Well, I’m back. Cue the “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
There have been a slew of new and intriguing decks that have recently come as a result of the various nationwide qualifiers from this past weekend. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them are new contenders, it’s always nice to see people sit down and come up with brand new decks as opposed to playing the same stale, old fare. Mine own experience with the past weekend’s tournament was a bit underwhelming. I ended up building a deck “on the fly,” as it were; I was looking to use a couple of cards that a friend was bringing to the tournament site, but their trip was unexpectedly delayed and they ended up arriving well past the deadline for decklists to be turned in. I played a deck that I made been toying around with before, and would actually have been interested in writing about it except for two things: I ended up going a not-very-impressive 2-3; more importantly was the vast array of non-games that occurred. I think that in those five rounds, myself and my opponents had a total of 20 or so mulligans, which made quite a few of the games fairly uninteresting. Perhaps I’ll build the deck in the future online, and do a account of some matches there, especially since most of the deciding matches were “almost got there.”
As opposed to talking about any of the aforementioned interesting decks, the meat of this article will be about a subject that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. One of the main things that defines me as a player, for better or for worse, is my attraction toward underused, under-appreciated cards. I tend to netdeck less, which in turn leads me down the road of building my own deck from scratch, which in turn usually ends up involving some amount of bizarre inclusions that no one in their right mind would or should ever conceivably play in a Constructed game of Magic: the Gathering. Friends of mine berate me for my choices occasionally, saying something along the lines of “Zach, you play such awkward/weird/bad decks,” but that’s usually followed by “But I guess you tend to do well with them, so what do I know?”
One of the main problems that I see many people having is their nearly automatic refusal to accept the unusual. I have witnessed people flat out disagree with a suggested card without even remotely thinking about what the impact of said card may or may not be. Perhaps they will offer up a reason as to why they think it is good, but often their logic isn’t founded in anything other than their already conceived bias of the card. To go a bit further, I think that many people follow what I like to call “pro assistance,” where a card is essentially without merit unless someone, somewhere (usually a prolific writer) has given it validity either in an article or in practice. It is a very human response, to immediately distrust the unfamiliar, but it is a habit that I hope that this article might encourage people to break.
One of my strong suits as a player is finding that random diamond in the rough. While I don’t want to make it the focus of the article, I’d love to bring up what I feel is an interesting example from my one-time deck choice, Time Sieve. While I have since given up on the deck — I feel its weak matches are a bit too weak and it can often just lose to itself — I was for a while playing it exclusively online. When people were originally building and brainstorming ideas about the deck, one card that was often being debated back and forth was Repel the Darkness. It had a parallel with Angelsong, a popular mainstay in the deck, and there were good arguments for both; while Angelsong would straight up stymie an entire attack, Repel the Darkness might accomplish the same goal in addition to drawing a much needed card. We know now, as I believe it’s been tried in the deck and proven ineffective, that Repel is a no go and Angelsong is the better fog machine for the job. Perhaps it was because it was easier to protect Tezzeret on turn 5 with Angelsong, perhaps exalted is too much of a popular and effective countermeasure Repel to be useful.
There is a card in Standard right now that is extremely similar to Repel the Darkness, and yet, I’m fairly sure no one has remotely suggested it: Esper Sojourners. I’ll wait for your uproarious laughter to subside.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I’d like the chance to talk about why I think this card is actually, despite everything to the contrary, quite good.
First, let us examine the similarities between the two. First, they are both (essentially) 3-casting cost spells that accomplish a similar effect while drawing a card. That makes them much easier to evaluate when compared to one another than apples and oranges. For the cons, Repel the Darkness taps two creatures which, to be fair, is a major deterrent as it literally stops double the amount of creatures that Esper Sojourners does. As far as downsides go though… that’s it. Now for the positives:
Esper Sojourners cycles. This is a minor point, but a relevant one in terms of it being uncounterable. While your Repel the Darkness is not likely to be the target of a counterspell (there’s probably more important things Negate could be hitting), it is always nice to think of the upsides. Also, since the Sojourners only require U2 for its cycle cost, it is slightly (although only slightly so) easier on this deck, which runs a much higher concentration of Blue mana than it does White mana.
Next, Esper Sojourners is a creature. It can attack. It can block. Not very well, mind you, but the option is always there, as opposed to Repel the Darkness, which sits around looking rather awkward if your opponent is playing few to no creatures (or something like, say, Malakir Bloodwitch or Sphinx of Jwar Isle).
Past that, Esper Sojourners is an artifact. Now we’re getting into more relevant areas considering that the deck, you know, revolves around artifacts. It can be sacrificed to Time Sieve or Thopter Foundry in a pinch, fetched up via Tezzeret, and resurrected with an Open the Vaults. These are all very important qualities to have, and they interact within the deck in surprising ways. With a Esper Sojourners in play, you have effectively Time Sieve/Open the Vaults with only 5 lands in play by untapping one of your own lands. It doesn’t necessarily let you combo “faster” per se, but it does resolve that awkward scenario where you NEED to Time Sieve and Open in the same turn, but your sixth “land” is a Borderpost. You can also sacrifice your Sojourner to Thopter Foundry to tap down an attacking creature if need be, which effectively can “Fog” two creatures, or perhaps remove an otherwise annoying blocker.
One of my favorite reasons for using unusual cards is the potential for the maximum amount of “Surprise!” potential. Very few people expect to have their lands tapped out of nowhere which, of course, the Sojourners do moderately well. Tapping a Jund player’s land on the third or fourth turn can greatly reduce the momentum of their deck, occasionally straight up Time Walking them (and cantripping at the same time!). More importantly with regard to the tapping mana game though, is in control matchups. Control decks, especially post board, have a nasty habit of siding in annoying counterspells, unsurprisingly Negate. In their attempt to build up their board while maintaining the ability to contain frightening Open the Vaults shenanigans, they will only cast spells if they can leave just enough mana open. That’s when you hit them. I have played with this card online, and the number of times I have EOT tapped one of their two open lands (or their only Blue source) is staggering. The game goes from being a carefully sculpted battle of wits to a cake walk in the blink of an eye.
I write all this not to imply that Esper Sojourners is the bonkers in Time Sieve. It’s certainly not going to take the deck to the next level or anything, but I wanted to use that same logic of “examine everything” in solving the current problem that I have write now named Vengevine. Specifically, I’ve been playing to a much more satisfiable level of success a Grixis list recently which has, while certainly not a unwinnable match up against Naya, nonetheless a very awkward time dealing with the leafed menace. It’s like a Bloodghast on steroids! Not only does it very easily (and often) return to the land of the living, but it wastes no time in smashing its chlorophyll-infused palm against my brain, taking vengeance for every flower I accidentally trod upon.
I sat down and wrote out of a list of all the cards that I could think of that might, in one way shape or form, be able to eradicate, stop, or slow its attack. Many of the cards were not good enough, but I find it helpful to actually sit down and think about why they are not quite cutting the mustard as opposed to, say, ignoring everything that I just mention in the previous 1500 words. Here are some of the more interesting:
This card does something not a lot of removal spells do these days, namely, removing the offending creature from the game. While it unfortunately doesn’t deal enough to actually kill the Vengevine on its own, it can in conjunction with just about any creature I want to throw under the bus. While this may make Magma Spray seem like an unlikely candidate, it does have the ability to slow down the ensuing onslaught by providing additional ways to off annoying Birds or Hierarchs. Additionally, Magma Spray has added uses in other matchups such as when it axes other annoying creatures: Bloodghast, Hellspark Elemental, and Hell’s Thunder.
Thought Hemorrhage does its job – it gets rid of all the Vengevines that it can – but the important point to note is that it can’t deal with any already on the board. That fact, coupled with its fairly high cost, makes it an unlikely candidate for what I’m looking for. On the plus side, it is fairly solid when dealing with a wide array of other decks, so it might find its way into the sideboard regardless.
Wall of Fire
This M10 gem is interesting. While not good enough to make the sideboard methinks, consider what it does: It comes down turn 3 and effectively stops the brutal onslaught from a Vengevine or Bloodbraid Elf while also being able to untap and potentially start killing attackers. The reason that it isn’t quite solid enough is that, with even a single Noble Hierarch or Sparkmage, Vengevine no longer has any issue getting past Mr. Wall. I like the lower cost, but Naya’s ability to eke enough power to get by it makes it not worth the effort.
I told you things might get awkward. While this guy seems like the last guy you would want to run in a 60-card deck, he does EXACTLY what a Grixis deck needs right now in regard to Vengevine. He comes down turn 4, blocks it, and then removes it from the game. That is, simply, exactly what we’re looking for. The only problem with this Sojourners is his cost. Sitting at the unenviable cost of 4 mana, he comes down a bit slow against the extremely aggressive Naya deck. His applications in other matchups are somewhat negligible as well, although I could see him perhaps being useful in, say, Time Sieve.
This guy provides, for the same semi-awkward cost as the Sojourner, a different level of defense against Vengevine and, indeed, Naya as a whole. With the exception of Knight of the Reliquary, none of Naya’s creatures can profitably attack through this guy, what with his first-strike and all, making the Ogre a very mean wall. There are exceptions: multiple instances of exalted can make an attacker too large to block; an active Knight means that Sejiri Steppe can spell curtains for the Fire-Fiend as well. Those are two corner cases that I’m willing to deal with. He’s definitely a card I might want to test.
As a side note, I’m generally assuming Naya has few ways to deal with any creature I might put in its way. They run almost no removal aside from a few Paths and perhaps some Oblivion Rings in the sideboard, and Sparkmage/Collar, but the former probably won’t be brought in and the latter is typically weak considering it is a two-card creature-based combo against a deck that, simply put, kills stuff. They are by no means invincible, but I find that they accomplish their intended goal for the most part.
I’ve actually played with this guy before in a similar vein and been highly impressed with him as a sideboard option. While he doesn’t “kill” Vengevine, he does greatly reduce his effectiveness as he just sits in its way and block all day long, buying a very valuable commodity for Grixis: time. He actually blocks a vast majority of the Naya deck, everything except Ranger of Eos, and can even eat some, like Bloodbraid, for value. He completely negates the concept of Exalted, as they will need to attack with more than one creature to get by him. His UB casting cost is perfect as well, as it is very easily obtainable by the second or third turn. Finally, he’s actually proven to be quite good against Jund as well, since he blocks most of their team, all except Siege-gang or Lavaclaw Reaches, and they can’t even Pulse him! (They can still Bolt / Terminate him though, yes.) I definitely look forward to taking this guy for a test drive.
I hope that these few examples inspire some of the outside-the-box thinking that I am such a fan of. Thomas Edison said it much better than I: “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” He also said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” I’m not sure which one I like more, so I just included both. Write your opinions in the forums. Feel free to fiercely and vehemently decry how stupid the options that I proposed today actually are.
Thanks for reading.