Sullivan Library — The Fearsome Power of Wish/Loam

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Life From The Loam is a fantastic source of card advantage in any format. Burning Wish, or as Adrian calls it, “the Good Wish,” is also extremely powerful. Put them together, and sprinkle in some expert synergy and devastating removal, and we have one of the powerhouse Extended decks going into Pro Tour: Valencia. Today’s Sullivan Library takes a long look at the ways to play — and to beat — this behemoth…

My friend [email protected] DeGraff once told me his theory about Life from the Loam.

“Adrian, in any rational format, Life From The Loam eventually emerges as the most powerful card drawer in the format.”

That struck me as a particularly bold claim. It’s been just shy of two years since the card first emerged from Wizard R&D, and the truth of that comment is still being explored. The thing is, it definitely has some compelling things going for it.”

“Well, what about Necropotence?” I asked him.

“Adrian,” he sighed, like he was guiding me through a really easy math problem, “Necropotence is only legal in Vintage. Are you really telling me that a format as explosive as Vintage is a good example of a ‘rational’ format?”

“You see,” he continued, “Life From The Loam’s card draw is so good, that it is about as good as you can get before you’ve gotten too good. Whenever anything is better than that, it’s a little wacky in the head.”

It was a good point.

This article isn’t really about Life From The Loam, though. It’s about Burning Wish.

Life From The Loam, matters, of course, and it matters a lot. It deserves its little spot in the title of this article. I’ll go with what [email protected] said on that. It probably is as good as it can get for card draw, in the decks best built to exploit it. Most of these decks are probably going to keep their fragility to as low a risk as possible, and hold onto just two basic means of taking advantage of it: they’ll simply run cycling lands and sacrifice lands, of whatever kind. Sure, they could also run something far more dedicated, like a Trade Routes, but the cycling lands do all of the work of Trade Routes without leaving any toes dangling around a corner for a smart person to shoot.

If Life From The Loam is the best card drawer in a rational format, and if the card pool of Extended has pretty much shown itself to be explored (or at least semi-explored), with no clear card drawing monster, than it stands to reason that any deck with Burning Wish and Life From The Loam might be the best card drawing available. Four Burning Wish and one less Life From The Loam gives us the potential for seven copies of our desired card, as well as a lovely little insurance policy to get us our engine back should someone be mean with Extirpate or the like.

With that, we have the beginnings of understand of why Aggro-Loam emerged as one of the most potent decks of the last Extended season. Take these two little numbers by Steve Walsh and Jesse Speers, placing in the Top 8 of the only major Extended event I can find since Future Sight became legal, GenCon’s $1000 Extended Tournament. These two were the only double appearance of an archetype in the Top 8, which otherwise only saw single copies of any deck:

It’s always amusing to me to see how some deck names emerge from the void. This archetype has become named “Aggro-Loam”, when if you have played the deck at all, you know that it isn’t particularly “Aggro” (though it can get quite a walloping start off a Bird, then Terravore, followed by Devastating Dreams on turn 3). It is, however, very aggro when compared to the slow as syrup kill offered up by the Solitary Confinement / Life From The Loam decks that first took up the mantle of Wish/Loam.

These particular versions of “Aggro”-Loam are both slightly different from each other. Steve was interested in the power of a Tarmogoyf in such an already clearly powerful deck. Jesse played it much more traditionally, without the newfangled Tarmogoyf, and with a lot more of the traditional weapons intact. These decks are both clearly worried about different threats, but they still have the same engine that they live on the top of: 4 Burning Wish and 3 Life From The Loam. I look at these lists, and even though I’m not an expert on this archetype, I think there might be a few errors (only 3 Wall of Roots, Jesse? Why not 0 or 4?), but I’m not 100% sure that I’m correct in my reservations.

The essential engine of the cycling land with Life From The Loam and Burning Wish is that any player running these cards can expect to plow through their deck at an alarmingly fast rate, and usually find what they are looking for. With Burning Wish, a key card that can be found, this also means that you’re also able to find whatever tailor-made solution you need to the board, and sometimes even the hand.

Let’s take a look at what weapons these decks bring to the table in terms of their wish targets:

Devastating Dreams

Both decks are making very strong use of Devastating Dreams, as they both do of Life From The Loam, and largely because of Life From The Loam. Dreams is an incredibly powerful spell, and about as close as any format gets to Armageddon that doesn’t already have Armageddon legal. On top of that, the creature-kill nature of the card almost makes it more akin to Apocalypse or Jokulhaups. For the Dreaming Life From The Loam player, however, the extra cost of Dreams is heavily abated by the Life From The Loam. Terravore also takes center stage in this drama, quickly capable of becoming overwhelming for any opponent. In Steve’s, with three copies main, and one to Wish for, this is a card that the Aggro-Loam player can expect to threaten or answer with.

What it means:
If you’re an aggressive deck, you have a very short clock to work with before it is possible that the entire board will be reset. What is worse, you can expect that after the board is reset, your opponent will not only be the first person to lay a land to recover, but by the next turn will be completely free of any of long term costs of the card. In addition, any Terravore effectively threatens to become a single-turn game ending threat. Even control decks have to worry, because while they might not lose all of their committed ground forces (harhar), their bread and butter is still their land.

Cabal Therapy and Duress and Last Rites

Here, we see the beginnings of divergence between Steve and Jesse. Steve, clearly cared about having discard, and wanted access to not only the full complement of 7 virtual Cabal Therapy (or 14 if you prefer), but also access to 3 Duress as well. Jesse, on the other hand, ran all of his 4 Cabal Therapy main deck, and probably expected to flash it back to remove it from the game to make it a target as well, giving him 4 or 8 copies, depending, with access to only a single Duress in the board. Steve really wants to be able to attack the hand, adding in Last Rites, which generally will end any game in which it is correctly Wished for, emptying out the opponent’s hand of anything useful that might be left in it.

What it means:
If you’re a combo deck or a control deck, you should expect to get whacked, potentially multiple times, with strong discard. If a game goes long, your hand is not a safe place to keep a card.

Shattering Spree, Hull Breach, and Shatterstorm

One of the best ways to fight against the card drawing of Life From The Loam is to put out some kind of problematic card against it. There are a lot of options, but most of them involve some kind of Artifact or Enchantment that will keep something from happening. Sometimes, as in the case of Affinity, a deck might simply run so many targets that just having easy access to an answer can be devastating.

What it means:
If your answer to their deck is an artifact or enchantment, it better be the kind of card that locks them out from simply Wishing for an answer. Take a wonderful card like Odyssey’s Ground Seal — it could seem like an excellent answer to Life From The Loam, shutting them off of all of its use, other than dredging it. This might stall them a little bit, but can easily be rectified with a single Wish. If your answer doesn’t lock them out of the game completely (like an Isochron Scepter with Chant on it, active Top/Counterbalance, or Chalice of the Void for two), you have to be able to capitalize on their weakness and kill them before they slip right out of it. Similarly, with a deck like Affinity, you have to be able to kill them before a timely wish for Shatterstorm or Shattering Spree makes mincemeat of you.

Chainer’s Edict, Deathmark, and Pyroclasm

Each of these cards provides a very cheap answer to either a single creature, or a little swarm of tiny creatures, and often they can be used in conjunction with each other to really cause some damage. Deathmark ends up being such an incredible answer for a card like Tarmogoyf that it is Standard now in the board of all of these decks. Pyroclasm is a little rarer, since Devastating Dreams often does the job of Pyroclasm (though ‘clasm lends itself to situations where you haven’t picked up a Life From The Loam, yet).

When looked at under the backdrop of Devastating Dreams, this suite of cards represents something really ferocious, another version of the Prison deck’s old “Icy Manipulator” problem. Icy would force the opponent to commit to the board, and then Wrath of God (or Balance — oh, god, Balance!), would sweep it all away. In a like manner, simply committing a small amount of threats to the board means that the deck can brush it aside, whilst dropping it all down could doom you to simply losing the team.

What it means:
You have to be able to ride that fine line between full commitment to the table and holding back for the Devastating Dreams. All of the eggy weggs in one basket isn’t the way to go. The aggressive deck has to be able to put enough pressure on the table without committing everything. The control deck has to time the moment they drop their creatures so that they either don’t care if they lose them, or they can protect it. Relying on a creature like Meddling Mage or Yixlid Jailer to hold off the other deck is a risky proposition, since it could be so readily killed.

The Random Solution

Most of the 575 legal Sorceries in Extended are either unplayable for color reasons (Wrath of God) or simple power level restrictions (Exotic Disease). That said, there are still a lot of options for a Burning Wish player who has the time and energy to craft the perfect solution to whatever they perceive of as their problem cards.

What it means:
Expect the potential to be surprised, and to have that surprise be completely devastating. The more creative or clever player could find something that was overlooked in times past, or might find some card that is actually quite perfect in the space that has emerged in the metagame. If your deck is narrow and popular, it is very reasonable for someone to find a solution to it. You might consider yourself double-plus extra clever with some choice that you’ve made, but Burning Wish (or as I like to call it, “the good Wish”) can find a way to trump you, if they’ve deemed it worth their while, generally.

Options, in general

How are you supposed to deal with this deck, then, if it is so darned good?

One of the first ways to deal with it, could be to follow the old maxim, “if you can’t beat it, join it.” Personally, I’m right on the fence with this right now. While I don’t think Steve or Jesse’s decks are the exact built that I would ever want to play, I do recognize in testing against them, and in testing against others, that nearly all of my decks have a problem against this deck. I have a really fun and powerful Stompy-ish deck, but it keeps getting battered by Aggro-Loam, no matter how I tweak and twist it. I have a really great update on The Baron for Extended, and updating it for the rest of the metagame leaves me very underwhelming versus the current versions of this deck (particularly frustrating since the old version tended to beat up on Aggro-Loam). I keep tossing new decks at this one, only to be turned aside. Maybe, in the end, I should just hang it up, and go with it.

On the other hand, there are some options. Locking out the deck is a clear way to take control of things. Extended is full of locks, with Blue, generally. Scepter/Chant, Slaver/Ruins, or Counterbalance/Top are all excellent ways to keep this deck in control, if you can get to the point where you’re in control. Aggro-Loam is generally already aware of this weakness, and can point a barrage of anti-artifact weapons (note the maindeck copies of Ancient Grudge in Jesse’s list) or heavy hand destruction. In general, Counterbalance/Top seems to give fits to Aggro-Loam, but it still has so much game and so many powerful weapons that this isn’t a definite way to take out this matchup.

Perhaps the most exciting way to beat the deck is to be able to combo over the top of them. Whether it is Dredge (a truly nightmarish matchup for Aggro-Loam, which generally lacks any main deck way to handle this deck) or Mind’s Desire or what-have-you, Aggro-Loam will often give you the time to explode all over them before they control the game. Officially, Loam’s two means of playing a control role in this case are use of discard to control the opponent, and Devastating Dreams as a means to keep the opponent unable to play the game. You’ll note that neither of these, again, is particularly effective versus Dredge.

For the aggressive player, you have only two options: be so fast that a Devastating Dreams is too slow, or run counters. I’m not a fan of aggro-control right now (unless someone can devise a new deck), but it does have the means to be able to win against this deck, since the actual key cards that control the game tend to be Sorcery speed. Blue/Green Madness might just do it, and even if it doesn’t, it still has that feel of an option that is worth exploring.

Anyone preparing for Valencia is likely to have even better versions of these lists than Steve or Jesse’s, but it’s still very worthwhile to examine their versions, at least until some high profile Extended Aggro-Loam decks hit the light of day. Whether it is in Valencia or in a Premier Event, you can expect to see this deck doing well at high tables, so be prepared.

Frustrated about testing,

Adrian Sullivan