The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Zendikar Decks

SCG 10K Philadelphia... the first major event featuring Zendikar!
Thursday, September 24th – With Zendikar shaping up nicely, Magic’s great and good are beginning to throw together exciting deck ideas. In today’s Dragonmaster’s Lair, Brian Kibler takes on a number of interesting strategies, suggesting builds for Lotus Cobra, Mono-Black, and Cascade Aggro…

My article last week talked about many of the Zendikar cards we’d seen so far at that point, but its publication was unfortunately timed. Between when I wrote it and when it went up, WotC dropped a bomb of a spoiler on the Magic community — Lotus Cobra. From the moment its existence was confirmed, every Magic forum was abuzz (or a-twitter, in the case of Twitter) with talk of the card. Mike Flores claimed it was a card on the level of Mind’s Desire. Others likened it to a Dark Ritual every turn, or even that granddaddy of all broken Magic cards which is its namesake — Black Lotus.

Lotus Cobra is none of these things. As I mentioned in the forums of my last article, and which Patrick Chapin quoted in his article earlier this week, “I’m not saying Lotus Cobra won’t be a very good card – I think it will be. I’m just saying people are looking too much at the best case scenarios with it and evaluating it based on that, but building decks to maximize those scenarios feels like it will be very high variance to me. It’s not the greatest card of all time — it’s only a tribute.”

Tenacious D references aside, and with a few more days to reflect on the card’s potential, I still feel the same way. Lotus Cobra is a card that will be a powerful tool for decks properly built to take advantage of it and a trap to for those who try to build decks based on it. These Magical Christmas Land scenarios (thank you, Evan, for that card image that completely cracked me up) involving Bird into Lotus Cobra and Harrow with two fetchlands to Violent Eruption turn 3 just aren’t realistic, and decks built around them are going to be terrible. Similar to these Warp World/Ob Nixilis I’ve seen floating around, they are simply going too far.

Now, I’m a man who likes big spells, but not when playing them is so dependent on the perfect hand. I much prefer powerful, consistent effects that have the chance to be explosive when the right circumstances come up. This is my initial thoughts on what a (admittedly completely untested) Lotus Cobra deck might look like:

Cobra Knight

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Baneslayer Angel
3 Rampaging Baloth
4 Ajani Vengeant
3 Garruk Wildspeaker
3 Maelstrom Pulse
3 Bituminous Blast
4 Arid Mesa
4 Verdant Marshland
1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
2 Sunpetal Grove
1 Swamp
2 Savage Lands
1 Rootbound Crag
2 Jungle Shrine
3 Forest
3 Plains
1 Mountain

The first thing you’ll notice here is that the mana for this deck is incredibly ugly because it wants to use so many fetchlands to power Lotus Cobra. If a deck wants to play most of the powerful gold cards from Shards of Alara, it’s going to be hard to find a deck that naturally wants to run as many fetchlands as Lotus Cobra needs to be especially powerful. Each Shard only has one natural fetchland to play, the opposing pair around the central color, and in order to take full advantage of more a deck needs to branch into a fourth color. Unlike in Extended, where any fetchland in Naya Zoo can fetch any color (or even combination of colors) that is missing, in Standard we only get basic lands, so it’s a lot harder to make a manabase with a bunch of fetchlands that easily supports a three or four color deck. Yes, Lotus Cobra produces any color of mana, but we can’t always rely on Lotus Cobra surviving long enough to fix our color problems.

In any case, the idea behind this deck is to power out 4-6 cost spells on the back of Lotus Cobra and Birds of Paradise. Accelerating out either Ajani or Garruk is extremely powerful against any kind of control decks (and the latter can provide for even more acceleration on future turns), and Baneslayer Angel is obviously the queen of the skies against any kind of beatdown deck. One of the most potent cards here, though, is Knight of the Reliquary. This particular deck probably doesn’t take as much advantage of Knight of the Reliquary as it could because it doesn’t have enough Plains and Forests, but fetchlands can quickly make the Knight a huge threat and it provides mana acceleration even on its own — and even more with a Lotus Cobra in play. I expect Knight of the Reliquary to shoot up in price now that it has both fetchlands to fuel it and landfall cards to fuel, so pick them up now.

Consider this sequence of plays:

Turn 1: Forest, Birds of Paradise
Turn 2: Plains, Knight of the Reliquary
Turn 3: Lotus Cobra, Arid Mesa, sac for Mountain, Knight away Forest for Forest, play second Knight of the Reliquary. (Or no Lotus Cobra and just tap all, Knight away a land, and play Baneslayer)
Turn 4: Play Verdant Marshland, sac for Swamp, play Rampaging Baloths. Now your board is 2 5/5s and a 6/6 with the ability to create two more 4/4s at instant speed and boost your 5/5s to 7/7!

Magical Christmas land? Maybe. But each of these cards is powerful on its own, and the same draw would still be competitive with any of the elements missing. This is where I feel Lotus Cobra is most likely to find a competitive home — inside a deck in which it is a powerful component, but one that does not rely on the Cobra for its plan to come together. Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, and Rampaging Baloth are all powerful cards in their own right that all have synergy with fetchlands and each other.

To get off of the topic of Lotus Cobra, another subject that has gotten a lot of attention as more cards have been spoiled is the return of Mono-Black. Mono-Black decks thrived during the days of Torment in the form of both aggressive decks featuring Nantuko Shade and Braids, and control decks sporting Mutilate and Mind Sludge. While Zendikar has shown no signs of filling the role of Mutilate or Nantuko Shade, it has brought with it the return of Mind Sludge, along with a whole crew of vampires who are just looking for a home.

Here’s my initial take on what the face of Mono-Black might look like in the new world:

Mono-Black Aggro-Control

4 Vampire Lacerator
4 Bloodghast
4 Vampire Hexmage
4 Gatekeeper of Mandokir
4 Vampire Nocturnus
2 Ob-Nixilis, The Fallen
3 Doom Blade
1 Hideous End
3 Duress
2 Mind Sludge
2 Sorin Markov
3 Sign in Blood
20 Swamps
4 Verdant Marshland

The new vampires form a very efficient aggro-control beatdown package and give the previously lonely Vampire Nocturnus from M10 a more than appropriate home. Depending on the metagame, this deck may want cards like Tendrils of Corruption in the main deck over Duress or Mind Sludge, but right now this deck is designed to present quick must-answer threats in the form of efficient creatures (particularly when pumped by Nocturnus) and support those early threats with gamebreakers like Mind Sludge, Ob-Nixilis, and Sorin Markov. The deck can very easily play an attrition game against control with Bloodghasts coming back. The fetchlands are in the deck as a result of their synergy with Bloodghasts to bring them back multiple times as well as to give you a shuffle with Vampire Nocturnus when you end up with a land on top.

I don’t know if you can build a true Mono-Black Control deck without a real sweeper like Mutilate or Damnation, but what you can make right now might look something like this:

Mono-Black Control

4 Tendrils of Corruption
3 Disfigure
4 Doom Blade
3 Infest
4 Mind Sludge
3 Duress
2 Sorin Markov
2 Liliana Vess
1 Haunting Echoes
4 Gatekeeper of Mandokir
1 Ob-Nixilis, The Fallen
4 Sign in Blood
2 Armillary Sphere
24 Swamps

Armillary Sphere is better than lands 25-26 here, since it’s basically a card drawing spell that gets you two lands, which is what you want much of the time to power up Tendrils and Mind Sludge anyway. I prefer just playing basic swamps in here over the aggro-control deck since you don’t have any landfall other than Ob-Nixilis and preserving your life total is more important. It’s quite likely that a deck like this just can’t work in the age of planeswalkers, since you have no legitimate way to deal with an opposing Ajani (not to mention a Luminarch Ascension) other than Duressing it before it lands, and you’re just at a massive disadvantage to any sort of real control decks, against which your huge amount of creature removal is largely dead. I suppose you could play Consume Spirit as a planeswalker answer, but without an effect like Cabal Coffers it’s hard to make Drain Life effects exciting, and you’ll never be able to tackle an Ajani’s loyalty counters if it comes down early.

Despite the tools Mono-Black might have right now, I think it still may be better to get a little more colorful if this card is real:

Bloodchief Ascension
At the beginning of each player’s end step, if an opponent lost 2 or more life this turn, you may put a quest counter on Bloodchief Ascension.
Whenever a card is put into an opponent’s graveyard from anywhere, if Bloodchief Ascension has three or more quest counters on it, you may have that player lose 2 life. If you do, you gain 2 life.

This card just seems completely bonkers to me if it’s real, especially at the cost of just B. If you can do two damage to your opponent over three separate turns, you get to drain them for two every time a card goes to their graveyard? That’s even more exciting to me than Sygg was, since even once you got through with him a few times they could still shut him down — this just turns on and it’s on for good. And it’s an enchantment, so it’s not vulnerable to creature removal like Sygg. If it is real, I could see it going into a deck like this:

Cascade Ascension Aggro

4 Vampire Lacerator
4 Putrid Leech
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Anathamancer
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Bloodchief Ascension
4 Blightning
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Burst Lightning
4 Verdant Marshland
4 Savage Lands
4 Dragonskull Summit
3 Rootbound Crag
4 Forest
5 Swamp

This deck probably needs Doom Blade to deal with Baneslayer Angel in the real world, but my goal here is mostly to highlight the power of the Ascension. If you play turn 1 Swamp, Vampire Lacerator, you can play the quest on turn 2 and attack, and play either Lightning Bolt or Burst Lightning on your opponent’s turn, and then have the quest active at the end of your third turn! Bloodchief Ascension makes Blightning deal 7 damage, gain you 4 life, and make your opponent discard two cards for three mana. It turns every creature removal spell into Hideous End and then some, every creature trade hugely profitable, and every fetchland they use into a huge cost. If this card is real, I imagine it will be one of the most powerful cards in the set, one that every deck will have to be prepared to handle. In fact, I would not be surprised after seeing a number of the quest cards so far if enchantment removal in general becomes much more prominent. The quests and expeditions all seem fairly potent, and all of the Ascensions seem extremely powerful when they get online.

That’s all I have for this week. Next week I’ll talk about my experiences at the pre-release and my thoughts on the set once all is revealed. As always, if you have any particular questions or thoughts for upcoming articles, let me know in the forums or via Twitter @bmkibler.

Until next time…