How to Exert

Posted in How to Build on May 9, 2017

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Putting in the effort matters for Standard. Building the right kind of deck, tweaking it for battle then putting in the play to learn it all contributes to your success. "Practice makes perfect," as the saying goes, doesn't apply entirely to Magic—there's always some randomness at work—but it does pay off.

There's no way around it: you have to exert yourself.

Of course, applying extra effort to Magic won't leave you tapped down for an extra turn. (If it does, please see a doctor immediately.) But using exert well can give you time to rest between victories. Attacking decks, and aggressive decks in general, are a ton of fun and find plenty of competitive success. Exert is all about attacking—you must to exert your creature—and one of the reasons I love Amonkhet.

Why Is Exert Great in Standard?

It's no surprise that attacking is how most games of Standard are won. Vehicles like Heart of Kiran get powered up so they can strike. Aetherworks Marvel digs down to find something gigantic, like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, to attack with. Going wide with Zombies? Dread Wanderer is probably attacking. Countering every spell and controlling the game? Torrential Gearhulk or Wandering Fumarole finally start swinging to finish things off.

Exert cards play into attacking by giving you a choice:

  • Attack normally and untap like normal.
  • Attack with exert for a bonus but skip untapping next turn.

That choice matters.

Take Rhet-Crop Spearmaster. A 3/1 is fragile—Servo creature tokens are scary—but if you exert it, +1/+0 and first strike get added. Now a Servo doesn't trade with our Spearmaster. In fact, anything with 4 toughness falls if it blocks.

It's easy here, right? Just exert every attack!

Well, let's look a little closer. Attacking twice with exert means two attacks over three turns. If your opponent doesn't block, or can't, you deal 8 damage. Attacking three turns without exert, assuming again our opponent is playing like a goldfish, would mean dealing 9 damage. It would also mean we'd threaten having an extra blocker on that second turn—exert keeps us tapped down and gives us fewer choices if the opponent's threats change quickly.

Exert is more complex than simply looking at this turn's attack. Consider:

  • Could I need a blocker next turn? Would I want to use this exert creature to block then? Do they have removal to clear the way for a bigger counterattack when it doesn't untap?
  • Will the opponent block if I don't exert? If she does and I trade, is that still okay?
  • Does exerting actually deal damage that's needed? Will the Cut // Ribbons in my graveyard be enough next turn whether they take 3 or 4 this turn?

Moreover, exert is a visible trick. Opponents can see exert coming and rethink their next turn knowing exert is an option for you. They, too, will have to answer their own questions about whether you will exert or not, but answering the proactive questions you face is much harder than the reactive ones they handle.

The best way of dealing with the drawback of exert is done by plenty of play—knowing how your decks plays out and how other decks play against yours—to generate experience asking and answering questions like those above.

The other way to deal with exert is to untap your creature with some other effect after attacking—or to never have to tap them at all. Vigilance is excellent on exert creatures since they won't tap to attack.

Always Watching is the most obvious exert ally. It not only makes our exert creatures bigger; it gives them vigilance for maximum exertion every combat step. There are other ways to give vigilance, at least temporarily: Trial of Solidarity, Nature's Way, and Arlinn Kord all offer ways around tapping when attacking.

Untapping creatures afterward works, too. Blessed Alliance and Prepare // Fight are cheap instants that can leverage an exerted creature again. Green has a slew of ways to untap a creature as a trick: Spidery Grasp, Aim High, and Ornamental Courage all offer a pump effect alongside an untap—neatly hitting an opponent with blocks when they least expect it, then swinging back hard again with more exert.

How Do We Exert Ourselves?

Diving into exert does mean something else: our creatures will be coming from white, red, and green exclusively. While blue and black can offer things to help—see Winds of Rebuke and Fatal Push as removal, for example—we're beginning with creatures first.

One exerts and soars above the rest: Glorybringer.

Glorybringer has quickly become the talk of exert. It's got three huge things going for it:

  • Flying—evasion means it's great attacking with or without exert.
  • Haste—we can exert immediately, before opponents plan for it to come.
  • Exert is removal—dealing 4 damage off the bat means it clears away its own blockers or kills a creature that could attack back on the opponent's turn.

Stormbreath Dragon and Thundermaw Hellkite have both proven that five-mana Dragons can earn their place in Standard. Glorybringer is cut from the same cloth, and is a strong consideration for aggro decks in general—exert-focused or not.

Ahn-Crop Champion is a reasonable size—4/4 for four mana—but comes with de facto vigilance for every other creature when you exert it. Keeping up more blockers makes counter-attacking hard for opponents, and if you happen to get two onto the battlefield and exert them together, it does exactly what you want it to.

Some exert creatures don't bring combat-specific benefits, but provide other value. Battlefield Scavenger can smooth out your hand. Devoted Crop-Mate gets back cheap creatures from your graveyard, handy for aggressive decks. Combat Celebrant even lets you simply attack again, an excellent way to overrun an opponent with a little setup.

Casting creatures on the curve is what aggressive decks do best. But once the game gets past the early stages, larger creatures can shut the plan down. Exert on Glory-Bound Initiate and other cheap creatures means small fries that stuck around or get played later can "get bigger" for a turn, keeping the pressure up when otherwise any attack is terrible.

Champion of Rhonas is another exert creature to consider, but it's not with the plan of attacking early and often. Playing any creature for free means some shenanigans can be afoot. If Aetherworks Marvel is your jam, Champion of Rhonas could be the tricky way to dump an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that you draw. Setting up a backbreaking Champion of Rhonas exert isn't as easy as throwing it into any deck, but I expect more than a few players out there to dream big and make it happen.

Push it to the Limit

Finding footing in a new format can feel like walking along the razor's edge. Fortunately, Magic Online and Release Weekend tournaments opened the floodgates for others to explore exert too.

Let's start with a not-really-exert deck that Zack Stern piloted to a 4th-place finish at the StarCityGames.com Open in Atlanta:

Zack Stern's Red-White Humans

Always Watching and Glory-Bound Initiate join forces here, but it's worth noting that many of the exert creatures we liked above are also Human. Both Gust Walker and Combat Celebrant could swap in here if you wanted a few larger creatures, though the pile of one-drops makes this deck far more powerful than the off-chance to attack twice. Fortunately, Glorybringer in the sideboard is already waiting to up the late-game effort.

Going deeper, Evan Wilson made Top 64 with a mono-white take on Humans that added Devoted Crop-Mate to the mix:

Evan Wilson's Mono-White Humans

The connecting thread includes Glory-Bound Initiate and Always Watching, as well as plenty of cheap creatures to come out of the gates fast. Strange, right? Decks like this rely on quick starts and removal to keep things moving, overwhelming opponents before they can really get started.

In full disclosure, the 2nd-place finisher of the Open, Ryan Mcdonaugh, also used an exert creature—Glorybringer—but I wouldn't stretch to call this deck anything close to exert-driven.

Ryan Mcdonugh's Mardu Vehicles

Riffing on these aggressive decks to go all-in on exert makes it clear white and red are going to be our friends. If a twist on Humans to leverage maximum effort sounds fun, here's a place to start:

Red-White Exert

This isn't ready for a big competitive weekend, and I feel it's a little slower than it needs to be given the successful aggressive decks, but this is what exert looks like all at once and something I'd start playing out at Friday Night Magic. Always Watching is here along with Trial of Solidarity as extra ways to gain vigilance and pump up our creatures. Cast Out can answer almost anything, and Declaration in Stone is among the best removal spells in the format.

Tah-Crop Elite has plenty of targets, and next to Combat Celebrant it's an interesting threat to opponents. Should they answer the creature buying things back or the creature that's attacking for more? Sandstone Bridge isn't clever, and entering the battlefield tapped is a little rough, but it's a free-to-play land on the first turn that becomes an exert-friendly "spell" drawn later. It's even fine on the third turn when you can add a second exert creature and attack with exert for free with the two-drop played a turn prior.

A 5/5 Glory-Bound Initiate that didn't tap to attack on your third turn isn't something to count on, but it's possible. I guarantee your opponent won't expect it either.

All Tapped Out

Whether you're anxious to give exert your own effort or just want to borrow the best for other purposes, asking more from your creatures is something to consider in Standard. As more tournaments happen, more ways to make the most of Amonkhet's denizens will appear.

Keep pushing them, and yourself, to the next victory!

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