Innistrad Standard never ceases to amaze me. In two full months no new cards have come or gone, and yet the format continues to be vastly different from one week to the next. Today, I’d like to focus on one of Standard’s forgotten cards, Pristine Talisman, and why the stage is set for it to add one more powerful archetype to the metagameâ€”right in time for the first PTQs.
Why Pristine Talisman Can Be Good
Life gain is extremely powerful, though many players don’t give it the respect it deserves. Lava Spike is a playable card in Constructed, and Lava Axe is a playable card in Limited. Why would Life Spike (one mana to gain three life) and Life Axe (five mana to gain five life) not be equally playable? The secret is that Lava Axe and Life Axe are equally powerful, and they are equally playable when the right circumstances arise.
If your opponent is trying to win by attacking your life total directly with no care for board position or other resources, then Life Axe is exactly as good as Lava Axe and you should seriously consider sideboarding it in. Unfortunately, this situation is extreme and uncommon; even against an opponent playing mono-red aggro, your Life Spikes will be awful if you can’t stop Jackal Pup from hitting you turn after turn. Whenever you’re jockeying for board position, you should consider a card that does nothing but gain life to be card disadvantage. That’s why Angel’s Mercy is unplayable, even though it’s substantially more powerful than Lava Axe in a raw sense.
Cards that do nothing but gain life are generally unplayable, but life gain is invaluable when the game plays out in a certain way. Pristine Talisman is an example of a great life gain card for two reasons. First, it has a very useful effect aside from gaining life; even with a Leyline of Punishment in play, it’s no worse than a land! Second, it’s at its best when the game plays out in that “certain way” that makes life gain useful.
In Standard, even the aggro decks can play long games. They expect you to answer their initial rush, but they keep coming back with tokens from Lingering Souls and Moorland Haunt, or with undying and haste creatures. The red and black aggro decks just look to get in whatever initial damage they can, and then burn you out at their leisure.
What It Takes to Make Sure Pristine Talisman is Good
Board control always comes before life gain. You can gain five or ten or a hundred life, but if permanent sources of damageâ€”creaturesâ€”go unanswered, your opponent can undo your work at no cost to them. Life gain is at its best when you gain control of the board at a low life total, because in such a case, your opponent’s best way to win is to burn you out.
I use the term “burn out” generally, to describe an aggro deck’s reach in any form. It can be as simple as an Incinerate to the dome, but in today’s Standard there are plenty of equally common ways to be “burned out.” Sometimes a Moorland Haunt allows Spirits to chip away at you before you can answer them at sorcery speed. Sometimes a Geralf’s Messenger fires at you through a Mortarpod, and sometimes a Geist of Saint Traft suicide attacks because his Angel token is just enough to finish the job. None of these plays are relevant if you can pull yourself out of reach once the game is under control.
Pristine Talisman is the perfect card for a control deck because it’s primarily a mana source that simply provides incidental life gain. The mana cost of three can sometimes be less convenient than simply playing a land from your hand. However, at no point are you down a card, and if the life gain allows you to live and untap for even one additional turn, the mana you invested will be repaid with interest.
Pristine Talisman is good in a deck that aims for the game to go long, and can gain at least loose control over the board. Standard control decks fit that description perfectly. In long games, you can take full advantage of flashback spells, graveyard synergies, and lands with activated abilities. They pack sweepers and removal to survive the early turns, but in the absence of life gain they can struggle to officially lock an opponent out of the game.
The extra mana from the Talisman is a welcome addition to these late game decks. Wanting access to twenty-seven or more mana sources means that you can still play enough lands to be sure to reach three on turn 3, which makes the Talisman as reliable as the land it might be replacing. With so many Mana Leaks flying around in aggressive and controlling decks alike, you can never truly have too much mana, and the Talisman brings you one step closer to playing your threats through a Leak or two. Finally, late game decks inevitably pack expensive spells, and those draws where it accelerates you into a Jace, Memory Adept or a Consecrated Sphinx can lead to easy wins.
Naturally, the life gain side of the Talisman encourages you to play a long game as well, as you continue reaping life per turn indefinitely. The tricky part is ensuring that the game goes long, and that you can achieve the board control necessary to take full advantage.
Pristine Talisman and board sweepers work together beautifully. The Talisman can’t save you from a five-creature army, but it can halve the clock of somebody pinging away at you for two. It forces the opponent to overextend, making your sweepers dramatically more powerful.
In Standard, Moorland Haunt and Lingering Souls are the natural enemies of board sweepers. Conveniently, Pristine Talisman is the natural enemy of Moorland Haunt and Lingering Souls. Gaining one life every turn of the game gives a terrible headache to anyone trying to grind you out with a pair of tokens at a time.
Along with board sweepers, Ancient Grudge is the final piece of support necessary to make Pristine Talisman a powerhouse in Standard. Those pesky Spirit tokens, which I keep mentioning, cannot beat the Talisman. It reduces them to little more than ineffectual bodies, but bodies that can still hold a Sword or a Runechanter’s Pike. Those equipments pose a big problem to the Pristine Talisman player, as it turns their anemic beatdown into true reach, capable of taking away large chunks of life at a time and outracing the Talisman.
Ancient Grudge, however, completely takes the rug out from underneath that plan. While a somewhat narrow card, no one can deny the Grudge’s power and efficiency. Simply drawing one copy in the course of a long game means the opponent will need to draw and cast three artifacts before any of them can impact the game!
Grixis Control offers Ancient Grudge, plenty of sweepers, and the strong late game necessary to take full advantage of Pristine Talisman. When all of the pieces come together, it can completely neutralize every angle of attack that U/W Delver can present.
Grixis Control is the best home for Pristine Talisman, and that is one of its largest appeals, as Pristine Talisman is perfect in the Standard metagame full of aggro decks with lots of reach. Compared to U/B Control, Grixis has life gain to pull itself out of range and close games more easily against Delver, Zombies, and red-based aggro. The Talisman makes Lingering Souls and Vampire tokens less of an annoyance out of Esper Control, and it gives Grixis the highest mana count of any control deck, which is huge for any Mana Leak mirror match.
One could make an argument for sticking with the more traditional U/B Drownyard or Esper Control shells and simply inserting Pristine Talismans. However, the Ancient Grudges, high sweeper count, and high concentration of bomb finishers make Grixis best suited for the job. More importantly, while I’ve premised Grixis as a “Pristine Talisman deck,” that’s only one of its many appeals.
Above are links to two older articles which give an overview of Grixis Control and its strengths compared to the alternatives available. However, I’d like to emphasize why Grixis is an excellent choice for today’s Standard.
As Grixis has a terrific matchup against Delver, which remains Standard’s most popular and successful deck, the sole reason why it hasn’t been putting up results lately is its poor matchup against U/B Drownyard Control. However, U/B is on the decline after being dethroned as the top control deck by Esper and being preyed upon by Delver players packing Celestial Purges, Jaces, and Batterskulls.
With fewer control decks to worry about, Grixis is in a better place. What’s more, it’s quite well equipped to beat Esper. It has more mana sources and more flashback cantrips, which give it an edge as the game goes long and provides greater assurance of hitting land drops. Pristine Talisman, in combination with sweepers, Curse of Death’s Hold, and Ratchet Bomb also takes Esper’s token aggression out of the picture, which is typically an important tool for them in control mirrors.
Grixis is the best control deck against aggro as well. Not only does it pack more life gain, more sweepers, and more finishers, but it has the most powerful and efficient card selection to find them in a timely manner. Faithless Looting is the card you want to see in your opening hand against R/G Aggro, as it’s a deck that really pressures you to have the right answer at the right time. Surviving the early turns and plopping down a Consecrated Sphinx is a recipe for easy wins in that kind of matchup, and it’s what Grixis is best at.
Finally, I have to emphasize again the power of having just two copies of Ancient Grudge in your seventy-five. Many of Standard’s aggro decks basically consist of a bunch of pathetic creatures with Birthing Pods or Swords to make them good. When you force your opponent to play a fair game with you in the absence of those artifacts, you’ll find life is dramatically easier.
If Nephalia Drownyard continues to see less and less play, Grixis will be the perfect choice for anyone interested in control. Pristine Talisman and Ancient Grudge are both incredible tools that fit the deck perfectly, and are poised to take the format by storm.