Sullivan Library – Examining Block Hybrids

Read Adrian Sullivan every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, June 20th – One of the stronger selling points of Shadowmoor can be found in the Hybrid mana cards. When the Hybrid concept made its debut in Ravnica, it proved extremely popular, and the Shadowmoor versions are no different. Today, Adrian examines some of the stronger and weaker Hybrid cards available in Constructed today, and attempts to answer some of the questions they pose…

The first card I generally think of when I think about hybrid mana is usually Rakdos Guildmage. There’s just something awesome about that card. A 2/2 for two is just fine, but when you hit that four mana mark, suddenly you can have a guy that can just work overtime. The next hybrid card I generally think of is Selesnya Guildmage, if only because I’ve made so, so many decks with him. Of all of the Guildmages, I’d warrant that it is the best, though I’m not 100% sure that this is actually true.

In a lot of ways, the hybrid cards that really resonate from Ravnica are those in the cycle of Guildmages. All of them can easily be described by two parts: [Guildname] Guildmage. We know that we’re dealing with a 2/2 for two hybrid symbols, with activated abilities of some kind in each color. For me, these guys become a marking point when it came to actually describing how we cost spells.

How do you verbalize the casting cost of, say, Swans of Bryn Argoll? You could say, “Two and two of either White or Blue”, or “Two and Two Hybrid White/Blue”. These are shorter than some alternatives, but they still feel a bit clunky. I tend to say “Az/Az/Two” as shorthand for “Two and Two Azorius”. Az, Dim, Rak, Gru, Sel… all of these are things we’re going to have to go re-accustomed to seeing play. By the time Berlin rolls around, we’ll have to add in the others, Bor, Iz, Sim, Gol, and Orz.

In the meantime, whatever we call them, we’re still going to have to deal with the special problem of the hybrid card. When we look at these cards, we need to begin to realize that these aren’t cards that are, say for Selesnya, Green and White, but rather Green or White. Many of these cards are particularly powerful, and so we need to understand what it means that they are going to be powering up our environment.

One of the clearest questions that I think a lot of people have asked themselves about these cards can be seen in Kithkin, with the Lieges. Clearly, while you can use one Liege or the other, why is it that of the two White Lieges, it is the 1/3 that seems to be winning out over the 4/4? There are reasons, of course.

Mirrorweave: The Overrun that was Flametongue Kavu

Mirrorweave is a card that casts a deep shadow over this format. Think about what the card does: for any creature that you might consider running, you have to ask yourself, “What if they cast Mirrorweave with creature advantage?” Kithkin are liable to be running some combination of Spectral Procession, Cloudgoat Ranger, and Militia’s Pride, if not all three, and thus, it is quite likely that they might just have the creature edge on you. If they Mirrorweave your creature, are you just completely screwed?

This is, in many ways, a variant of the question that was asked by Flametongue Kavu. Is it really worth your time to cast a creature that could die to Flametongue? Tons of otherwise great cards simply could not be played because of the ubiquitous FTK. Serra Angel, Sengir Vampire, or even Tahngarth, Talruum Hero — all of these cards might have made a big splash in a world that didn’t include FTK, but they couldn’t really dent it, because the world did include it. In the case of FTK, the card was easily splashable, and could be seen in any number of decks. For Mirrorweave, the card isn’t spectacularly splashable, but it is a mainstay in Kithkin, the deck that probably manages to make a splash with at least 30%+ of the people that are in contention at any particular tourney at a time.

So, what if they do cast a Mirrorweave on your creature? You’re immune, clearly, with a Legend, but there really aren’t that many Legends around. Can you afford to cast that big creature? Chameleon Colossus is big, but at least it costs the same amount as a Mirrorweave, and not more. Even so, it can be a pretty big hit if they copy your Colossus. But what if it is worse? What if they copy a “god” of some kind, like your Deus of Calamity? I can tell you from experience, the likelihood is that you’ll lose that game. And to my mind, this makes Deus probably unplayable, at least in the maindeck.

Kithkin can so abuse it because of the abundance of creatures to which it can access. It is important to remember, though, that it is a Blue card too. This means that Merfolk (in as much as someone can make them work) could have access to the card. A Faerie player could have access to the card, if they so wanted. While I hesitate to imagine that they’d be able to make the card pack the same wallop, it is still worth remembering that they can be applied from this other color.

The question or problem posed by Mirrorweave is to the format at large: What are you going to do when you see me? And you’d better have your answer…

The Problem of Oversoul of Dusk

Ah, Oversoul of Dusk. This card remains one of my favorite cards that has seen print in a long time. I was always a fan of Sabretooth Nishoba, and this card does the Nishoba one better by adding in protection from yet another color. The Oversoul is even immune (uniquely among the Gods) to Mirrorweave (kind of)! Wow, who could ask for more!

The chief problem with the Oversoul is that he is a God. That means he is going to literally require twenty-five particularly-colored mana to consistently support. Sel/Sel/Sel/Sel/Sel is a lot of specific mana. We’re not talking about a format with much in the way of Birds of Paradise either. Even Jelger Wiegersma’s Kithkin, consider by many to be the gold standard, only runs twenty-four. You really have to be dedicated to decide to go to an Oversoul (or any God, for that matter).

But, then, when we come back to the issue of Kithkin, some problems start poking up their head. The Oversoul isn’t pro-White. This means that it is still able to be tapped down. This means it is still able to be chump-blocked by random White guys. This means that you’re still vulnerable to Oblivion Ring. And even if it can’t be the target of Mirrorweave, other cards still can, and he is thus easily killable by Mirrorweave (even if it does cause a two-for-one).

The appeal, of course, is in dealing with Faeries. What are they going to do to it? They can’t Sower it, they (mostly) can’t chump block it. Pretty much all that they’ve got is throwing Mutavaults in the way of it, or tapping it down with Cryptic Command. They’ve certainly got it a lot worse than Green, who can toss down a Cloudthresher in the way and take it out on merit.

The big problem for Oversoul in the Block format is environment. In Standard, Faeries is the clear favorite. But in Block, Faeries, while still very good, is an anemic cousin to its Standard counterpart, and Kithkin reign supreme. Cloudthresher is very much to be expected from a ton of decks. 5/5 is not necessarily going to be the be-all and end-all. While still potent, it is a fish out of water for Block.

The Hope of Fulminator Mage

I love Fulminator Mage. I’ve had it in a ton of decks already. But, I have to be honest — he hasn’t made the cut yet in most of them.

The real problem with Fulminator Mage is simple. Too often, it is just a bad Stone Rain. This is not particularly good.

What you often really want him to be is a reverse Sakura-Tribe Elder. He hops out there, and chumps (or maybe kills) an attacker, and then offs one of their lands. You get the whole deal, the two-for-one, and the mana advantage, and it is all wrapped up in a nice package… one that, if you draw it in the late game, you can actually use to kill someone.

That plan, however… it so rarely works.

As a three-drop, he will often arrive to the party after the Kithkin deck has already started messing you around with a much more aggressive curve. Far from trading, perhaps the Fulminator Mage can prevent three damage, and then, maybe, kill a land. The problem, though, is that these Kithkin decks routinely run 26 land, and if they’re not, they’re actually built to survive on low-land counts. Versus Faeries, the problem is much the same: he gets down on the table, but there is already a Bitterblossom going. If they really don’t like him, they often don’t mind losing a few Faerie Rogues to off him, and if you are sacking to kill a land, while it is certainly possible that you’re screwing them, sometimes it just feels so incredible underwhelming.

Versus the five-color decks, the Fulminator Mage is so much more exciting. You’re really messing with their colors! But if you think about it, one of the things that is really problematic about him is that in that matchup, he is “merely” a Stone Rain. That wouldn’t be so bad, but unless you’re working in some way to exploit that, it can be underwhelming.

How do you exploit Stone Rain? Well, you can exploit it like Sped Red did, and drop a bunch of men and have a Stone Rain be a (virtual) Time Walk. That is completely reasonable. Unfortunately, a cursory glance at the Red men that you have at your fingertips should make it clear just how unsatisfying that that is. Maybe the answer is to be closer to an Aggro-Black list with Rain of Tears? That certainly would be something that I imagine might be worth exploring…

What Kitchen Finks Poses

Kitchen Finks is not a problem for aggressive decks because it can gain 4 life. That would be a whoop-de-doo. It is a problem because if you don’t deal with it, it represents a substantial clock, with a tiny life swing. And if you do deal with it, Persist ensures that it isn’t gone yet, and there is still a reasonable clock to worry about (plus that final life swing).

Compare Kitchen Finks to Loxodon Hierarch. Hierarch guarantees the four life gain that Finks cannot. But, Hierarch, once eliminated, is gone. Finks takes two swings to take out. For aggressive decks, this is a pretty strong problem. Even for controlling decks, this is problematic. You cannot simply ignore Finks. They pack too much wallop. Killing them, though, is also aggravating, if only because the effort never seems to equal the returns. Yet you have to do it.

The real reason that we’re not seeing more out of Kitchen Finks is placement. What home do you put them in? They seem seriously unworthy of being placed into a Kithkin deck. While powerful, they are likely to actually represent a downturn in your power curve because of the ways that they don’t successfully synergize with the rest of your deck. They found a home in Bucher’s deck because of the double duty that they can pull against aggressive and controlling decks, but at the same time, it seems pretty clear that their entire purpose is to essentially be a speed-bump or a lightning rod. Is that good enough?

It might be. Slowing down Kithkin matters. We never saw it appear in the matchup versus Jelger Wiegersma, but likely its appearance might have made a difference. To make the Top 8, Bucher employed it to beat down Faeries in the final round of the Swiss. Other Green-based decks can use it for that exact same purpose, posing difficult questions for both kinds of decks.

The “Not-Quite” of Guttural Response

Guttural Response wants to be Pyroblast. But it isn’t. Even if another color has access to it, it is clearly a much, much less powerful version of the card. Pyroblast could blast any Blue spell out of the sky (or the stack, or in play), but Guttural Response isn’t just only usable on spells, it is only usable on instants.

This matters a lot. Spellstutter Sprite is as fine a counter as others, most of the time, but not being able to Response it means that you can’t even count on this otherwise fine card to help you out when you need it. Guttural Response still has its uses versus the five-color decks, to be sure, but you still can’t count on it to get your spell you want to resolve.

This is especially important when you look at two of the non-counter spells that the kind of decks that you might want to be Gutturally Responding to can pull: Mind Spring and Mind Shatter. Both of these cards are untouched by Guttural Response, and both of them can simply render your single Response almost laughable. Shatter is particularly awful, stripping away the offending Response, but even Spring can just overwhelm you enough to make you wish Bucher had included something else in his list.

For most purposes, if you’re going to be looking at a spell like response, it seems like the far more potent way to handle things is to dip into Blue yourself, for Negate. But, if you ask me, the more likely response is to merely try to overwhelm someone with cards in a rush (like Kithkin do), or in a gush (with Spring or Shatter).

Green and Red decks are largely going to be composed of one of two kinds: Red/Green attack decks, and multi-color monstrosities that can largely cast anything. So far, the Red/Green lists haven’t managed to make any kind of appreciable splash. The multi-color decks can do what they probably should, and step away from this kind of card, in an effort to address things from the side.

The Wilt-Leaf Remind Us

The final place that I feel bears some examination is the currently Selesnya Hybrid creatures. Most of us have seen the potent Green deck that ran an absolute metric ton of cards with the Sel symbol. It did pretty well at the Star City Games $2k, and made a bunch of money. Almost all of the cards that are in it are Shadowmoor cards, and even without their helper bees like Llanowar Elves, they still bear some noting.

What is the big fear of a Wilt-Leaf Liege? Well, it is pretty simple, really. A Wilt-Leaf Liege, like so much of the format, is a big liability if it gets Mirrorweaved aggressively. Whereas the Thistledown Liege can stay snugly in hand until you are ready for him to join the party, the Wilt-Leaf is ready and raring to go because it has to be, thus potentially putting it in Mirrorweave’s clutches.

Perhaps what you can compensate with is the ability to just beat the hell out of someone with Wilt-Leaf Cavalier, Kitchen Finks, and the rest of the Selesnya-colored family. This hybrid combination reminds us that we could be either a Green deck or a White deck, or both. It strikes me that you may want to actually head in the White direction, if only to get access to Spectral Procession, and keep up with those Kithkin players. But you really don’t have to.

The Wilt-Leaf example, much like the idea of Murderous Redcap powered up by Ashenmoor Liege, can serve to remind us that we aren’t tied to a singular color with our hybrid cards. Augury Adept might be a Blue card, if it so suits us. Demigod of Revenge might be a Black card. We just have to not get fooled into remembering Kitchen Finks as a Green card, lest we forget that it might have a home in our base-White list.

Hybrid colors are a challenge for the deckbuilder in that they give us so many more tools that are available to us, some of which aren’t the cards that we would traditionally associate with our colors. Giant Solifuge is untargettable, a thing that we don’t usually associate with a Red creature. By best remembering the flexibility that we are being handed by Wizards, we can make our decks and sideboards all the more effective.

Until next time!

Adrian Sullivan