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Finding Homes For Niambi, Esteemed Speaker

Sam Black unlocks the potential of Niambi, Esteemed Speaker in Standard, Pioneer, and Modern in a series of increasingly inventive decks!

Niambi, Esteemed Speaker, illustrated by Eric Deschamps

Whitemane Lion and Deputy of Acquittals are awesome cards whose design I love. They offer a fine rate body that can generate card advantage but only under certain circumstances.  They reward careful, interactive Magic.  Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing competitive Magic is about and these cards have never been realistic considerations in Standard.  Niambi, Esteemed Speaker is enough better to make me wonder and try to make it work, but I’m not going to kid myself; this isn’t the kind of stuff that wins games.

You can’t plan to just leave two mana up all the time to try to counter a removal spell on some creature so that you can return it to your hand instead of letting it die to generate card advantage, because the card advantage is worth much less than the mana you’ve invested in setting it up.  This means we need to plan to use Niambi proactively more than reactively, though it’ll be great when we can find convenient reactive uses.

In Standard, the best card to return with this is likely Arboreal Grazer, to give you an idea of the kind of uses I have in mind.  Is that even good? It’s not especially powerful, but it offers some value we can generate early in the game to spend our mana when it’s available if Niambi happens to be the only two-mana spell we draw on Turn 2, and it’s important to be able to use cards as our draw dictates. If the game goes long and we draw it later, we can generate more value by returning something more expensive, but you want to build your deck so that you’re happy casting it in as many circumstances as possible.

So what are the attributes that make this card even marginally appealing to me? The activated ability is worse than “1UW: Draw a card,” which is a nice ability, but really, not something you’re going to have the luxury of taking advantage of all that often, and the lifegain is pretty small, so what’s the appeal? 

Well, honestly, one of the biggest draws to me is the fact that it’s a legendary Human.  Legendary is generally a disadvantage, of course, but if you build your deck to take advantage of it, you can turn it into an advantage.  That means in general, if a card is strong enough to stand on its own, legendary status is a disadvantage, but if the card would only work by supporting narrow synergies, legendary status is another attribute to take advantage of which can give it a home where it might otherwise not have had one.

So, cards that I’m excited to play with Niambi, by format:

Standard

Pioneer

Modern

Obviously each of these can also use cards from the previous format. Let’s get to decklists.

Standard


This is Esper Hero with a bit more focus on synergistic creatures. General Kudro of Drannith pumps the Hero’s Human tokens and General’s Enforcer protects Kudro and several other Humans.  Barrin is a bit of a hard splash and might not be worth it, particularly since it’s somewhat redundant with Teferi, but playing it with Niambi just feels so right.

It’s unusual to see a midrange deck with this much synergy in its creatures — usually decks like this just play the strongest standalone threats, but I think it makes sense to play more interaction with these creatures, which are more powerful than they are fast, so they hold their own well in longer games.


Sublime Epiphany really shines in a creature-based ramp deck where you can cast it early and reliably get value out of the token-making mode while also maximizing the bounce ability. This deck also makes great use of all the two-mana legendary creatures, all of which work well with Llanowar Visionary.

Primal Might is an amazing card, and I really wonder if a deck like this is supposed to just play four copies main.  The creatures aren’t necessarily big enough to win fights on their own, but there’s enough mana around to kill things and then push a bunch of damage, and Teferi makes it all reliable. Between bouncing with Teferi, Barrin, and Sublime Epiphany and fighting with Primal Might and Kogla, the Titan Ape, this deck can have a lot of interaction for creatures after sideboarding.  Frilled Mystic and Sublime Epiphany are great against expensive sorcery-speed threats, while Mystical Dispute and Dovin’s Veto are better against cheap instants. Since this deck is mostly mana and cantrips, tuning its interaction should be particularly effective.

I’m pretty optimistic about this shell, though I don’t think Niambi itself is particularly essential.

Pioneer

Things get considerably more exciting for Esper Humans once Mox Amber and Thalia’s Lieutenant are added to the mix:


It’s hard to think of this deck as being especially aggressive since it’s low on high-power one-drops, but it has strong interaction and its creatures build on each other well, so it ends up occupying a similar role to the Standard version – creatures that take over the game given time, and good spells to let them do that.

The mana’s not exactly for the faint of heart, which can probably be said any time Mana Confluence shows up in the mix, but it should be fairly smooth, despite being pretty painful.  The sideboard avoids blue spells because the mana isn’t set up to reliably have blue mana for non-Humans.

Another way to approach this is to really lean into Barrin:


This deck is really hoping to recast Thalia’s Lieutenant a lot of times.  Shepherd of the Flock and Niambi allow you to draw cards off Barrin while picking up Thalia’s Lieutenant, ideally. Thraben Inspector and Reflector Mage are fine substitutes.

This deck plays a much more aggressive, tempo-focused game than the Esper deck, and Miscast is an interesting new addition to the arsenal for accomplishing that plan.

As always, the mana for allied two-color decks in Pioneer is frustratingly bad, particularly when you really want to avoid lands that enter the battlefield tapped and you want WW and 1UU reliably.  I did the best I could, but I don’t like it.

Modern

All mana issues are fixed when we move to Modern, home of the familiar Five-Color Humans archetype.  While you could slot Niambi into Humans over Charming Prince to accomplish the same things for more mana, Aether Vial actually hurts the case for doing so by effectively giving Charming Prince flash.  Moreover, the decklist that does that simply wouldn’t be very interesting, so here’s a more interesting way to try to use it:


Under the original companion rules, I didn’t like Niv-Mizzet Reborn in Yorion decks because you already had a five-mana value card every game, but when you have to spend an additional three mana to get access to it, it’s substantially harder to have access to and there’s more value to drawing a high impact five-drop like Niv-Mizzet Reborn

Niambi helps find enough cheap two-color legends to turn on Mox Amber, and it’s also a nice hit off Niv since it can return the Niv if you’re in that kind of long game.

This version of this deck has fewer interactive spells to make room for more legendary permanents to enable Mox Amber.  The extra speed is great, and I think this approach should play well against other midrange value decks where the goal is just to go as far over the top as possible as fast as possible, but might be weaker against opponents who are trying to end the game directly.

I’d love to see Niambi picking up Snapcaster Mages and Spellstutter Sprites. I don’t think it’s likely to be a great deck, but I have to give it a shot:


Honestly, this deck would likely be better if it splashed green to play Ice-Fang Coatl over Faerie Seer and Spell Queller over Spellstutter Sprite, but I like the lower curve and think Faeries are sweet, so this is the list I’m suggesting, after all, this is more of an example of the kind of deck I’d have fun playing than a deck I actually think is likely to win a tournament these days.

All told, Niambi isn’t likely to make any “Top X Cards in the Set” lists, and really, most of its uses are more “interesting” than powerful, but I’m glad to see cards that play a more incremental game pushed a bit more, and maybe someday we can get back to a point where that’s what a competitive game of Magic is actually about.

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