Could B/W Zombies be a Standard Solution?

We’re entering a new dawn of Standard following Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, and it’s an aggressive one. Aggro was the most widely played strategy, had the best winrates and filled the entire Top 8. The centrepiece of this metagame shift was of course red, brought to life by Ramunap Ruins and Earthshaker Khenra, whilst mono-black Zombies and B/G Constrictor decks also dominated the 24+ points Standard finishes.

Ramunap+Ruins+5BHOU5D

(Sidenote: It’s amusing to me that after players were bemoaning the fact that Ramunaps Ruins’ art was not used for a Standard playable Lightning Bolt effect, it ended up being the primary reason why red aggro is good.)

So what does this mean for deckbuilding? You need to have a good plan for beating aggro and be able to close out games quickly enough to render the red deck’s reach a nonfactor. Resolving an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is of course a convenient solution provided you can reach 10 mana quickly enough, but you do need to be in a stable board position for that to work. Personally, I like to be proactive, so I had a look at the other well-performing strategies that fit the bill.

Zombies was the second-best performing deck and had powerful, consistent draws, but facing Ramunap Red looked like it could be challenging, between a comparative lack of reach, pressure upon its life total and more limited removal options. Kalitas is a fine threat, but costing four and being susceptible to cards like Ahn-Crop Crasher and Chandra can leave it in an awkward spot. However, a new card from Hour of Devastation got me thinking whether it was time to resurrect an old Zombies build from early Amonkhet Standard.

Sunscourge+Champion+5BHOU5D

Sunscourge Champion is a card we’ve already seen in various U/W decks since its release. The Wizard provides a passable Kitchen Finks impression and can be rebought into a significant threat further into the midgame, as a threat you can rebuy gaining 6+ life over the two iterations. But there are a few reasons why it could be a great fit into Zombies strategies, on top of the fact that it is a solid creature at face value.

Cryptbreaker+5BEMN5D

Cryptbreaker is great friends with Sunscourge Champion. If you find yourself without white mana early on or simply have other ways to use your mana. it can discard the Champion for you to eternalize later. As well as this, the Champion’s ETB ability provides a great chunk of life for you to spend with Cryptbreaker to draw cards.

Another synergy that makes Sunscourge Champion even more attractive is eternalize. Something that will come up occasionally is the ability to discard a Dread Wanderer to pay for the eternalize ability, but the big deal is that just like embalm, the creature token created is a Zombie, which means it will trigger Wayward Servant and get pumped by Liliana’s Mastery and Lord of the Accursed. Of course, if you have any of these lord effects on the battlefield when it enters, you’ll gain even more life because Champion’s ETB scales off of power.

Wayward+Servant+5BAKH5D Shambling+Vent+5BBFZ5D

Speaking of Wayward Servant, this two-drop Zombie can also provide a source of both reach and lifegain, which is an added tool in aggressive mirrors. B/W also adds Shambling Vent into the equation, a potent creature-land threat against both aggressive and controlling decks.

When we put this all together, we get something like this:

Maindeck

4 Cryptbreaker
4 Dread Wanderer
4 Wayward Servant
3 Metallic Mimic
4 Diregraf Colossus
2 Lord of the Accursed
3 Sunscourge Champion

4 Dark Salvation
3 Fatal Push
2 Grasp of Darkness
3 Liliana’s Mastery

4 Concealed Courtyard
4 Shambling Vent
10 Swamp
6 Plains

Sideboard

1 Sunscourge Champion
2 Declaration in Stone
3 Transgress the Mind
1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
1 Aethersphere Harvester
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
1 Collective Brutality
1 Anguished Unmaking
1 Never // Return
1 Fragmentize
1 Grind // Dust

The sideboard features the ability to modify your threat base against sweepers, supplemental removal for various creature and planeswalker matchups, and interaction for control decks. The most experimental card in this board is the new aftermath spell Grind // Dust, which can be great in aggro mirrors and also provide a two-for-one opportunity against bigger creatures. It’s possibly not good enough though as Constrictor decks will rarely have -1/-1 counters on their creatures, even if Constrictor itself does mean that Grind puts extra counters on the creatures you target. But, if Ammit Eternal does see a spike in popularity, this card does have bonus upside against it.

What are your thoughts on the post-PT Standard metagame and are you a fan of the resurgence? I’ll be back later this week for a look at Modern heading into GP Birmingham, and some Hobo technology.

@fullofgravy on Twitter

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Introducing: Hobo Magic!

Hello all! Recently I was reminded about a variant Magic: the Gathering format that I along with a few friends conceived a few years ago called Hobo Magic. Initially the concept was entirely a joke, but as we dove into the strategies available and the mechanics available to use it turned out to be a legitimately fun type of Magic to try out! Today I’m going to provide an overview of the rules, banned cards and some initial archetypes that we came up with last time we worked on Hobo. Finally, I’ll be taking a quick look at what recent set releases have added. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to try out some games and get brewing, just as we inspired some people previously!

To preface here’s a link to the thread that started it all. I’ll be covering some of this content here, but the thread contains a bunch of ideas and decklists, and highlights some of the reasoning we had for removing certain cards from the format.

What is Hobo Magic?

Imagine you are a planeswalker who is down on their luck. Perhaps the exchange rate in the plane you’re visiting is so low that you can’t afford to pay the market price for your favourite spell. In the underworld of the multiverse, you’re going to have to resort to some cunning tricks to come out on top against your rivals!

A game of Hobo Magic follows all the normal Comprehensive Rules for Magic: the Gathering, with one very important difference:

  • Mana can’t be spent to pay a spell’s mana cost. If a spell would cost zero mana, it can be cast conventionally.

What does this mean? You’ll have to find some other way to cast the spell or put a permanent onto the battlefield, which could be some kind of alternate cost, an ability, or some kind of cost reduction effect that would make the spell free to cast.

That’s it! Apart from a few cards that have been deemed too powerful for the format, the world is your oyster. From graveyard strategies, control decks and combo-beatdown archetypes, there really are a wealth of ways to approach this format which at first looks very restrictive.

The Banned List

  • Black Lotus
  • Blazing Shoal
  • Bridge from Below
  • Dread Return
  • Mox Emerald, Jet, Pearl, Ruby and Sapphire
  • Narcomoeba
  • Ante cards

The aim of the banned list was to eliminate the really broken fast mana and bring the graveyard decks into check a bit, specifically dredge. Bazaar enables several archetypes and has been used creatively, so we decided to target dredge rather than just get rid of the land. Blazing Shoal’s kills were simply too consistently fast and restricted what people could play in the format. We’re also going to be keeping an eye on Ancestral Vision, particularly as some of the turbo-wins were removed and the games go longer.

Just some of the things that work:

 

  • Suspend Control decks with Greater Gargadon or Deep-Sea Kraken as their primary finishers. You’ll have to buy enough time to get these huge monsters onto the battlefield, but when you do, you’ll be controlling the most powerful creatures!

 

  • Rogues and Ninjas. These strategies use cheap manlands or free creatures to attack early on, at which point they can sneak their stealthy allies onto the battlefield. Very flavourful!

 

  • There are several decks that make great use of the hideaway land cycle to cheat in some busted threats. In time-honoured style use a swarm to activate Windbrisk Heights, or use free pump spells like Invigorate and Mutagenic Growth to find out what’s hiding underneath the Mosswort Bridge! Or simply go for a quick kill with your Inkmoth Nexus.

   

  • Want to go old school? Try a mono-blue control deck featuring Force of Will, Gush and Ancestral Vision whilst you grind out your opponents with Mishra’s Factory.

 

  • Bazaar of Baghdad opens up a wealth of graveyard strategies! Traditional dredge and reanimator strategies are possible with this powerful land alongside tools like Lion’s Eye Diamond and Unburial Rites.

Just some of the mechanics that work:

  • Suspend
  • Flashback
  • Miracle
  • Phyrexian mana
  • Traps
  • Bestow
  • Morph
  • Madness
  • Embalm/Eternalize

You can use affinity or other forms of cost reduction like Khalni Hydra, but the mana cost has to be reduced to at least 0 for you to be able to cast it.

And that’s it! I hope you’ll be inspired to try out this different way of playing Magic, and excited to get brewing as we were. Over the next few weeks I’ll be getting into more depth about the different archetypes that have been explored so far, and perhaps even some videos of some games.

Until next time,

Davie Whyte

@fullofgravy on Twitter

Grand Prix Manchester 2014 Musings Part 1: Block Constructed

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Friday evening, 8:32pm: I’m attempting to ignore the vendor’s confusion as I provide them with a long list of cards including Constructed all-stars Scourge of Fleets and Dakra Mystic. Journey Into Nyx ended up defining the deck we ended up playing in the main event.

Yes, I ended up playing the Mono Blue Devotion deck that caused a number of stirs beginning with a GPT win on Friday. You can check out an interview with David Inglis and Neil Rigby  about the deck here where they shared some of their thoughts

Block Constructed: When It’s Easy Being Green

The defining engine of the Theros Block Constructed format unsurprisingly ended up being the triple whammy of Sylvan Caryatid (the un-Boltable Bird), Courser of Kruphix (the Pillarfield Ox that could), and the cycle of Temples. Even since the point early in the block, when the format consisted entirely of Naya decks featuring Stormbreath Dragon and Elspeth, we had repeatedly debated whether Sylvan Caryatid was too good to stay; both entirely stifling to traditional aggro strategies as well as giving green decks a huge leg up in resources in a control matchup where you don’t even have to worry about wraths. Whilst WotC did not end up banning anything, (like Innistrad block’s token dominance) it is plainly obvious that this combination of cards warped deck choices like no other.

You just have to look at the aggro decks (which play out more like true combo decks) that had any moderate amount of success – the R/W and U/W heroic decks (with mono black being a touch more traditional) had to be constructed in the eye of maximising nutty draws at the cost of unplayable hands just because a true aggro strategy was not good enough.

Constraints of the Format

  • The best creatures all have huge toughness stats for their investment – Caryatid, Courser, Brimaz, Prognostic Sphinx and so on. The red decks had Blinding Flare, Arena Athlete and Harness by Force, whilst the blue decks had access to Stratus Walk and Aqueous Form. The problem with these strategies is that all the cards are bad on their own; Arena Athlete is garbage without the targeting effect and if you don’t draw the other tricks you are left floundering with mediocre weenies that can’t beat a life-gaining Pillarfield Ox. Gods Willing could force a creature through, but in a lot of games your Gods Willing is so important in protecting your creature from removal that it’s quite hard to cash it in. I liked Harness in my red sideboards (and Portent of Betrayal before it), as the card was a good draw much more consistently, scaled up in the late game, and happened to have fringe benefits (inspired creatures untap after you gain control of them, for example), but of course the card had to be terrible against Elspeth since nothing in this format actually tramples, barring Polis Crusher.
  • Courser of Kruphix.  Another reason I decided to give up making Esper or red aggro work. Courser was perfectly situated against these kinds of strategies.
    Of course it's good.

    Of course it’s good.

    Against aggro, it has the obvious strengths of a good body for 3 mana, and free lifegain, but that isn’t all. Consider that in a vacuum, an aggro deck plays a low curve and shaves lands below the average (to say the range of 19-22). Doing so allows an uptick in threat density and live draws. Well, Courser blows that theory out of the water, by allowing you to play a higher and more powerful curve, at similar threat density thanks to the second ability. Against control? It’s simple. They have to spend a resource to kill the Courser, because if they don’t it will simply out-resource them into the ground anyway.

  • Thoughtseize. One of the more powerful cards to be reprinted in recent memory, Thoughtseize finds itself in an interesting position in the Block format. On one hand, the card stifles synergy-based strategies in an almost-broken way. Look at the aggro decks again! When my aggressive deck is actually soft to Thoughtseize, I don’t want to play it very much at all. However, in other matchups, the card is surprisingly variable in how well it performs; sometimes, the ability to pluck a key Planeswalker or Prognostic Sphinx out of the opponent’s hand before they can get value from it can be devastating, but the thing was that Courser and scry effects are so good at drawing your way back into the game that players in this format are better protected from the tier one discard spell than before. Additionally, most Thoughtseize decks didn’t have a key way to capitalise on an early discard like in Standard formats where a turn 1 Thoughtseize into either a Bitterblossom or Pack Rat has often dominated the game by itself. However the card found its way into many mandecks following the Pro Tour, due to raw power level, and this eventually dissuaded me from my previous choice to play Team Revolution’s U/B Inspired.
  • Planeswalkers. All of the planeswalkers are very good. Ajani, Elspeth and Xenagos all provide simple, large amounts of value, Ashiok excels in a creature-based format with Courser of Kruphix, and Kiora’s abilities are pretty useful both as protection from battlecruisers as well as her -1 interacting very well with Courser. Yes, that card is good, did I mention it yet? The key weakness of most of the planeswalkers is their susceptibility to Prognostic Sphinx, but regardless, a good plan against planeswalkers was without doubt essential.

Joining the Thassa Fan Club

As the post I linked to above says, the deck was essentially a metagame decision predicated upon the overwhelming masses of Junk decks present in the room. Their whole strategy is based around powerful creatures/planeswalkers backed up by the best removal spells. Neither of those, for the most part are very good against the deck we chose to play. A big core of their strength is that hexproof threats Fleecemane Lion and Reaper of the Wilds are troublesome to interact with, but both Whelming Wave and Scourge of Fleets ignore that protection very well.

Sample decklist

la_rata_diabolica (3-1)
THS Block Constructed Daily #7143447 on 06/04/2014
Maindeck
4 Dakra Mystic
4 Master of Waves
4 Omenspeaker
4 Prognostic Sphinx
4 Scourge of Fleets
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Dictate of Kruphix
3 Hubris
2 Retraction Helix
3 Thassa’s Rebuff
3 Whelming Wave
20 Island
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Sideboard
4 Dissolve
4 Gainsay
2 Hour of Need
3 Perplexing Chimera
1 Retraction Helix
1 Whelming Wave
I would certainly play a Kiora’s Dismissal over the extra Helix in the board – Mono Black aggro, a hard matchup is pretty popular because it is cheap, and Dismissal is great to have to shore it up.
A card  we played in the side (probably the worst card I have ever registered in a Constructed tournament, excluding a joke Enter the Infinite in a mono red list once…) was Cloaked Siren. The 3/2 flash flier is not very good, but it does happen to fly over a lot of creatures, and kill an upcycled Kiora or a Xenagos that made a Satyr. It’s not bad at pressuring the others, either. Besides, no one can play around it, which is an edge!

Notes about the deck:

  • I enjoyed playing Dakra Mystic a lot, giving a little bit of control to a Howling Mine effect over what is drawn is sweet, and I’d be interested in trying the card out in other formats. Another aspect of the card was that it regularly led opponents down the garden path believing that Drown in Sorrow was actually good against us; instead it is inefficient at killing the Mystic, and the only other card it hits, Master of Waves, would be in the sideboard by the time Drown in Sorrow had led theirs. And the best feeling? Scrying 3 with a Prognostic Sphinx attack, then drawing that card you want immediately.
  • Omenspeaker isn’t a great card, but finding land drops for every turn is critical for the deck, and the card works pretty well with Whelming Wave and Nykthos.
  • Dictate of Kruphix is the most important card in the deck, finding your Evacuation effects, hitting your lands, and adding two pips of devotion to boot. The extra cards your opponents get are regularly of limited use, since their mana is usually invested in replaying the cards you bounced. Meanwhile, via Nykthos you can play your cards with much greater velocity – as David put it very well, you only get a small advantage each time but your opponent is getting absolutely nowhere.
  • Since BUG, Junk and Mono Black are all rammed to the gills with Downfalls, Bile Blights, Silence the Believers, and so on, Master of Waves is easily the most sided-out card, but he is very good admittedly against non-interactive aggro decks (especially red ones), and Naya, where Chained to the Rocks and Banishing Light are put under a lot of pressure to answer the threat. Another boon to Master’s playability is the fact that Polis Crusher and Reaper of the Wilds both have far more relevant abilities in the format than Polukranos, so the World Eater was getting cut from a lot of lists.
  • Retraction Helix was a vital part of the puzzle. Another component of the bounce spell package, it has the key utility of resetting normally troublesome planeswalkers, or allowing you to counter them. I also used the card to return Chained to the Rocks, freeing an estranged Master of Waves to deliver the kill, and the card possesses a fine synergy with Thassa’s Ire, which provides a way to use the ability multiple times in one go. Quite the blowout.
  • Thassa’s Ire is a card I was extremely high on throughout testing various decks. Debtor’s Pulpit had been a fine answer to the unkillable Aetherling in last year’s Block format, and I drew parallels early on. Whilst much more expensive to activate, Ire handles a Prognostic Sphinx or a Stormbreath Dragon just fine, and is another resilient form of devotion. Conveniently enough, it works just nicely with your own Sphinxes, removing the tap downside of the protection ability from the equation.

We ended up having some bad luck, but I still feel good about the chosen deck. I just happened to get paired against people who hadn’t got the memo that Mistcutter Hydra doesn’t really do a lot in any of the primary matchups. We can’t beat it though, unless we land a Perplexing Chimera before they land it. In addition, players were upping the numbers of Ajani, Mentor of Heroes in their 75s which proved to be problematic, as the card is hard for us to interact with, and the counter-placing ability makes you lean on Whelming Wave a little too much as their guys become too big for Scourge to handle. Daniel Entwistle ended up just shy of drawing into top 8, but still a great run from him, and he made sure there were real Krakens on day 2!

In my next column, I’ll wrap up my thoughts about the format and what it menas for the future, and talk some M15!

Until then,

Davie Whyte

@fullofgravy on twitter