Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #68: The Ultimate Stack Primer

I’m talking about Dan Bock. He was the guy who played an all-land deck at a previous Pro Tour in Japan. Now, normally I don’t beg decklists from people who play all-land decks in major tournaments… But this was a special case. Dan qualified playing Full English Breakfast at the last Extended PTQ where Survival of the Fittest was legal. Since that time, he has recreated FEB several times – in Extended without Survival, in 5-Color, and in T1. Now he has built it in Highlander format, and it’s now kicking serious butt with Phage.

I generally try to write about my own decks – not those built by others. However, I recently lost, repeatedly, to a Highlander deck that looked pretty interesting. We weren’t actually playing Highlander – we were playing some emperor and some two-headed giant, but Dan wanted to play this Highlander deck, and he played it pretty well.

I’m talking about Dan Bock. He was the guy who played an all-land deck at a previous Pro Tour in Japan. Now, normally I don’t beg decklists from people who play all-land decks in major tournaments… But this was a special case.

Dan qualified playing Full English Breakfast at the last Extended PTQ where Survival of the Fittest was legal. Since that time, he has recreated FEB several times – in Extended without Survival, in 5-Color, and in T1. Now he has built it in Highlander format.

For those of you who don’t remember, FEB is the brainchild of Paul Barclay, once the NetRep on Wizard’s MTG rules list, now a full-time employee. Paul Barclay was the guy who explained all the stack rules when 6th edition rules were introduced, and he was one of the few people who fully understood all the rules issues involved in running FEB.

FEB was so complex that one play, made by a former teammate of mine, was written up in Sideboard as the play of the week, only to be followed a week later by an explanation of why the play actually did not work. (I’ll explain the problem later, after I explain the deck concept.)

FEB revolves around one creature: Volrath’s Shapeshifter. Here’s the current Oracle text for VS:

Volrath’s Shapeshifter


Creature – Shapeshifter

Cost= 1UU

As long as the top card of your graveyard is a creature card, ~this~ is a copy of that card that has”{2}: discard a card from your hand.” ; {2}: Discard a card from your hand.

In short, Shapeshifter is either a 0/1 or whatever creature is on top of your graveyard. So, if the top card of your graveyard is Counterspell, Shapeshifter is a 0/1. If the top card is Arrogant Wurm, then Shapeshifter is an Arrogant Wurm, with the added ability”{2}: Discard a card from your hand.” That can be useful. Assume that someone tries to cast Terror on the Arrogant Wurm/VS. In response, you can pay two to discard a black creature card, and Shapeshifter will be a black creature when Terror resolves, making the target invalid and countering Terror on resolution.

Obviously, there are better creatures to copy and better ways to discard cards. Survival of the Fittest is probably the best discard method.

So, how good is Survival and Volrath’s Shapeshifter? I built an unpowered T1 version a while back, and I pulled off the following:

Turn 1: Forest, Birds of Paradise, go

Turn 2: Island, Volrath’s Shapeshifter, go.

Turn 3: Forest, Survival of the Fittest, use survival to discard a Bird and fetch Cephalid Inkshrouder, use Survival to discard Cephalid Inkshrouder and fetch Phage the Untouchable. Shapeshifter is now a Cephalid Inkshrouder. Discard Phage to use Cephalid Inkshrouder’s ability – my Shapeshifter is now an unblockable, untargetable Phage the Untouchable. Attack for the win.

It’s faster when you draw the broken stuff, like Moxen and Black Lotus, but it is pretty amazing at any time.

Another quick note on Shapeshifter. If Shapeshifter is in play, and you put a different card in your graveyard, Shapeshifter instantly becomes a copy of the other card. However, Shapeshifter is already in play – it changes into a new creature, but it does not mean it comes into play as a new creature. Thus, even though I got Phage into play without casting it, it did not come into play as Phage – so I don’t lose the game.

However, if I had Phage on top of my graveyard and then played Volrath’s Shapeshifter, it would come into play as Phage.

The original FEB was created before Phage was printed. The original FEB used another kill mechanism – Phyrexian Dreadnought and Flowstone Hellion. The traditional kill with Volrath’s Shapeshifter is to get it into play, then discard a Flowstone Hellion. You declare an attack (since Hellion has Haste) then activate the +1/-1 ability eleven times – each in response to the previous activation. This is important, since if you let too many of them resolve, the VS/Hellion becomes a 6/0 and dies. So you activate the abilities in response to the first, and with all of them on the stack, you discard a Phyrexian Dreadnought. Once all the +1/-1s resolve, you are attacking with a 23/1 trampler.

Remember that all the +1/-1 effects remain until end of turn. A former teammate of mine attacked with the 23/1 VS/Dreadnought, put damage on the stack, then discarded an Elvish Lyrist and sacrificed it to kill a Worship to win the game. The play was made in the high brackets of a PTQ – and later written up in a Sideboard article as the play of the week. A week later Sideboard printed a retraction – the problem, of course, was that the Elvish Lyrist should have been a 12/-10 (and dead thanks to state-based effects) before it could be sacrificed.

A lot of people feel that the complex rules interactions in Full English Breakfast was a primary reason that Survival of the Fittest was banned in Extended.

Anyway, back to Dan’s version.

Dan Bock’s Highlander.mdb

Lands and Mana (22)

Mox Emerald

Mox Jet

Mox Pearl

Mox Ruby

Mox Sapphire

Black Lotus

Windswept Heath

Flooded Strand

Bloodstained Mire

Library of Alexandria


Strip Mine





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Tropical Island


Volcanic Island

Underground Sea

Spells (19)

Ancestral Recall


Demonic Tutor

Eladamri’s Call

Enlightened Tutor

Fact or Fiction



Force of Will


Living Death


Mystical Tutor


Survival of the Fittest


Time Walk

Tortured Existence

Vampiric Tutor

Creatures (19)

Academy Rector


Ascendant Evincar

Birds of Paradise

Chainer, Dementia Master

Flowstone Hellion

Infernal Denizen



Phage the Untouchable

Phyrexian Dreadnought


Quirion Ranger

Sliver Queen

Squee, Goblin Nabob

Tradewind Rider

Reya, Dawnbringer

Volrath’s Shapeshifter

Wall of Roots

Now the (in)famous card-by-card analysis. And it’s a highlander deck, so I can write a lot without having to think much at all. I’ll condense, though, as 50,000 words that say nothing much are, well… Nothing much.

SoLoMoxen: SoLoMoxen stands for Sol Ring, Black Lotus, and the five Moxen. These are the most brokenly underpriced mana cards ever printed, and any deck that can run them generally does.

20 dual lands: Simply the best lands available for a multicolored deck. With dual lands, a Wooded Foothills can literally get you any color of mana.

Windswept Heath, Flooded Strand, Bloodstained Mire: Dan makes his living trading cards, and sells or trades away Wooded Foothills and Polluted Deltas as fast as he can get them. The other three are present, of course, because fetching dual lands is a great use for these fetch lands.

Library of Alexandria: Simply amazing card drawing. A turn 1 Library is always hard to beat….

Wasteland, Strip Mine: …But these two cards can deal with Library, or any other problem land. Strip Mine is also excellent for prolonging an opponent’s mana screw.

Ancestral Recall: It’s the best legal card drawer (as opposed to Contract from Below, which is the best illegal card drawer). If you have it, you play it.

Fact or Fiction, Intuition: They are not Ancestral, but close enough. In a deck that abuses its graveyard, Intuition is very strong.

Demonic Tutor, Eladamri’s Call, Enlightened Tutor, Mystical Tutor; Vampiric Tutor: Three solid tutors, all of which let you search for pieces to the combo. Even Eladamri’s Call lets you get Survival of the Fittest – you just have to get Academy Rector first, then find a way to kill the Rector.

Counterspell, Foil, Forbid, Force of Will, Misdirection, Thwart: An assortment of solid counterspells – and since Highlander only allows you one of each, an assortment is necessary. The only common counters missing are Mana Drain and Arcane Denial. Mana Drain is good, but Dan said the colorless mana caused mana burn too often. Arcane Denial lets your opponents draws cards, so it didn’t make the cut.

Living Death: Once in a while, something can kill Volrath’s Shapeshifter before it can kill opponents. Living Death can reclaim it. Survival can also fill a juicy graveyard that Living Death can bring back. Finally, it is a very solid Wrath of God effect when necessary.

Regrowth: It is far too cheap a method of getting a card back. Regrowing Time Walk, Ancestral, Living Wish, or Demonic Tutor are all plays that can win the game.

Survival of the Fittest: This is the card that drives the deck. Survival and Squee, Goblin Nabob work best together, allowing you to Survival every turn without actually losing a creature card in the process. Survival also sets up the kill. Survival Squee for Volrath’s Shapeshifter and cast it. Survival some other creature for Morphling. Survival Morphling for Flowstone Hellion. Shapeshifter is now a Morphling. Use Morphling’s ability to make the Shapeshifter untargetable. Survival Hellion to get Dreadnought. Shapeshifter is now an untargetable Hellion. Put eleven +1/+1s on the stack and Survival Dreadnought to get anything. Let the +1/-1s resolve and the Dreadnought is a 23/1 trampler. Complete your attack.

Time Walk: Extra turns for practically nothing is a good deal. The wording even means that it cannot be Misdirected.

Tortured Existence: A surprisingly strong card in this deck. Tortured Existence provides another method of getting cards into your graveyard at instant speed. It also provides a method of rearranging your graveyard. Suppose your Shapeshifter/Phage was attacking, and someone Shocked your Birds of Paradise before damage resolved. Suddenly, the Shapeshifter is a Birds of Paradise and is going to do no damage at all. However, Tortured Existence lets you discard some other creature to retrieve Phage, then discard Phage to retrieve the Birds. Suddenly, Shapeshifter is a Phage again.

“Attacking with Phage, prepare to die.”

“A Shocking Development! Your Shapeshifter is a 0/1 Bird.”

Shapeshifter/Phage:”I’m back…”

You get the idea. Just because something is buried deep in the graveyard does not mean that it cannot rise to the top again.

On to the creatures.

Academy Rector: Mr. Wall. No sane person kills the Rector, because she will fetch some broken enchantment. In this deck, that is either Survival or Tortured Existence – but Survival is plenty broken enough.

Anarchist: He gets a sorcery back from the graveyard – these can include Demonic Tutor, Living Death, Time Walk, or Regrowth. Regrowth can get Ancestral Recall or Survival. That seems good enough. It was certainly good enough the game where Dan cast Time Walk four times.

Ascendant Evincar: This is an answer to Army of Squirrels and any other deck that relies on a horde of non-black 1/1 creatures. It is also an answer to Goblin Welder-based decks.

Birds of Paradise: It’s a five-color deck with a strong green base. Birds of Paradise is a given.

Chainer, Dementia Master: As a method of getting rid of creatures in an opponent’s graveyard, stealing them, and then having them removed from the game is pretty good. If you have a Shapeshifter/Chainer in play, Survival will make sure Chainer leaves play at will. Of course, you don’t have to remove the creatures immediately; you can always attack with the stolen creatures. It’s not an original strategy, but it seems to work.

Flowstone Hellion, Phyrexian Dreadnought: The traditional kill cards in Full English Breakfast. It’s important to maintain traditions. Of course, adding Phage to the deck may create a new tradition, and that’s good, too.

Morphling: I was playing Two-Headed Giant against Dan, and when he cast Superman, my partner had to read it. I guess there are people who don’t know enough to fear Morphling – although if the rumors are true, they will learn. Scourge is supposed to have an enchantment that can turn any creature into Morphling – in other words, the enchantment gives it the ability to fly, untap, become untargetable and pump power or toughness. Pretty sweet – but I guess this is really intended to fix Akroma, since they forgot to give her those abilities.

Infernal Denizen: Dan’s rationale for the Denizen was to deal with Worship or opposing armies. He would turn Volrath’s Shapeshifter into Morphling, put a half-dozen untaps on the stack, then steal seven of the opponent’s creatures. Afterward, he could Survival something else into the graveyard so that he did not have to pay upkeep. Since the Volrath’s Shapeshifter would merely be changing forms, not leaving play, he does not have to give anything back. If he hadn’t stolen all the opponent’s creatures, he could always use Tortured Existence or other effects to do it again next turn.

Masticore: Another of the totally broken Urza’s Block creatures, this is an excellent method of dealing with small-but-annoying enemy creatures. Masticore kills Royal Assassins, Peacekeepers, Soul Wardens and their ilk – and can even kill Verdant Force or Krosan Cloudscraper if you can scrape up enough mana.

Psychatog: I thought I had one game won; I had buried Phage eight cards deep in the graveyard and Disenchanted Tortured Existence. I had even removed Reya from the game. Then Dan Survivaled Psychatog into the graveyard and attacked. His partner had Shadow Rift, so the VS/Tog was suddenly a shadow creature that I could not block. After damage went on the stack, Dan used the Psychatog’s ability to eat the eight cards on top of Phage from the graveyard (eating the Tog last), and just as suddenly I was taking damage from Phage again.

Quirion Ranger: The Ranger has the ability to untap a creature by returning a land to your hand. You can use this ability to tap a land, return it, then replay and retap it, to untap mana creatures, or to untap a”surprise” blocker during an opponent’s turn.

Reya Dawnbringer: Probably the most annoying play – aside from instant kills – that this deck has is Survivaling Reya into a graveyard at the end of the opponent’s turn, then using the Shapeshifter/Reya’s ability to return the real Reya to play. Once she is in play, the Shapeshifter has changed to itself, or whatever creature is on top of the graveyard – it is not a duplicate Reya. Next turn, Reya can bring back any other creature in the graveyard, and with Survival and the Shapeshifter, there will be something worth bringing back.

Sliver Queen: Sliver Queen has two main abilities. The lesser is to be a 7/7 for five mana. The greater is the ability to pump out 1/1 creatures at a rapid rate. I lost to this deck when Dan could pump out more Sliver tokens than I could pump 1M/1M tokens out of my Phyrexian Processor. (I was playing Life and was at six billion life, so paying one million life for Phyrexian Processor was no problem.)

Tradewind Rider: This is yet another answer to problem permanents, like Glacial Wall, Confiscate, and Worship. Tradewind Rider can bounce anything.

Wall of Roots: Wall of Roots is cheap mana and a good blocker all in one. More importantly, since you can get mana once per turn, in a multiplayer game, it can function on your turn, and each opponent’s turns. This can allow a lot of Survivaling once Survival of the Fittest hits the board. Wall of Roots has been a green staple for many years. I own something like eighteen, and have found that all are often in use in decks at the same time.

The deck has so many options that it is nearly impossible to lose – if you think very carefully about how to play it.

Here’s a just one example – I’ll lay it out like a Magic the Puzzling challenge:

In play, untapped: Wall of Roots, Bird of Paradise, Bayou, Wasteland, Survival.

In play tapped: Morphling, Volrath’s Shapeshifter copying Phyrexian Dreadnought.

I have a Swords to Plowshares in hand, and need to kill the Shapeshifter. How could Dan prevent that without losing the Shapeshifter? Remember, Morphling is in play, so you cannot Survival for it.

The answer is pretty simple – activate Morphling’s +1/-1 three times, so it becomes a 6/0 and dies. Then Shapeshifter becomes a Morphling, and can use its ability to make it untargetable.

You could also Survival for a Tradewind Rider and bounce the Shapeshifter.

Here are some classic problems that make it hard to kill an opponent, and the answers:

Moat/Form of the Dragon: Survival Morphling into the graveyard, give Shapeshifter flying.

Lots of blockers: Steal them all with Infernal Denizen, or fly over them with Morphling’s ability.

The Abyss: if you cannot feed it Wall of Roots or the like, put Reya into play, then use Reya’s ability to produce a sacrificial creatures – but you need to use Reya to put the sacrificial creature into play the turn before it gets sacrificed. The Abyss’ ability (since it is controlled by an opponent) will go on the stack above Reya’s. However, if you have the Shapeshifter in play, you can have The Abyss target the Shapeshifter, then make it a VS/ Masticore or VS/Dreadnought and The Abyss will fizzle.

Wrath of God: Well, Shapeshifter will not live through Wrath, but you do have lots of counterspells. If worse comes to worst, and you had two other untapped creatures, you could Survival a Tradewind Rider and bounce the Shapeshifter. If all that fails, you have Regrowth and Living Death.

Withered Wretch: Better counter it or kill it with Masticore, because it is a problem.

Maze of Ith: Find and hard-cast Tradewind Rider, or create an army of slivers with the Sliver Queen. Or use the Strip Mine or Wasteland – and Regrow one of those if necessary.

Cursed Totem/Humility: Cursed Totem does shut down many of the deck’s tricks, but Survival still works, and the VS/Dreadnought is still a trampling 12/12. And, once you put twelve damage on the stack, if even one point gets through, Survivaling Phage into the graveyard is still a kill. As for Humility, did I mention that the deck has a bunch of counterspells? You don’t need to waste them on most things, but Cursed Totem and Humility are both worth a counter.

To wrap up, here are a few other cards I would consider for the deck. They are not necessarily better than Dan’s choices, but I like them. They offer some other options for messing with an opponent.

Cephalid Inkshrouder: This is my preference for making Volrath’s Shapeshifter untargetable and unblockable.

Gaea’s Liege: Make Shapeshifter a Morphling, put a bunch of untap effects on the stack, and discard the Liege. Now make all of the opponent’s lands into Forests. It is sort of a one-sided Blood Moon. This may be unnecessary – if you have the Shapeshifter and Survival in play, you could just win – but it sounds like fun.

Minion of Leshrac: Put a bunch of untaps on the stack, then destroy a bunch of opposing creatures and/or lands. This is one of the stronger cards Dan is not playing. I would consider it over Tradewind Rider… Except that you can hard-cast and keep the Rider around, while the Minion’s upkeep is too harsh.

Arcanis the Omnipotent: Drawing three cards is pretty good. Arcanis may be pretty useful, but he is probably just a”wins more” card.

Weathered Wayfarer: He can dig for Library of Alexandria and a lot of other options. He is a pretty solid one-drop.

A final note on that cards that are not here: No Deranged Hermit, no Spike Feeder, and no Avalanche Riders. Remember, when Volrath’s Shapeshifter comes into play, it copies whatever creature is on top of the graveyard. When a new card is put into the graveyard from play, Shapeshifter copies that card. That card is not coming into play, so the Deranged Hermit does not get squirrels, Avalanche Riders does not destroy a land, and Spike Feeder is a 0/0 with no counters – and dies.

There are a lot more options in the deck, but I’ll let you find them yourselves. If you play Highlander, and can find the cards, give the deck a try.

If you don’t have the power ten, I would consider replacing them with a Weathered Wayfarer, Land Grant, the last two fetchlands, a City of Brass, Impulse, Swords to Plowshares and maybe a Scrivener and Gemstone Mine. I might also add a Worldly Tutor, letting you get the Weathered Wayfarer or Birds to stabilize mana, or the Shapeshifter for the kill. I would also add the Cephalid Inkshrouder, since it works without mana. Finally, since the deck is slower without the power, some form of enchantment kill might be useful – something like Allay.


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