Who Needs Bloodbraid Elf?

If you’re looking for something different to play in Modern, check out Mike’s Demigod Jund brew with Domri Rade and Phyrexian Obliterator!

A couple of years ago, the set New Phyrexia came out, and there were lots of exciting cards that entered Standard and other formats. My friend Brian David-Marshall showed me a guide to New Phyrexia that included what R&D considered hot picks for the new set. Unsurprising amongst the new hype were no-question-contributors-to-be like Batterskull, Birthing Pod, and Blade Splicer (and quite a few additional ones that didn’t even start with "b").

Really, New Phyrexia was a great set with foils like Act of Aggression, staples like Dismember, and flagships-of-the-future a la Glistener Elf and Karn Liberated. I myself quickly made use of Deceiver Exarch, winning the first big tournament I could and spawning a new archetype (or at least a different look at a viable strategy).

The one oddball card that seemed to be getting a lot of attention, especially out of that R&D guide, was Phyrexian Obliterator. I know as well as anyone that Mono-Black Control has its unique audience and that R&D wants—and should want—to cater some potentially powerful tools to the folks that sit in that camp, but… Looking around the room? Specifically at that time?


Contextually just not relevant.

I guess[ed] there is nothing wrong with Phyrexian Obliterator per se, but BBBB was—and is—a rough cost in the abstract, and I just didn’t see it as a viable card in a format with not only Jace, the Mind Sculptor but Celestial Purge. White had two different ways to essentially ignore it for one mana, and the dominant deck in the format had Mana Leak, a recurring bounce effect, and sometimes Gideon Jura to boot! As one of the designers that had once upon a time put Obliterator precursor Phyrexian Negator into the winner’s circle, I was pretty unimpressed by the shiny new BBBB version.

Phyrexian Obliterator, like I just said, doesn’t have anything fundamentally wrong with it; it just wasn’t good compared to the cards that people actually played at the time in the format it should have been most likely to impact. This is more-or-less the quintessence of contextual card evaluation. On paper, it is a Blastoderm class undercosted fat man with massive upside instead of a penchant for self-destruction, but in practice, it could not easily gain traction on account of competing with a popular—and much more dominating—four drop that was everywhere.

Even when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was sent packing out of Standard, Phyrexian Obliterator had problems ever sticking. There was just very little reason to play it, while it was difficult to fit into any viable shell that possibly could. I wanted to try it in my various Mono-Black decks, but it always seemed better to bounce around Wellsprings and finish with bigger and more expensive threats than to mess with a guy who was just very good at throwing (and receiving) elbows but didn’t do anything legit cray cray unless the opponent aimed a Lightning Bolt of some stripe at it.

Would a window open in Standard? Vapor Snag got really popular next, alongside tempo cards like Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. And if you wanted to attack with black threats, Phyrexian Vatmother seemed the more offensive four-drop, and as a four-drop that essentially hit for eight, it’s not like Vatmother was lighting life totals on fire in a huge number of tournaments.

Simply, there was just never a good enough reason to game with Phyrexian Obliterator, while, on balance, casting it was a giant headache.

Fast-forward a year or two. Another powerful four-mana card is ousted from legal play (albeit in another format). It might seem odd to replace the departing 2GR Bloodbraid Elf with the BBBB Phyrexian Obliterator in Jund colors, but I think you will quickly see that perhaps there is enough of something else compelling going on to give the Obliterator a spin.

Gatecrash brought Domri Rade for G/R decks; certainly you should be able to see the pure FIGHT! potential of playing Domri Rade and Phyrexian Obliterator together, especially as a turn 2-turn 3 combo.

I can’t claim to have come up with that two-card combo myself. The Pro Tour Historian [again] suggested fusing them together to me. Ideas—and I know others have mused this particular idea already—are not decks, though; for my part, I saw a redundancy crossover between Domri Rade and Fauna Shaman (both benefitting from heavy-creature versions of Jund in Modern) so elected to bias my Domri Rade / Phyrexian Obliterator deck on a Fauna Shaman shell. That is why it has cards like Demigod of Revenge that might seem a bit unusual. Isn’t Thundermaw Hellkite supposed to be our five?

Your generally preferred progression is Birds of Paradise (or Deathrite Shaman) into Domri Rade or Magus of the Moon. All other things held equal, Domri Rade has about a 55% likelihood to hit a creature in this deck, though obviously cards like Verdant Catacombs can change this.

Now, the "backup" route is a potentially inevitable run with Fauna Shaman. If you have four or more mana, Fauna Shaman can usually provide you with several consecutive turns worth of pressure, and two or three activations in it can go absolutely explosive with multiple attacks from Demigod of Revenge or "at least" Vengevine.

If you are unfamiliar with this style of deck, the Fauna Shaman can either cycle Demigod of Revenge for Demigod of Revenge so that when a Demigod eventually gets cast, it is accompanied with five to fifteen additional haste damage (just drawing a Demigod of Revenge with a Fauna Shaman down and more-or-less any six lands is a big swing for ten in the sky). Or you can dump Vengevine(s) and set up a quick turn of one- or two-drops to get some extra 4/3 bodies essentially for free. This latter sequence is especially valuable when you are setting up a lockdown board that includes dropping Spellskites and Shamans to win but still needs a fair-sized body to soak up incoming beatdown.

Just a reminder: if you plan to counter a Demigod of Revenge, let it resolve its triggered ability first! Otherwise, you will send the Demigod on the stack itself to the graveyard and will just end up facing the very same Demigod a second later as its trigger will return it to play if you haven’t timed your defense right.

This Jund is a relatively Alpha build, though I can tell you already that 1) I would love to have Bloodbraid Elf (surprise surprise / hell of a Vengevine setup man) and 2) the weakest cards seem to be Huntmaster of the Fells and Demigod of Revenge. I jammed Huntmaster of the Fells in as a kind of Bloodbraid Elf proxy (it’s two things, it costs the same), but it’s possible you want maindeck Spellskite or faster beatdown resistance like Kitchen Finks instead. The problem is the deck so far has been winning, making it hard to pin down the optimal changes at this stage.

Winning so far has been basically a circus act of unusual (but still effective) mismatched men on unicycles or high wire ropes. Triple Magus of the Moon beatdown against Geist of Saint Traft and legitimate flyers, racing tight ones with Deathrite Shaman in the face of much bigger attackers, and mostly leaning on sided-in Spellskites (which have been exceptional) then mucking up boards full of large four-drop creatures, stop signs every one.

Though the deck is ostensibly about Domri Rade + Phyrexian Obliterator (and built stringently around the limitations of each, both in terms of creature intensity and mana specificity), I haven’t actually pulled the combo off a huge number of times, but it has been awesome if infrequent. The Obliterator is usually the biggest guy on the battlefield, so it not only wins most fights but cripples many a battlefield. Taking down something as efficient-if-relatively-inoffensive as a Qasali Pridemage feels like a Bonfire of the Damned just went off, and I have no fear about swinging in with the Obliterator afterward, even if it is carrying a couple of points of damage. Mise well full-on one-sided Apocalypse, amirite?

Against a lot of decks you just win by living through the first couple of turns and playing Phyrexian Obliterator, which the opponent might, understandably, be hesitant to attack into. There aren’t an overwhelming number of obvious ways to deal with that card, especially when this deck can immediately put you into Magus of the Moon lockdown if given a window. Magus of the Moon is interesting in this deck as it can quickly make every card in your own hand uncastable. You kind of want it second turn against select opponents via Birds of Paradise or Deathrite Shaman (and then rely on having one of those creatures in play to continue to operate), but it can quickly become not just a little Hate <s>Bear</s> Ogre but your primary way to win. That said, when it is good, it is very good.

As I said, the spell layout is a bit Alpha right now, but what I found really interesting to work on was the mana base. Essentially, the challenge was to build a mana base that could play G on turn 1, 1GR on turn 2, and BBBB on turn 3. Pro Tip: It is pretty tough to do [all of] that if you fetch for Forest on turn 1, but it’s not impossible.

I started out with Verdant Catacombs, virtual Verdant Catacombs in Marsh Flats, and Overgrown Tomb, which all help out in both step 1 and step 3. The next land in was Twilight Mire, which could transform any other mana—even the Forest!—in this deck into a Phyrexian Obliterator contributor. One note of caution if you try this: playing the mana in this deck is trickier than it looks. You might put yourself into a position where you can never get your red fast enough or a different one with Magus of the Moon where now you can’t cast anything… Congrats buddy, you now have nothing but red!

Most matchups felt pretty intuitive. I was able to best another Jund deck by being bigger and accessing more card advantage. He torched my first couple of accelerators, but my Fauna Shaman lived long enough to give me a size advantage on the battlefield. Many decks just took a good racer to win (luckily this deck can access an explosive amount of haste quickly). But others? You can, rather must, put them into lockdown stranglehold.

After dropping a game 1 to the Slippery Bogle deck, I set about siding out my Shriekmaws and trying to figure out what to do in game 2 and game 3. Unfortunately, Shriekmaw is a "Terror," and I didn’t have a "Diabolic Edict" creature to side in. It got to be a question of whether I wanted my 60th card to be one Shriekmaw or one Demigod of Revenge, knowing that the opponent would be unlikely to remove an active Fauna Shaman. I chose wrongly. As the other guy is all about painting tons of auras onto his guys, it might seem like he should be exposed to creature removal, but it doesn’t particularly work like that against the hexproof mechanic. That said, Spellskite is exceptional at answering that!

It turns out that if you set up Spellskite with Fauna Shaman and then follow up with Phyrexian Obliterator that is really hard for the Bogle deck to attack successfully. Even if they have a big enough guy to win against a 5/5 (certainly within the realm of possibilities), actually tussling with your Obliterator will likely yield a very different functional winner on the battlefield. So unless they have already given the intended threat a way to fly, the Bogle deck can be very hard-pressed to answer that position. Any such attempts will just be applied to Spellskite, so the Obliterator stop sign will not be going anywhere. The board will gum up in the classic Limited sense. You can then close it out by going for Magus of the Moon third to cast a long shadow over the opponent’s possibilities—and away all future patches of sunlight.

Is this the deck you will use to take down a PTQ this weekend? Like I said, it is pretty Alpha at this point. The incentives are there, I think I probably got a fair amount of the big things right, but it’s not like there aren’t possible refinements. We could lower the curve, we could include Lotus Cobra for easier transitions between GR and BBBB, or we could go with some more obvious contributors like Tarmogoyf or that other three-mana planeswalker.

What I like about this deck is that you can create stall situations around many common decks—Jund, Birthing Pod, U/R/W—and then kind of inch forward card after card until you are blowing them out. I took a lot of long turns doing relatively simple things (evoke Shriekmaw to kill your Birds of Paradise, play Magus of the Moon + rebuy Vengevine), and going through that process always feels rewarding to me as a player.

One interesting thing that I concluded was that although this deck is also Jund colors, from a Modern perspective it is philosophically quite different from the deck we think of as "Jund." That deck is all about individual card efficiency, not synergy or building to a lockdown board position; it’s certainly not about forced limitations like playing nearly all creatures or heavily black-biased mana bases.

I would also hazard that in the absence of Bloodbraid Elf, it’s probably a bit less fun.