The Charbelcher, The Highlander, And The Phantom: A Tale Of Three Rogue Decks

I’ve been holding back the rogue in me for months…. And I can’t stand it any longer. The release of Saviors of Kamigawa provides an ideal time to reexamine rogue strategies. If they didn’t work before, maybe a new card or two in Saviors will push an old rogue concept over the top. So let’s take a look at 12-land Belcher, Gifts Ungiven Control, and a U/R Fish-style deck.

I’ve been holding back the rogue in me for months…. And I can’t stand it any longer. I need to praise hidden gems of cards. Hopefully, I’ll even convince you along the way that these decks are good.

With the release of Saviors of Kamigawa – I just got back from the Prerelease – now is an ideal time to reexamine rogue strategies. If they didn’t work before, maybe a new card or two in Saviors will push an old rogue concept over the top.

Even if you try to do something different and it totally fails, it will still be worthwhile. In order to put a new card set into perspective and ferret out all of the potentially broken combos and synergies, you have to be the rogue. After all, some of the best decks in the history of Magic have used apparently “bad” cards like Donate, Infernal Contract, and Temporal Aperture.

The Big Four

But even the most imaginative rogue needs to know his enemy (a.k.a. the metagame). Right now (pre-Saviors), I think there are four decks that have to be in any playtesting gauntlet:

I covered Ponza in my last article, but the fourth deck may be a little surprising. I’m talking about the version that splashes black (Cranial Extraction) and possibly blue as well (Meloku the Clouded Mirror). It’s a hell of a deck. It has enough mana acceleration to stymie Ponza’s LD. With Plow Under and Cranial Extraction, it can also show Tooth and Nail who is boss. Against MUC, you have Troll Ascetic, and can prevent Vedalken Shackles from sticking around thanks to Viridian Zealot and an assist from Eternal Witness.

Yes, there are other decks kicking around too, like various G/X builds and White Weenie, but none of these decks seem to have the power, consistency, and all the bases covered like these four.

Speaking of Green decks…

Three factors prompted the birth of this deck: First, killing opponents with Belching is great fun. Second (and this was right after MUC made a big splash at Paris Regionals), I wanted to ensure that Vedalken Shackles couldn’t steal any impressive creatures. Finally, with the most impressive land-thinning array of spells ever assembled in Standard, making this deck work almost seemed like fate.

I know. The deck looks absolutely terrible. I can see the questions now.

How do you survive with just twelve lands?

It’s much easier than it looks: Throw in the Moxes and you really have sixteen lands, so you usually draw one or two of them in your opening grip. With Birds, Tops, Rampant Growth, Reaches, Elders, Elves, and Jens, there are twenty-six other spells that help you develop your mana base.

Is Rending Vines really necessary?

This slot used to be occupied by Tel-Jilad Justice, but since all the artifacts (mainly Umezawa’s Jitte and Sword of Fire and Ice) have low casting costs and don’t impact the game before turn two, Rending Vines seems almost strictly superior. Even if your opponent isn’t playing any artifacts, destroying an extra Top or Jens is a fine way to dig deeper and put the finishing touch on you combo.

What’s with Sword of Fire and Ice?

It’s no secret that the Sword is a house against Ponza and MUC. With all the mana acceleration in Belcher, dropping a Sword early and swinging with what used to be an irrelevant creature becomes a non-Belching path to victory. The Sword turns all the dorky mana accelerators into threats. To look at it another way, the Sword provides a Green deck with a way to remove troublesome creatures, like Zo-Zu the Punisher or Vulshok Sorcerer.

With so few win cards, how do you beat MUC?

It’s a tough matchup, but with enough experience with the deck it’s quite winnable. Between Extraction, Swords, Belchers, and Witnesses (to replay one of the previous cards), you have fifteen real threats… and I’ve yet to see a version of MUC that plays 14 counters. Plus, the “best” blue spell that says “no” is Hinder. While putting an Arc-Slogger on the bottom of Ponza’s deck is just as good as the classic counterspell, Hinder is nowhere near as good against a deck that thins out all of its lands, manipulates draws with the Top, and is filled with eighteen shuffle effects. A spell put on the bottom never stays there for long.

Another problem for MUC is Belcher’s explosiveness. With all the mana acceleration, playing around Mana Leak and Condescend or casting multiple threats in the same turn is not very hard. On the play, Belcher can cast Sword of Fire and Ice, or – and now I’m pushing it – Cranial Extraction before MUC even has enough mana to counter.

How about the Tooth matchup?

Basically, you’re on the Cranial Extraction plan. You have four Tops and tons of deck-thinning and mana acceleration spells. I think you have a better chance at getting the Extraction off before Tooth and Nail with entwine gets you. Sideboarding in Plow Under makes the match-up much better.

What about Ponza?

Ponza doesn’t have enough land destruction to put a significant dent in Belcher’s mana production. While Ponza does have Slith Firewalker, Belcher can produce a steady stream of chump blockers. Once you survive the initial onslaught, keeping Ponza’s attackers in check with a Belcher is not very hard.

The biggest threat is that Ponza will burn you out. Consequently, you want to fill the board with creatures and let them take one for the team whenever possible. It’s also worth noting that if Ponza is running Vulshok Sorcerer the match-up gets much worse for Belcher.

With an early Sword of Fire and Ice, you don’t even need to worry about that stuff above. It Takes five mana to play Hearth Kami and destroy the Sword. By then, the Sword will have put you in an overwhelmingly favorable position.

How about Beacon?

Cranial Extraction nullifies the deck’s namesake. However, if your opponent knows you’re on the Big Belch plan, and is playing Extractions too, you should Extract his or her Extractions first, since you have no way of winning without that artifact that taps to deal lethal damage. Beyond that, the green deck has trouble setting a fast clock and punching past all your chump blockers. Sword of Fire and Ice on Birds of Paradise or Goblin Charbelcher should take control of the game.

Tell me about the sideboard?

That’s not a question, but I’ll let it slide. It’s pretty sketchy right now. The anti-Tooth, anti-MUC, and anti-Beatdown cards should be pretty obvious. Oblivion Stone looks kind of bad, since it destroys your own stuff like Birds, Moxes, and Trellises, but it seems like your best bet against White Weenie and it offers flexibility against random decks that use enchantments. Pithing Needle answers annoyances such as Arc-Slogger, Kumano, Master Yamabushi, and Vedalken Shackles.

Level with me; why do you really like this deck?

Well, I already mentioned that the kill mechanism is really sweet. Beyond that, it’s a green deck that breaks the rules. Thanks to artifacts you get to manipulate the library so much that blue mages get jealous and Goblin Charbelcher is a seven-mana Fireball that reads: “Your opponent takes lethal damage and then some.”

There are some other nice tricks too. Charbelcher and Top make a nice combination. The Top ensures that you always Belch for two to three damage, and after Belcher goes off you get to see a bunch of new cards with the Top.

Even when the chips are stacked against you and you face imminent demise, you get to scare opponents with a blind Belch and steal a game every now and then.

Next up is a control deck that has been showing lots of promise: Like the previous deck, it’s designed around a particular card – the same card that Gadiel Szleifer used to take first place at Pro Tour: Philadelphia.

While using Gifts Ungiven in combination with one-ofs and Eternal Witness is not a new strategy, it’s one that hasn’t gotten much press, and I haven’t seen a build like mine yet.

Where I play Friday Night Magic, a number of people have been experimenting with five-color Green decks that abuse Gifts Ungiven. I can see the appeal. Going all out with spells like Etched Oracle and Bringer of the White Dawn gives you extra style points, aside from the fact that these cards are very powerful when you can produce five colors of mana. On the other hand, this capability comes at the cost of consistent draws and vulnerability to Ponza. Plus, you have to ask yourself: Aren’t there enough powerful cards in Blue and Green to power up Gifts Ungiven?

Almost enough. I had to dip into Black for some extra insurance against Tooth and Nail and Beacon Green.

Looking at all the one-ofs can make you dizzy, so I’ll break it down into manageable chunks. Here are some examples of Gifts piles to offer your opponents in various circumstances.

Anti-Tooth Plan

Cranial Extraction

Plow Under


Eternal Witness


Troll Ascetic

Cranial Extraction

Sword of Fire and Ice

Eternal Witness




Sakura-Tribe Elder

Sword of Fire and Ice

Anti-Beacon Green

Cranial Extraction

Plow Under

Engineered Explosives

Eternal Witness


Viridian Zealot

Rending Vines

Viridian Shaman

Eternal Witness

Win Now

Meloku the Clouded Mirror

Keiga the Tide Star

Rude Awakening

Eternal Witness

Your fourth card with Gifts should almost always be Eternal Witness, especially if you have plenty of mana to replay all the other Witnesses in the graveyard. Once you reach the late stage of the game, the infinite Witness (thereby infinite anything) plan opens up, thanks to Echoing Truth and Crystal Shard. Find your best one-of for a given match-up and recycle it until your opponent croaks.

I’m not going to lie – the sideboard is an overly romantic mess right now. While the deck is significantly Highlander, I doubt that the sideboard needs to be entirely so. Nevertheless, the power of Gifts Ungiven/Eternal Witness along with all the tempting sideboard options merit testing and if I had enough free time, I’d start with the Highlander approach and weed out the cards that are underperformers.

Mirrodin’s Core? Are you really playing that?

I loved it in my U.S. Nationals deck last year and I think it’s awesome in this deck too. The Core acts as another – albeit slow – Island or Forest when you need to Gifts in order to fix your mana or fend off Ponza. It is strictly better than the seventh Island, since all of the blue spells are meant for the late game. The Core also is a second land that produces black mana, which is handy with Extraction. Finally, the mana of any color gives Engineered Explosives extra oomph, and it can even allow you do crazy things after Bribery, such as activating a stolen Arc-Slogger or Kumano, Master Yamabushi.

What else would you like to see in the maindeck?

A Triskelion and/or Duplicant would be nice. The extra removal is obviously welcome, but what’s also really great is that they become reusable with Crystal Shard or the double Witness/Echoing Truth combo.

I could also be convinced that Iwamori or a single Beacon of Creation deserves a slot. Both cards provide great beatdown and great blockers. Iwamori’s trample is particularly nice with Sword of Fire and Ice.

So far, I’ve covered combo and control. Let’s add a little aggro to the latter, and swap out the red spells for green ones.

What is going on here? Let’s start with the good.

Mana Curve

1: 4

2: 18

3: 5

4: 3

5: 7

It doesn’t get much smoother than that, with the notable exception of the five-slot. I can explain: the problem is Tooth and Nail. Without Bribery or a bad draw on your opponent’s side, I have no idea how this deck stands a chance against Tooth in game one.


It’s a motley crew, but overall the men are efficient and all of them possess useful abilities, so they are also quite flexible. Spiketail Hatchling and Phantom Warrior deserve a special mention: The Hatchling is buys you a crucial free turn against most decks, and since it flies it’s also very equipment-friendly.

Phantom Warrior makes Troll Ascetic look bad. The Phantom never gets chump blocked. You don’t have to stall your board development holding back mana for its regeneration shield before attacking. Plus, the Phantom backstabs opponents with Jittes and Swords like no other creature. Yeah, yeah, it can be targeted by burn and Shackles, but this is a blue creature – you can’t get too demanding.

Board Control

Between red burn and bounce, this deck does an excellent job controlling your opponent’s side of the board, whether you’re facing off against hordes of Insect tokens, artifacts, or fat ground-pounders (which means your blue men carry the day).

All this board control is especially brutal when you’re attacking with Thieving Magpie or your creatures are wielding Swords or Jittes. Better yet, how about attacking with a Magpie that’s wearing the Sword?

Alright, I know you’re leading up to the drawbacks….

Yes. The mana demands on this deck are painful, and adding another City of Brass might be necessary. Anytime you have RR and UU in a deck without good dual lands, you’re flirting with color screw.

In addition, game one against Tooth and Nail is pretty rough. You might draw Bribery and cast it in time or your opponent might lose due to an abnormally slow start – “might” being the key word. Hopefully, the combination of Sowing Salt and Bribery after sideboarding pushes you over the top.

So unlike the other two decks I’ve showcased, this one has some obvious problems and weaknesses. On the other hand, it also possesses the greatest amount of raw power and synergy. Usually, that’s a fair trade to make.

A General Note On Sideboards:

I haven’t had time to tune any of these sideboards. Right now, they are very raw. I just threw in some cards that seem like they will be good for various match-ups. I was tempted to avoid sideboards entirely, but that seemed like the easy way out, and I wanted to provide some sort of starting point.

Pithing Needle needs to be singled out. While I don’t think it’s going to be a $30 rare, as one person was claiming – hopefully in jest – at the Saviors prerelease, it looks like it has tremendous potential against MUC. At one mana, slipping it past counterspells is easy, and a single Needle shuts down all copies of Vedalken Shackles. It also turns Meloku into an overcosted Wind Drake.

So there you have it; three rogue decks that show promise. I’ve already begun incorporating Saviors cards into the decks, but this is only the beginning. Hopefully, Saviors will unleash many more rogue decks.

Take it easy,


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