It’s nigh impossible to write a cogent and interesting introduction when people don’t really know who you are. Maybe this won’t be a problem for me in the future, considering that I’m now the most popular leprechaun this side of the blarney stone*, but still – this is my first premium article and I’m supposed to make a good impression. I guess the chance of that is shot to hell.
Anyway, hi. I’m Ben Goodman. I just cashed at my second Pro Tour, and I did so with one of the wackiest decks that I’ve ever played seriously, and the looks on my opponent’s faces when they lost to Thief of Hope (and other assorted spicy cards) were priceless. The deck (and lots of talk about it) has been spammed all over the internet, but I promised people that I would write about my experience with it and so here I am. Oh, and don’t worry, there will be a tournament report – but the way I figure it, Team Standard is coming up soon and the people reading this are going to want to know how to play this deck. I can’t blame you for wanting someone to make sense of how it works, considering the deck is fairly counterintuitive and looks like complete and utter trash on paper.
Besides, I’ll be writing for a while. You’ll get to hear all about my opponents and how badly they lost to Draft commons.
Let me start off with a short history of the deck, because it would be a disservice to everyone who worked on it to not mention the roots of the spirit concoction. blisterguy already wrote a bit about it in an attempt to talk about the deck before Flores descended and wrote a novella about the synergies and reductive thinking and catachresis and whatever, but I’m going to tell the whole story.
It all started back in the ‘80s when a fellow named NicotineJones (a Mr. Karl Kahn in the offline universe) put Tallowisp and Shining Shoal in a White Weenie deck in an attempt to create a foil to the cookie-cutter Red aggro decks that were popping up in the rough Champions/Betrayers block metagame. He played it, and played it, and played it, and then I logged back in a week later and his Constructed rating was 1927. The rest of the story is fairly well known, as Ryan Cimera took the deck to a Pro Tour Top 8 blah blah blah Blessed Breath blah blah blah Gifts wins blah blah blah. You know this stuff. So anyway, one of the decks we were trying to test was a version of the deck that splashed Black for Mark of the Oni and Thief of Hope, and maybe some Sickening Shoals. We couldn’t get the mana to work, though, so the deck was shelved.
Between then and now, we became the clan known as Cymbrogi, had many further Magic Online milestones, and found lots of good tech. Benjamin Peebles-Mundy nearly made Top 8 of Pro Tour LA with his advancement of our version of Red Deck Wins, and good times were had.
Then, Guildpact happened. *dramatic reverb*
On January 20th, 2006, Peebles made a post on our clan message board detailing the fruits of a conversation he’d had with NJ that very evening, and the resulting decklist. It looked awful, but we trusted in it anyway because we’d made a lot of money with awful decks. Here is the original list in its unrefined, nubile state.
We didn’t know how good it was at first, but Peebles tested it out after the list went up, and his numbers were absurd. It was beating RG, UB Jushi, and Glare. It was splitting with URTron, the best deck in Standard at that time. It was a dream come true! Praise Be!
…Ahem. Anyway, 400 replies later with almost every single member of the clan working on the deck, we’d had a ton of testing data, we’d hammered out a sideboard, and the maindeck had changed by nine cards into the well-oiled machine that you see below:
- 4 Tallowisp
- 4 Thief of Hope
- 3 Kami of Ancient Law
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
- 3 Plagued Rusalka
- 2 Teysa, Orzhov Scion
There’s a lot to talk about here. Let me highlight the individual card choices.
The deck has three main elements that make it tick, and these eight cards are the first. They’re both huge card-advantage engines, they both cost two mana, and they’re both creatures. It seems simple enough, but while Dark Confidant may be obviously good in this deck (and pretty much any deck that isn’t insanely top-heavy), it takes a little more explaining to show why the Wisp is similarly powerful. First, as anyone who has drafted a decent enough BWx deck in any Limited format with Guildpact will tell you, Pillory of the Sleepless is much better in multiples – it goes from a removal spell to a removal spell/win condition. It’s pretty when your removal also makes your opponent die directly, though I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Second, while I’ll only mention the Shoals quickly here because I’m going to highlight them later, it is important to note that Tallowisp effectively makes the first three or four Shoals you play cost nothing. Shoals are good when they cost zero mana, but they’re even better when they don’t even cost an extra card. Third, it’s not just card draw, it’s tutoring. You get to dig up whatever you need for any situation, and you get to do so by playing spells you want to play anyway. Tutoring is worth paying mana for, so it’s even better when you get it thrown in for no extra charge. Oh, and Wisp doesn’t die to Pyroclasm or Electrolyze either. Ting!
These guys are the second key element of this deck. Yes, by themselves. Yes, they’re that ridiculous. If you haven’t played against this card yet, consider yourself lucky, because it’s one of the most absurd four-drops they’ve printed in a very long time. I mean, it triggers everything and it drains for one, on top of a 4/4 for four mana that never dies, and every time it saves itself it drains for one more just for fun. It’s nuts. Play it.
Oh, also, fun fact – Aaron Forsythe was watching one of my games and the following conversation takes place…
Me (to my opponent): “Ghost Council.”
Aaron: “Yeah, that card was even better when it didn’t cost any mana to use its ability.”
Or something along those lines. The point is, it’s absurd even after they nerfed it. Plus the extra copies pitch to both Shoals for four. How lucky!
I know that he doesn’t seem good, but really, he is. It’s important to remember that his ability is free and is about a free soul feast over the course of a game on an average draw. It’s possible to do more, it’s possible to get two and make your opponent die, it’s possible to pair it up with some tutored pillories and make your opponent die, and it has soulshift 2. I know that doesn’t seem exciting, but the soulshift on this guy is better than soulshift has ever been in any format ever. If your opponent kills him, you either get to start killing a bunch of tokens, killing an annoying enchantment, or search up a bunch of annoying enchantments of your own. It’s impossible to lose attrition wars when you’ve got this gentleman helping you out. And check out the art – he’s got a lot of tentacles and he generally looks like a badass.
These are the workhorse creatures of the deck. They aren’t as flashy or exciting as the other cards, but I mean really, what else can top a 1/3 for two mana? Literally nothing. So yeah, Rusalka does that thing where it makes Meloku tokens pretty bad at saving whoever’s making them, and that thing where BW aggro can’t make good attacks or blocks, and that thing where Jitte never gets active against you ever. Pretty good for a 1/1 for one, right? It’s a spirit as well, which helps quite a bit with Wisp. Note for you aspiring Qualifier hounds that this guy is good in the mirror for making Pillory bad. Koala is a good extra threat in a deck with small creatures like ours, and it happens to kill off annoying enchantments like Annex, Confiscate, Greater Good, Glare of Subdual, Moldervine Cloak (for a little while), Threads of Disloyalty, and whatever else is floating around. Oh, and it’s a grizzly bear. And a spirit. Yeah. Teysa is kind of the oddball of the deck and doesn’t really fit into many of the synergies present, but she’s never really bad – she survives Pyroclasm, she’s really good with Rusalka, occasionally her first ability is relevant, and she pitches to both Shoals. Things could be worse.
These cards are the third key element to the deck, and to be honest I don’t know why either of them haven’t seen more play. I know they were good in Block play, but these cards are worthy of being in Standard decks. They cost no mana! Come on, people! It’s pretty cool that they’re arcane, too. Tallowisp loves these guys, Sick Shoal loves playing against Jitte (which is awful against this deck, by the way), and Shining Shoal is really just way more ridiculous than it has any right to be. The first time that you Shine on your third turn against a Pyroclasm to save your Bob and Thief, dome your opponent for three or four, and drain for an extra one, you may just start laughing for the rest of the match and be unable to stop. Your opponent may also sneer at you in disgust – that’s perfectly natural.
ASIDE: There are some rules that need to be mentioned with Shining Shoal. First, if you read the card, you’ll note that it doesn’t say which creature or player you’re redirecting the damage from. So, for example, if somebody Earthquakes for one while you have two creatures in play and you Shine for three… you take nothing, all your guys live, and whatever you target takes three. Pretty sick, huh? You can even divide up how much is prevented, like in the above example against Pyroclasm – prevent two to Bob and one to Thief and you’re in business. Also, rule 419.8a is the rule that MTGO gets wrong – if damage is on the stack and you have a Shining Shoal, it doesn’t matter if they get the guy out of there. As long as its damage would still be dealt, it can still be redirected. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
The enchantments! These are the cards that get the strangest looks from passersby, and a Mr. Ted Knutson even laughed at me at the PT when a Strands of Undeath was in play. These cards are all good, believe it or not. Pillory has already been explained, but really it’s important to reiterate how good it is in multiples. You get to find multiple three-mana removal spells that also work really well with your strategy of “burning out” your opponent a point at a time. Once you play a game where you Pillory the first three creatures your opponent plays and you win with Tallowisp beatings, you’ll never want to go back to good cards again. Indomitable Will is good in a lot of combat situations and it’s secretly a counterspell against Red cards. Countering burn is good, and making a guy survive Wildfire is better. Now that there’s no Wildfire in the metagame, the Will doesn’t belong any more, but if it ever starts to reappear then put the Will somewhere and your matchup will get better. Strands of Undeath was initially included as a tutorable way to kill Meloku with a Sickening Shoal, but we found that it was good even when you cast it – a lot of aggro-control decks get down to a very low number of cards in hand in the midgame and you can Strands them out, and against a Wildfire/Magnivore deck you just drop it and all of a sudden their number of win conditions goes down a large amount.
These are lands. They help you cast your spells. An important thing to note is that Tomb of Urami and Caves of Koilos both say “damage”, which Shining Shoal conveniently redirects. Killing someone with a Caves of Koilos is both faster than the stack and hilarious.
I know it looks like a mess, but it’s a board designed to tune the deck, not radically change it. Our maindeck was good for the tournament and you need to be prepared for everything at an undefined metagame event like the Pro Tour. It worked well, I’d say, though obviously there will be some changes now.
3 Cranial Extraction
These are mostly for combo decks and Wildfire decks, which we thought would be much more popular. Extracting Wildfire against Eminent Domain is the game most of the time, extracting Magnivore is good against, um, Magnivore, and against combo the application is obvious.
Originally we thought these cards were good against Tron, and it turns out they’re good against Tron and any deck with Godless Shrines in it. Try these in the BW aggro mirror – you’ll be surprised at how game-breaking they are.
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
This isn’t bad as a Seal of Cleansing, but it’s better as a general purpose threat upgrade against the control matchups. They have a lot of removal, so with this card, you make them answer every single guy you play… or die.
2 Pithing Needle
It’s good against a ton of cards: Drift of Phantasms, Meloku, Greater Good, Miren (which is a huge problem for this deck), Jitte, Selesnya Guildmage, Vitu-Ghazi, and anything else you can think of.
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
This card has two purposes. After board in a lot of control matchups, your curve increases a lot because you board out zero-casters for four-casters. This card both taps for mana and Wastelands a card that can be a major problem for you if it gets active. Think of it as Pithing Needle 2.5.
1 Pillory of the Sleepless
Additional tutor targets. Enfeeblement is good against Hand of Cruelty, Selesnya Guildmage, Bob, Jushi Apprentice, Plagued Rusalka, and really any annoying guy that you want to get rid of – it even kills a guy that’s holding a Jitte. The fourth Pillory comes in when you need to stop a lot of creatures at any given time, which means when you’re playing against aggro.
1 Kami of Ancient Law
It’s good against enchantments and it’s never bad to board out a lackluster card for a grizzly spirit. Sorry, not everything is enormous tech. We just like attacking for two.
So while this article is already at some large number of words, it just feels incomplete without the matchup guides and sideboard strategies and tips and all that. I guess for my debut here at the StarCityGames.com, I’ll be writing a Rizzo-esque diatribe. Tally ho!
The Teysas and the Indomitable Will aren’t that great any more in the maindeck because Wildfire is pretty much out of the picture. Teysa isn’t that great anyway, and it turns out that all the Green decks in the format like to get their hand pretty low on cards. Enter Descendant of Kiyomaro, moonlighting for Exalted Angel and doing a pretty good job. He beats, he blocks, he gains you some life, and he’s just a good man. He’s been solid in testing – though he’s a harder to cast than the woman in black, so thanks to that and some sideboard consideration, we cut a Swamp for a Plains. Fun for the whole family.
As for the sideboard, it needs to be revamped both for Team Standard and for the newly defined metagame. What I’m running right now is:
Persecute’s still ridiculous, Needle is a good Jitte countermeasure that also stops Drifts and such, Cranial is still necessary for combo considerations, and the one-of cards are tuning staples. The only really new addition is Hand of Honor, and it’s there because:
- It’s an extra threat in the matchups where you take out Shoals and need a clock.
- In the BW aggro mirror, he is completely insane. He also kills Paladin En-Vec, which is a very good thing.
- He’s the other reason why there’s an extra Plains in the deck now.
- Originally that slot was Isamaru, but we found ourselves wanting something extra in the BW aggro matchup and Isamarus are potentially being used by Zoo anyway. If you want a better anti-control card and Zoo isn’t on your team, run the legendary dog.
I guess it’s time for the matchups now. This format is very diverse, so brace yourselves; this might take a while.
Godless Shrine control (with and without Debtor’s Knell)
Greater Good control
Loxodon Hierarch aggro-control (GhaziGlare, GhaziChord, Roxodon whatever, et al)
Char aggro (Zoo, HerberGruul, Boros Deck)
The mirror match
Wow, that’s a lot of decks. Luckily there are a fair amount of similar strategies between them so we don’t have to cover all seventeen archetypes. We’ll go from the bad matchups to the good ones just so we can end on a high note.
This is your hardest game 1 matchup. Typically you hope that they get low enough on cards that you can Strands the last couple when they’re not expecting it, though sometimes they can have a weak draw and you can goldfish them on turn 6 or 7 if you draw really well. You need a Ghost Council or the Tomb of Urami to make that happen, but it can work. Kami of Ancient Law is quite good here, and if you can keep it down you can push through a win, but try to hold a Shining Shoal to save it from any burn they might have.
Post-board your matchup is much better, thanks to Cranials (which name Early Harvest almost all of the time), Needles (which name Drift of Phantasm unless something crazy happens), and Persecutes (which almost always name Green). Note that two Pillories are still in the maindeck, so if they go on the man plan you can certainly still deal with it. Wisp isn’t very good here and keeping in a few Shining Shoals is wise to deal with the Pyroclasms or Savage Twisters that they bring in.
Godless Shrine Control
This is another harder matchup, though it’s not quite as bad as Heartbeat. Generally your Shoals don’t do that much, especially the White ones. Fortunately this deck isn’t that popular, but if you do find yourself against it, kill Arenas on sight and try to attrition them as much as you can. Getting Ghost Council active is absolutely key here, because most likely you’re not going to win if you don’t and you are going to win if you do. If you’re playing against the House Guard build, watch out for the signature card – House Guard is absolutely nuts against us. It does so many things it’s ridiculous, though the most important part is how it invalidates your Pillories as a viable win condition.
Cranial can also come in for the last two Sickening Shoals if you think it belongs, but it’s not necessary. Pithing Needle is also mostly there for Dimir House Guard (or Vitu-Ghazi if they’re splashing Green), so those can become Cranials if they aren’t playing it. Yosei can be a problem, though – it’s pretty much an on-the-spot call. Anyway, Hand of Honor is a great clock that can only really be killed by Wrath and Fetters (which Koala deals with, as well as Arena) and Persecute is obviously insane (name White if you’re afraid of a Wrath or a Yosei, and Black in every other situation – especially if Ink-Eyes would wreck you). If you can Persecute them with threats on the board, you should be able to take it down.
Greater Good Control
This matchup comes down to them getting Greater Good to stick or not. Slowroll your Koalas every time unless you have a Thief in play and a way to get rid of it. If they don’t get Greater Good, you should be fine, and Ghost Council is (again) completely ridiculous in this matchup. Wrath can be a problem, but generally if you’re in any sort of winning position, you can either make them use it inefficiently with Thief plus soulshift guy, Descendant, or Ghost Council, all of which are great threats.
They may or may not have Greater Goods left in their deck, but it doesn’t matter. To be honest, I generally hope that they board them out because the card is ridiculous against us, but even if they don’t you have the tools to fight it. Pithing Needle can name Sensei’s Divining Top or Sakura-Tribe Elder early game, and in the midgame you want an insurance policy against Greater Good. Extraction names Yosei nine times out of ten, and Hand of Honor is just another creature that can get in there. You want three Pillories to stay in here because they’re really just a fatty-control deck if they don’t get the Goods, and Pillories are pretty good against that.
Loxodon Hierarch Aggro Control
We’re starting to get into the better matchups. This matchup is definitely winnable, though GhaziChord is the hardest to beat out of all of these because they can randomly search up the one Ghost Council and wreck you with it. Be careful about that. Selesnya Guildmage can be scary but it’s generally pretty fragile, and your Shoals aren’t going to be used in many other situations game 1 anyway, so point them right at the 2/2s. Again, getting Ghost Council active here is really good and getting Pillories going on their big men is even better. This matchup is definitely winnable, and if they don’t have the Ghost Council or Greater Good in their deck, the matchup is pretty favorable.
Pithing Needle is mostly for Vitu-Ghazi, but it can name Selesnya Guildmage, Top, Greater Good, Glare, or anything else that’s hanging around and causing you problems. Persecute may seem counterintuitive because they’re three colors, but it’s actually really good – I’d say the right name is usually White, but name Green if it’s turn 4 and they haven’t played that much – you’ll nab most every threat in their hand. White is good if you fear answers, as it gets rid of Council, Mortify, Yosei, and Wrath, among other things. Enfeeblement is pretty awesome here as a way to deal with Guildmage, and the fourth Pillory is just to deal with their constant onslaught of creatures.
This is the most loosely defined category – some builds of BW get destroyed, whereas others can give us a hard time. Regardless, Tallowisp absolutely wrecks them. Like, really. They can’t deal with the multiple Pillories. Plagued Rusalka also makes it impossible for them to engage in combat with any positive results, as pretty much every guy they play diesÂ—though if they get their own, you want to make sure to get it off the table as quickly as possible, as Rusalka advantage often defines who wins. The main problems here are Ghost Council and Jitte on protection guys, so depending on how many of each of those you’re facing, the matchup can go from great to subpar. The Descendants maindeck make Paladin En-Vec less of a problem game 1 then they used to be, and Hand of Cruelty can be killed without too much fuss.
The problems here don’t change, so you want to bring in answers mainly for Council and Jitte-wielding dorks. Unfortunately, your answers to both can be really bad for you if drawn in multiples, so I only like to bring in two of each of the Needles and Persecutes here. Needle names Jitte almost always unless Ghost Council is really hurting you, and Persecute generally names Black – hopefully you hit an Okiba-Gang or a Persecute of their own. Note that if they’re a little short on mana and haven’t had the opportunity to drop a Paladin En-Vec, White may be a better name. The Enfeeblement is important to kill Bobs and Black Hands, while Hand of Honor is just obviously ridiculous. He never dies and he blocks pretty much everything of importance.
Contrary to what certain feature matches will have you believe, this is actually quite a favorable matchup. They have no real counters, their disruption does next to nothing against you (or if you have a Shining Shoal, it actually hurts them), Keiga is a blank unless they draw doubles, and you are very good at winning a war of attrition. You’ll perhaps do a point here, a point there, attack for three every so often, and then they’ll just be dead. Also, if you resolve a Ghost Council, the game is over. Meloku really isn’t as bad as you’d think it is for you, because if you Pillory it and start serving, they have to either wreck their mana base to block your dudes or just take the damage anyway. If you have a Rusalka out, the former isn’t really even an attractive option because they can’t ever win in combat with 1/1s. That they don’t play Miren is immensely helpful to you, as that card is a beating.
Let me tell you something about a card called Persecute. When you play this card after they have resolved a Tidings, it is approximately akin to a baseball bat in the nether regions. Pithing Needle is mostly for Meloku, because honestly, if they don’t have an active Meloku, they aren’t going to win without a big Blaze and a lot of luck – Keiga is that terrible against you. If they have Miren in their deck, though, that’s probably your first target.
This deck is a very good matchup for you. Shining Shoal generally wrecks them, and Magnivore gets Pilloried pretty easily. You have to watch out for Eye of Nowhere on the Pillory or the Magnivore, but other than that, it’s really hard for them to win through a Shining Shoal. Strands of Undeath is also really good in this matchup, believe it or not – if you cast it, they have to Eye the guy it’s on or else Wildfire won’t kill him and Magnivore won’t break through.
Cranial is obviously ridiculous here. Almost always you name Magnivore, though sometimes it’s correct to name Wildfire if that’s the only card that would keep you from winning within a couple turns and you have ways to deal with a Magnivore (or two). Persecute is pretty good too, and I generally find myself naming Red to hit their board-clearers and win conditions. You want to leave in the Pillories to hit their Magnivores, but Sickening Shoals generally don’t get big enough to deal with them.
This matchup goes from really good to nigh-unlosable depending on their build. If they’re not playing Zoo, you basically can’t lose if you don’t get flooded or screwed. They’re slow, they’re really vulnerable to Pillories and Shining Shoals, and Ghost Council is bad news for them. HerberGruul in particular is really hard to lose to if you play correctly – just play assuming a Solifuge is always coming and leave back a blocker accordingly. And yes, you can Shining Shoal the damage from a Solifuge – just not back to it. Zoo can beat you if you don’t draw well and they have lots of gas in the tank, as they’re fast and they have loads of burn – plus, you have to play around Bathe in Light. Keep a Sickening Shoal back if you’re afraid of it, as generally problems happen if all your Pillories disappear at once. It’s still a really good matchup, though.
The Hands just come in because they’re good in combat, which is why I’m not desperate to find the slot for the last one. Bob isn’t actually all that bad in the matchup, but you never ever want to draw more than one, and you’re pretty good at keeping him alive. It’s also correct to keep in one more and only bring in one Hand (or the Kami if you suspect Glare or Genju). Don’t be too worried about this one.
This matchup is a joke. It is unlosable if you play correctly – the Howling Mines and such draw you out of any possible screw or flood you could have. They give you Shining Shoals and then try to burn you out, which doesn’t exactly work. Don’t forget to make your own guys Sick and don’t forget that the Owl itself checks on resolution, so if you lose cards to a Shoal, you won’t take anything.
Just board in one-casters (for Mikokoro) and a bunch of guys to drop quickly and kill them with. It’s a piece of cake, honestly.
This is perhaps the most ridiculous matchup possible for you to get in the current field. Not bad, not good… just ridiculous. The games go really long, and the only good advice I can give you is to draw Ghost Council. The game plays out with a ton of removal being slung back and forth. Nothing ever lives, or at least nothing except the guys that get Pilloried. Confidant is important in the early game, but if it goes long enough and Pillories are getting you down, he can be a liability. Rusalka can be quite helpful in the midgame, by getting rid of problematic Pilloried creatures, and is probably your second-best creature in the matchup, but nothing beats the effectiveness of Ghost Council. Try to avoid tapping out at all costs with him in play, as long as you have other creatures. If you can keep him alive, you’ll win.
Like I said, the matchup is all about removal, so you’re bringing in more removal, answers for their removal, guys that don’t die to removal, and massive hand disruption to get their Ghost Councils… and removal. Hand of Honor is absurd in this matchup, as he never dies (at least on defense). Pillory is obvious, Enfeeblement is mostly obvious (you’ll be targeting Bob, or Plagued Rusalka to make your Pillories stick), and Persecute is good against a deck that relies on long-game card advantage with lots of gold cards. You lose the Descendants because they’re just guys who die, and you have more than enough of those already. I know that you’d expect to bring in the fourth Koala here, but think about it – is the guy that you’re going to be saving from a Pillory going to be better than a Grizzly Bear? Probably not – so are you going to board in a fourth Grizzly Bear? You have plenty of ways of getting Pilloried creatures to leave the table, and the Koala is not better than any of the other cards in the deck after the above plan.
Wow, um, that’s a lot of words. If you want to play this deck for Team Standard, though, this should encapsulate pretty much all of the information that you’ll need. There are other archetypes that seem to be emerging on MTGO as of late that I’ll cover as necessary as bonus sections in my upcoming tournament report – for now, get to playtesting. Have fun, practice a lot, and don’t forget the Thief triggers.
If there are any questions, leave them in the forums and I’ll be sure to answer quickly and cynically.
Ridiculous Hat just about everywhere
*I’m not actually a leprechaun. **
**And you’ll never get me lucky charms.