Not as Bad as Cowardice
Difficult though it may be to accept that Mark Gottlieb would ever stoop to preview a Constructed-playable card on MagictheGathering.com, this is precisely what occurred a few weeks ago. Granted, his article on Endless Whispers toiled under the assumption that the high-casting cost Black enchantment would only be played by the kind of people who use Force of Nature to deal direct damage, yet he did mention one creature worth considering, the oft-maligned Leveler.
The interaction between Leveler and Endless Whispers is simple. If the enchantment is in play, and you cast and destroy Leveler in one turn, you’ll almost certainly win the game during your opponent’s next draw step. Your opponent can only prevent decking herself by either removing Endless Whispers or activating something like Words of Wilding. This is one of those rare combos that actually works better in a competitive rather than a casual setting; keep in this in mind if you ever try it out at a Friday Night Magic event.
But if the Endless Whispers/Leveler combo is so obvious, why has popular opinion relegated it to the casual play corner of the card shop? Unfortunately, Fifth Dawn is positively abounding in combos, many of which are far easier to assemble than Endless Whispers/Leveler which, at best, requires an investment of three cards and ten mana. Krark-Clan Ironworks, the souped-up Squandered Resources, is nearly a combo in itself and, unlike Leveler, does not lead you down an ineluctable path toward doom should something go wrong. However, Krark-Clan Ironworks and its combo-engine cousins are all artifacts, whereas Endless Whispers is an enchantment. While artifact destruction spells are a dime a dozen in Standard, enchantment destruction spells are, well, a dollar a dozen. Unless Kai Budde starts pushing a Rite of Passage deck, Naturalize will keep playing fourth fiddle to Oxidize, Viridian Shaman, and Molder Slug, and Altar’s Light will continue sitting forlornly in the junk uncommons’ box, cursing the day when people recognized Duplicant as an answer to Darksteel Colossus.
What does all this mean? With the exception of Akroma’s Vengeance, Oblivion Stone, Withered Wretch, and counterspells, there are no commonly-played cards that can disrupt the Endless Whispers/Leveler combo. In itself, this is not reason enough to play a deck that uses the combo as its win condition; after all, it still requires at least ten mana and three cards.
Here’s where it gets interesting. As opposed to Rite of Passage, Krark-Clan Ironworks, Grinding Station, and many other combo cards players are agonizing over, Endless Whispers serves a purpose even without its fellow combo pieces, a purpose, moreover, which is itself conducive toward buying a player time with which to assemble the combo. Whereas Mind’s Desire, Future Sight, Elvish Wedding, and even Tooth and Nail/Elf and Nail all require incredibly focused decks that live and die on the basis of drawing the correct cards (most of which are worthless on their own) in the correct order, an Endless Whispers deck can make its combo with Leveler merely incidental. A sample deck list is provided below.
Although potent as a Combo card, Endless Whispers’ primary use is about as reactive as Magic gets. The presence of the enchantment allows the deck to run fewer removal spells than traditional Mono Black Control builds, thereby freeing space for the combo pieces and tutors. Due to the lack of mass removal such as Infest (Goblin Sledder and Arcbound Ravager can both just shrug it off) and Decree of Pain (today’s Goblins and Ravager Affinity will trample you long before you reach eight mana), Endless Whispers won’t always win without Leveler. That said, the enchantment does make it awfully hard for Aggro to finish you off, and stealing opposing Myr Enforcers and Bringers of the Blue Dawn ends games.
As previously noted, the combo itself is, so far as these things go, rather slow. Compared with Mind’s Desire, Krark-Clan’s Ironworks, and similarly intricate combos (though not Triskelion/Rite of Passage/Rite of Passage), the deck is not a champion goldfisher. The fastest the deck can”go off” is turn 4:
Turn 3: Play land. Cast Endless Whispers. Stare at your one open mana and sigh.
This just goes to show the risks of attempting to goldfish into victory. You can beat Ravager Affinity without blowing up a single myr, but it will not happen often. The ideal combo shown above requires that you play nine cards (four of these being specific cards) in a particular order. Interestingly, the addition of Chrome Mox would not help at all:
Turn Two: Play land. Cast Endless Whispers.
Turn Three: Play land. Stare at your five open mana and sigh.
Admittedly, you could combo-out on turn 3 if you cast a second Chrome Mox on turn 1. Unfortunately, that would require your having used eleven cards and subsequently being disqualified for cheating.
The Sword of Damocles
As not all of the card choices in the deck are glaringly obvious, some explanation is necessary.
Plunge into Darkness
There’s no use in comparing Spoils of the Vault with Plunge into Darkness. The one is as dissimilar from the other as Reiver Demon is from George W. Bush. In its present form, the deck wouldn’t be viable without Plunge into Darkness. This Isochron Scepterable instant has the double utility of first searching out the combo pieces and, later, providing a sacrifice outlet for Leveler. Sometimes, its life gain component will even buy you a turn with which to set up. It is worth noting, however, the card travels with some heavy baggage: 1) You might not always be able to afford the high life loss required to make it a true tutor, and 2) If you do have enough life for it but are lacking two of the three combo pieces, there’s a slight risk of being forced to remove from the game all copies of one of those pieces.
As though one eternity of whispers were not sufficient… I don’t believe that this two-mana beauty needs much discussion, but it must be mentioned that there will be times when your low life total prevents its being cast. This situation has come up often enough in testing to reduce to spell’s deck slots to three.
Lose Hope can destroy Disciple of the Vault, Sparksmith, Birds of Paradise, Wirewood Symbiote, Goblin Sharpshooter and Slith Firewalker. So can Smother. But can Smother rummage around the deck for combo pieces? Not a chance. Can Smother ride an Isochron Scepter to victory? Yes, yet since I can only run four copies of Smother, I’m more than willing to supplement it with Lose Hope. Until Wizards of the Coast prints”Relentless Smother” to revitalize MBC, Lose Hope should stay in the deck.
One of the deck’s fundamental weaknesses is its inability to remove large creatures like Exalted Angel and Ravenous Baloth. In my original build, Dark Banishing was replaced with Diabolic Tutor, a choice that enhanced combo capabilities, but that required some sideboard cards that were inefficient at best. Additionally, Dark Banishing destroys Myr Enforcer. This is more significant than it might first appear because it’s often necessary to hold back Oxidize for use on Leveler. While testing the deck’s old build against Ravager Affinity, I constantly found myself using tutors to replace a fundamental Oxidize that I wasted on Myr Enforcer in the early-game.
Barter in Blood
Here, we see just how much Endless Whispers changes the dynamics of the game. With the enchantment in play, Barter in Blood will frequently swap two of your creatures (formerly, two of your opponent’s early-game creatures) for two of your opponent’s creatures (which will nearly always be more powerful). This is not ideal, but it gives the deck a way of taking care of truly monstrous threats and circumventing Arcbound Ravager”musical counters” game-plan.
It may appear foolhardy to run Isochron Scepter as your only artifact in a field filled with artifact removal, but analysis shows that the dangers are illusory. Consider it this way: If you play an Isochron Scepter in game one, your opponent will be unlikely to side-out her removal spells (of which there are, probably, no less than four main-decked). Even if the artifact is sometimes destroyed, you will have automatically used up at least four of your opponent’s deck slots on your two. On the other hand, if Isochron Scepter doesn’t make an appearance in the first game, your opponent will probably side-out her removal, and if your artifact shows up in later games, you are in a great position; simply, with the exception of Panoptic Mirror, there are no cards in Standard that can ruin unprepared opponents as thoroughly as Isochron Scepter can. Beware, incidentally, on relying on an Isochron Scepter imprinted with Oxidize or Plunge into Darkness for the combo win; a single Shatter aimed at the artifact while Leveler is on the stack can lose you the game.
I’ve gone back and forth between Rampant Growth and Vine Trellis. The fact that Rampant Growth can search-out Black mana is rarely relevant, and the deck could often use an early blocker. Or rather, any blocker whatsoever. On the other hand, Rampant Growth thins the deck ever so slightly (particularly important for Combo) and doesn’t boost your opponent’s mana capabilities post-Barter in Blood. Really, it’s up to you.
Too Many Choices
“But what about all the other fantastic cards? Why not play Dream’s Grip?” you may ask. To put your mind at ease, I’ve set out, below, my reasons for not including certain cards.
Much of the analysis for the decision to omit Diabolic Tutor was given above. Also, bear in mind that the deck already includes seven four-mana spells and that even though Diabolic Tutor could usually set-up wins within two turns of its being cast, those two turns would come at the time when it’d be most necessary for you to respond to opposing threats.
Devour in Shadow
The creatures that Smother can’t destroy are the same creatures that you can’t afford to hit with Devour in Shadow. Plunge into Darkness and Night’s Whisper already require that you lower your own life total in big chunks; Dark Banishing is an all-around better option.
Promise of Power
The triple-Black in the casting cost can cause problems, and Promise of Power is, possibly, even less castable than Devour in Shadow in terms of life loss. While it’s true that the spell could, to some extent, replace the much cheaper Plunge into Darkness, Promise of Power cannot be used to sacrifice Leveler. What’s more, since the deck aims for a Combo win, Plunge into Darkness’ tutoring effect is usually more useful than straight-out card drawing.
Eater of Days
To begin with, note that, whatever Mark Gottlieb may say, it doesn’t work simply to sacrifice Eater of Days after it’s cast because your opponent will begin skipping her three turns before you do. Eater of Days can work with Endless Whispers, but it requires a completely different deck than the one we’re now examining (Hint: The deck could involve Stifle, Vedalken Orrery, and Domineer). I might test it later, yet I have the feeling that this is best suited for casual play.
Yet More Surprises!
Hopefully, the arguments presented above have provided some idea of the viability of Endless Whispers-based decks in Standard. Viability, though, is quite different than indomitability. You could pick-up a hundred viable decks at the local supermarket, but if Ravager Affinity is the most viable of them all, you’d be advised to play Ravager Affinity.
Endless Whispers is set apart from most other Combo cards because, almost incidentally, it seriously disrupts a number of major, competitive strategies to be found in today’s Standard:
- Endless Whispers rules out non-cycling Eternal Dragon recursion.
- It renders Oversold Cemetery useless at best.
- It makes Death Cloud rather unappealing for its caster.
- It delays some Combo strategies by requiring that infinite Myr Retriever recursion can only be achieved if both Myr Retrievers are sent to the graveyard on the same turn.
- It turns Myr Servitor into a vanilla 1/1.
- It goes a long way toward emasculating Patriarch’s Bidding.
- Back when Skullclamp was legal, it looked decidedly mediocre outside of Combo if Endless Whispers were on the board.
Though few of the deck’s matchups are awful in game one, the deck is not perfectly suited to any particular matchup pre-sideboarding. I’ve chosen to use the sideboard to even out the chances against most decks rather than to completely annihilate any particular opposing strategy.
Persecute and Cabal Interrogator
MWC and its relatives provide the deck with some of its worst matchups, in part because its creatures are few, far between, and immune to Oxidize, Smother, and Lose Hope. Considering that the combo takes two turns to set-up (in testing, Endless Whispers and Leveler have never been cast on the same turn), Akroma’s Vengeance has a tendency of clearing away your enchantment before you can clean up. Persecute and Cabal Interrogator don’t really need to remove anything other than Akroma’s Vengeance.
Although the viability of artifact-based Combo is still unproven, such decks will, at least, be experimented with. Note that if these Combo decks do turn out to be unsuited for the metagame, it’ll be because so many players will be running artifact hate, not because they are inherently untenable. With this in mind, it’s necessary to be prepared. Naturalize may be more versatile, but there are few enchantments that keep Endless Whispers decks awake at night, and Tel-Jilad Justice helps snuff around for your combo.
I’ll rate these matchups under the following, unscientific system: Horrendous (Nearly unwinnable. How often do you attend Mass?), Unfavorable (You are more likely to lose than to win.), Fair (It can go either way. Acting smarmy helps.), Favorable (You are more likely to win than to lose.), Excellent (If you lose, don’t blame me.).
As is the case for most decks, a fast Ravager Affinity opening can be unstoppable. However, the fastest Ravager Affinity starts involve multiple copies of Welding Jar or Ornithopter, in which case a well-timed Oxidize aimed at a Myr Enforcer or Smother targeting Arcbound Ravager could be crippling. Due to the nature of the modular mechanic, Arcbound Ravagers stolen with Endless Whispers will rarely look all that impressive on your side of the board; nevertheless, you are obliged to destroy them, if only to prevent a quick kill coupled with Disciple of the Vault. The cleric is, in fact, your primary target; even though sideboarding takes out a copy of Lose Hope, you still have seven targeted spells that can remove it. Remember to try to save an Oxidize for Leveler. Also, note that, should you feel inclined to use Tel-Jilad Justice on Leveler, an opposing Welding Jar can ruin your plans.
Pre-Sideboarding: Fair. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
This matchup is more difficult than the one against Ravager Affinity if only because Goblins runs so many more threats and so much less filler. Nonetheless, since Goblin’s sacrifice effects will, unlike Ravager Affinity’s, more often than not involve creatures, Endless Whispers immediately gets in the way of its game plan. There are so many threats that you need to destroy in this matchup (Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Warchief, Goblin Sharpshooter, Clickslither, and Siege-Gang Commander) that it’s hardly helpful to insist on targeting them all. If you can survive the initial rush, you have a good chance, but Siege-Gang Commander will always be a danger. Remember that token creatures won’t be reanimated by Endless Whispers.
Pre-Sideboarding: Unfavorable. Post-Sideboarding: Fair.
Try to see the matchup in the following light: Goblin Bidding has no Clickslither, fewer quick threats than Goblins, many slots devoted to land in support of Patriarch’s Bidding, occasional problems assembling double-Red mana, and a set of Patriarch’s Bidding that is generally useless if Endless Whispers is on the board. Focus your fire on Goblin Sharpshooter; without this creature, there is no way that Goblins can take advantage of Patriarch’s Bidding.
Pre-Sideboarding: Fair. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
As Barter in Blood is your only method of destroying Darksteel Colossus, and Tooth and Nail is light on creature removal, you should bring in Cabal Interrogator. Forcing the discarding of Darksteel Colossus is not ideal; instead, focus on Tooth and Nail. While Smother can destroy Birds of Paradise, Lose Hope can as well, and you want to keep in Dark Banishing in case Platinum Angel shows up unprotected. This will be a Combo v. Combo matchup, and you should play accordingly. The match is quite draw-dependent. Land destruction via Reap and Sow and can be dangerous.
Pre-Sideboarding: Fair. Post-Sideboarding: Fair.
It’s unclear how this deck will react to Skullclamp’s banning. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say,”Those flugnuggets at R&D just killed Elf and Nail!” I’d still be broke because no one (and you can quote me on this) uses the word”flugnuggets.” Regardless, I don’t believe that the loss of Skullclamp is as serious as many people assume; Vernal Bloom and Wirewood Symbiote/Wood Elves still ramp a player up to nine mana faster than Reap and Sow and Sylvan Scrying. Although Elf and Nail is usually superior to traditional Tooth and Nail builds, it runs into problems against your deck. Endless Whispers steals your opponent’s mana accelerators (Wood Elves even searches out Forests for you), and Elf and Nail’s base is prone to your creature removal. As Elf and Nail’s artifact destruction is integral to the deck, Isochron Scepter should definitely be removed. It’s true that you can’t get rid of Vernal Bloom, yet there will be times when that enchantment simply boosts your own combo. If you can gun down Birds of Paradise, Wood Elves, and Wirewood Symbiote, you ought to do well.
Pre-Sideboarding: Favorable. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
Again, I don’t believe that B/G Cemetery is necessarily lost at sea without Skullclamp for around card drawing. Fifth Dawn gave the deck Night’s Whisper, Plunge into Darkness, and Eternal Witness (which will, hopefully, shift builds back toward Green). Anyway, it’s worthwhile being prepared for all contingencies. The siding-in of Cabal Interrogator is intriguing, but B/G Cemetery often lacks the tools to remove it. Your main enemy here is Death Cloud and then only because the sorcery causes life loss that gets in the way of tutoring with Plunge into Darkness. Endless Whispers negates Oversold Cemetery and steals much of Death Cloud’s punch. Note that this is one of the few match-ups in which there is a chance of your encountering targeted enchantment removal.
Pre-Sideboarding: Excellent. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
It’s unlikely that MWC will win if you can keep it off of Akroma’s Vengeance. Stealing the occasional Exalted Angel or Eternal Dragon is fine, but your primary concern is setting up the combo. Due to your superior card drawing and tutoring, you will typically obtain more copies of Endless Whispers than your opponent will of Akroma’s Vengeance. Beware of Decree of Justice and Mindslaver (especially post-sideboarding). The latter is no fun at all if you’re stuck with a Plunge into Darkness in hand. MWC can be expected to make use of Bringer of the White Dawn for Mindslaver recursion, and while the creature itself won’t be a problem for you, the extra copies of Mindlsaver in the maindeck will. Post-sideboarding, your discard will help immensely.
Pre-Sideboarding: Fair. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
Now that Standard has another playable counterspell in Condescend, some amount of U/W Control action can be expected. Although it’s helpful that U/W won’t run Mindslaver all that often, counterspells can be killers against Combo. U/W Control won’t achieve a quick win, but if the game goes long, Decree of Justice will destroy you. Use Cabal Interrogator aggressively post-sideboarding, and focus on stripping your opponent’s hand of counterspells.
Pre-Sideboarding: Unfavorable. Post-Sideboarding: Fair.
As the Standard card pool expands and the percentage of cyclers within it dwindles, R/W Slide becomes worse and worse. Lightning Rift means nothing to you, and Astral Slide is only dangerous if it can remove Leveler from the game in response to your casting Oxidize (in this matchup, it might be better to count on using Plunge into Darkness’ sacrificing cost). Decree of Justice could be a problem, but these games should be heavily in your favor.
Pre-Sideboarding: Favorable. Post-Sideboarding: Excellent.
Your creature removal (both early- and mid-game) will, with Endless Whispers, control the game while opposing artifact destruction sits dead in hand.
Pre-Sideboarding: Excellent. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable.
Kill Birds of Paradise the moment it flutters down onto your opponent’s side of the board. Land destruction works wonders against your mana-intensive combo, and even if you’re able to send half a dozen beasts to graveyard, you still might not win if Endless Whispers is left sitting, useless, in your hand.
Pre-Sideboarding: Unfavorable. Post-Sideboarding: Horrendous.
This Red just isn’t big enough. Maindeck artifact hate means nothing to you, and you have a variety of methods of destroying Slith Firewalker and Arc-Slogger. Due to burn spells, be careful of Plunging yourself too deeply into Darkness. Beware of land destruction out of the sideboard.
Pre-Sideboarding: Excellent. Post-Sideboarding: Favorable to Horrendous (depending on availability of land destruction).
Even my uncle knows that Krark-Clan Ironworks is going to be a Combo centerpiece, and he’s currently out trekking in Nepal, living in utter ignorance of this crazy, little thing called”Magic.” I’ll leave the actual deck construction to players with experience in the field of pure Combo (rather than Endless Whispers/Leveler-style grotesque hybrid Combo). I can, however, guess at what you’ll want to bring in from the sideboard…
Pre-Sideboarding: I don’t know. Post-Sideboarding: Glad Skullclamp’s no longer around.
Worrery of Wilding
Don’t bother testing against this one. It doesn’t exist.
Pre-Sideboarding: Horrendous. Post-Sideboarding: Horrendous.
The last thing I want is for all the Danny Rudolphuses out there in Net-land to throw their arms into the air and shout,”Endless Whispers in Standard? I told you that guy with the unpronounceable last name was insane!” The deck might well be too slow to defeat Combo, too erratic to trounce Aggro, and too bizarre to overcome Control. On the other hand, I believe that further testing (perhaps by more sober minds than my own) is justified. In the world of competitive Magic, we are, all too often, overly hasty in discounting cards that were clearly designed for the casual realm. But that didn’t stop Living Death, Verdant Force, Donate, and Illusions of Grandeur from seeing play. That didn’t stop Grip of Chaos from dominating the recent Regionals tournament in Chad.
It’s likely that the build I’ve presented can be improved upon; Fifth Dawn is still a new set, and many of nuances are yet to be mapped. However, my testing has shown that the deck should not be dismissed immediately. It only has a few truly excruciating matchups, and while it doesn’t absolutely massacre many of the more popular decks in the metagame, it doesn’t easily yield to them either. Just watch out for Words of Wilding. If Endless Whispers really takes off, you never what’ll happen.