Spirit Of The Labyrinth

Join two-time SCG Legacy Open finalist Drew Levin as he takes a look at Magic’s newest hate bear and writes about the impact he thinks it might have on the Legacy format.

My apologies for not having Dredge videos this week. I was going to record them—honest, I was—but then I saw Spirit of the Labyrinth and couldn’t not write about it.

Spirit of the Labyrinth is the newest addition to a long lineage of cards that people refer to as "hate bears." I believe this name came about in the era of Invasion two-color 2/2s like Yavimaya Barbarian, but I’m very ready to be wrong about the etymology. The point is that being a hate bear nowadays means that having an anti-control or anti-combo ability, costing two mana, attacking for two, and probably being at least a little white. Notable hate bears include Ethersworn Canonist; Gaddock Teeg; Qasali Pridemage; Scavenging Ooze; Phyrexian Revoker; and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

In recent years the quality of hate bears has really gone up, which has heralded the rise of W/x and G/W/x midrange decks that feature many of these annoying two-drops in conjunction with other cards designed to create headaches and generally inhibit popular styles of play.

So what does this card do?

The obvious headline is that it’s the hate bear that actually shuts off Brainstorm. You cannot cast Brainstorm against Spirit of the Labyrinth, that’s for darn sure. If you don’t have an answer to Spirit in your hand, you’re going to have to wait for it to show up at the beginning of your turn just like everyone else.

Diving a little bit deeper, it’s effectively a Meddling Mage for Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain, Gitaxian Probe, and Ancestral Vision. It closes off a lot of playable cards. So how does it interact with various spells?

If they cast Brainstorm into a Spirit of the Labyrinth and it’s your turn, they’ll draw one card and put two on top of their library. If they main phase Brainstorm into Spirit, they’ll just put two cards back. If they Ponder into Spirit, they get a Portent that never draws a card. Gitaxian Probe becomes a one-shot Telepathy. You get it.

It’s also a sort of a Phyrexian Revoker on Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s 0 ability. It shuts off Sylvan Library. It makes an opposing Sensei’s Divining Top card disadvantageous if they flip it on their turn. It turns Griselbrand into "just" a 7/7 lifelink flier. If they want to draw more cards, Spirit of the Labyrinth shuts them down.

A notable difference between Spirit of the Labyrinth and many other hate bears is its third point of power. In a world where hate-bear decks are constantly racing control and combo decks’ capacity to get out of their nuisance locks and exploit their powerful cards, attacking for three is a big deal. Three power also lines up well against a thresholded Nimble Mongoose, a card that has historically been a roadblock for many white aggressive decks. It’s a bit less germane now that we live in True-Name Nemesis’s world, but still attacking for three is no joke.

"Okay," you’re saying, "enough about the words and numbers on the card. How playable is this?"

The first real test is how well this stacks up against Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. After all, this card isn’t taking Stoneforge Mystic’s job, and people who want Serra Avenger are in the market for something that doesn’t get blocked by True-Name Nemesis. It may be possible to show up with twelve 1W ground-pounding creatures—we’ll explore that below—but if you had to choose between Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Spirit of the Labyrinth, which would you pick?

Against Show and Tell, Thalia is the clear winner. Being able to attack Show and Tell as well as Sneak Attack is a big deal since the clear build around for Thalia is a mana-denial suite of Rishadan Ports and Wastelands. Spirit of the Labyrinth attacks the cantrip suite, as mentioned before, but it doesn’t do nearly as much against an opponent who can win through it.

Against Storm, Spirit of the Labyrinth competes on a very different axis from Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Both cards can eventually be beaten despite their game text—Thalia by stockpiling rituals and on-board artifact mana, Spirit by assembling a hand that has sufficient mana and a tutor to find and cast Past in Flames or Ad Nauseam.

Unlike Thalia, however, Spirit doesn’t let people sculpt their hand. If they have a bunch of cantrips or draw a bunch of cantrips, they’re out of luck—those things are useless. They can’t cycle and can’t find an answer, so they just . . . sit there. Against Thalia, they can cast a two-mana Brainstorm, a two-mana Ponder, a one-mana-and-two-life Gitaxian Probe and might be able to find their combo before they die. Against Spirit of the Labyrinth, they’ve just got to sit tight and take their three-point beatings. As a last minor point, Storm decks have taken to playing Karakas to bounce Gaddock Teeg and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Spirit of the Labyrinth isn’t nearly so legendary, so they can enjoy their nonbasic Plains and you can enjoy attacking them for three.

Against tempo decks, Thalia is better when they have a removal spell and worse when they don’t. So much of the power of tempo decks comes from the ability to play multiple spells in a turn due to an incredibly low curve, and Thalia just wrecks that.

Even when you kill Thalia, that’s often your entire turn, which gives your opponent a window to resolve another card that you have to spend your next turn dealing with. Eventually, your opponent is able to leverage their deck’s superior power level and beat you because Thalia both bought them the time they needed to play a significant threat and ate the removal spell you had to deal with that threat.

With Spirit of the Labyrinth, if you don’t have the removal spell, your card selection is going nowhere. Without Brainstorm and Ponder, it gets harder to both find lands and deflood yourself. Cantrips’ role in reducing variance is vitally important to tempo decks, and Spirit of the Labyrinth can lock someone into a ponderous start without a good way to storm out of the gates.

Against Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks, Spirit of the Labyrinth is better than Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Thalia can work to prevent Jace from hitting play, but if the game gets to the point where the control player’s mana is established enough to cast Jace, Thalia is a very weak card. Spirit of the Labyrinth, on the other hand, locks out the effect that tends to bury white creature decks: Jace’s Brainstorm ability.

Spirit of the Labyrinth is also better than Thalia in conjunction with Aether Vial. Thalia actually has real tension with Aether Vial—you want to keep Aether Vial untapped as long as possible so as to deny your opponent information, but if Thalia isn’t in play as your opponent is casting their noncreature spell, Thalia’s "tax" never factors in. This leads to a lot of Thalia being cast on turn 2 instead of getting Vialed in.

Spirit of the Labyrinth and Aether Vial, on the other hand, is peanut butter and chocolate. There is no wrong way to tap Aether Vial and put Spirit into play in response to a Brainstorm. It works just as well whether you slowroll it, windmill slam it, exaggeratedly overexplain it, or whatever. Vialing in Spirit of the Labyrinth is Something You Want To Do, and I would recommend trying out Spirit over Thalia for a bit to see how you like the swap.

Another upside of playing Spirit of the Labyrinth over Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is that your sideboard cards don’t get hampered by your secondary two-drop. Since Death and Taxes tends to sideboard a lot of spells, it can be awkward to deploy your sideboard cards effectively with a Thalia in play.

If you don’t want to play Spirit of the Labyrinth over Thalia, you could play it in your sideboard. After all, you only have to play one . . .

We all knew that Enlightened Tutor would have some good creature to get in Theros block eventually. The real question is when Spirit of the Labyrinth is going to be a better enchantment to get than Rest in Peace, Ethersworn Canonist, Pithing Needle, or Phyrexian Revoker. If you can solve that, you can probably cover all of Legacy’s weird corner cases.

So we know what a Death and Taxes deck looks like, and we know what it looks like without Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and with Spirit of the Labyrinth. What else can we do with this card?

How about Zoo?

Hear me out for a second. I know that True-Name Nemesis is a problem. I also know that combo is a problem. I know that Deathrite Shaman is good, and I know that people are playing a lot of Punishing Fires.

I want to play Zoo because it finally has a hate bear that doesn’t interfere with its core goals. Thalia is really bad with burn spells. Gaddock Teeg and Fireblast don’t go well together. Scavenging Ooze is just too expensive, and Ethersworn Canonist prevents you from burning people out in a single turn. Spirit of the Labyrinth however doesn’t hurt you at all and takes out a lot of what’s good against Zoo decks.

But how do we solve the combo problem and the True-Name Nemesis problem? Simple: we add the fourth color that Zoo has always wanted.

You see, Deathrite Shaman is too good to not play. Zoo is a red, green, and white deck with poor direct interaction with combo decks and no good in-color ways to answer a True-Name Nemesis. Adding black solves all three of those problems. Observe:

If you want to beat Punishing Fire, you have twelve one-drops that don’t die to their overpriced Shock.

If you want to beat combo, you have Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, Spirit of the Labyrinth, and a ton of pressure. If they’re a graveyard deck, you have four Deathrite Shamans.

If you want to beat Death and Taxes, you have as much removal as U/W/R Delver, Thoughtseize to hit their Equipment, and enough pressure to make their tempo-oriented creatures weak. It’s been a while since someone made the white deck play defense.

The sideboard has something for everyone. Since control decks tend to sideboard out Force of Will against decks with a million Jackal Pup clones, we can bring in Duress and Armageddon to take them out of the game before they ever get on the board.

Since combo decks are going to have Pyroclasm or Abrupt Decay or whatever else to kill our creatures, we’re going to pace our threats and have access to interaction on every level of the game: six discard spells, a few counterspells, a few Armageddons, and a Wear // Tear for anything too crazy.

We’re going to beat True-Name Nemesis decks with Zealous Persecution. We’re also going to beat Mother of Runes / Thalia / Flickerwisp decks with Zealous Persecution. If they plan on blocking a lot, we can board in Zealous Persecution.

If they’re going to try to attrition us out, we have Grim Lavamancer and Ranger of Eos to back up our Dark Confidants in the "Sylvan Library Lookalike Contest." Obviously we don’t want actual Sylvan Library, as its trigger and Spirit of the Labyrinth are quite the nombo.

Dark Confidant and Spirit of the Labyrinth are obviously just swell together since putting cards in your hand and drawing cards aren’t the same thing. What I’m most excited about however is this next point.

For a long time Thoughtseize has been worse in Legacy than in any other format where it’s legal. It’s worse in Legacy because of Ponder and Brainstorm’s ability to either find another copy of a desirable card or hide a good card in the first place. One major draw of Spirit of the Labyrinth is that you can preemptively "protect" your Thoughtseize from getting trumped by Brainstorm, plus your 3/1s effect sticks around after Thoughtseize resolves to make sure they can’t dig their way out of it.

My first thought for where to apply this is in a deck that can create a lot of pressure so that you don’t give them a lot of draw steps to naturally find a way out of their predicament. Zoo comes to mind as a deck that kills quickly, is in the market for a three-power two-drop, and could reasonably play Thoughtseize. After all, if people are playing Deathrite Shaman in their Burn decks (sup, Zac Hill?), then why can’t a Zoo deck do it and splash Thoughtseize, Duress, and Zealous Persecution on top of the spell-eating activation?

I have no clue whether this Zoo deck is the right home for Spirit of the Labyrinth. I don’t know exactly where Spirit of the Labyrinth will end up.

But she will end up somewhere.

I look forward to seeing what people do with her.