The Long & Winding Road – Eldrazi Limited: First Impressions

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Friday, April 23rd – I didn’t realize how long it’d been since I played Limited until I sat down with my packs last Saturday morning at the Rise of the Eldrazi Prerelease. Prereleases are always a good time, and I love me some giant monsters, so I was extra-pumped for this one. After cracking my packs and sorting out the colors, I took a look at the rares and the Eldrazi. Here’s what I had to work with…

I didn’t realize how long it’d been since I played Limited until I sat down with my packs last Saturday morning at the Rise of the Eldrazi Prerelease. Prereleases are always a good time, and I love me some giant monsters, so I was extra-pumped for this one. After cracking my packs and sorting out the colors, I took a look at the rares and the Eldrazi. Here’s what I had to work with…

Hedron Matrix
Eldrazi Temple
Pestilence Demon
Surrakar Spellblade
Bear Umbra
World at War
Student of Warfare (Foil)

Artisan of Kozilek
Pathrazer of Ulamog
Hand of Emrakul
Not of This World

The rares are actually pretty good, on the whole, but are sadly dispersed clean across the color spectrum. Student of Warfare is among the most aggressive Levelers, if not the most aggressive. Hedron Matrix isn’t broken, but is definitely playable in nearly any limited deck. Pestilence Demon is a bomb if I land in black, and Bear Umbra is very good if I land in Green. Eldrazi Temple might be playable if I run an Eldrazi ramp deck. World at War might work in a Red/Green or Red/Black aggro deck, while Spellblade is relatively weak in Sealed.

Looking at the Eldrazi, they’re nothing great. Artisan is good simply because nine isn’t outside the realm of reasonable in a slower Sealed format. Pathrazer is decent but more or less unplayable if you don’t have ways to cheat or ramp it into play; Hand is weak outside of a dedicated Eldrazi deck. Not of This World is cool, but I don’t really have many targets worth protecting as far as my Eldrazi.

Breaking out the colors, it was obvious immediately that I wanted to be in Blue and White. Black had Pestilence Demon and some removal, but not enough playables to fill out a deck. Green had only seven creatures total, two of which were Sporecap Spider; it also had no ramp cards to speak of. Similarly, Red had Heat Ray and Wrap in Flames, but no Eldrazi ramp creatures and really no way to fill out a playable deck.

In Blue, a number of cards stood out immediately. Enclave Cryptologist, Hada Spy Patrol, Frostwind Invoker, Narcolepsy, and Drake Umbra provided a solid framework supported by some additional Levelers, and two Jwari Scuttler and a Regress to buy time. I also had two Deprive and a Lay Bare.

In White, I had ample removal, including two Smite, a Guard Duty, and a Puncturing Light. This was supported by the Student of Warfare as well as Dawnglare Invoker, Kor Line-Slinger, Kabira Vindicator, Totem-Guide Hartebeest (who could find Guard Duty, Narcolepsy, and Drake Totem), as well as two Emerge Unscathed and two Harmless Assault.

I wasn’t really sure how the format was going to play out, what with this being a prerelease and all, but the deck I finally settled on looked like this:

1 Enclave Cryptologist
1 Skywatcher Adept
1 Student of Warfare
1 Knight of Cliffhaven
1 Hada Spy Patrol
1 Champion’s Drake
1 Kor Line-Slinger
1 Dawnglare Invoker
2 Jwari Scuttler
1 Kabira Vindicator
1 Totem-Guide Hartebeest
1 Frostwind Invoker
1 Artisan of Kozilek
1 Guard Duty
2 Smite
1 Puncturing Light
1 Narcolepsy
1 Drake Umbra
1 Regress
1 Emerge Unscathed
1 Hedron Matrix
9 Plains
8 Island

Key sideboard cards included the second Emerge Unscathed for decks heavy on removal, the Harmless Assaults and Halimar Wavewatch for more aggressive decks, and the two Deprive and the Lay Bare for the ramp decks.

I felt like my deck was solid, but I was only playing two rares and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up with decks packed with synergistic Eldrazi cards. As it turned out, my deck was deceptively powerful. My Levelers were very good, I had the right amount of removal, and I had plenty of evasion creatures to finish off games quickly and decisively. The mana curve of the deck was great, and the colored cost requirements were reasonable enough that I only had to mulligan once on the day, and that was due to a one-land hand on the play.

I ended up sweeping through the four rounds at 4-0, 8-0, definitely exceeding my expectations.

In the first round, I played a mirror match against Paul and won the first game decisively on the back of removal spells. I took early beats from two creatures, going to 12 life, and then dropped to six when Paul played a Totem followed by a Distortion Strike to bring me to 6 and threaten lethal damage, as he had a 5-power creature that would kill me on the Rebound of the Strike. I untapped and played a Narcolepsy and a Guard Duty, effectively eliminating both creatures as threats and blanking the Rebound of the Distortion Strike. From there I was able to leverage my board position to win the game. In the second game, my opponent played a first-turn Enclave Cryptologist but alternated developing his board and Leveling. I think had he just power-leveled the Cryptologist to Level 3, I’d have lost the game, but not doing so allowed me to develop a fast board of Flyers that were able to race before the game slipped away.

Round 2, I played against Jessica, who was sporting a Red/Green/White deck that looked to have removal and plenty of aggressive creatures. Unfortunately, Jessica had to mulligan in both games and had mana and color issues game 1, making it very lopsided. In game 2, my deck curved out quickly and had removal spells once Jessica hit the land she needed. I opened on Student of Warfare on turn 1 as well, which put on nearly enough pressure to win me the game by itself.

In the third round, I played against Evan, who had a Red/Black aggressive deck with some Eldrazi on the top end. The first game opened up very close, as I got stuck on four lands with two powerful five-drops in hand; thankfully Evan hit a patch of lands that gave me time to balance out the board and hit my fifth land drop; evasion creatures won me the game. In game two, the board state was pretty even when Evan landed an Eldrazi that I had no answer for, but I top-decked a Guard Duty. From there, evasion creatures bypassed the giant monster and took down the game. One nice thing about the blue-white strategy is that your Levelers are great targets for removal, but blue and white have a lot of Flying creatures in this format, meaning that you can put your opponent between a rock and a hard place in terms of their use of removal spells. In hindsight I probably should’ve brought the second Emerge Unscathed in for this round.

Finally, in the last round I played against Eric whose deck I saw in the previous round, and looked to be a very strong Eldrazi ramp deck with multiple Eldrazi and a Pelakka Wurm. In game 1, my draw was very good, combining an aggressive start with Flying creatures and removal. This was a quick game, as blue-white is perfectly able to race opponents when it curves out with a few removal spells. This was actually the first time I sideboarded, bringing in two Deprives as an additional way to combat my opponent’s giant creatures; I think this is a solid strategy to consider as people probably won’t assign a high value to Deprive, but the tempo gain you get from this type of play is enormous. I opened game 2 on a Cryptologist and aggressively ramped it to maximum level, absorbing a beating in the meantime. At one point the life total stood 27 to 6 due to Pelakka Wurm — but the extra card draw started to stack up in my favor. I’d hit a mana clump but pushed through it and started to draw removal spells along with some blockers to hold down the ground. Eric used a Not of this World to protect his last giant beater, but I had drawn enough cards that I could quadruple-block and maintain board position. Finally, drawing Dawnglare Invoker with 12 lands in play plus Deprive and Emerge Unscathed in hand locked up the game.

I had a great time playing this format; there’s a lot of synergy, and although there are clearly bombs at the rare and mythic level, many of the best cards are common and uncommon and the Levelers reward careful deck construction.

General Thoughts on Rise Limited

Rise of the Eldrazi is a relatively land-intensive Limited format, or at least it appears so upon first glance. It isn’t just the fact that there are giant colorless monsters that cost a hundred mana to play; the Levelers have an interesting effect on mana requirements. Playing a deck full of Levelers takes me back to the original theory of Sligh deck design. The Sligh deck was designed around the idea that you should be able to make the most use of your mana on every turn of the game. That meant that the cost of the cards in the deck were laid out on a curve designed to maximize the mana/spell ratio, and then cards were included so that any excess mana would have some kind of productive “sink” for it, so that nothing was being wasted. Levelers offer a similar option for play in Rise of the Eldrazi, and are actually deceptively difficult to build a deck around.

The Levelers are clearly powerful, as you can build them into your normal mana curve with the benefit of having a much stronger top-deck in a late-game situation. However, the inclusion of too many Levelers, resulting in hands with two or three Levelers in the first few turns of the game, will mean that you’re not getting value out of them; many of these Levelers start below the power curve until you hit level one, so the last thing you want to do is have a bunch of 0/1 and 1/1 dorks in play at level 0. Similarly, you want to play the powerful Levelers but need to be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket, especially against decks with Instant removal (such as red, white, and black). The last thing you want is to sink 4 mana and two turns into leveling up a Leveler only to have it die to removal in response to your paying the Level cost. Optimally, you’ll end up building a deck with a normal and reasonable curve that is supported by Levelers; this actually feels great to play with, as you always have options on your turn and should never find yourself with lands in play and nothing to do with them.

Briefly, here are some early thoughts on the format based on what I saw at the Prerelease.

First and foremost, this format is not always as slow as advertised. I heard about multiple players losing on turn 5, and there is some definite potential for fast and aggressive decks. Probably the most disgusting start I heard about involved multiple Kiln Fiend supported by Stagger Shock to clear the way, and Surreal Memoir to keep bringing the pain. The removal spells with Rebound are incredibly powerful, and as many decks will only be playing removal among their Instants and Sorceries, Surreal Memoir is pretty powerful. There is some room in the format for these very aggressive decks to be successful. They can beat the Leveler strategies by making huge tempo gains in killing off Levelers, and there are a few spells in Red and Black (such as Wrap in Flames and Shrivel) that can help sweep un-leveled Levelers and Eldrazi Spawn tokens off the board. However, there appear to be a few potential problems with this type of strategy. The finishers in this deck are highly focused on Eldrazi, and they’re just expensive enough to be unreasonable without the benefit of ramp cards or Spawn creators. Outside of a few options like Pestilence Demon, an aggressive deck that mixes some combination of Red, Green, and Black may have problems finishing games. Also, it seems reasonable that with the amount of walls floating around in this format, many people will be able to sideboard against aggressive opponents and up their wall count sufficiently to survive to the late game. Still, this type of strategy should be successful against Blue-White Leveler decks, and there are some nice uncommon creatures that are smaller than Eldrazi but still very aggressive.

Second, the Eldrazi ramp decks, which will be in some mix of Red, Green, and Black as those colors have the Spawn creators, are for real and can be impressively powerful. While many decks are equipped to deal with the first large creature, be it an Eldrazi or something like a Skeletal Wurm or Pelakka Wurm, when these decks are able to follow-up with a second or even third monster in the early game, many decks will fold to that pressure. This become very obvious in the two rounds of Two-Headed Giant I played with Brad Granberry at the Rise prerelease. In the first game, our opponents ramped into a turn-five Artisan of Kozilek; the Artisan returned a Dread Drone (ramped out on turn 4) that was sent into the red zone. We managed to kill the Artisan on turn 6 by playing a removal spell after combat, and our opponents replayed the Drone and then played Butcher of Kozilek on turn 7, effectively ending the game. In our second game of 2HG, Brad played a first-turn Guul Draz Assassin that Leveled up, and our opponents had no removal for it as it wasn’t attacking or blocking and Defender isn’t really relevant. I then ramped up into a fifth-turn Ulamog’s Crusher — not the most impressive of the Eldrazi, but combined with the Assassin’s removal abilities we had the board nearly swept clean by turn 8.

Finally, the third obvious archetype is a Blue-White Leveler strategy. Blue-white has plenty of removal options available, including cheap options to handle Eldrazi (such as Narcolepsy, Guard Duty, Regress, and Deprive, all of which are massive tempo gains). This color combination also has impressive pump effects out of its Levelers and plenty of evasion creatures; by holding down the ground with either walls or some of the big-butt Levelers, and using removal on the opponent’s larger creatures, a blue-white deck can easily race many opponents using its evasion creatures. This color combination also has two game-enders in Dawnglare Invoker and Frostwind Invoker. Enclave Cryptologist provides a filter effect to hit land drops and find removal, and the maxed level ability provides a draw engine to take over the game.

It seems likely that over time, some additional strategies may emerge, especially in draft, as there is potential for the blending of some of these strategies (there are ways to abuse Eldrazi Spawn for the purposes of attacking that seem interesting, as well as the potential to build Defender decks).

How Far can the Eldrazi Go?

Another thing that struck me during the 2HG games was how powerful the Eldrazi ramp deck was using just 8 Rise packs. The number of ramping effects available, and the ability to find Eldrazi cards with Eye of Ugin and Ancient Stirrings, makes me honestly wonder if we’ll see tournament-quality Eldrazi Ramp decks in Standard. Also interesting is the fact that there are other uses for Eldrazi spawn tokens, such as Coat of Arms and Broodwarden, so that an opponent that centered on removal for the actual Eldrazi (such as Path to Exile or Terminate) might be vulnerable to a swarm of Spawn instead. This might all be too Timmy for real competitive play, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this strategy was successful in Zendikar Block and it might even have legs in Standard, especially post-Shards rotation in a smaller format.

Although Rise of the Eldrazi has much less to offer Eternal formats than other recent sets, I still think this is a very cool set with a unique and flavorful Limited format. If you missed the Prereleases, get yourself to your local release event!

Matt Elias
[email protected]
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