The Best Idea Wizards Ever Had: Bitching About Vanguard!

We’ve gone through a lot of fads in our multiplayer group, but we have played with Vanguard cards for over two years since they were introduced to our playgroup. There’s nothing like Bitching into Lyna to give all of my creatures shadow, then Bitching into Mishra to kill several players with one shot. So what are the Vanguard cards, and what are these strange Bitch rules that have made the Vanguard cards so much fun for us?

I am in love with Vanguard. Thirty-two cards have been released as four sets of eight each, and I have every single one. With the recent announcement from Magic: The Electronic that they are going to be releasing an online version of Vanguard soon, tied to the Avatars, I felt it appropriate to examine the actual cardboard Vanguard cards.

What is Vanguard? I used to be a huge Arena junkie, and Arena was an attempt by Wizards to create casual leagues of Magic players everywhere. It had alternate art prizes and used funky formats — like the brand new preconstructed decks, continuous draft, and Vanguard decks. Wizards released eight Vanguard cards, and Arena players got a sealed pack of four of the Vanguard cards. They could build a deck with any one Vanguard card that they wanted.

The rules for playing with a Vanguard card are simple enough: The Vanguard card starts revealed and operates from the moment you draw and consider a mulligan. The card cannot be destroyed or turned off at any time, and it cannot be targeted — although I’d argue that its effects could be (a la Stifle) if they are triggered or activated effects.

Each card has some game-changing effect, and to pay for that effect, some cards will start you with more or less life and more or less cards. Take, for example, Gerrard. Gerrard is one of the original eight Vanguard cards. He has a very abusable ability: You draw an extra card during your draw step. Because the ability to outdraw your opponent can be pretty broken, you begin the game with just three cards in hand, and that is your maximum hand size — a powerful disadvantage. Squee, however, is the exact opposite. His ability is a simple Telepathy ability, but you draw ten cards at the beginning of the match and have a maximum hand size of ten. But Squee starts you with just sixteen life, not twenty.

Wizards made an announcement a few weeks ago that they are going to be doing a new round of Vanguard cards, but just for online. Personally, I think that is a huge mistake. They claim that the Vanguard cards were never used much in tournaments and whatnot, because you had to build an entire deck around them. My response is simple: You don’t always have to build a deck around them (as we’ll soon see), and they are perfect for casual play — especially multiplayer.

To Build or Not to Build
Personally, I’d advise against building decks to go with Vanguard. In fact, I would advise against picking a deck to play after getting your Vanguard card. Instead, I think deck selection should come first, and then Vanguard. There is a veritable plethora of ways to select Vanguard cards in multiplayer. Let’s take a look at things my playgroup has tried.

Random Stick:
Vanguard cards are randomly assigned to players after they choose their deck. You have to play with whatever card you get. This adds a bit of randomness to the game, and creates some amusing situations. There’s nothing like playing a Planar Void/Samurai of the Pale Curtain deck and flipping Gix as your Vanguard card. The major disadvantage to this system is that you are absolutely stuck with what you get. Flipping Multani when you are playing a control deck with no creatures other than Shard Phoenixes is a nightmare.

Random Bitch:
Like above, this format requires a random allocation of Vanguard cards to the players after they have selected their deck. All remaining Vanguard cards are shuffled and placed facedown. One time during the game, a player may Bitch into a random, unused Vanguard card. When a player Bitches, they have to take what they get. Bitching does not use the stack and cannot be responded to.

A player must change their stats to be compliant with the new card before play continues. For example, my original card had me at +2 handsize and -4 life. If I Bitch into -1 handsize and +14 life, I discard three cards and gain eighteen life.

There are a lot of Bitching strategies; see below for a list of the better ones. This advantage of this is the added strategy of the Bitch, combined with the ability to escape a particularly nasty initial Vanguard card. Note that you can bitch your Vanguard before you draw your initial hand.

Random Trio:
This is currently our most popular version of Vanguard. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt three face-down Vanguard cards. You may choose one to start with, and then at any time, you can Bitch into another Vanguard card. Once you have bitched out of a card, you cannot use it again. Since you have two spare cards, you can Bitch twice, once into each spare card. All Bitching rules apply, including the equilibrium of stats. This variant gives you a solid control over what you Bitch into and what you start with, and is a good compromise between other formats.

Draft Trio:
This is my personal favorite. Players roll dice, and highest roller takes a Vanguard card sight unseen, like drafting cards from a pack. It continues around the circle, until you get to the last player, who takes two Vanguard cards, and passes it back in the opposite direction. When it returns to the original player, that person takes two, and passes it back around. Once everyone has three cards sight unseen, the rest are set aside and not used.

The only difference between this variant and the Random Trio variant is the method for choosing the sight-unseen Vanguard cards. However, this format is the most skill-intensive of the group, as it gives you the greatest strategy and control over the Vanguard cards. It also makes your Bitching strategy very important. The cards that you have to Bitch into are often more important than your initial card.

Three-Headed Monster:
In this variant, you are randomly dealt three face-up Vanguard cards and all three are in effect simultaneously. There is no Bitching, except at the beginning of the game, before you draw your cards. You may only Bitch if your starting handsize is three or less or your starting life total is twelve or less. You can only Bitch one card into a random, unused card. If your new card still keeps you under, you can Bitch again.

Acquiring Vanguard Cards
If you don’t have Vanguard cards, it’s not much of a problem. StarCityGames.com sells them. They do look cool and have individualized art. Some of the later cards can be quite pricey, namely Sliver Queen.

Alternatively, you can simply make up index cards with all of the stats and name of the Vanguard cards. By doing this, you can easily add the new Vanguard abilities that will be released online. Assuming, of course, that they never decide to release the online Vanguard as real cards. (And they’d be silly not to, in my opinion. After all, why turn down a revenue source? Make a commercially-available fixed pack of Vanguard cards, the same as the online ones, and sell them for five to eight bucks a pop. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a pack of eight Vanguard cards and try them out?)

Categorizing Vanguard Cards
What I want to do now is take a quick look at the thirty-two Vanguard cards by category. The categories are: Power, chaff, combo, acceptable, and Bitchable. I’ll briefly discuss the strategies of each card in its category.

The power Vanguard cards are noteworthy because of their ability to break a deck in half. These five cards can accelerate decks, quicken death, improve control, and generally make good decks great.

Squee, whom you’ve already met, is an ideal friend of control, although sometimes the table will kill the guy with the Telepathy. Tawnos is a Veldaken Orrery for non-land permanents who also gives you three extra cards at the expense of four life. This is great for control or combo decks to help them out a bit. Hanna is the general speed up trick. All of your spells cost one colorless less to play, and you begin with an extra card at fifteen life. Hanna was the most frequently-seen Vanguard card at tournaments.

Tahngarth is an ideal aggro card, giving all of your creatures haste, minus one card and with an additional seven life. Tahngarth was often the tech that won the aggro-on-aggro matchups in tournaments, allowing you to hit first while giving you a life cushion while you went all-out. Lastly, we have Titania, who is an Exploration in addition to giving you two extra cards for negative five life. Each of these five cards is very powerful with the right deck, and in draft they are often the first taken.

These are cards that just are not that good. Some aren’t too bad; it’s just that most of the Vanguard cards are better, so they end up on the short end of the ubiquitous stick. There are eight cards in this stack, which tells you that these are the bottom quarter of Vanguard cards. Some are Bitchable (like Multani, who can be Mishra-lite), but most are simply chaff. Let’s quickly go through them.

Multani is bad because you start with just four cards, eighteen life, and your ability is dependent upon your hand size. It’s occasionally worth Bitching into Multani with a large hand and then hitting with really big creatures… but that’s what Mishra is for (see Bitchable, below).

Crovax and Greven il-Vec both suffer from having the same sort of ability. Crovax gives you a life when creatures damage a creature or player, while Greven destroys (no regeneration) any creatures damaged by your creatures. Each seem good, but they rely on aggressive creatures, and there are better Vanguard cards for aggressive creature decks (Tahngarth, Maraxus, Lyna, and Mishra).

Oracle, Karn, and Orim each suffer from having very weak abilities. Karn is a March of the Machines for your artifacts, gives you an extra card and six extra life, so there is no real disadvantage to him — except that he might kill your artifact lands and Chrome Moxes. Oracle allows you to untap your own attacking creatures and remove them from combat, like Gustcloak creatures. Like Karn, the Oracle gives an extra card and nine extra life, but the ability is too minor. Lastly, Orim gives you twelve extra life, no extra cards, and allows your creature to block as though they had flying — which is a meaningless ability.

The last two cards suffer from being just a tad shy of solid. You can play them without anybody chiding you, but they just don’t have what the other cards do. Eladamri starts you with fifteen extra life, but down a card. You can redirect to yourself any amount of damage dealt to your creatures. It’s an okay ability, with a heap of extra life to use it with, but it just doesn’t have the oomph of other Vanguard cards. Likewise, Volrath has a decent enough ability, allowing you to place dying creatures on top of your library instead of your graveyard if you wish. Volrath begins you with an extra two cards, but negative three life.

There are five cards that are particularly comboriffic, and you’ll need to watch out for them. These cards also make decent cards for other purposes, so just because someone is using them does not mean that they are playing combo. However, if you are playing a deck with multiple parts, you may want to consider one of these engines.

Sisay and Gerrard go together because each duplicates an original set ability for just you at the expense of some cards. Gerrard’s personal Howling Mine effect easily compensates for the three handsize. Sisay is a personal Mana Flare with just a cost of two cards and three life. While most decks are not willing to take the negative two cards, preferring quick-start cards like Titania and Hanna, Sisay is much better for many combo decks. Gerrard is a particularly nice Bitch card as well, Bitching in to him after you’ve exhausted your hand, because you won’t have to discard any cards, and you can draw, draw, draw.

Takara and Rofellos each have more specific uses. There are fewer decks that benefit from their combo-ness, but they are also more universally useful. Rofellos makes you draw a card when one of your creatures dies. For this, you start with two less cards, but gain an extra four life. Meanwhile, Takara is a Goblin Bombardment for you, and she gives you three extra cards — but you begin at the lowest possible life total for any Vanguard card with negative eight life.

Starke is both a combo card and borderline power card. Starke allows you the normal number of cards, and you start with two less life… But Starke’s ability is great. During your draw step, you draw and additional card, and then put any card from your hand on the bottom of your library. You see the same number of cards as you do with Gerrard, but you don’t have to have a handsize of three. There also is no pure card advantage, like there is with Gerrard, but you have a great deal of diversity with Starke.

These are nine cards that are merely okay. Some fill a niche, some are decent, and several have no disadvantage, making perfectly acceptable mid-game cards. Cards like Serra, Maraxus, Selenia and Xantcha are fine cards to bitch into or out of, and if you play with them all game, you’ll never suffer.

Maraxus and Serra are mirror images of each other. Both give you an extra card, both give you a tiny amount of extra life, and they have mirror abilities. Serra gives all of your creatures +0/+2, while Maraxus gives your creatures +1/+0. In multiplayer, Serra is typically the better one to play. (No kiddin’, huh? — The Ferrett, who is continually amused by how many novices think that toughness > power)

Sidar Kondo and Urza both have similar abilities and cards. Each starts you with a loss of a card, both give you double-digit life paddings, and both have an activated ability for three colorless mana. Urza deals a point of damage to a target creature or player, while Sidar Kondo gives target creature +3/+3 until end of turn. Recurring Giant Growths and Rods of Ruin are certainly decent enough abilities, and I’ve seen each win games. Still, I think that there are better cards.

Barrin and Xantcha each allow you to sacrifice a permanent for an effect. Xantcha gives you an extra card, but Barrin keeps you at seven. Both give you a small amount of extra life. Xantcha’s sacrifice puts a regeneration shield around a creature, while Barrin’s sacrifice bounces a creature. Both have their uses, but Xantcha’s extra card, extra life, and decent ability make her one of the few cards with no disadvantage in the game.

Selenia is another of those cards with an extra card, seven extra life, and she gives vigilance to all of your creatures. Vigilance is a bit mild when it comes to abilities, however.

Mirri is a great card for some decks and a minor card for others, so her mileage definitely varies. She allows your basic lands to tap for any color of mana. For this ability, you get an extra five life and no change to your handsize. Five-Color decks can really benefit from Mirri, although a monocolored deck hates to flip her over as a starting card.

The last card in the acceptable pile is Sliver Queen, Brood Mother. The Queen makes 1/1 colorless Sliver tokens for three colorless mana, which can be good or lame depending on the circumstances. She gives you an extra eight life, but no change in handsize.

The last category of cards includes five cards that you will rarely want to start with, but you’ll frequently want to bitch into. The only exception is Ertai, who is not a bad beginning card. Ertai says that your creatures cannot be the target of your opponent’s spells or abilities, making it a nice Bitch when an opponent tries to take out of your best creatures. He starts you out with one less card and four extra life.

The absolute King of the Bitch, however, is Mishra. You will never want to start with Mishra, because he’ll make your creatures the target of every piece of removal in existence. Mishra does not change your handsize, and gives your three less life. Mishra’s ability is to double damage from creatures you control. Attack somebody for, eight damage — and when they let it through, pounce with Mishra. Once you reveal Mishra, you became a major target, but it is the best Bitch possible. Sometimes, in a Draft Trio, I’ll take Mishra first, and then just take the best remaining “normal” Vanguard card when it swings back past me.

Lyna is another aggressive creature Bitch. You will absolutely never want to begin with Lyna, who gives all of your creatures shadow; there’s nothing like being unable to block any creatures that attack you. Lyna does start you with an extra two cards, but negative four life, which only hastens doom from normal non-Shadow creatures. Lyna is the perfect example of a Bitchable card — bad early, great later.

Ashnod is the best bitchable defensive card. Ashnod gives you a No Mercy effect. It’s great to flip up Ashnod after you’ve been attacked and declared no blockers. Unfortunately, Ashnod causes you to lose eight life, but you get an extra card.

Gix is a solid bitch card because he has the most starting life. With Gix, you get an additional eighteen life. Yes, he gives you two less cards, and yes, his ability is only so-so (Raise Dead your creatures for three colorless mana each), but his extra life makes him a frequent bitch target.

Bitching Strategies
As you may have learned from reading the section above on bitchable cards, there are several bitchable strategies. Firstly, you never know what a person’s “Real life” is at. A player’s real life is their life total after adjusting to their highest life card. If you attack someone who is at five life with Akroma, Angel of Wrath, don’t be surprised if they bitch into Oracle, gain fifteen life, and now have a grudge against you.

The life bitch is the most common form of Bitching, it is the one that happens the most in variants where you can only random Bitch. However, in variants where you can strategically Bitch by having three cards total, there are many other Bitching strategies.

The first strategy is called the “Card Sweep” strategy. This requires two quick Bitches, and uses all of your Bitches for the game, but can be very powerful. The goal is simple: Bitch into your lowest handsize card, discarding a few cards. Then Bitch into your highest handsize card, drawing several cards from your deck. A good card bitch can allow you to draw a lot of cards. Suppose you bitch into Multani (-3 cards), then bitch into Lyna (+2 cards). You would draw five brand new cards — which can really help you find that Counterspell, Wrath of God, Naturalize, or whatnot.

An additional Bitch strategy is the double-Bitch. Suppose that I have a normal, low-powered Vanguard card showing, like Selenia. Now, I have a decent number of creatures out. I declare attacks, and I attack several different players — my creatures do not tap. Before blockers are declared, I bitch into Lyna: Now my creatures will be getting through for sure. After blockers are declared, I bitch into Mishra (or Maraxus or Multani) and kill several players with one attack. Now my creatures are untapped, have dealt a lot of damage, and will deal double damage to my remaining foes. That was all caused by using the cards together.

Another example of the double-bitch is Sisay. Bitch into Sisay, tap all of your lands, and then Bitch into something like Urza and use that mana to deal a lot of damage.

Remember that, no matter how bad the Vanguard card, there is always a Bitch strategy. If you are staring down three attackers after your opponent killed your blockers, feel free to bitch into Karn and block the attacks with a 4/4 Jayemdae Tome, 2/2 Scroll Rack and 6/6 Planar Portal. You can Bitch into anything — and Karn isn’t even that great of a card!

Vanguard has added a lot of fun to our table. The cards were worth it, and we play with Vanguard on a very regular basis. In our group, a lot of multiplayer ideas are fads; we only played Limited Infinity for a little while, we only used Alongi’s Mercenary idea for a bit, we only used the “random” enchantment game for a month, and so on. But we have played with Vanguard for over two years since its introduction to our playgroup. It is simply one of the best ideas Wizards of the Coast ever had for the game. Feel free to experiment around with it, and I’m sure that you’ll love it as much as we do.

Until later,
Abe Sargent