The Daru Lancer Dilemma: Gustcloak!

As a quick look at my credentials, I’m qualified for Venice and I’ll be qualified for Yokohama based on my Limited rating, so I should hopefully be seen on the Pro Tour for a long time… And I’m here to tell you that as important as tempo is – after all, how many games are ended by Dirge of Dread or Wave of Indifference? – the Lancer only gives you early-game tempo when he’s blocked.

It’s good to be back.

You may or may not know that I used to write for Star City, but I moved on to writing for the Magic Online website after just a few articles. However, a part of me always missed writing for this site, as I respect the people behind it and I respect what it does for the community. I especially always looked forward to installments of the Dilemma series.

Ken (who is a good friend of mine) can tell you that each and every midnight when a Dilemma article went up, I would message him and tell him that he was completely crazy, either for this reason or that one – or, more likely, both reasons. I’m not sure if that’s what convinced him to bring me on as Nick’s replacement, but at least he can be confident that I’ll put up a good fight time after time. As a quick look at my credentials, I’m qualified for Venice and I’ll be qualified for Yokohama based on my Limited rating (and a 1-0 drop in Boston), so I should hopefully be seen on the Pro Tour for a long time.

But onto the subject at hand…

White in Onslaught, as a color, is much like Wretched Anurid: Many people hate it, some people love it, and very few have no opinion. Maybe I have a soft spot for under appreciated Magic cards, but I like the white ones much more than most. Not only do you benefit from other people’s distaste by picking up solid White cards late, but I’ve never had a problem winning with the color in the first place. Brian Kibler, another obvious supporter of the color, showed the danger of leaving White underdrafted in the recent top eight at Boston. There were even two mono-white decks in Boston, which is a good sign of how much people are starting to dislike the color.

The best common in Onslaught white, without a doubt, is Pacifism. For two mana you can shut down any opposing creature, regardless of creature type, color, size, or cost. The hope is that the disadvantage of letting the creature stick around becomes incidental, which is sometimes but not always the case. Regardless, the card is invaluable as an proactive or reactive threat against large beasts, bomb rares that need to attack, and opposing fliers.

The dilemma shows up when we arrive at the second best white common. Ken believes that this card should be Daru Lancer. While the Lancer is indeed a fine creature, I’m not even confident that it makes it into third. Instead, I’m sticking with most people’s initial take on the white commons, which is that Gustcloak Harrier easily takes the second spot.

As a Magic player, I would say that I”grew up” during Odyssey block. My first PTQ was during Odyssey, a block where cards like Aven Fisher, Gloomdrifter, and Battlewise Aven taught me that if you want an early game 2/2 flier, you’re almost always going to have to pay four mana. Three mana would get you Dusk Imp (a fine card that moved up in value due to its aggressive qualities), or Skywing Aven (a great card), but both of those lacked a point in the toughness department. Along came Gustcloak Harrier, a flier that is not only 2/2 but also has a beneficial ability, and I was duly impressed.

As I played with the card, that respect only grew. Turn 2 Glory Seeker, turn 3 Harrier, turn four Dive Bomber or Gustcloak Skirmisher is a start that’s hard to match. Who needs morph? I play my guys as they are; you can spend the extra turns to flip yours over. In straight Onslaught draft, this invariably leads to tempo advantage.

Detractors of the Harrier will say that the ability is rarely used and is much better suited to a groundpounder like Gustcloak Sentinel. I won’t try to dispute the second part of that statement, but the first is not entirely true. Usually when your opponent has a morph and mana open of the appropriate amount and color, you have to consider leaving your flier back. Is that a Spitting Gourna, the new green Second Thoughts? It gets even worse with Wingbeat Warrior in Legions, as that guy is extremely adept at ambushing fliers. With the Harrier, you can attack and force your opponent’s hand, then back out if the trade is poor for you. In addition, two or more Harriers can team together to continually hit for damage through a smaller number of blockers, without any trades or losses.

Like Ken says, both the Harrier and the Lancer initially come out on turn 3. The Harrier has a much tougher mana requirement at this point, but the beauty of morph is that you should always have another play if you can’t drop the flier. Even in the worst case where the Harrier is stuck in your hand for a few turns, its low casting cost is beneficial as you’ll probably be able to play it and a morph simultaneously on turn six or whenever you have the second plains. However, the fact that the Lancer also requires double white to be anything other than a mysterious gray ogre allows me to pretty much move on to the case where we do have perfect mana.

So, we’re going first and we have a morphed Daru Lancer in play. On our fourth turn, we play a fourth land, at least two of which are white, and attack. If our opponent has played an evasion creature like Harrier or Severed Legion, he’s certainly not blocking.

But it’s more likely he played a morph. Now does he block?

In White, the commons Daru Lancer and Gravel Slinger punish him greatly for blocking, whereas no creature punishes him for taking the two. If your other color is Black, he might be afraid of Haunted Cadaver, but I don’t need to reiterate how much tempo one loses by unmorphing and sacrificing Cadaver on the fourth turn, so most good players don’t even worry about that possibility. If your other color is Red, it is reasonable for your opponent to fear Skirk Commando, but only if his morph is good enough that he doesn’t want to lose it. In that case, he can’t possibly block, because he has no untapped mana and no way to prevent something that is at best a trade. That leaves us with only one real reason that an opponent would block, which is that his morph is bad enough that he has no qualms about throwing it out there as a vanilla 2/2 and he figures he might as well gamble that yours can’t morph into something bigger.

In that case, you reveal your 3/4 first striker and smash his morph into the ground. As Ken will tell you, your position is pretty good here, as you have a fairly strong creature staring down his empty board. The problem is that, against many decks, even this position isn’t that strong. As soon as your opponent starts dropping Barkhide Maulers, your Daru Lancer is probably relegated to defense. Worse, Daru Lancer has to slog through annoying hindrances like Wirewood Herald and symbiotic creatures in order to actually damage your opponent.

But that’s not even the likely case. More likely, he doesn’t block and you’re back where you started, as the only creature worth morphing up against no blocks is Exalted Angel. Now that is a creature that is worth spreading seven mana over turns 3 and 4 on. Remember that until you spend that second turn and that extra four mana, Daru Lancer is nothing. It is a 2/2 for three mana. Granted, eventually a situation will arise where you want to do this, but usually that is late in the game.

Remember, the Lancer only gives you early game tempo when it has been blocked.

Gustcloak Harrier, on the other hand, is a very aggressive turn 3 play. It’s going to keep coming across for two, turn after turn, unless your opponent can remove it or keep a blocker on the board. Even when a flying blocker such as Screeching Buzzard appears, you can always attack bluffing Piety Charm or some other trick, and back out if the block occurs. And even if you do trade, you’re very much ahead on tempo as you’ve traded your three-mana play for their four-mana play. If you have a fair amount of removal in your deck, it’s not hard to keep clearing a path for the Harrier by burning enemy fliers to a crisp, while using your other creatures to handle enemy ground forces.

Early damage and tempo is a huge advantage in this format. How many games are ended by Dirge of Dread or Wave of Indifference? Quite a few, and all of them require your opponent to be at a lower life total than the combined power of your creatures. The player who starts off on his back foot, behind in the tempo race, has a much harder time fulfilling this requirement.

The Harrier also benefits from being a soldier earlier than the Lancer. That sounds like a funny statement, and it is. But think about how good being a soldier is in Onslaught draft! You have Daru Encampment, Piety Charm, Pearlspear Courier, and even rares like Aven Brigadier, Shared Triumph, and Mobilization. Gustcloak Harrier is made stronger by these as soon as it hits the table. Daru Lancer? You’ve got to either spend the six mana up front or spend the two turns before he is available in his full soldier glory.

In Chicago, two of my four losses were to aggressive white decks that curved out beautifully. Two out of three games, Scott Wills played white creatures on turns two through four and then topped it off with Menacing Ogre. What can I possibly do? White has better two drops than any other color (Glory Seeker, Whipcorder, Catapult Squad, plus more in Legions) and benefits most from following up with an evasion creature. One of the benefits of starting with turn 2 Glory Seeker is that you’ve already fulfilled the Onslaught quasi-requirement of playing an early 2/2. The Seeker can do the fighting with the enemy’s first morph while the Harrier goes to town through the air.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say. Here’s my pick order for Onslaught white, although let me qualify by saying I haven’t done much Legions drafting at all, so it hasn’t been influenced by that set much yet. Keep in mind that I value aggressive cards in white like Glory Seeker higher than most and defensive cards like Daru Cavalier lower than most.

  1. Pacifism

  2. Gustcloak Harrier

  3. Glory Seeker

  4. Daru Lancer (can move up to 3rd if you somehow have enough two drops)

  5. Dive Bomber

  6. Piety Charm (moves way down if the deck isn’t primarily soldiers)

  7. Daunting Defender (moves up to 3rd or 4th in the cleric deck)

  8. Gravel Slinger

  9. Battlefield Medic

  10. Daru Healer

  11. Daru Cavalier (can move up if you already have one or two)

  12. Renewed Faith

  13. Disciple of Grace

  14. Grassland Crusader (moves up in white-green or heavy soldier decks)

  15. Sandskin (moves up in white-blue or decks with lots of evasion)

Demystify and Crown of Awe are notable sideboard cards. Almost all of the picks above depend on if you’re drafting soldiers or clerics, but I tried to note the ones that change more than usual. The color is very deep, while admittedly less powerful than the other colors. Despite that, I feel that the depth allows it to win, especially in its current underdrafted status.

Anyway, send me feedback if you disagree or want to discuss something, and I’ll do my best to respond in a timely fashion. Thanks for reading.

Paul Sottosanti

Team CMU

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