It’s preview season once again somehow and we’re preparing for our own Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. These crossovers with other franchises mean something totally different if you have a prior investment in that world. For many players whose engagement with Dungeons & Dragons predates their time with Magic or was a route into discovering Magic, The Blackstaff of Waterdeep is a familiar item with its own lore and meaning.
For the rest of us, it means one thing:
Ensoul Artifact is a delightful and powerful card that became the namesake of a unique style of aggressive artifact deck across multiple formats. Their inherent vulnerabilities and contextual weaknesses meant they were never permanent fixtures of their formats but hovered on the fringes ready to slice through a metagame moving from rock to paper.
The Blackstaff of Waterdeep is a new twist on this effect, adding a vital redundancy to Ensoul Artifact in some formats and bringing it to others for the first time. The differences between this and Ensoul deserve our attention. Raw sizing is the obvious one, but what else?
The Blackstaff of Waterdeep has to slot into your curve somewhere. The type of deck that wants this effect tends to have a low curve with lots of competition for your mana on the first few turns, so this is a real cost. Ornithopter still sets up Turn 1 Blackstaff into Turn 2 activate + attack, but the one-drop into Ensoul nut draws that make these decks scary to play against are impossible with Blackstaff.
One draw to these strategies is that they get more utility from their lands than mere fixing and can support more colourless lands than similar decks. Blackstaff not being castable off Darksteel Citadel or Mutavault can be a real downside. If you plan to cast and activate Blackstaff in the same turn, whether by design to ambush the opponent or because your earlier development required this, this pressure on your coloured mana is even more acute.
The nontoken restriction on Blackstaff ranges from irrelevant to quite punishing depending on the supporting cast. Treasure tokens are an increasingly common currency and many glue cards for artifact decks in older formats involve tokens in some way. Animating a noncreature token is safer than suiting up a small creature against damage-based removal and a token can hang out on the battlefield in advance before becoming an attacker with ‘haste’ via Ensoul (particularly appealing as a follow-up to a sweeper). On the creature side, Thopter tokens are ideal hosts for Ensoul and come naturally via cards like Hangarback Walker; Sai, Master Thopterist; or Whirler Rogue.
Blackstaff can do things that Ensoul can’t, namely with the creature-lands that are crucial for crossing the finish line with these decks. Ensoul can power up a Blinkmoth Nexus or the like for a burst of damage but will fall off at end of turn; Blackstaff can be activated each turn to make that land a consistent threat.
More broadly, Blackstaff is much better at coexisting with other artifact payoffs. Striking the delicate balance between generically strong artifacts, more narrow or conditional artifacts, and cards that care about artifacts may not be possible in a format and is a tough deckbuilding challenge even when it is. Every artifact-light draw that gets stranded with uncastable Ensoul Artifacts or Shrapnel Blasts is a sad reminder of this.
Blackstaff just being an artifact helps here — replace the dead second Ensoul in your hand with a Blackstaff and the other Ensoul now has a target — and does a lot to make your draws functional. Ensoul does one thing and needs the game to be about that one thing; Blackstaff can usually do that thing but also makes your Emry, Lurker of the Loch cheaper and better; helps to improvise Metallic Rebuke or Whir of Invention; and so on.
This versatility looks even more important when we consider which creatures end up in these decks. There are few cheap, playable artifact creatures to pick from and the choices we do have must keep Ensoul and similar payoffs in mind. At its most extreme this includes cards like Ornithopter that are completely embarrassing on their own and there’s a reason you don’t see Gingerbrute and Vault Skirge in other contexts.
These creatures are poorly suited for normal combat, but evasion and abilities like haste or lifelink suggest creature enhancements. Blackstaff lets you run more of these with less risk of drawing too many or the entire house of cards collapsing because your 1/1 died to removal.
Against removal-heavy decks, Auras are a risky proposition and Ensoul Artifact is no exception. An animated Darksteel Citadel dodging whole categories of removal (particularly from black and/or red decks more likely to have a high quantity of removal) accounts for a lot of your equity in those matchups. You’d like to pivot away from the Ensoul plan here, but your creatures are so weak by themselves that something has to fill the void.
Blackstaff flips that script on its head, acting more like an Equipment: any throwaway artifact becomes a serious threat, and if it dies there are plenty of replacements ready to go. Modern Horizons 2 gave us a good proof of this concept — Nettlecyst helped to revive Affinity in Modern and Legacy, not because it was yet another big threat but because it also set up a steady stream of big threats.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms will aim to make a bigger mark on Standard than Strixhaven but I don’t see Blackstaff helping much there. For yet another preview season every new card has to measure itself against the third tier of nonsense from Throne of Eldraine. This is a problem for most cards in the set but a potential lifeline for Blackstaff given Eldraine’s artifact subtheme (which, unfortunately, is one of the few themes in the set that wasn’t pushed beyond belief)!
I have higher hopes for Blackstaff in Historic:
This deck doesn’t get to enjoy Ensoul Artifact itself but has eight good imitations between Blackstaff and Skilled Animator. Blackstaff joins more than twenty other artifacts that can be cast for zero or one mana allowing you to flood the battlefield early, set up a Blackstaff/Animator hit, and set up Emry with Blackstaff to take over the mid-game.
Aether Spellbomb pairs up with Emry to lock out decks like Orzhov/Azorius Auras and interferes with anything that relies on keeping a creature on the battlefield, including the next generation of Indomitable Creativity decks. Metallic Rebuke is another big draw — a uniquely efficient answer only available to a narrow range of decks that lets them keep up with the admittedly more powerful things going on elsewhere in Historic.
This is a more proven strategy in Pioneer:
- 4 Shrapnel Blast
- 4 Ensoul Artifact
- 1 Ghostfire Blade
- 2 Metallic Rebuke
- 1 Shadowspear
- 4 The Blackstaff of Waterdeep
Izzet Ensoul can now play up to twelve total ‘Ensouls’ for maximal consistency with less severe diminishing returns, edging out Equipment like Ghostfire Blade or slower and more fragile payoffs like Steel Overseer. Izzet Ensoul has rarely been seen in Pioneer this year, but doubling down on this core tactic may let it run with its scissors again.
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 2 Hope of Ghirapur
- 4 Gingerbrute
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
Other Ensoul enthusiasts switched to Azorius, opening up artifact payoffs and enablers in white as well as a much stronger companion in Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Skilled Animator doesn’t meet its mana value restriction but The Blackstaff of Waterdeep offers another Lurrus-compatible Ensoul effect. Portable Hole is an already known tool from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms that gives Azorius Ensoul some all-important interaction without lowering the artifact count.
Ensoul Artifact is supplanted by other options for artifact aggro in Modern but The Blackstaff of Waterdeep has another task there:
Whir of Invention has been the backbone of artifact toolbox decks in Modern but has always lacked a cheap, self-contained win condition to find when ending the game is a priority (a nigh-uncastable Myr Superion was somehow the best on offer).
Those days are over. Whir can now be used proactively to find a recurring source of threats that forces opponents to point Fatal Push at Chromatic Star to stay afloat. Minamo, School at Water’s Edge can even untap Blackstaff to de-animate the artifact on demand, fizzling a removal spell.
The Blackstaff of Waterdeep is a callback to a popular and proven card with enough new features to make it even more exciting.