just biding time. That’s what the Orzhov do, after all. Wait, and outlast.

The other sideboard cards are a collection of miscellany. Devouring Light to help against recursive creatures. Nightmare Void as additional hate versus blue. Fetters and Grasp are for if you feel you need additional artifact control.

I considered more than a few cards in this deck. The three that I had the hardest time excluding were Hypnotic Specter, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, and Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni. I’d love to fit them in there, and they still might sneak in. Specter, as I said, just kept dying too much before he had any effect, which made the discard strategy struggle. The ninjas both are strong cards, but this isn’t a beatdown deck that’s going to pound attackers through. As I said, it waits. It steals points here and there. It’s resilient enough to last, until your opponent realizes they’re holding the short straw. They look at their life totals and wonder how they died, until they see six points of Stabwhisker damage, two points from the Church of Deals, two from the Ghost Council, and ten via Kokusho.

Other pure discard cards (Distress, Blackmail) were pondered. In the end, I stuck with the Rats and Order. If you have too much discard, and no creature defense, you’ll just roll over and die. Trying to find the right balance is key. I have fourteen discard possibilities, ten of which will always net a card. Castigate may eventually turn into another card – possibly the Specter from above. We’ll wait and see.

I’ll be playing more with this deck, as it’s my favorite new deck at this point. As always, suggestions and comments are welcome, and I appreciate the weekly letters of support. Take care.

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