In Part I of this article, I discussed the why and how of rogue decks, and provided some general rules for their construction. Now I’ll build one, to provide a practical example of the process. The trick was to find a rogue deck concept that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed in articles and forums already. I think I have one: Intruder Alarm, Squirrel Nest, and something to animate lands, like Vivify.
The concept is pretty simple: Get Intruder Alarm in play, have Squirrel Nest on a land. During your opponent’s end step, animate the enchanted land, tap to make a squirrel, Intruder Alarm untaps the animated land, repeat until you have a ton of squirrels, swing for the win the next turn.
The core of the deck is going to be:
The combo elements are obvious, with the exception of Vivify, which I’ll talk about later. Birds of Paradise smooth the mana and provide some acceleration. Mana Leak is there to protect your combo. Forests and Islands are obvious, and Cities of Brass because U/G’s biggest weakness is going to be it’s mana base. I might be able to fit in one Grand Coliseum as well, but the format looks pretty fast.
The combo only runs if you can untap a the land with Squirrel Nest every time you make a squirrel. That means that you either have to animate the land, or play a creature that can untap it. Krosan Restorer will do that, but since it has summoning sickness, you have to wait a turn and keep it alive. That limits the surprise – although you can wait until the Restorer is active, then drop the Intruder Alarm. Nonetheless, with Restorer, you cannot avoid giving the opponent an opportunity to do in the combo with Wrath of God (which can kill the Restorer, if nothing else). Ambush Commander makes this problem even worse.
That leaves Natural Affinity and Vivify as the instant speed options to animate the Nested land at end of turn. Natural Affinity has one additional advantage – it can be a nasty surprise when the Wake player casts Wrath, but its downside is that it animates all their lands. This means the opponent’s lands untap in response to the first squirrel – you can’t rely on them tapping out. Vivify doesn’t have that drawback. Moreover, Vivify is a cantrip, and has some use pre-combo if you draw multiples. In playtesting, I have often traded a spare City of Brass for various attackers, and the surprise blocker often takes out creatures like Grim Lavamancer and Goblin Sharpshooter, which would not have attacked if the blocker had been more obvious.
A rogue deck needs to answer a number of questions. Here’s the initial list. (There will be some additional rules and questions specific to combo decks later on.)
- Is it my style?
- Does it win?
- Is it consistent?
- Is it fairly bulletproof?
- Is it fast enough?
- Does typical hate for other decks affect it?
The first question is generally a given, since few people spend a lot of time designing decks they don’t like to play. Generally, funky combo or control decks are my style.
The question of how and whether a deck can actually win needs to be considered at the initial stage. To often, control and other decks build impervious locks that don’t allow for a win condition. Asking about winning up front avoids that pitfall. If the deck is intended for tournament play, then also consider whether it can win within the fifty minutes allowed per round, especially if it loses game one and needs to win the next two.
The question of consistency can never have a final answer. It needs to be re-asked and re-answered each time the deck is modified. Initially, though, we know a few things. First, the deck is going to have the mana problems typical of U/G decks. It is also a combo deck, needing all three pieces to pull off the combos. That means that some form of card drawing or tutoring is going to be necessary.
By bulletproof, I mean that the deck is fairly resistant to the common methods that people will use to interfere with the deck. Traditionally, these are counters, discard, removal, and land destruction. Right now, Counterspell decks are limited, with counterspells mainly used in self-defense (like, say, the Mana Leaks in Wake.) Since our deck will be U/G, we can also pack Mana Leak and Flash Counter in the sideboard. Discard can also be a problem – but Duress, the most serious problem, is gone. Mana Leak and luck can fight discard. The deck is relatively safe from removal, since the primary elements are enchantments, and when it goes off, the number of squirrels should make spot removal irrelevant. Finally, this deck would be hurt by land destruction, but Wizards has pretty much eliminated that archetype. In short, it is passably bulletproof – to the extent that, at least in theory, it can defend itself.
Whether the deck is fast enough will be answered partly in design, but mainly in playtesting. More on that below.
The last question is whether typical hate will affect it. To answer this, it is necessary to know what sideboard cards opposing decks may – which, of course, presupposes knowing what those decks are likely to be. Thanks to Worlds, we have a pretty good idea what the 8th Edition Standard metagame looks like, at least initially.
Goblins / Goblin Bidding (Red Army)
Maybe UW or BW control
Unfortunately, the best deck in the format also relies on enchantments. That means that enchantment hate is going to be important – and that enchantment hate can kill Intruder Alarm and/or Squirrel Nest. The Wake deck also relies on cycling triggers to produce their win conditions, so Stifle is going to be a bigger and bigger part of the metagame. Stifle can also stop the combo, either by Stifling the token creation effect, or the Intruder Alarm trigger. That hurts, but I’m pressing forward with the deck anyway. It just means that I will have to make sure the deck runs counterspells to fight off that hate.
The core of the deck is twenty cards. Adding in twenty-four lands leaves sixteen cards to complete the deck. The deck needs to be able to protect itself from beatdown early, to tutor for combo pieces and to offer alternative threats, if possible. My first draft used Aquamoeba and Vine Trellis for defenses, two Circular Logics (enabled by Aquamoeba) and tried two each of Peek and Deep Analysis for card drawing. Peek worked nicely to check an opponent’s hand for anything that could disrupt the combo, but it was nothing special. I also found room for a couple of large kill cards. I toyed, briefly, with Phyrexian Colossus. It is large, untaps under Intruder Alarm or for life in an emergency, and has decent evasion. It is just wrong, however.
Phyrexian Colossus is seven mana. That is a fortune in a fast environment, and its lack of haste is killer when Wrath and Disenchant effects are everywhere. Against Goblins, you are never going to have the life to untap it. Seven mana can also give you Silvos and the mana to regenerate it – and even that is not a great answer.
Initial playtesting revealed a few problems. First, Vine Trellis as good at times, but it never killed anything. Aquamoeba was fine against Goblins – right up until they got Goblin Sharpshooter. Wake was okay, provided you could find some pressure. R/G was a tossup, U/G was a problem if they got flying Wurm tokens, but nothing quite destroyed the deck like a Sharpshooter. In very rare occasions, I could get rid of it by blocking with a Vivified land, but that was too rare and uncertain an answer.
Early on, I put one Vivify in the sideboard and added a trio of Cunning Wishes. I didn’t have a fixed sideboard, so in playtesting we discussed what I should wish for. I soon found myself Wishing for Coffin Purge and Smother quite often, since they could usually be cast off Birds of Paradise and Cities of Brass. Although it hurts the mana, I think the problems caused by the Sharpshooter and Wurm tokens mandate a black splash.
Here’s the decklist I was playtesting at the point that the first part of this article was published:
4 Intruder Alarm
4 Squirrel Nest
4 Call of the Herd
4 Mana Leak
3 Cunning Wish
2 Discombobulate / Circular Logic
2 Deep Analysis
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Vine Trellis
4 City of Brass
4 Salt Marsh
Right now, the sideboard has way too many cards – mainly potential Wish targets – but they all seem to warrant further testing. Right now they include Unsummon, Beast Attack, Coffin Purge, Moment’s Peace, Smother, Dark Banishing, Circular Logic, Krosan Reclamation, Naturalize, Ray of Revelation, Flash Counter, and Flash of Insight. I have even thought about Long-Term Plans, either as a sideboard or maindeck.
The problem is that playtesting just isn’t going well enough. Some of it is luck – it seems that a lot of my draws have been mediocre, and Ingrid keeps playing turn 1 Careful Study, discarding Basking Rootwalla and Ray of Revelation, getting God draws with Goblins, turn 2 Compulsions with Wake and so forth. Whenever I draw two Smothers early, she draws three Sharpshooters. Wake is a bit more even, but a tough match. Wake has more counters and more card drawing, but some dead cards. The deck isn’t crushing anything.
The problem has been stopping Goblins. The Vine Trellis has been very useful to fix mana (especially for getting two green for Squirrel Nest), and it combos well with Intruder Alarm. (The turn 4-5 kills I have managed have all involved Trellises.) The problem is that nothing you block with a Trellis dies, while it dies blocking most Piledrivers, Wild Mongrels, and Arrogant Wurms. I really need a protective two-drop here, but nothing quite fits. Aquamoeba is another option, but it isn’t as good in a format with Hasted Sharpshooters. Wild Mongrel isn’t as good when you don’t want to discard. The only other options are Wall of Deceit (which has the same problems as Vine Trellis, but doesn’t help with mana) or silliness like Canopy Spider. What I really need is a two-drop that can trade with Warchief or Piledriver – meaning two power – but that can also survive two Sharpshooters. A two-mana 2/4 would be good, or even a Steel Golem. I have even considered Wormfang Crab, but it is slow and it does not combo well with Squirrel Nest.
Actually, I should say that the deck has some trouble with straight goblins, but where it really struggles is against Goblin Bidding. When the deck handles Goblins, it does so with spot removal and Mana Leaks. Unfortunately, that control is usually depleted by the time the Red Army deck is casting Burning Wish for Patriarch’s Bidding or Volcanic Hammer.
What the deck really needs is global removal usable on turn 4. Practically, that means Wrath of God, Infest, or Pyroclasm. None of these work with the mana at present. The only semi-useful instant (so I can search with Cunning Wish) mass removal spell without double mana in the casting cost is Psychotic Haze, and then only works with a Madness outlet.
A second alternative is to go with Moment’s Peace. I have often wished for this while digging for combo parts, but having several maindeck would be better, possibly including a Quiet Speculation to dig for them. It isn’t mass removal, but it is as close as green can get any more.
At this point, I really need to look at the deck again. I could modify the deck to use Quiet Speculation and Moment’s Peace. I could include a Ray of Revelation maindeck, and more Deep Analyses. That would help the card drawing. I could also play Mongrel and/or Aquamoeba, since I now have stuff worth discarding. That would also allow for Circular Logic.
I have now built U/G Madness, but I’m trying to wedge in some Moment’s Peaces and ten cards for a combo. The combo provides no real advantage over traditional U/G that I can see, other than slowing it down and making it less consistent. Continued work on that build will pull Moment’s Peace for blockers and threats, and end up adding Roar of the Wurm. That direction is a dead end. (Actually, it isn’t, but it leads to mainstream U/G Madness, and out of this article.)
Looking at the rest of the above decklist, it is only fair. The Smothers work when I draw them and black mana, although they are pretty useless against Wake. The maindeck Stifle has won a number of games. It has stopped the Siege-Gang Commander tokens, the Soldiers from a Decree of Justice, the madness trigger on a discarded Arrogant Wurm, and the untap of effects from Intruder Alarm. Discombobulate is nothing special, but seems to be a bit better than Circular Logic (no madness outlets) or Rewind. Why couldn’t the online idiots have voted for Dismiss over Rewind?
At this point, the deck is losing to a couple major archetypes (the really fast ones) and not really crushing anything else. That’s a problem, and an indication that the deck needs either a radical overhaul or a discrete burial. If I were not working on this for an article, I would probably abandon the concept at this point – but I’ll give it one more try, instead. The straight U/G build is not enough. The black splash is not enough. Time for other colors – white and red, since that’s all that’s left.
Since the main problem is speed decks, and the main need for the splash is global removal, we have to start with that. Red provides Pyroclasm, Starstorm, and Slice and Dice as options. Pyroclasm is cheap and effective against all the x/2 Goblins, but it does not touch end-of-turn Soldiers off a cycled Decree of Justice. Starstorm is an instant, but has double red in the casting cost. None of these combo well with Birds of Paradise. Red also offers Shock.
White offers Wrath of God, Rain of Blades, Ray of Revelation, and Wing Shards. Even Windborn Muse is a reasonable possibility. Wrath is good, but does not combo well with Birds of Paradise and Vine Trellis.
The white deck uses a typical mix of Islands, Forests, Plains, and Windswept Heaths. Since the deck wanted both double-white for Wrath and double-green for Squirrel Nest – and since it wanted them fast – Star Compass actually works in this deck. Star Compass provides mana acceleration that survives Wrath. When I have squeezed Wing Shards into the deck, they have proven beneficial there, too. (Shards is pretty good with Alarm – you can often force an opponent to play a creature before combat, just to untap attackers.)
Green-white also provides Anurid Brushhopper, which is a reasonable creature even without any cards you really want to discard. Brushhopper does combine fairly well with Wrath of God, but the lack of card drawing in the deck hurts – you cannot maintain enough cards to use the Brushhopper’s ability more than a couple times per game.
The deck needs some green fat, but it is not a primary win condition, except against Wake. Generally, the deck wins with the combo. However, the deck also needs to drop some early creatures against any Goblins or similar decks. The creature spells provide untaps under Intruder Alarm, pressure against control and blockers (that don’t die to a Shock from a Goblins deck – I have tried Ravenous Baloth, Call of the Herd, Beast Attack, Hunting Pack, Elephant Ambush…).
Call of the Herd provides two 3/3s without requiring two colored mana, making it an excellent drop on turn 2 or 3. It also works quite well with Intruder Alarm and mana creatures, since I can often cast and flash it back very early. The fact that it usually gets two goblins makes it a certainty in the deck. Against Wake, the Call helps pull Wraths out of their hand.
Elephant Ambush was a passing thought, but the flashback cost was too high. Beast Attack is better, but the triple-green can be a problem at times. I have Wished for Beast Attack many times – it has a lock on a sideboard slot. The biggest advantage to Beast Attack is that with Intruder Alarm, it can untap your blockers, which can catch opponents by surprise. Hunting Pack is also an instant, but it costs too much to ever be effective in this deck.
Ravenous Baloth never worked well in this deck. The life gain was never as useful as the second creature from Call or Beast Attack, and the double-green was enough of a problem to rule him out. Baloth is much better in any deck that can recur him, and this deck can’t.
At times, I have also had the mana to play big hitters, like Visara, Silvos, or Phantom Nishoba. While these are certainly powerful creatures in certain circumstances, they are never certain enough. They are dead as often as useful, so they get left out. I even toyed with the idea of playing Living Wish, but that would only work if I was playing casually, and could use a two-hundred-card sideboard… And the fifteen cards I have to work with are already cramped.
The green-blue-white version of the deck never really took shape. The deck worked reasonably well playing four Wrath of God, a few Wing Shards, four Calls and a couple Brushhoppers, plus sideboard help like Rain of Blades and Ray of Revelation. The problem was that it kept wanting to turn into a Wake deck. Mirari’s Wake and Decree of Justice is just plain better than Intruder Alarm/Squirrel Nest/Vivify. Taken in other directions, it became a U/W control deck that splashed green for nothing particularly useful. I think the deck could work with a white splash, but I didn’t find it exciting enough to pursue.
That leaves the red splash, and that is the deck I like best. Against Goblins and the like, the deck has Shock and can Wish for Starstorm. It can also play Gempalm Incinerators in the board. More importantly, it can run Goblin Sharpshooter itself. Sharpshooters require only a single red, so the deck can often drop them turn two or three. Sharpshooter is obviously good against Red Army (if you can keep it alive) and does pretty well against U/G, R/G and other decks. However, Goblin Sharpshooter is best with Intruder Alarm.
Intruder Alarm untaps the Sharpshooter. This means you can ping in response to every creature cast. Squirrel Nest and Sharpshooter is a great combo even without the Alarm – the squirrels chump block, and die, a lot. Most importantly, the Sharpshooter allows you to kill when going off without waiting for an attack phase – infinite squirrels means infinite untaps.
Here’s the most recent version:
4 Intruder Alarm
4 Squirrel Nest
4 Call of the Herd
4 Mana Leak
3 Cunning Wish
2 Deep Analysis
4 Birds of Paradise
2 Vine Trellis
4 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 City of Brass
4 Wooded Foothills
The sideboard is going to vary depending on what you expect to play against. I’ll discuss some sideboarding ideas in the matchup analysis below, but you’ll have to decide how to cut to fifteen cards. I know what my metagame would be, not yours. In any case, part of the sideboard will be Wish targets. The following should always appear.
1 Beast Attack
1 Some Disenchant effect – probably Ray of Revelation
1 Some form of hard counter (Discombobulate, Rewind, Circular Logic)
1 Boomerang (deals with anything for at least a turn)
Ray of Revelation is still there, even without white in the maindeck. The decks that you need enchantment removal against generally are slow enough that you can get a Bird active or find a City of Brass, while Ray’s two-shot nature is important against decks that pack counters.
I’ll start with the hard matchups first. They have more counters and more card drawing. You really do not want to see a turn 2 Compulsion – and if you do, you need to Mana Leak it or kill it. Steady pressure, without overcommitting to the extent that Wrath will wreck you, can win. Squirrel Nests provide pressure that Wrath doesn’t completely stop. A maindeck Stifle can really help – and I played one in many builds. The biggest problem is that Wake will build up mana to the point that Mana Leak is almost useless.
Decree of Justice is a problem, but Goblin Sharpshooter helps keep that in check. It’s even better with Intruder Alarm in play – each soldier token triggers Intruder Alarm separately, so you can do a lot of pinging afterward. That means that Intruder Alarm and Sharpshooter can kill 2/2 soldiers, or deal that last several points of damage to an opponent. Remember, a big part of going rogue is hoping that your opponent misses these subtle interactions, while you find and abuse them.
Against Wake, I would want to bring in additional Ray of Revelations and a Stifle, while leaving one of each in the sideboard to Wish for. A additional Deep Analysis would also be good. The Vine Trellises are useless, and the Shocks are marginal. The Birds do help produce fast Elephants, and help to cast Ray, so they should stay.
The Red Army (Goblins with Burning Wish for Patriarch’s Bidding and Hammer of Bogardan) is as tough a matchup as any other red deck, and tougher than most. The sideboard and Wish provides some problems other red decks don’t provide. However, I have been beating it pretty regularly. Shock helps, but the key is getting a fast Sharpshooter and then keeping Warchief off the table. If you can survive the initial rush, you can hold off attackers with elephants, Trellises, and squirrels. Save your Shocks for Sparksmiths and enemy Sharpshooters. Mana Leak should stop either the Burning Wish or the Bidding. Although it can be a pain (literally) to cast, Wishing for a Coffin Purge is not always bad. It can nail Warchiefs, SGC, and/or Sharpshooters before a Bidding (if you cannot counter it, of course) and it stops Hammer of Bogardan recursion.
In sideboarding this match, Birds of Paradise are very useful early, but dead later, and they die to an awful lot of cards in a goblin deck. However, if you take them out, you are a bit land light – it would be helpful to replace two of them with land. Good luck finding sideboard space. Deep Analysis is also a problem in this matchup – it’s too expensive the first time, and too costly (at least in terms of life) the second. Ideally, you would want to bring in four Gempalm Incinerators, if you can find room in the sideboard for them. Starstorms are also pretty nice, but the double red can be a problem if you pull the Birds.
I haven’t tested a lot against this deck, but the matchup looks okay. Akroma’s Vengeance is a pain, since it kills your creatures and enchantments, but you have counters and card drawing, which is always good. Squirrel Nest and Calls are an advantage against Wraths and Shards, but a multi-element combo deck is never at it’s best against a control deck that can sweep the board repeatedly.
This matchup does have one stupid win worth mentioning: The W/B player hard-casts Decree of Pain, and the deck goes off in response, creating a ton of Squirrels. Decree of Pain is not a may draw – it’s a must draw, and the decree’s caster must now draw a zillion cards. That’s game. This type of win is not likely, but the deck does have a lot of unexpected answers, if you look hard enough. That’s the joy of rogue decks – you can surprise your opponent and just win sometimes.
I haven’t played this matchup enough to have a sideboard plan.
This matchup comes down to who gets what enchantments when, and who finds enchantment kill. Elephant tokens are hard to kill with Lightning Rift, but easy to eliminate with Astral Slide. Mana Leak is usually good, since Slide decks cycle much of their land instead of playing it. The key to the matchup is keeping Astral Slide off the table. If you cannot, then you have to hope that the opponent does not realize that s/he can slide out the land you Vivify, thus killing Squirrel Nest and stopping the combo.
Sideboarding is pretty simple – Stifle and Ray of Revelation are solid, either maindeck or via Wish. Remember that you can Stifle the return effect when an opponent Slides out an Angel. Silklash Spider is nice, but not critical. Coffin Purge is for Eternal Dragon. Vine Trellis comes out. Birds are useless midgame, but still useful for fast starts – a turn 2 Elephant is still solid. If your sideboard has replacements – possibly including land – replace them.
This matchup is pretty good, especially if you can keep Wonder out of the yard. Intruder Alarm can give you some control over when your stuff untaps, and often slows attacks. Squirrel Nest can stop a Roar token for a ling time, and Sharpshooter is pretty good once Intruder Alarm hits. Since they cannot kill Birds, black mana for Coffin Purge is not that hard to get.
Sharpshooter tricks are quite important to this matchup. Remember to ping Aquamoeba in response to the power/toughness switch going on the stack – that way it dies no matter how many cards they discard. Shock and Sharpshooter aimed at a Mongrel are basically discard, and a squirrel, an elephant and Sharpshooter pings can kill a Wurm token. Just make sure it does not fly.
Provided you don’t get overwhelmed really fast by flying stuff, you should be able to use Squirrel Nest to stabilize, then eventually go off.
Coffin Purge, Unsummon, or Boomerang are the best answers to a reanimated monster, if you can find them quickly enough. Mana Leak can help. Coffin Purge can also get rid of Anger, and the Shocks can kill the Doomed Necromancer if it is not Hasted.
This is another matchup I have not playtested enough to have a serious sideboard plan.
I didn’t playtest this, but it shouldn’t be a problem. If you go off with Sharpshooter in play, you win without attacking. If you go off and have a million squirrels, you can target your opponent with Deep Analysis and swing for the win.
Squirrel Nest is your best friend. It takes counters of Phantom Centaurs, and blocks Elephant Guided Mongrels. A few Squirrels, Leaks, and Elephants should allow you to outlast the early rush, after which you will both be topdecking – except that you can topdeck Deep Analysis. Eventually, you can clear the board with Starstorm or simply go off. If you go off end-of-turn, they really have no ability to disrupt the combo except for Violent Eruption, which can generally be either played around or stopped with Stifle (they almost always madness it out – so Stifle the madness trigger) or Mana Leak.
I have a couple final thoughts to wrap this up.
First, the Mana Leaks are very situational. At times, I have considered moving them to the sideboard for other cards. They are generally solid, and I’m not sure what I would like to bring in. The sideboard is already pretty full. In any case, playtest them and make your own decision.
Second, I promised earlier to lay out some rules on combos. The rules are pretty simple: If a combo has multiple parts, the parts either have to be useful on their own, have to help find the other parts, or your deck has to have other, surefire methods of finding the rest of the combo. Combos where parts of the combo are useless alone need either great tutoring or they risk dead draws.
A deck like Turboland is an example of a combo in which all parts offer some utility, and nothing is useless on its own. On the flip side, the Donate in Necro Trix was useless alone, but the deck had so much drawing power with Necropotence, Demonic Consultation, and the rest that it didn’t matter.
This combo meets this rule, but only just. Squirrel Nest is useful whether you are going off or not. Vivify is a cantrip and can block or beat, if necessary. Intruder Alarm does slow up the attack, and allows some strange combat tricks, but it is not really all that useful by itself. This makes it a slightly weak combo.
The third parting thought is that you really need to know how this combo works in order to play the deck. It is important to know where and how the combo can be disrupted, and how to play around those problems. First, here’s the combo.
- Intruder Alarm and Squirrel Nest in play.
- Cast Vivify, targeting the land Squirrel Nest enchants, and let the resolve.
- Tap the land – a create Squirrel token pseudospell goes on the stack.
- Pseudo spell resolves, making a Squirrel. This triggers Intruder Alarm.
- Intruder Alarm resolves, untapping all creatures, including the enchanted land.
- (rinse and repeat)
An opponent has a number of opportunities to respond to the combo. Let’s break them down:
When Vivify is on the stack, the opponent can counter Vivify, bounce the land, or destroy either Squirrel Nest or Intruder Alarm. The best defense against any of these is to have a Mana Leak ready, and counter the spell.
Once Vivify has resolved and the”make a squirrel” token effect is on the stack, the opponent can attempt to Stifle the”make a squirrel” ability or destroy the Intruder Alarm. Once again, countermagic is the best defense. You can also go off with those effects on the stack if you have another method of making a creature at instant speed, like a second Squirrel Nest or a Beast Attack. The same is true if Intruder Alarm has triggered and the opponent tried to destroy a component – with a second Nest, you can go off with the destroy effect still on the stack.
That’s it. It is a rogue deck, and one that has a reasonable shot at winning any match. I would not play this at Grand Prix: Atlanta (mostly because that tournament is over), but I would play it at FNM with a reasonable expectation of winning. And it will provide that ultimate reward of rogue decks – the opportunity to explain to stunned opponents just how they suddenly lost.